A Fate Worse Than Death

I never spent much time with my father; his death taught me not to make the same mistake with my mother

When her father died, she didn't rush back from Michigan to New York City. She stayed; she slept in the family house and revisited the places of her childhood. She visited the graves of her parents every day. She took naps by them. She made sure the flowers looked beautiful. She lingered until it was time for her to rejoin the world.

"What a wise woman!" I thought, as I read these lines from "Bobby Wonderful" (Grand Central Publishing, 2015), a book by former New York Times Style columnist Bob Morris about dealing with his parents' illnesses and deaths. Morris's wrenchingly honest book is a compilation of regrets and satisfactions, including stories of friends like the woman mentioned above, who struck me as a role model. When my father died in 2009, my regrets were predominant—but there were gifts as well.

I had never spent much time with my father. When I was young, he worked long hours in the insurance agency he had founded, providing for the family while leaving the childrearing to my mother, as many fathers did in the Sixties. Once I left our home in upstate New York, I visited rarely, never feeling at ease in the suburban quietude I was relieved to have escaped. Living in Manhattan, I stayed in touch, but I kept my parents at arm's length.

When I did return, my mother tended to do most of the talking, and the few times I really engaged with my father, I had to take the initiative. I was in my 40s when I first demanded that he talk to me on the phone instead of automatically handing it over to my mother. From then on, we had occasional five-minute conversations in which he would ask me about my activities with a forced but touching joviality. Only once I invited him out to dinner, just the two of us, and discovered his funny, charming side. But my own busy life took priority.

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My father was 80, and I was 53, when dizziness abruptly disabled him. Unable to walk more than a few paces without falling down, he became miserable and anxious, a workaholic deprived of his work. Because he was virtually bedridden and taking antidepressants and steroids, he also deteriorated physically. Embarrassed by his condition, he avoided contact with people other than my mother, who took care of him at home, agonizing over his steady decline. In the last year of his life, I saw him twice, brief visits that left me shaken. This frightened man was not my father.

The second time, on the way to take my daughter to college, it crossed my mind that he wasn't going to last much longer. We stood beside the bed, looking at his bloated, purplish face. He kept apologizing in a thin voice: "I'm sorry I don't have more pep. This thing has just got me so slowed down." After a few minutes, he said he wanted to rest, and we left.

Two months later, my mother heard him call to her from the bathroom. She ran in and found him on the floor. He died within moments. The coroner pronounced the cause a heart attack.

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I was tormented by regret that I hadn't known him better.

"He loved you very much," my mother said, when I brought up my remorse over the phone. "Whenever you called, he wanted me to tell him everything you said."

"That's nice, but it's not the point," I said. "I wish I'd been closer to him."

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"Well, you didn't make much of an effort," she said, turning from defending him to blaming me.

"I know, Mom, that's what I'm saying. I'm sad that I didn't try harder, and now it's too late."

"In that case, make sure it doesn't happen with me," she said. "Get to know me better."

And I did. I started calling her every week or two. She was lonely, and being witness to his suffering had softened her. I found her easier to talk to than in the past.

Meanwhile, I was having difficulty giving in to my grief. My father hadn't been part of my daily life, so at home, I could easily forget about his death. But whenever I went to see my mother, I would be miserable for days. After returning from one of those weekends, I found myself pacing the house, ranting at him for not having a funeral, which would have helped me grieve. The next time I called my mother, I blew up at her.

"He didn't want a funeral," she said. "We discussed it, and we agreed. I don't want one either."

"A funeral is for the living, not the dead," I said. "It's supposed to be healing. How am I supposed to grieve?"

"We both hated going to funerals. He knew a lot of people from politics, and I didn't want them all coming up to me and having to be nice to them," she said. "He knew I'd hate that, and he wanted to protect me."

"Well, I'm angry about it. I don't know how to mourn him."

"You should've spent more time here right after he died," she said. I had sat around for the afternoon with my mother, my sister-in-law, and my three nieces. I'd felt aimless, not sure what to say or do, and I'd gone home that evening.

"You're right," I said. "I should've stayed. I didn't know."

"You never want to spend time with me," she accused.

As long as we were letting our guard down, I decided to go for broke. "It's uncomfortable. I'm always editing myself for you. I feel like you're judging me, like you think I'm a flake because I married a poet, and we don't make much money, and I do crazy things like going off to India or joining a commune. But I'm not like you. I can't live like you."

Her reply floored me: "I don't see you as a flake. I admire you for doing those things. I would never have that kind of nerve."

That simple reassurance knocked down a wall between my mother and myself. I actually began to see her as a friend. Since then, I have stayed in closer touch than ever before. I call about once a week, visit about once a month. If she, too, decides not to have a funeral, I'm not sure how I will grieve—but I know I won't just rush home. My father's death held precious lessons for me.

Tags: family