On Friday last my father-in-law passed away, and I have been having trouble figuring out how to talk about it. What to say. There is a great new conduit for feelings and thoughts in the form of social networking, but I do not want it. Have not been wanting any of it. Haven’t felt fit to participate in it.
What can I say to any large group of people that will be meaningful, about this? I don’t mean to imply it can’t be done. Beautiful memorials have been crafted. My husband and his brother wrote perhaps the finest obituary I have ever read, one that actually captured in some small portion the spirit of their father, and so I have been content to watch those words do the work I’d like to do, saying what there is to say.
We were lying in bed and the dog barked and we both woke up, annoyed. Because he has been barking at a lot of squirrels lately, his dog brain going on overdrive, so, so many RPMS, because of the squirrels eating fallen black walnuts in the yard. He barked again, in our bedroom, which is of course unacceptable, and so Dave got up to take him out and I tried to roll back over into sleep.
It occurs to me that obituaries, like cover letters or fellowship applications essays, are generally speaking fine examples of why I prefer fiction over non-fiction. The difficulty of expressing a person’s finest ambitions in so short a space, in so plain a language.
I was still in bed and Dave came back and lay down beside me, put his hand on my head. He often wakes me, because left to my own devices I will sleep past the point that my body even desires to, and anyway I needed to get up and drive to Chicago to teach a writing class. Time to make coffee, and so on. Put on clothes. Gather materials.
“I think Dad just died,” he said.
Even then, certain of it, speaking in an uncertain form, putting distance between himself and the reality using the structure of his sentence.
We had been out for ice cream not long before, talking about how his father would probably die. We were not happy to say it, but perhaps there was some reassurance beneath the conversation that we were mature enough to be having it, just between us two, recognizing a terrible inevitability. Which of course, upon its happening, we realized we did not know as inevitable at all, because why else would it be such an enormous surprise? We had been sitting there, putting space between us and it with words.
“That’s why Paul was barking,” Dave said. “Because he heard.” So for a terrible moment I thought there had been pain, audible pain that had caused my dog to react like he would to an intruder or a dark shape slinking out from behind a door.
But then: “He heard mom crying.” And so, a different way to think about things, shifting into the place of the fear.
What about these things? Doug trying to make us all laugh. Or telling me that he liked my blouse, which is not a word I’ve often heard anyone say. Or saving something onto the DVR that now we flip past. These aren’t helpful thoughts to anyone, are they? This is why I have been resisting and avoiding all the social networks. Because what do I have to say on them except what occurs to me? The small, unhelpful thoughts.
That morning we sat with him in the bedroom where he’d lain, unrelentingly, for quite a few weeks. And it almost seemed normal. The light was very crisp in the way of cold weather sunshine, but it wasn’t yet cold. The weather didn’t turn until yesterday; it has still been t-shirt weather.
Not normal. That’s not true. It’s just that we’d sat there with him so many times before, in all those chairs and on the open side of the adjustable bed.
We all got headaches, either from crying or just from staring intently, thinking very, very hard.
When does a memorial turn into just a piece of writing? When does it start getting selfish and inflated by words? More words, some of them pretty ones. I don’t know, so I am going to stop writing this one now. We have ordered 250 maple ring donuts. We have ordered 250 people’s worth of coffee. Here is how Dave ended his obituary:
“In lieu of flowers, please be kind to everyone you encounter, forgive someone who has hurt you, beg forgiveness from someone you have hurt, or hug someone close and tell them you love them.”
That sounds about right.