I’d dreamed of it happening two nights before, so when my phone slipped out of my hand and landed face-down on the unforgiving concrete of my father’s driveway, I knew before I picked it up that the screen would be spiderwebbed with cracks and fissures. I swore out loud and brought it into the house, where my youngest sister and I used clear packing tape to protect the touchscreen from further damage.
It was the last weekend in January, and I was in Sacramento earlier than I’d planned. Dad was ready to leave us.
Throughout his illness, my father struggled between maintaining clarity of mind and managing his pain, especially after he made the decision to suspend chemotherapy. Dad always prized intelligent, thoughtful conversation. For the most part, he preferred putting up with the sharp, intense pain of the tumors pushing against his colon and liver and perineum over losing his ability to reason and know where he was and with whom he was speaking.
But late in January, the pain had increased to a point where the doctor recommended boosting meds and significantly decreasing lucidity. Dad was afraid that once he started on that regime, he wouldn’t be able to talk to us anymore. He asked me to hurry to California while he still had the presence of mind to say goodbye.
I felt unsettled and panicky as I worked through the logistics of changing my flight and coordinating my parenting schedule, a sense of urgency to get to Dad’s bedside and a deep sadness that I’d have to give up my time with the girl. Of course Simone understood why I had to leave, but that didn’t make me any less despondent about it.
While conducting my own internal debate about travel, my cousin the psychotherapist called me to check in. He’d lost his own father when he was a teenager, and has helped many through the grieving process. During our conversation, he said, “You sound busy. What are you doing?”
I explained that I’d misplaced a set of cufflinks my father had given me, and I was taking my bedroom apart — moving bookshelves from the walls, dumping baskets of change, scattering the knickknacks on my dresser — so I could find them and wear them to the funeral. I was manic.
Aaron stopped me and told me to sit down. He helped me find my breath and make some decisions. I’d keep Simone with me that night, then drop her off at school in the morning, and drive straight to the airport.
When I got to Dad’s house the next afternoon, he was much more frail than when I’d seen him just a few weeks before, but his smile was as warm as it had always been, in spite of his obvious discomfort. He was propped up in the hospital bed in the living room, an undershirt hanging off his upper body, his skinny legs covered by a white sheet and a thin blanket. I sat on the side of the bed, then lay my head on his chest, gently. He put his feather-light arms around me, and said, “My son. My son.”
He smelled like Dad — that familiar combination of Right Guard and the scent of his skin, unchanged since my childhood. I sat with him for hours. With the pain meds dialed up, he would drift in and out of lucidity, sometimes very much there with us, and sometimes somewhere else completely.
The next several days were a fully integrated time of grace and grief. Today, I can say that I find some comfort in knowing that I could be there for him, that we said what could be said, and that I finally understood what he was going through.
> Putting my baby niece in his lap would bring him right back into the world, and the miracle of having her there, making things lighter and more joyful than they would otherwise have been, was a singular blessing.
> The living room slowly, quietly falling into dusky shadow, with me sitting on the bed and holding his hand, my father whispering, “I love you so much, and I am proud of the man you have become.”
> Welcoming the sabbath, my father clearly affected by the prayers and melodies. As he held his hands over our heads to recite the blessing over the children, my cousin (a rabbi) prompting him when he couldn’t muster the words, I couldn’t help thinking that this was my last chance to receive his prayer.
> Closing out Shabbat with the Havdalah service, holding hands around my father’s bed and singing. We passed the little shaker of spices to my father (the tradition is to breathe in the aroma, helping to set the intention for a sweet and fulfilling new week) and everything went silent as he stopped singing, held the small brass container in both hands, closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. I could feel my heart, all heavy in my chest, my lungs constricting as he began to weep, taking another long breath of the spices.
“This is how we will always stay connected,” he said through tears. “This is what keeps us together, no matter where you go in the world. This is our heritage.” It was a potent reminder that, beyond the Jewish spirituality and culture that my parents instilled in us, the rituals and active traditions give everything a strong foundation of context and continuity. I wiped away the warm tears blurring my own vision, took a deep breath, and sang along to the prayers.
> Dragging myself out of bed early enough the next morning to catch my father just as he was waking up.
“Am I dead?” he asked, quietly.
“I don’t think so, Dad,” I said.
