I never had any doubt that my father’s obituary would appear in the New York Times. I proudly assumed that his photograph, lifted from one of the many articles that were written about him over the years, would sit atop a column celebrating his tenure as a leader in the advertising industry during the '60s, '70s and '80s. It would be a modest piece, but his achievements would be noted, honored.
When I called the New York Times obit desk, a nice young man expressed his condolences and told me to write up what I wanted to appear in the obituary and email it to him. The staff would review it and someone would get back to me. I closed myself into my father’s book-lined office, sat at his desk and, through my tears, wrote a brief history of his life.
As I waited for a response, I busied myself with the surreal task of dealing with his remains. I signed papers releasing his body for cremation, presented urn options to my broken-hearted mother and siblings and wrote checks to an unctuous funeral director who insisted that there was no rush to pay for services rendered as long as I paid immediately. I collected the handsome sand urn, heavy with his ashes, strapped it into the front seat of my Subaru and drove to the house. I don’t remember the conversation, but I’m sure I consulted with my father before I cleared a high shelf in his office and placed him there, among his beloved books and out of the reach of his great grandchildren.
Two days passed. Over her morning tea, my mother went through the paper. “Where the hell is the obit?” she wondered. I said I was sure it would run some time before the funeral, but that I’d look into it. When I called, the nice young man I’d spoken to earlier cleared his throat and said that the Times had decided not to write an obit about my father, but that I was welcome to buy space in their “death notices” section. “The staff felt your father had been out of the business for too long,” he added. He offered his condolences again and hung up.
Rage consumed me. The New York Times had rejected my father? His career was his legacy! The New York business community needed to remember what he achieved and mourn his departure! I called a good friend in publishing who had connections at the Times. He put in a call for me, but they wouldn’t budge.
“Sorry, dude," he explained, "but they said nobody cares.”
“I care!” I screamed.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter that the Chicago Tribune planned to run a wonderful, lengthy obit. Advertising Age, too. The Hartford Courant. The New London Day. I felt my father deserved national exposure from his home town paper. I lunged at my computer and looked up recent obits. I found one that was published a year earlier for a peer of my father’s who ran a lesser advertising agency during the same era. My call to the obit desk went to voicemail. I spat out an angry message, pointing out that if they ran an obit for this schmuck, they could certainly make space for my father. As you might imagine, I didn’t hear back, and I got no response to an equally hostile follow-up email.
My siblings urged me to let it go, but I couldn’t. I was obsessed. I felt that I had failed my father in this, the last task I would ever perform for him. And how would I explain to my mother that “nobody cares”? For 45 years, she had been the dutiful executive’s wife, a cheerful companion at tens of business banquets, convention weekends and client dinners. During another sleepless night, I decided to make one last pass through his files for pictures, letters, associations, club memberships, evidence that he was worthy of column space in the Times. Then I would send the evidence to those smug bastards and they would see that they were wrong!
Clearly, I had lost my shit.
I found old tax forms, unread articles and business papers, but nothing that elevated him beyond the successful Mad Man that he was. Exhausted and sweaty, I went down the hall and into his bedroom closet. Maybe he had files hidden behind his bureau, in a safe. Documentation of his double life in Black Ops!
I was rummaging through his T-shirt drawer when I looked up and saw my reflection in the glass of a hanging photograph. I was wrinkled, unshaven, pale. A ghost. And staring at this spooky version of myself, I had a moment. I won’t call it a come-to God moment, but it was close. My father was dead. Forever. And with his death, the scrim between me and the universe had been lifted. I saw that I was officially next in line for oblivion, along with the rest of the Boomer generation. The thought scared me, but as my breathing quickened, I refocused and saw the photograph behind my reflection in that glass. It was a family portrait, taken at my parents’ 50th anniversary party, the dance floor packed with smiling children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and extended family.
My mother and father were seated in front of the huge group, beaming. And suddenly, a complete peace washed through me. I caught my breath. All the rage I’d been feeling dissipated. It was as if my father had reached out from where ever he was to tell me that this was his legacy. His family. All the rest, the career, the accolades, the headlines, and the obituary, was just sauce.
I went back to bed and slept soundly.
Over breakfast the next morning, I finally told my mother that the New York Times wouldn’t be running an obit, but that we could buy space in the “death notices” section if that was something she wanted to do. There was a pause as she squeezed lemon into her tea. Then she picked up her cup, pinky extended, and said, “Fuck the New York Times.”