Doesn’t all our greatest art address the subject of death—its cruelty, its inevitability? The shadow it casts on our all-too-brief lives? “What does it all mean?” we ask ourselves.
Allow me to tell you: Death means that the dinner reservation you made for a party of seven needs to be upped to ten, then lowered to nine and then upped again, this time to fourteen. Eighteen will ultimately show up, so you will have to sit at a four-top on the other side of the room with people you just vaguely remember, listening as the fun table, the one with your sparkling sister at it, laughs and laughs. You, meanwhile, have to hear things like “Well, I know that your father did his best.”
People love saying this when a parent dies. It’s the first thing they reach for. A man can beat his wife with car antennas, can trade his children for drugs or motorcycles, but still, when he finally, mercifully, dies, his survivors will have to hear from some know-nothing at the post-funeral dinner that he did his best. This, I’m guessing, is based on the premise that we all give 110 percent all the time, regarding everything: our careers, our relationships, the attention we pay to our appearance, etc.
“Look around,” I want to say. “Very few people are actually doing the best they can. That’s why they get fired from their jobs. That’s why they get arrested and divorced. It’s why their teeth fall out. Do you think the ‘chef’ responsible for this waterlogged spanakopita is giving it his all? Is sitting across from me, spouting clichés and platitudes, honestly the best you can do?”
Also, don’t use the word passed at this table unless it’s as in, “Tula passed me the salt so I could flavor my tasteless tzatziki sauce,” or “I knew we were driving too slowly on our way to the funeral when the hearse passed us and the man driving it gave me the finger.”
My father did not pass. Neither did he depart. He died.
Why the euphemisms? Who are they helping? I remember hearing a woman on the radio a few years back reflecting on where she was the moment that Prince, the musician, “transitioned.”
Really? I thought. And when exactly did he become a woman? Days before his fatal drug overdose?
Also, can we give the whole looking down from heaven bit a rest? This, as in, “I’m sure your mother is looking down right now at you and your family…”
Sure about that, are you? Sure there’s a heaven right above the cloud cover, one that no satellite or spacecraft has ever picked up, and that my long-dead mother can peer down from it and spot my brother, my sisters, and me indoors, some of us with hats on, out of the roughly eight billion other people on earth, and without her glasses, because they weren’t with her in the box she was burned to ashes in? Because if that were possible, she wouldn’t be thinking, I’m so proud of my son, but What’s he listening to that asshole for?
As for my father, if anything, he’s looking up at me, not down. He was ninety-eight—“A blessing,” you keep saying. “He must have been a wonderful man to have been rewarded with such a long life.” As if it worked that way, and extra years were tacked on for good behavior. Any number of decent people die young. You know who’s living a “good long life”? Dick Cheney. Henry Kissinger. Rupert Murdoch.
“He’ll always be with you” is another tiresome chestnut I’d be happy never to hear again. In response to it, I say, “What if I don’t want him with me?” What if sixty-four years of constant criticism and belittlement were enough, and I’m actually fine with my father and me going our separate ways, him in a cooler at the funeral home and me here at the kids’ table? He won’t be in his grave for another few days. Is that the “better place” you’ve been assuring me he’s headed to—the cemetery we pass on our way to the airport? The plot with a view of the Roy Rogers parking lot? And what exactly is it better than? This restaurant, clearly, but what else? This state? This country? This earth?
No offense, but how can you be so sure of his whereabouts? You didn’t even know where the men’s room was until I told you, so why should I suddenly believe that you’re omniscient? The best you can say with any degree of certainty is that my father’s in another place, meaning not the only restaurant in town that could accommodate a party of eighteen with five hours’ notice, which, hint, it could do only because nobody else wants to eat here, especially me—it’s just that I need to keep my strength up. Because I’m grieving.
Published by Hachette. Extract courtesy: www.hachette.com.au