My father experienced the world with his mouth. Sometimes by what he put into it and other times but what flew out of it. Anyone who knew him understood that his sense of humor expressed itself in words and in food. Once he found the internet there was no stopping him, a perfect arena to express himself in words about the things he loved. If you came into my father’s home for a meal you would experience his wit in your ears, your mouth, and deep in your heart. You would see his love for living well and the passion for his incredible partner and wife in Helen. But what my father tried to do was save people. He saved my life. He did it so often I took it for granted, and when I didn’t need saving we went through a lot of difficult times because he was still reaching out and trying to help and I pushed it away. I know that what caused him the greatest heartache was his feeling that everything he tried to do to help his daughter Eden wound up hurting her and he couldn’t figure out why. He had just started to learn to love her the way she needed, to see her as others saw her, without judgment. It’s so much easier to fix someone else than to fix yourself. If you found yourself arguing with my father you would know the shaking finger and the phrase, “you have to understand!” We understand, dad. We understand that the reason you told us the same stories from the past was to inform our present, that they weren’t just the same story they were parables, lessons, experiences, things that had deep meaning that you were exploring for truth. We don’t just understand, we know that you love us, that all you ever wanted was for us to be happy and comfortable, and without worry. We get it. We get it.
That is what I read to a room of about 40 people who had congregated at my parent’s house for a small memorial service led by a local Cantor. My mother asked if anyone else wanted to speak. Several people spoke and shared memories of my father and some stories. I dread “open mic” toasts because unless you have a good closer lined up there is a pregnant pause and awkward moment when no one is willing to continue. But those who did speak did so from the heart and gave a small sketch of my father’s personality.
With 40 people in the room it meant being social, a lot. I knew it would be difficult and draining because the way I can honor someone’s gift of presence is to try and meet them where they are emotionally and have a shared experience with them. That takes tremendous energy to put into others that I could use for myself, and this is one of the few times I feel entitled to that energy. I did get many good conversations and a few that were mundane. But often in the middle of talking the image of my father would come into my mind derailing any linear thoughts. Sadly it’s still the image of my father dying, and then I forcibly change it into one of him alive, and both feel like I’ve shoved a finger into a belly wound.
I watched and held my dad as he died. He died with my hands on his chest. I looked down at my hands on him and saw my fingers splayed in the “live long and prosper” Y and remembered that it is the gesture of the priestly benediction by the Kohanim. I heard the voice of my father in English from my youth and my father-in-law in Hebrew from our weekly Shabbat dinners: may god bless you and guard you. May his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. Me he lift up his face onto you and give you peace.
I watched my father take his last breaths, felt his heart stop, watched as the blood left his face and his skin turned a dull, waxy color. The ventilator whirred gently but he was very much gone. After a time the doctor and nurse who were monitoring his vitals on telemetry came in and that was the clear indicator he was truly dead. The thought that brings me the most pain is that my father is dead. Not sick, not away, he is dead. I felt him die. I stayed until the blood retreated from his large hands, bloated with edema. I understood that being there for the process would forge the images in my mind forever. This would potentially be the last vision of my father in my life. But this concept was weighed against my feeling that no one should die alone. I have all the rest of my life to sift through all the good memories, and he would only die once.
My father used to speak about his father’s death and funeral. My grandfather printed all the collateral for his synagogue and had a long relationship with them. When he died my father and his brother handled the arrangements but the rabbi for their congregation demanded payment. When he arrived for the memorial service he did a bar mitzvah check of every man in the room, and then afterwards had the gall to demand payment for his two sons to round out the minyan. This so angered my father and uncle that they left organized Judaism completely. My uncle recently told me that he tried to go back to the orthodox temple where he had his bar mitzvah and the congregation turned their back on him. He walked away forever.
Because my father didn’t belong to a congregation and married a non-Jew it was difficult to find a local rabbi who would even return our phone calls to perform a service. This is very different from my experience in Los Angeles where we know half a dozen rabbis who would have been in our house before even being asked, we know where to go to get mourner’s supplies, we’ve got resources. In my father’s town we are lost.
Sofia and my sister’s boyfriend Fuller did all the research and legwork to find a mortuary that could handle a cremation and provide a space for us to hold the memorial. Sofia spoke to them and then Fuller called back as the price negotiator. My mom, Sofia, and I set out for the mortuary that seemed the best fit.