We talked for hours, just the two of us, me in pjs and him wrapped up under the hospital blanket. Much of what he said didn’t make literal sense, but I let it sweep over me as a sort of poetry, the meaning of his words less important than the emotion behind them. He was so ready to be on his way, but his body wasn’t letting him go. He would go from being able to talk about our family history to switching into beautiful figurative language. When he needed us to pull him up from a slumped position in his bed, he said, "I feel like I'm in the bottom of a garment bag that fell off the hanger and is crumpled on the floor.”
> At one point, my father took my hand to show me where he could feel the tumors on his abdomen, and I told him I thought I felt a kick.
> One morning, my dad asked his wife, “What happens if I start feeling better?” He looked better, too. He was a little stronger, he was hungry, and he was hilarious. His wife fed him small bites of scrambled egg and cherry pie for breakfast, and though he was maybe a little more ethereal in conversation, he was also mellow and cheerful. And he said he wasn’t in any pain.
But by the afternoon, his pain had ramped up to 11, and he was writhing around, unable to interact without a grimace. He got steadily worse as the day wore on, until his wife had to give him enough meds to knock him out. I felt like someone had kicked a chair out from under me.
> The day I was scheduled to fly home, I was startled awake in the pre-dawn hours by horrible sounds coming from the living room. My poor dad was throwing up black bile and telling his wife he just wanted to die. Living so far away, I’d never actually seen him at his worst. And this was terrible. The sounds coming from him as he groaned and twisted in his bed were like nothing I’d ever heard from my strong, powerful father. His body would heave and constrict, trying to expel what little he had in his digestive system, the veins in his neck looking to burst, his breath ragged through dry heaves.
I can still hear the way he cried out during the worst of those moments, and though I wish I could erase those sounds from my mind, I feel honored and grateful that I was able to be there with him — it grounded his situation in a grim reality that had been missing from my experience, and it allowed me to understand why he was ready to stop fighting and leave the pain behind him. I cancelled my flight for that day, knowing there was no way I could leave him in that state.
When it was finally time to head home, my mother came by to drive me to the airport. She stopped in to give my father a hug and check in with him, then left the room so we could have a few minutes alone. We could hear my mother chatting with my dad’s wife in the kitchen. Dad gave me a “Isn’t that awesome?” look and smiled.
I put my hands on my father’s bony shoulders — the ones I used to depend on when things went sideways, and brought my face close to his. I told him how much I loved him, and how his influence on my life would never go away — his values, living life to the fullest, his wisdom. I told him that his grandchildren felt close to him and that they knew he loved them and that he would always be there, looking over them.
I told him, whatever happens next, we have nothing left unsaid between us, no issues to work through, nothing to forgive. I put my head on his chest, held his hands, breathed him in.
We were quiet for a few moments.
And then… and then… he started talking about lakes that won’t allow boats with two-stroke engines. And the idea of Tesla-inspired electric boats. And fishing boats.
My mother cried when she dropped me off at the airport.
“I wish you had someone, Eric,” she said.
“Me too, Mom,” I told her with a sad smile as I hugged her close.
Dad stopped eating and drinking a short time after I left, and all of us thought that he’d be leaving us soon. But the next three weeks were full of ambiguity and distraction, not knowing when the call would come, not knowing how I would react or respond when it did. I did my best to be a good father, a present boss, a decent friend. Every day, I woke up wondering if I’d get the call before bedtime.
The longer he lasted, the more often I began to question whether I should hop a plane back to California. We’d said our goodbyes, and he didn’t want company, but it seemed weird and wrong to be away from him. I wanted to respect his wishes, but being so far away and not knowing what was going on was weighing on me.
I reached out to his wife seven days after he’d stopped eating, asking her to ask him if I could get on the next plane and be there by early evening. She called me a few minutes later.
“Your father says you can only come if you’ll tell him it’s okay for him to die,” she said.
“Okay…” I responded, “I… I guess I could tell him that.”
“Can you just tell him now? Over the phone?” she said. “Because he’s not planning on being around by the time you would get here.”
So she put the phone to my father’s ear, and I told him what I’d said to him before — that we had nothing left unsaid, that we didn’t have any issues between us. That there was only love. I told him I would miss him, but that I knew he’d always be nearby, and that if he needed to go, I understood.
I paced in circles around my own living room in pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, my bare feet stepping into the patterns of the Moroccan rug, a ribbon of perspiration running to the small of my back. I talked until I couldn’t think of anything else he needed to hear. I told him it was okay to go.
