One warm Monday morning last August my father died. The previous Wednesday he had been planning to see March of the Penguins, a movie he probably would have discussed with his grandchildren over the phone and video chat. Instead, that night he was taken to the hospital, after falling down his apartment stairs. Early Monday I leaned way over him in the ICU and held him as tightly as I could, and felt on my cheek his last, familiar, breath.
I know it’s callous, but when I hear about a man in his eighties dying, I picture someone whose life is done. It doesn’t evoke in me the automatic sorrow, the rage against mortality, that comes from an encounter with the death of a twenty year old, or a teen, or a child. I’m less than half of eighty now, and yet I’m older than most people have lived to for most of time: older than the life expectancies of many countries; older than my friends when we were young and promising; older than Mozart, older than Keats. Despite the extended American adolescence, by the time a man is thirty he’s had time to make his mark. Anything after that is bonus time.
But it’s one thing to read “eighty” on the obituary page. Reality is stepping into the place of someone who just stepped out from it, and looking around, and understanding where he’d stood.
For a few days after his death, I was my father. I lived in his house, I slept in his bed. I sat at his desk and used his phone to call his old friends, the ones that I had known as a child. (They aren’t any older now. Seventy to a forty-year-old looks the same way forty did to a boy of ten.) I learned a little bit about the strands of his life, after the fact, in the process of raveling them.
Even at eighty, my father led a more active life than I do now. There were letters on his desk from students, writers, colleagues. One journalist was writing a book about him. Another was waiting to talk to him for a book of interviews about George Plimpton, with whom he co-founded the Paris Review. He had been planning to co-teach a writing course at UNC-CH again this fall; he had been looking forward to teaching again at Bennington. His computer held some words towards an unfinished book.
It wasn’t an old life that I’d stepped into. It didn’t feel like a life that had been winding down. It’s funny to say it about a man in his eighties, but aside from the inconveniences of his eight-year-body, he had been in his prime. I didn’t just miss him as a father and grandfather then. I wanted to see what he’d do next with his life, what he’d write, and who he’d teach. He was a storyteller and a teacher; there are more stories and students, that only he could have taught and told.
Writers and teachers have friends who are writers too. Having a writer and teacher as a father means that his friends can express what I want the eloquence to say. Max’s lifelong friend Daphne Athas wrote me after he died (and I quote without permission, and hope that she will forgive me):
When Bland [Simpson] called the sun had just set, I had just arrived at the Pension room that I stay in, the phone rang, I sat on my bed and looked out at Sphakteria, the island across Pylos Bay from my window where the Athenians beat the Spartans in the 7th book of Thucydides. So do we lose our fathers. But it was a triumph for the Athenians, and Max would certainly appreciate that.
So do we lose our dads.