I knew something was wrong when my mom called me at work. She knew I wouldn’t answer. I stepped off the line and took the call. She proceeded to tell me that my dad was dead. She got one syllable in before bursting into tears. She sounded utterly broken. My dad was dead. It didn’t make sense. Does it ever make sense? My father had been fighting cancer for three years. The two of them visited me in Seattle from New Jersey just a month earlier. He told me the cancer was in remission. Now he was dead. My mom told me I needed to fly home for the funeral. My first thought was that I couldn’t miss work. They needed me. That my wife couldn’t miss work. I told her we would fly out in the morning.
Just before she hung up the phone, my mom said one last thing to me. “Jess, don’t go back and finish your work shift. Just go home.” I didn’t argue, but I had every intention of finishing my shift. I went back to work and told my boss what had happened.
“Go home,” he said. “I’ll see you when you get back.”
It wasn’t until twenty minutes later on the bus when I realized that I learned my father had died of cancer in his 50s a month after he told me his cancer was in remission and everything would be fine and then I went back to finish my work shift. What was wrong with me?
My wife, Christelle, and I flew out the next morning. I was in a state of semi-shock. It didn’t stop me from sleeping on the plane. And it didn’t stop my brain from racing the way it always does, and from thinking about the one thing I did not want to think about: writing and delivering my dad’s eulogy. Despite what you might be thinking, I was not apprehensive about it. Quite the opposite. I felt guilt, because I was excited. I had been writing both of my parents eulogies for years. Not in an organized way. It was just something I thought about when idling. I love public speaking. I love being the center of attention. I love getting accolades for my writing skill. There was a small amount of guilt when I thought about this at the best of times. I certainly never wanted to have to deliver them any time soon. But here I was, going home to be with my broken mother and my depressed brother and all of the many grieving friends and family. No matter how much I pushed it down, all I could think about was crafting a chillingly beautiful piece of prose and delivering it to an enraptured audience.
I do not remember who picked us up at the airport, but I remember pulling up to the house. The street was packed with cars, and the porch was full of people. It turned out the entire house was full of people. My parents were royalty in that tiny little town, and it seemed like the entire town and everyone they ever knew was parked on our street or camping on our lawn. I should not have been so surprised. Everyone there wanted to hug me, and tell me how sorry they were, and they would do anything they could to help. They all said the exact same thing. I think they meant it, too, but what are you supposed to say?
The best word to describe the gathering was, strangely enough, festive. People were certainly sad. My mom kept sneaking off and crying, and sometimes other people would cry with her. But this was a party. Whatever the circumstances, it was a party. Maybe you could say it was in celebration of all that my father was, but I think it was simpler than that. People were gathered, friends and family that did not see each other often. There was food. That is all it takes.
I flitted around from group to group, making my appearance and talking to everyone. Eventually I ended up at the kitchen table with a large group that included my dad’s brother, Uncle Todd, and his wife, my Aunt Cathy. Let me tell you a little bit about Aunt Cathy. First of all, because you get the wrong idea, I love Aunt Cathy. I always have, she’s great. But she…can be a bit much. The year before a whole bunch of us stayed rented a house in North Carolina together. It was a blast, and I bonded with just about everyone. But every time my immediate family – my parents, my brother, my wife and I – were alone together, we would always look at each other, laugh, shake our heads, and say, “man, Cathy can be a bit much.” At one point I had a few too many shots of something chased by a little to much of something else, and everyone was afraid I was going to tell Aunt Cathy exactly how I felt about her. I did. It wasn’t that harsh. I just told her she could be a bit much.
So here I was, sitting at the kitchen table the day before my dad’s funeral with my Aunt Cathy. She hugged me, and gave me the classic extended-family kiss on the cheek, and asked how I was. “We’re just trying to help get everything together,” she said. “There’s a lot to do. And let me tell you, I could kill your mother.”
“Please don’t,” I said, my voice full of alarm.
The expression on her face was priceless. She covered her mouth with her hands in embarrassment and sputtered out apologies. I smiled at her to let her know I was joking. Everyone at the table was doubled over with laughter. I got that wonderful feeling I always get when people laugh at my jokes. Plus, how often can you get away with a joke like that? I got to stick it to her with no consequences, because my dad was dead. As soon as I realized that I felt sick to my stomach. Big laughs? Seriously, Jesse? Here I was, waiting for my dad’s funeral and I was getting so much pleasure out of big laughs? What was wrong with me?
People kept showing up, and leaving, and coming back. Everyone brought food. We had so much food, and almost all of it was baked pasta. I do not think I will ever eat baked pasta again without thinking of funerals. I tried not to judge anyone based on the quality of their ziti. I mostly succeeded. I was just happy to be surrounded by people. My mother felt the same way. My brother did not.
My brother was difficult to be around. He and I are very different, and at this point we had not lived within a thousand miles of each other for years. But on a fundamental level he is closer to me than anyone. Maybe that’s what being brothers means. I do not know. I know that in the crowds and air of togetherness that pervaded our house before the funeral, he refused to get involved. He was there, of course, and he talked to people. But he barely smiled. This annoyed me, and I knew it was not fair. His dad had just died. But so had mine, dammit. He was bringing everyone down. Maybe he annoyed me with his somberness because I thought I should be like that, too. I loved my dad. I did. So why could I laugh and smile so easily?