“I love you, Dad,” I said. “I always will.”
Silence. Maybe a whisper.
“Did you hear what he said?” his wife’s voice crackled over the distance. “He said, ‘Thank you, goodbye.’”
My father lasted a full 14 days without food or water before he finally left us. I got the call as I was stepping off a lift in Breckenridge, and I had no choice but to snowboard my way down the mountain, my goggles fogging as I fought back tears, my breath coming in constricted wheezes. I didn’t tell Simone until we were safe at home that night. She hugged me for a very long time.
The next two weeks were a blur of activity and sadness, with some stomach-cramping laughs along the way. I flew to California and spoke at my father’s memorial service, learning that his close friends saw him the same way I did — warm, loving, always having the answers to tough problems, and the capacity to tell a story with exhausting detail. My baby sister, my baby niece, and I flew together cross-country to Wilmington, Delaware for Dad’s funeral, meeting our middle sister and my father’s wife when they arrived after us.
The turnout for my father’s funeral was an illustration of the love he brought to the world — cousins and aunts and uncles from my mother’s side of the family, his sister and her family, childhood friends; even one of my closest friends and his wife made the drive from NYC.
My father’s aunt hosted family and friends after the funeral, and as I sat there on a couch in her apartment, listening to stories about my father’s childhood, I realized there was something in the breast pocket of my suit jacket. Reaching a couple of fingers into the narrow opening, I gasped.
Conversation stopped, and in the silence I fished the cufflinks from my dad out of the pocket, holding them in my palm in wonder. My heart opened up like a spring blossom. I looked at my cousin Aaron in wonder, and he said, “Your father picked just the right time to give those back to you.” My moment was lost in the chaos and intensity of the family gathering, and it wasn’t until a little while later that I had a few minutes to just sit and feel it.
I flew back to Denver alone to find that my best friend had arranged for meals and services to be held in my house during the mourning week, known in Jewish practice as shiva. He stepped up in a way I’d never seen, taking on an incredible amount of responsibility in the midst of a busy travel and work schedule. He wouldn’t let me lift a finger to set things up or clean afterward. He mobilized our network of friends in order to fill our refrigerator and freezer to near absurdity, squeezing in casseroles and cold cuts and tubs of soup.
Simone’s mom kindly let her stay with me that week. She skipped a couple days of school to join me in the mourning process. We spent our days in relative quiet, reading, drawing, talking, snuggling.
It would be glib and judgmental to say you learn who your real friends are when something like this happens, because it’s not that simple. The more precise way of putting it would be that you find out who really has your back — who has the capacity to be there for you in a meaningful way. Members of the community I hardly knew brought food and support, while some of my closest friends just disappeared. Mere acquaintances called to offer their condolences, while friends who felt like family hardly communicated at all. It gave me perspective on the people in my life who share energy back into our relationship, and who generally just take that energy from me.
I also learned the real meaning of “Let me know if you need anything,” and will remember to make concrete offers of help, or just do what’s needed without waiting to be asked. When you’re wading through grief and disorientation, trying to find your way through a world that feels fundamentally different, it’s hard to know what you need and even harder to ask for it. I’m grateful and humbled by the many ways in which my community and friends stepped in to make sure Simone and I were fed and comforted.
This month’s column is way too long, but I wanted to share how difficult and memorable the last couple of months have been for me. Like my iPhone, I’ve been shattered but functional, mostly okay except when unbidden triggers — a smell, a story, a change in the light — bring me low for a rough moment, a sudden reminder of the empty place where my father used to be. I can’t ask him for advice when I’m making home repairs, or share a photo of the perfect meal with him. I can’t call him with my latest conundrum or just to let him know I’m thinking about him. I’ve had several dreams of my father in the last few weeks; we hug, I cry, I wake up missing him.
But I am finding my way back into the world, and doing my best to honor his memory each day. If I’m not always able to stay perfectly focused, my friends and colleagues are forgiving. The biggest takeaway is that we all have to go through this; that my experience isn’t unique. It’s not so much a comfort as it is a reminder that this grief, this journey, this slow emergence back into the day-to-day, is normal.
And knowing that Simone will have to go through this herself, someday — and it’ll be me who has left the world — makes me want to live better, make healthier decisions, and continue to make happy memories for her to keep with her when I’m gone.
I read somewhere that married men tend to live longer than single ones do. I’d better get to work on that.