The experience was dreadful. We were taken by elevator into a cheap salesroom showing caskets, videos, and chintzy keepsakes. In the center of the room was a table, chairs, and a calculator. We reviewed what Sofia and Fuller had discussed and the mortuary director said she had to review our needs with her manager. She left for a time and came back and said that though she quoted us one price on the phone that it would be higher because of some forgettable excuse. My mom and Sofia got very cold as we all realized we had been bait and switched. My mom asked to speak to the woman’s manager directly and she went go get him. While this funeral director was slight and gentle in her manner, the manager who came out was a slick, subhuman, used car salesman. He jabbed his finger at a brochure saying the new cost was the minimum cost. My mother stayed calm, never looked at his finger and stared at him quietly demanding he give a good reason why one price was given over the phone and now they were giving another. We began with $1300 for a direct cremation and $1,000 for the memorial service. He had moved us to a mandatory package with a floor of $2,600 even though we would not need their package components. We left disgusted.
We stopped at Beth El, a local temple, on the way back to my parent’s house where we were treated kindly and sympathetically by the administration staff. We were just looking for kindness and help and they took our information to get a rabbi to phone us back. As we left and walked the hallways I remembered that in Judaism the baseline of moral judgment is how one treats the widow and the orphan. Another stab in the heart as I realized that was us.
Eventually we were able to find a Cantor who would perform the service for a very reasonable honorarium. We all agreed that we would have the service in the home my father built, the most fitting location. My mom and Sofia got on the phone to make calls and arrange the memorial service. I was under the understanding that we were going to have a small, private memorial service just for family. I left for a run while they made the calls. When I got back I found out that we were expecting 40 people or more.
At first I was angry because I felt like the rules had been changed on me without my consent. My uncle had admonished when you move too quickly in death you forget things, people get left out. This happened with my grandmother’s funeral a month before. Because my father made hasty arrangements there were people my grandmother knew that didn’t even know she died. When my uncle spoke to them after the funeral he had to break the news that not only had she died, the funeral had already happened. After my father’s death we got news reports that a severe storm was heading towards the area and we had to make arrangements quickly or else people couldn’t come. Internally I thought that was fine since we had agreed that a celebration of his life a month from now would be the open invitation to anyone so friends around the country could make travel arrangements. Now the local memorial service would have 40 people and I had a combination of feeling like we were going to forget people and also that it was far too many. Both would turn out to be true. At the same time it was exactly what my mother needed – to be surrounded by her community and the community who loved my father. It is selfish to deny anyone their grief, and like so many things the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. I am caught between the man I want to be and the son who has lost his father. The man I want to be honors his mother and father and is incredibly grateful for the outpouring of his parent’s community’s support. The son is in full grief. Angry, selfish, and needy.
After a family dinner with my uncle and his family we went home to wait for the cremation service Fuller found one that would come to our home and handle all the arrangements. At 11pm the doorbell rang and a big, butch, wonderful woman came over. She was a shining light of sanity.
She had started as an EMT and then became a hospice worker. After being with a friend’s death process including making the funeral arrangements she realized she could do a better job than any place they had been. Our experience I’ve detailed is not unique. She enrolled in mortuary school and established a direct cremation business, which is now the largest in Maryland. Her company charges $895 for everything, including all the paperwork, and they haven’t raised their prices in almost a decade. She pulled back the curtain of the funeral business and told us why we were quoted different prices like it was a used car lot. Most funeral parlors, at least in this area, do 150 “cases” a year and that has to cover their entire operating overhead. While you may get quoted $1300 for a direct cremation, they will bait and switch you to a $2,600 minimum once you’re in the door and confined in the sales room. It goes up quickly from there. They really need to hit $6,000 or $8,000 on each family to make it worth their while. You can easily spend more than $25,000 on a funeral. They prey upon you in grief and expect that once you’re in the room you’ll just cave because it takes so much energy to leave and shop elsewhere.
The service that Fuller found handles all the paperwork, they take the body from the hospital, and have processes in place to ensure that the right body is cremated and delivered to your door. Cremation takes longer to release a body because it is such a final act the medical examiner has to sign off on the process. Most early memorial services for the cremated are done with an empty urn. This service promised they would deliver my dad’s ashes directly to the house when the process was finished.
That’s weird just to write: my dad’s ashes. It’ll be 99% sterilized calcium. His bones. All that remains of his physical self. A bad weight loss program. They affix a metal ID tag to his body once they take possession of it and it stays with him through the entire process. This is how they know they have the right body all the time. The tag gets fired in the crematorium and drops down neatly on top of the pile, and then they use it to seal the bag of remains. Again, I catch myself because I talk about something in the abstract and BAM I am reminded this is my dead father I am writing about.
We are in his house, and he is everywhere in it. We have already encountered the subject of “his things”. As far as I am concerned, everything in this house now belongs to my mother. He was her husband and her primary beneficiary. She can do whatever she wants with it. Once she decides, whenever she decides what to keep and what to throw away, then me, my sister, and uncle can discuss what we want.