The funeral itself was depressing and exhausting and exhilarating and wonderful. My mother and brother and I spent most of it standing while a huge line of people came up to use one by one to say how sorry they were. I saw people I had not seen in year, old grade school teachers and friends of my father’s from my childhood. He was a teacher at a local college, and people from all over flew out to pay their respects. I had no idea anyone would do that. It was intense.
Then it was time to give the eulogies. My Uncle Chuck gave a speech that was mostly biographical. My brother gave one that was heartfelt and very personal. My speech was an attempt to both express my raw emotions and to encapsulate all that was wonderful about my father. I talked about my paralyzing fear of speaking in cliches, and here I was faced with the ultimately and most unavoidable cliché. I talked about how my father was a sculptor. He made art out of objects that were rusty, old, and discarded. It is often said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, I said. But you might not understand what this fully means. With a man like my father, a man who believes that so deeply, the world has less trash, and more treasure. The whole time I spoke I worried that I was delivering it badly, that my voice was too broken and my timing was off.
Everyone loved it.
I heard many more accolades over the beauty of my words than I expected. A friend of ours who was a journalist told me how well crafted it was. Two professional writers I had never met bemoaned the fact that I was not also a professional writer. One of my mother’s closest friends told me she was going to pick up trash everywhere she could and treasure it. I reacted to the praise the same exact way I always do. I basked in it. I breathed it in. It made me glow. I could not help myself. I also could not help feeling like a terrible person for focusing on this, when the love of my mother’s life had been taken away from her. When my brother had just lost his father. When one of my brother’s friends couldn’t stop crying because he had lost his mentor. Was there something wrong with me? Was I not feeling what I was supposed to be feeling? It was not until I phrased the thought in that precise way that I realized how many times I had heard that before. It was so ridiculous it was almost funny.
I am a Revealer. I tell people my deepest and darkest emotions. These are usually my good friends, but it does not take a lot for me to consider someone a good friend. One side effect of being a Revealer is that other people reveal things to me, too. So many times friends of mine have told me some combination of these words: “I don’t think I feel emotions the way people are supposed to.” Some of the most empathetic and emotionally complex people I’ve known have told me this. Consider the following.
You are in a group, and there is a news report detailing how several people were shot and killed in a cafe somewhere a thousand miles away from where you live. Everyone around you talks about how terrible it is, and how awful they feel. You feel nothing. Absolutely nothing. You think it is bad that it happened. Of course you do. Maybe under different circumstances you would have felt something. Not this time. Your emotional reaction just isn’t there. Do you have less compassion than everyone else? Or are they just faking it? Sometimes, one person in the room says something like, “What’s the big deal? People die all the time.” Everyone calls him a jerk. Is he a jerk, or is he just more honest than everyone else? Is there something wrong with not feeling things the way you think you are supposed to? I have given this question a lot of thought, both during my lifetime and, in particular, during that one intense and crazy week when my dad died and all I could think about was how good a writer I was. The answer is no. There is nothing wrong with that. Not even a little.
Both fiction and common worldview are full of archetypes. Some of them are clearly fantastical, and some of them are known to be fictional when they are examined closely. There is the uber-competant hero type, be he in law enforcement or business management, who can deliver success against overwhelming odds time and time again without fail because he is just that good. There is the bully who picks on people and has no trauma or social pressures or motivations at all other than to just be complete bastard and we can just hate him with no need for empathy. There is the love-interest who steps into Joe-ordinary’s life and in a matter of days teaches him how to be special and amazing and how to change the world. But the most relevant and important archetype of all is one that is not acknowledged: the normal guy. The normal guy is always sad when people get hurt. He is happy and never resentful when his friends achieve success. His emotions always correspond to the situation, and he feels them just the right way in just the right proportions.
He is a myth. He is a construct of our culture we have created so we can all try to live up to him and all function together as a society. And just like we need standards of behavior so we can all live together, we need the myth of the normal guy so we know how to have shared emotional expression. Because society should get upset when people are killed in a coffee shop. Society should only be concerned about the emotional ramifications of death during funerals. But real people are complicated. No one feels what they are “supposed” to feel all of the time. All of us go through phases where we think we are just faking our emotions. That is universal.
Because people are messy balls of chaos and neuroses. Sometimes we are too preoccupied to fully empathize with others. Or sometimes we have associations with things we are not aware of and it affects how we feel. Or sometimes our brain chemistry is just weird that day, and that is all there is to it. There is nothing wrong with that. It is just being human. We just don’t talk about it, so we can believe that we are better, more cohesive, than we actually are. I do not know if this is a bad thing or not. It just is. Even now, it feels weird writing this and not pretending anything. Probably I can only do it because a few years have gone by. The sting of the loss and the sting of the guilt are both dulled.
I miss my dad. Sometimes I miss him a lot. When I was little I used to sit on his head while he sang David Seville’s “Bird on My Head.” Every time it was the bird’s turn to sing, I would throw out my hands and loudly proclaim, “and I belong in a tree!” About a year after he died I realized I would never be able to teach that to my child and let my father watch us do it together, because he was dead. I had tears in my eyes for an hour, after that. But mostly, I have not been that sad. It comes it moments. My mother cried every day for two years. She is getting better, now. Life, as they say, goes on. Even now I know I am writing about this subject at all because death is emotionally stirring. I’m still the same person. I still had a great father, and no way of feeling or not feeling will ever have anything change the relationship we had. He is my father, and I can mourn him any way I want to. No, that is not right. However I mourn him is how I mourn him.
There is nothing wrong with that.