“Well,” my father said that Friday night in August, “it’s all over.”
He was calling to tell me my mother had just died. Ignatz, as she’d named her brain tumor, had finally taken her from us. We’d known this day was coming all year, but I’d always imagined it going differently—less blunt and simple, maybe. We were resigned that evening; we didn’t cry until much later.
When I was little, I thought my parents were a perfect matched set for my needs. My mom would talk me through long tearful jags and ask how my novel writing was going. My dad would help with homework and talk about ideas with me like I was a grownup. This kind of oversimplification breaks down with any kind of consideration, but I held onto it for a very long time.
My dad was my mom’s primary caregiver when she was sick. He did everything for her, as “everything” got harder and harder and harder. This isn’t the essay about the kind of selflessness and love that takes, but I want to recognize and honor it.
Both of us spent most of our energies on keeping Mom as happy and comfortable as she could be, which left very little for anything else. After my mom died, though, and after we’d cleaned out closets and put away jewelry and cleared all the cancer accessories, my dad and I had to find a new way to relate to each other. We didn’t share this big task anymore, unless you counted the ongoing work of grieving and getting on with our lives. We had to figure out a new way to be.
The part of me that pigeonholed my dad as cerebral and little else forgot some of the best parts of my childhood. Dad making me breakfast—Texas toast, hash browns, dollar pancakes—over stories of his days as a short-order cook. Dad helping me walk on walls when I visited his office. Dad singing hilarious and embarrassing dad-lyrics songs, parodying pop and opera. Most of us think of our parents in the context of our families, but every Friday that I wasn’t in school, I tagged along to “lunch with the guys,” my dad’s friends from work. It’s a gift to see your parents as people, in their element. You can meet this whole person that somehow you’ve overlooked at home.
My mom was vibrant about her emotions: I can’t think of a single thing she was truly shy about. Dad has always been more low-key, but now I see him opening up more. We have actual conversations about feelings sometimes, when we’re not watching movies together. But his style is action, and always has been. When he talks to you about a book he’s reading, when he makes you your favorite dinner, when he emails good links throughout the day, every day, that’s him saying I love you.
We both lean on each other. We talk on the phone—not enough, you always feel, but for nearly an hour at a stretch when we do. I free him from dog-walking whenever I’m back in Ohio. My dad isn’t Jewish, and he’ll grumble that even after 30-plus years of attending services, he still can’t remember all the words for the prayers. When I’m home, we’ll light the candles and drink the wine and break the bread. When I sing, he sings along. When he needed the Mourner’s Kaddish, we said it together.
For my mother’s stone-setting last summer, he put together a beautiful service. Everyone in my family came back to my hometown, two hours from anywhere. I’d spent a long time bearing up and helping out, but one evening, as we walked around uptown, whatever had held up my heart for so long gave out. I started crying, like I hadn’t at Mom’s funeral, like I hadn’t in the year since she’d died.
My dad found me sitting on the grass near the library, where I’d fled my siblings and nephews. “What’s the matter?” he asked, and I shook my head.
“Will you please sit down with me?” I said, and my dad settled in to hold me until I was done.