In the mornings immediately following his death I woke up feeling like someone spent the night beating me with a rubber hose. The sudden death of someone close is like walking away from a really bad car crash. Even though you’re unscathed, every molecule in your body suffers an impact. No exaggeration.
Finding him first. I was not the one who found him. The love of his life found him. What a strange part to play in someone’s life, to be the first one who knows they’re gone. How many wives and husbands have had this job? When I hear widows or widowers talk about it I can feel it in my bones – how it changed them in some fundamental way. It doesn’t seem like a burden so much as an unexpected journey to a world they never imagined they’d see. They know things the uninitiated can’t know. I would want to be the one to find the love of my life, and I wouldn’t. If its not me I’d want it to be someone who is achingly tender towards her.
People people people. Dad was well known and well loved. Threads of him are woven deeply into many lives. This means calling someone who celebrated at my birth and telling them their best friend of fifty years just died. This means calling people I’ve never even heard of to break their hearts. This means calling calling calling and more calling. After the third day of calls I started to get good at it. Never wanted to be good at calling people with really bad news. We only missed a few people – they had to read it in the paper. Their bruises will last for some time.
The business of death. Funeral services are a business and they’re not. Both the lawyer and the funeral director seemed to understand this. One moment we were talking to a professional in a business suit, the next we’re talking to Uncle Steve who is going to make sure everything goes just as the family needs it to. Its times like these you appreciate people who really know what they’re doing. They’re right there when you need them and they dissolve into the wall paper when you need to be alone with your sorrow.
Cooking is my refuge now more than ever. For the first few days we ate condolences food or fast food we picked up on our way to and from the business of death. I finally had a break on day four or five and got to cook for everyone. We sat around the table together for the first time since he died. In that moment I knew our family could still feel whole in some way – at least to me – even with our Patriarch gone. It was so gratifying to put pasta with homemade sauce and a fresh salad in front of everyone. Almost by accident my Mom sat at the head of the table. Time for a Matriarch. She wouldn’t sit still for more than a moment before popping into the kitchen to get something. It used to drive Dad crazy. Some things never change. At least for now.
Its good to be Irish at a wake. This means you can easily slip between crying over the loss of your father to catching up with people you haven’t seen in years. The minute you start to feel guilty about enjoying the party you just get yourself another drink. We were graced by many wonderful people at my Dads wake. They all seemed to understand that happiness was as welcome as grief. I started the party out by pouring Dad a shot of whiskey from a bottle that had been sitting in his basement for twenty years. My sister brought back the clay jug of Tullamore Dew from her college semester in Dublin. By the time it gurgled into my Dad’s glass it was at least 35 years old. He wasn’t the only one to drink it that night. I think there’s still some left for anyone who might drop by in the coming days.
Coming home. Nothing happened while we were gone…except the fridge dying. We returned home to the stench of rotting food. We think it died several days ago, perhaps in protest to my fathers passing. It was a fitting end to a week that began with horrific shock. Not with tears or laughter, but with the tired frumpy feeling of a fridge full of warm rotting food. Nothing left to do but clean out the crap and start over. Perfect.
Of course I learned a lot about my Dad during the week. One thing that has lodged in my being came out of all the endless conversations on the phone with relatives, students and friends of his. More than the legislation he wrote or the causes he championed, they always talked about how much he cared about them. Each person had an anecdote about a little thing he did: asking about their family, sending them notes, being there when they really needed someone solid standing beside them. It became so clear to me that he lived his life from caring. He did this for paupers and princes, treating everyone as if they were cherished. This has been especially profound to me, as he and I were often not gentle with each other. Our relationship was fraught with anger and disappointment. We had overcome most of that in the last decade, building a fragile détente that grew into a tenderness. Now when I think about our worst storms I can feel his deep caring like a river, sweeter than even Tullamore Dew.