This is my first try at this whole Kinja blog thing... not sure what happens next but I did want to share this after dealing with a good friend's recent loss of her father....
In January of 2004, I lost 15 pounds. It seems a funny thing to say you have 'lost' weight, as if it were just a matter of forgetting it one day on your way out the front door and not being able to find it later. "What did you do?" concerned friends might ask, and I'd say, "funny thing, this morning I woke up and realized I'd left a whole bunch of fat somewhere, and damned if I can recall where." "Well, when is the last time you had it?" they might respond, as I retraced my steps- no, not in the kitchen, not on the stairs, not next to the car keys or umbrella I forgot last week. A particular irony is that I lost the weight by attending Weight Watchers, an endeavor which seems to imply that I'd always be keeping an eye on said fat, making sure it didn't get out of sight. Certainly my mother had never let my weight go unwatched, but apparently losing doesn't work through third party influence, if the 12 years I resided in a size 12 are any indication. No, apparently you have to know exactly where something is to lose it. And only then, with its absence, do you recognize its weight.
In October of 2002, I lost my father. Similar to losing weight, it seems funny to say of someone who died, "we lost him," as if we went to the mall together and he just simply never returned to our rendezvous point at closing time. "Where's your father?" someone might ask, and I'd say, "Well, one minute I was looking at this cute outfit in the window of Macy's and the next he was just gone, lost in the crowd. I'd better page security." But I say lost first because dead is a permanent word, irrevocable, and does not account for the eternal persistence of our memories, our love, our connection. "Passed away," with its evocation of a slow journey somewhere unnamed, does not begin to describe how violently he was torn from us, how instantaneously everything changed with one tiny burst blood vessel in his brain. "Passed" is even worse. Losing the 'away' you have a phrase that seems to suggest the deceased just decided he'd had enough, as though someone had said, "Jim, more life?" as if offering him a second slice of pie, and he'd shook his head and replied, "I'll pass."
My father was never the type to pass up life. With the endearing self-indulgence only found in a man always true to himself, my father denied himself nothing. Not Marlboros, or Coors, or a good dirty joke, or hamburgers prepared bloody and thick, just perfectly as he would tell you himself, on the grill. Over the years, his body had started to show the effects of this, by the time of his death at 55, no longer was he the lanky basketball player of his teens and 20s, the whippet-like Princeton alum and prep school teacher who wooed a stunning brunette on Nantucket one summer. His face had rounded out, his belly had begun to protrude just slightly over the edge of his khakis, prompting my brother to nickname him "Tubby," pronounced in a long sing-song tone guaranteed to elicit guffaws, even from the epithet's victim. His enlargement seemed to finally signal that his body was catching up with his spirit, joining forces with his outsized sense of humor, and intelligence, and decency. With his large pores and hawkish nose, his face would have been severe if not for the robust cheeks and the full lips that belong more on my face as they are than on his, and the smile that seemed to burst forth from somewhere deep inside him, like the sun emerging from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean each morning.
Such a large man should not have been graceful, and certainly he would never have fit the definition that calls to mind refinement or propriety, not with his penchant for the bawdiest of jokes and an aversion to political correctness in all its forms, but he was. His presence in the classroom- at his show-stopping, witty best in front of twenty high school English students and their parents on parent's weekend, or on the couch with a beer watching whatever third-rate action movie or spaghetti western he could find, or in the third base box with his cap rim unbent and his uniform pants pulled to a height guaranteed to send my brother into paroxysms of mortification, was somehow always right, as if you would never expect him to be anywhere else, as if he had been born to be there in that moment. And while his beefy hands gave really awful shoulder massages and his hello or goodbye kisses always left a wet spot to surreptitiously rub off your cheek with a shirtsleeve, he had the ability with a hug or a handshake or a slap on the back to convey such ease of being that your soul felt charmed. He was a man for whom life was a simple pleasure to be enjoyed, just as it was. In his early 50s, he was diagnosed with a minor case of gout, that affliction of hedonistic noblemen of the 19th century, and while we exhorted him to take heed of this physical signal his body was sending him, he never would have permitted even the momentary loss of chocolate chips eaten standing up in the kitchen, straight from the bag.
No, my father wouldn't pass, he didn't pass away, and he is not dead. I say I lost him primarily because it seems most apt: until that night, we always knew were he'd be. Unlike my mother, who stacked her days with volunteering and housemother duty to her boarding school seniors, my father preferred to spend his evenings on the couch. Each night, when I'd call, I knew I'd hear his voice, and in it he'd be embodied, home would be embodied. Even over the phone you could see him, prostrate with his shoes kicked off, clicker in hand, beer on the coffee table, cigarettes in his Oxford shirt pocket, the cockapoo on the cushion near his head.
"McGoots," he'd say each time without fail, sometimes using my childhood nickname in the place of hello when he picked up the receiver, so habitual were my calls, so habitual were his answers. "What's going on? I got Beans next to me, we're waiting for the game to start." The dog was his nightly partner in laziness, and I'd get a running commentary about their evening before we'd start to dish about the Red Sox chances and schedule my next visit home, when I would join him on that couch for our quarterly Scrabble tournament.