If Sofia died and someone came into my home and began culling through my things I’d be violated beyond words. It is worse than robbery, which is from a stranger. It’s from family not respecting my loss. I know how long it took Sofia and I to hang a piece of artwork. Never mind the acquisition, the trip, and the experience behind it. Everything in my father’s house belongs to my mother.
The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On one hand it feels like vultures picking over a carcass, which I’ve seen happen a few times with stuff and death. Those who are slow to grieve days, weeks, or months later look around and everything is gone. Some of us don’t know there is a time limit to claim stuff. On the other hand I can understand it’s about wanting to find the person in their stuff. But it’s not like anyone is going to open a drawer and find a note that says, “daddy loves you and was there all along”. That will never happen. Often, quite the opposite. In death there are few secrets. There’s a part of my mom that wants to throw it all away because it hurts too much. We’ve said that my father built this house for his wife, but that does a disservice to the man. He loved form and function, design and art. This house is as much him as it is hers and it is filled with things he loved – including his wife.
We have achieved a middle ground. I’ve confirmed with my mom that everything in this house is hers, regardless of when it was acquired in their relationship or before. Second, if there is anything that can truly be called “his”, and she wants it gone, it should be moved into a box in the garage. Then me, my sister, and my uncle can discuss among ourselves if any of us want it. Sofia came up with the idea and I’ve planted the seed that my dad’s vast library of cookbooks should be donated to a culinary school as a named tribute. “The Stuart Miller collection” or something. He’s got some very valuable limited edition books that a school would love to have. Everything else that my mom does not want in her home goes into that grey area in the garage to be sorted later.
It still feels like scavenging.
At the memorial service I found myself in conversation with one of his friends, a very nice fellow, who confessed to me that he had a lot of anger at my dad for not taking care of himself better. I told him that in the end I understood that my dad chose to live the way he did because he was going to enjoy whatever time he had left. It was a conscious choice. This made the guy feel much better, which was nice. But then I also added that when someone blows their brains out we call them selfish for committing suicide because it leaves an emotional wreck behind. Well, my dad chose a slower form but he still committed a slow suicide so if there is to be anger be angry at the selfishness of the actions. But anger is useless and gets you nowhere so figure out from there how to diffuse it. Serves them right asking a grieving person for solace.
This taps into the larger quandary of how we relate to people who willingly self-destruct, no matter the timeline. My sister and I have talked a lot about this because I have changed my life in part from witnessing my father’s life. My sister has battled body image her whole life and now she has fought and beat cancer enough times it has had a permanent effect on her system. She understands the morbidity vectors and she also detests feeling judged.
A single cigarette is not going to give you cancer. But we recognize that few if any people can have a single cigarette and be done. It’s an addictive drug. Even fewer would say, “I’ll do heroin just this once.” For the one in a million who can safely take an illegal, highly addictive drug “just this once” this may be true. The overwhelming evidence is that it’s never just the one time.
Compress the timeline to understand the impact. A gunshot to the head is instant and we see that the person must have been in a lot of pain and severely depressed to pull the trigger. The difference between suicide by gunshot and suicide by drugs, alcohol, food abuse, or over-exercise/eating disorders is time. It all stems from depression. I don’t think my father consciously committed suicide. That is too dark and difficult a term. But a lesson of his life may be that if left unchecked the things that bring short-term solace may in fact be destructive in the long term. Combine that with a societal approval and reward for the behavior and you have a reality distortion. Imagine being rewarded by your friends for your ability to smoke five packs a day.
Sofia and I are at our core quiet, contemplative people. Sometimes it comes off as antisocial but it’s more that we are both introspective thinkers. To be present with others requires time and quiet to recharge. The man I want to be is overwhelmed in gratitude by the community of people who came to help us in our grief, who cooked for us, cleaned up after us, and tended to our needs. Four women from my parent’s neighborhood have spent ten hours a day here cooking, cleaning, and tending to the structure of a grieving house. Sofia has been working nonstop in the background, making calls, arrangements, tending to my emotional needs, all while mourning the loss of her father-in-law and the relationship that was still growing and evolving. At the same time having anyone in my vicinity was too much and the angry, selfish, needy son wanted to either throw them all out or leave myself. This I recognize is an extreme view – it means I have a need to own and control this space which is still my mother’s home! My grief is selfish beyond measure. My loss. My needs. My pain. That does a disservice to everyone else’s grief. His community is shocked and traumatized by the loss of him and to deny them access or space would be a second trauma.
