The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Through the Vitrine
We called it the Dead Dads Club, something that I’d never say now. And they were a group of women that wouldn’t usually ask me to join anything. They were confident, bright-eyed, even in grief, with middle class childhoods and shiny hair. I was not.
They asked me to join them that November, as soon as I came back from bereavement leave. I drove home to Chicago from Cambridge, where I’d sat in my dad’s hospice room as the crematorium employees came to carry off his body in an unmarked van. I drove home in the car I inherited from him. All the way down I-90 his ashes played co-pilot. Once I made it back, sick with stress-bronchitis, I wanted to stay in bed in my little room with the gold walls in the apartment on Maplewood. But my time off ran out, and I wandered into the offices of the nonprofit where I worked with the women of the Dead Dads Club, looking hollowed out and grey.
Like me, the founding members of the club administered programs for our arts education organization. We were all similarly earnest, and bent on making a difference with a capital D. Three of us were white, all of us thirty-five or younger, educated, solid. I didn’t know them at all, really, and losing a parent relatively young seemed like the oddest thing that had happened to most of them. I’m sure I was wrong about that. The depth of my understanding of them was limited by my self-absorption, my naïvete, my special snowflake hippie childhood. But I knew for certain that losing my dad wasn’t the oddest thing that had happened to me.
There was no way that we’d be close after we were done with those jobs, and we knew it. But it was good to flop down in the chairs in each other’s offices, cups of tea in hand, and announce to one another that we needed a meeting of the club. It was good when one of them would look in at me through my office door where I was frozen, eyes glued to the screen of my computer, re-reading the same spreadsheet for the twentieth time, and ask if I needed a walk. Those moments with them were all the intimacy I could manage, the interactions as insubstantial as the ghosts around me.
When my dad died I was twenty-nine. It was days before the 2000 election. He died, then there was his memorial, then voting day, then my new mourning fog descended and I sat with it through that profound period of limbo for the country, when we obsessed over hanging chads and the Supreme Court’s decision about Al Gore. Even when the fate of the presidency was settled and business got back to something like normal, there was a strangeness, the last of the uneasy period of quiet that I now think of as preceding 9/11.
I drove to work every day the winter I lost him, aware that, in my mourning, if I did my regular commute I would pick fights on the el or miss my stop, or cry in front of strangers. I parked my father’s falling-apart Saab in the garage next to work. In it, I could smell the same smell that accompanied all the Saabs he’d bought for cheap, all the ones that had disintegrated around him as he drove to work, all sawdust and Swedish engine parts. It was like he’d curled me inside his big coat, against the heat of his body on a winter day, cigarette smoke and the smell of his beard and the little tang of alcohol sweat on his skin. I’d drive out of my way by hours, drive everywhere, to be close to the smell lingering in that car.
Every workday, I took the narrow ramp through the floors of the garage. They were named after the commodities sold at the nearby Chicago Board of Trade—wheat, corn, soybeans, hogs, silver, gold, all the way up to platinum on the top floor, where I could stand in the cold air and see steam pouring from the chimneys on the roofs of the Loop buildings in the bright January sunshine. I drove, the one-way ramp a comfort, and I counted the floors, hoping I could park on corn, my favorite floor, one that felt lucky and plain, anchoring me back in the Midwest, reminding me of the rural fields around the last Yankee farmhouse my parents rented when I was in college before their divorce, before my dad got so sick, before he died in Cambridge.
A month after he died, I was driving up through the garage when another car, confident and moving fast, suddenly drove toward me on the ramp, going the wrong way, lost but so sure of itself, stopping just in time to face me without impact, a bull in the dark. Even in that moment, the practiced weeks of making that same drive over and over again in my body like a mantra, I thought I was probably in the wrong, and sat looking at the other car, waiting for it to disappear like a mirage.
Later, when the spring came, I met the person who I’d marry, and in that state of unreal rawness, I fell in love, then the twin towers came down, and then I got engaged, and, much later, I got divorced.
It has been fifteen years, but I can still remember every moment of that year. It is cased in a vitrine, and the things I see through the wavy plexiglass are indistinct and as odd as that car going the wrong way on the parking garage ramp.
This spring I find myself describing that vitrine back to people all the time. In the last six months, six women of my age and stripe, six people who are close to me, or nearly so, with whom I’ve shared drinks or Thanksgiving dinner, road trips or writer’s groups, have all lost their fathers. It is like making a new club, one we don’t mention, one harder to organize in this age of parenthood, and different jobs, freelancing, being scattered. But they coalesce in new ways. One after another the notices have flickered on my Facebook feed, in my text messages, over phone calls, intimate as pillow talk. He’s dead, I’m here with him. Mom’s here. No, they never moved him to the hospice room. No, Mom was with him, Kate and I were at home. At seven. Yeah, I’d just woken up when she called. I haven’t showered. No, I was up with him all night, I fell asleep in the chair, I think I forgot a morphine dose. I don’t know. No, I can’t come to the birthday party, that’s when the memorial is happening. I probably will need a drink, but, no, too much family in town. Yeah, I’m not back all the way, and I might lose my job, too. I know. I know.
There is crying sometimes, but not as much as you’d think. These are women I know well, but then there are also ones I’m coming to know. Last night I spoke to one; I was ham-fisted and stuttering while she stood in my living room. She was thirty-seven days out from the death, beautiful and fierce, but looking like she’d been hit hard with a side of beef, bruised and wavy, shimmering like she was the mirage.
I say to friends now, Isn’t it strange, this rash of fathers leaving. In my secret heart I use magical thinking: this is the rule of threes, doubled, then it is the rule of threes tripled. Or maybe it is that we are all solidly in middle age. Or maybe this is like Bowie and Merle and Prince and all those other icons leaving right at the same time, some kind of rapture of my favorite people before the end times start. I can put that down to the turn of mind that makes me write, some small shift that I’ve got in my DNA, ascribing story and meaning, finding a good metaphor, a drinking anecdote, a reason.
I wanted a story with that last club, too, the one at work. I wanted a meaning for that car going the wrong way, for Bush coming into the White House, for my father dying before I had a wedding, or a baby, or a thing to show him that his pushing made me better, made me create things he’d give a shit about reading or listening to.
I wanted those women in the Dead Dads Club to become something more, for me to understand them better, for the thing that brought us close to be a meaningful thing, make us reach across what was different between us and see each other, through the vitrine, sure, but maybe it would allow us to see each other, wavy, indistinct, remade. But that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, something else did. What happened was that I saw myself differently. I saw them differently. I saw the car going the wrong way, stopped, blinked at the driver in the dim garage lighting. I thought I was the person in the wrong, then that they were, then that it didn’t matter at all. The club didn’t matter at all either. It didn’t bond us deeply, or even for very long. Our private griefs were our own.
There isn’t a story. Not for the way a wave of loss will move through your loved ones. Not for the way you will pull a stranger into your mourning, then never need to see them again. Not for the way a country faces strange days, or a daughter sits at the bedside of her father and thinks about the call she has to make to the crematorium, and then about the bottle of vodka she found hidden in the garage the day before, and then about her dad’s friend in Houston who told her, your father never stopped talking about you, even though her father had never said a single good thing to her face. There isn’t a story that makes sense of all those things.
Or, if there is, it is this: things shimmer like a mirage all the time, across the world, waves of loss and shattering and rebuilding, and we see them. We see them shimmer. And it has to be enough that we are here to see.