Never could I have imagined him not being there when I called, and even the night we lost him, he was at home. Later in the evening my brother would find him slumped over in the bathroom, but when I called at 6:00 to get from my mother her recipe for chicken salad, only Jared was there to idly speculate where dad was other than home, considering his Jeep was in the driveway and his shoes near the couch. Two hours later, I was wrist-deep in breast meat and mayonnaise when my mother called and asked me to sit down. I don't know how I knew he was gone from those three words, "please sit down," but I did. It was as if his death left a physical hole that came through the phone, like the whir of a vacuum on the other end of the line. My mother, never one for semantics, said it straight: "Dad died tonight."
I don't remember much of what followed, frantic attempts to get someone to drive me the five hours home from Boston to Lawrenceville, imploring looks at my roommates, endlessly repeating, I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do. But one thing I do remember thinking that night was, irrationally, at least I'll lose weight. I probably won't eat much ever again, I mused, rocking back and forth on the kitchen floor like a child on one of those mechanical horses outside supermarkets and play areas, my mind no longer in control of my body. I rocked and thought about being skinny and watched as my roommate raced around the apartment in a wild-eyed, brain-addling panic, packing from my hope chest bright summer clothes and bikinis for a mid-fall funeral in New Jersey.
As it turned out, there is a lot of food associated with death, so there can be no linear relationship between loss and weight loss, except for the deceased, who loses something like 21 grams of body mass in the exact moment of death. That funereal week, well-meaning people who do not understand how to feed your soul opt instead to feed your body, which seems an odd choice because he can't eat, can never eat again, so why should we? Besides, part of a body's survival mechanism in a time of crisis is to sever its corporeal relationship with the mind; we do not think to eat. Instead we store the casseroles, offer guests the cookies, pick at the bagels and muffins and lasagna. And bury a box no bigger than a loaf of bread.
I felt the absence of my father's physical presence most acutely the day before the funeral, when my brother and I visited the funeral director's office to drop off pictures for the local papers in upstate New York, where he was born, and New Jersey where he spent most of his life, where he died, and also to pick up his belongings. We were handed a watch and wedding ring, my brother holding the former and me slipping the latter over my thumb, two lost archeologists sure these tokens represented the priceless keys to an important culture. I watched the gold band spin around as I nudged it with my index finger and remembered how it looked on his hand, almost a part of his skin for 30 years, and I thought to myself that other than that damn box we would receive the next day, these are all we have left. I could not find words for the newspapers, for how do you describe something you cannot see when you are not ready for ashes and some jewelry to be all there is left?
"Is he here right now?" I asked, looking out the door as if expecting him to walk in the room and take over this process of talking about funerals; my brother and I, suddenly children and waiting for, wanting our daddy.
"Yes, he is downstairs, being prepared for cremation."
In that moment it was lucky that the rift between my mind and body had grown so wide, for my mind screamed run; I wanted to race from that room and hurl myself on top of his body and hold him, reassure myself that he ever existed because how else do you know? If you cannot see it, is it really there? Was it ever really there? My faith was not that strong. My fingers itched to touch his hair, always a little shaggy and prone to hanging over his forehead, my palms to rub across his big cheeks. I wanted to smell that smell unique to him, the smell that would live in my mother's bed for weeks before she changed the sheets and he was gone for good. I wanted to see those eyes that mesmerized me, touch my finger to the chin that, whenever he ate corn on the cob, would always be streaked with butter, no matter how often we alerted him of its presence. I wanted to lie on his chest, my head in the crook of his arm, the way I did when I was little, and we would watch TV together on the family room floor.
But I didn't run to him, for what good is a body whose arms wouldn't hug back, whose eyes wouldn't open and look back at you with the same blue you see in the mirror, whose mouth wouldn't break into a high-cheeked roguish smile moments before emitting a laugh or some oft-repeated favorite tale in a voice I now still hear in my sleep? Besides, my own body remained rooted in the chair, as if I was the one stiff and cold, while somewhere, as my mind told the story, he was warm and soft and still, as if asleep, and destined to wake some moment and ask whether it was time to light the grill.
Instead, we got into his Jeep, another artifact for our collection, and drove home. Two days later, that big, well-fed body was in a small mahogany box, everything I associated with home reduced to ashes and buried in a plot a mile from the couch he loved.
It took a year to emerge from the fog of loss, and to find myself again. Around the same time I discovered I was capable of being happy again, I joined Weight Watchers, shedding a layer of myself, peeling it back to find out what was hidden beneath. When I lost weight, I found new things, cheekbones and collarbones, my new body carving itself out of the old. Now, putting on pants or shirts and seeing them gap and sag, I feel the absence of part of me acutely. So it is with my father. After a year of mourning what was gone, I emerged to find that I hadn't lost my father in the slightest. That big body I came to view as synonymous with home may be lost forever, but in every place he once embodied so physically is the very physical memory of him. Like the couch which still sags from the memory of his weight, he has left a dad-shaped hole in everything. In every Wrangler that passes, I see him smoking a cigarette behind the wheel. In every phone call to my mother, I still hear "McGoots" before she says hello. With every smell of a charcoal grill I see him wielding barbeque tongs and declaring his culinary genius. With each crack of the bat during Red Sox season, he sits on the couch of my memory, offering play-by-play to my color commentary. And in each look in the mirror, I see parts of his face staring back. Like a shadow of myself, I carry his weight with me.