I have been told over and over how incredibly proud my dad was of me. That he would beam and describe me and my wife. A lot of these folks feel they know us so well because of how much my dad talked about us with pride. I smile and nod and thank them appreciably. Yet it still hurts to hear it, and sometimes it causes an ache because it reminds me of the artifice of our relationship. His lack of connection with his daughter was the other face of the same coin – he could not experience her joy because he could not understand it. He over-emphasized my joy because he did not really understand it. Our last blow up was over the way I wrote about my Ironman experience. He felt attacked by my words because he read that I did not think he experienced joy. If I did not think he experienced joy it meant I did not really know who he was as a person and that caused him an incredible amount of pain.
Inasmuch as any son can understand his father I know he experienced joy. I will never know or be able to quantify the depth or quality of the joy (if you can ever quantify such a thing), but he was joyous seeing me achieve impossible goals or being joyous myself. He took joy in seeing his daughter happy and calm. He devoted himself to his wife’s joy. These things made him happy. As I said in my brief eulogy, it is easier to fix others than to fix yourself.
At his memorial service I sought a man who had recently hired my father to do branding and advertising work. I pulled him aside and thanked him for doing what none of us could do – give the man a real job for which he had to work for a paycheck. I believe a man has to work for a living to have a sense of worth. It can’t come from your partner, your parent, your child, or anyone from whom you could twist their motivation into a charity case. This man is a respected, successful peer who would not have hired my dad if he didn’t see the value in his work.
The reason I am getting my coaching certification is because I have seen that people who sign up for triathlon are interested in personal change but don’t quite know how to achieve it. By setting a huge goal many things have to be adjusted and changed to make it happen but those things in totality are hard to envision. If you told the person the thousands of things they’d have to do to reach that goal they’d freak, but each step changes them and brings them closer to their overall goal. Let’s say you want to bike 100 miles. First you have to learn how to bike. Then you have to bike five miles nonstop. You have to work your way up to an hour of aerobic activity. Then you have to learn how to hydrate and fuel to go longer than an hour of riding. The list goes on until one day you bike a hundred miles and you are a different person.
It starts by setting a goal, which at its core is a desire to live. You envision yourself reaching that goal which means you envision yourself in the future. My grandmother envisioned reaching her 90th birthday. She made it and died shortly after. My dad quipped she should have set another goal and just roll onto the next one.
My father set goals for himself and had just reached the point of connecting his short-term behavior with reaching a long-term goal. The night before he collapsed he told his brother, “I think I fucked up”. That could have meant many things, including knowing he was sick and suppressing it so he could do the necessary work of burying his mother and finishing his new job presentation. It could have meant he realized that he and his brother were all that were left of their family and he regretted the distance between them. It could have meant many things. I choose to interpret it that he finally did understand that the world was a place he wanted to be in and connected that in order to stay in it he had to make a lot of changes and wondered if it was too late.
Before the memorial service I ran for an hour. Running used to be something I hated but took like medicine. I knew it was good for me and loving running became my goal. Now I enjoy running for a variety of reasons and am only working with a slight nagging knee pain. Though the run felt good, I was crying most of the time. All I’ve wanted for days now is quiet stillness to sit with my grief. No errands, no favors, no arrangements, not even talking with people. Sitting still with my feelings and my grief. I’m not running away from it, I want to experience it.
Sofia pointed out that I trained for a year to spend a whole day in distress and work through it. Contrast that to my childhood, which was simply surviving suffering to survive. My Ironman training taught me that suffering for suffering’s sake is pointless and empty. The purpose is to transform suffering into something else even if you don’t know what it will become. The way to achieve that requires first embracing the pain, confronting it head on, and trying different methods of dealing with it. Once I find a way I can take a tentative step forward. And then the suffering changes and requires something else to ease it. Already there is a difference between the feeling of grief I had bedside with my father and a day later. And a day after that. There are differences hour by hour.
I have no fear of pain because I know I will survive it and become something else. I don’t even have to know what’s on the other side of that pain, I have confidence that I will be better for having endured, witnessed, embraced, and transcended. To do that I have to sit with it. I don’t get there by distracting myself with being social or making phone calls or cleaning or organizing. I get there by looking at a photo of my father for a long time and seeing his face. Moving silently through his house at the physical evidence of his life. Ultimately what I’ve needed is this – writing my feelings as they happen. Documenting the process step by step is my silent meditation. That is how I fearlessly confront my true feelings. This very document started as a small email to a friend, and then grew as I copied and pasted it into another email, and again, and again expanding its breadth and scope to cover more territory. It’s a living document as much as my grief is a living thing, evolving over time.
Sadness is a well. We can drink from it and make it part of us or we can drown in it.