My father died at 4:15 on Friday afternoon. He passed peacefully in his sleep at his vacation home in Key West. His wife and two close friends were in the room with him. My sister and I did not make it down to Florida in time to see him before he died. I wish we had, but I am relieved that he died without pain, in a place he loved, and surrounded by people who loved him.
I am not going to write an obituary. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked as an editor from 1972 to 1996, published a fine one (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/obituaries/20100116_Steven_Lovelady__ex-Inquirer_editor__dies.html). It’s mostly about his professional achievements, which were many and far-reaching. But of course, when I think of him, I don’t think of him primarily as a brilliant editor—I think of him as my father.
One of the difficult things about his death is that it happened so fast. He was only diagnosed with cancer last summer and after a seven-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy that ended in early October, it seemed he was in the clear. He died about four weeks after finding out the cancer was back in mid-December.
When I went to see him in New York right after Christmas we talked about the fact that we had not been close. We exchanged apologies and I told him I wanted him to know the kids better. The last time he saw them was over two years ago and he only met June twice—once at two months and once at twenty-one months. (I wrote about that last visit in my 12//27/07 entry.) He said he wanted that too and he invited us to come visit him in Key West, but then his condition deteriorated with such astonishing rapidity that he never did see them. When I was planning my trip to Florida, I kept changing the dates in my mind, pushing them forward from late February to late January to this week and
I considered various groups of us going—all of us, just Noah and me, just Beth and me, and just me. In the end we settled on just me. He wasn’t going to get to know the kids better and they wouldn’t get to know him. It was too late. He was too sick. It just wasn’t going to happen. Even my last-minute plans to have Noah interview Dad about his life or at least to write him a letter never came to fruition. This is the part that really tears me up.
“He got out of the god-damned ice cream line again. That’s what he did,” I told Beth on Friday evening after the kids were finally in bed. My father loved ice cream and I have many fond memories of him taking my sister and me out for ice cream. On one occasion, however—I don’t have any idea how old we were—he got impatient in a long, slow-moving line for soft-serve and we got out of the line and went home. I made a solemn vow to myself at the time that if I ever had kids I would never, ever get out of an ice cream line. I just wouldn’t do it. And I never do. I even use the phrase as shorthand when I’ve made a promise to the kids and something arises to make that promise inconvenient and I fulfill it anyway. To do otherwise would be to get out of the ice cream line. But this time, he didn’t decide to walk away. He was pushed out of that line.
I do find myself angry at times. Why did he smoke for forty-seven years, I wonder? Why didn’t he quit when my sister was seven and left collages of photographs of healthy and diseased lung tissue lying around the house and made him a offer that she’d stop sucking her thumb if he would quit smoking? (I feel compelled to note that she held up her end of the bargain.) And then I find myself irrationally angry at anyone over the age of sixty-six, anyone who has had cancer and beaten it, anyone who smoked and never got cancer. While I was feeling this way on Friday night, I made Noah promise me he would never take up smoking. I didn’t do it in a dramatic way. I just said to him as I was tucking him into bed, “Don’t ever smoke. Just don’t ever do it.” He gave me a solemn, wide-eyed nod.
But these angry feelings are short-lived flashes. Mostly I feel sad. And I have the most unoriginal thoughts sometimes. I eat something, or read a newspaper story and I think he’s never going to eat anything again. He’s never going to read the newspaper again. But why should I have original thoughts about death? Isn’t death the great universal?
So I find myself wondering what it’s okay to do. I was planning to bake a cake on Saturday morning—the spice cake from the recipe we used for our wedding cake. I make it on or around our anniversary every year. But should I? And Beth and I had a date scheduled for Saturday afternoon, our first date in almost a year. Was it wrong to go out and see a movie the day after my father died?
I thought about it and I made the cake. It could even be a sort of tribute to him because of all of our parents, he was the one who was most on board with Beth’s and my relationship in the beginning. His support around the time of the commitment ceremony marked a high point in our relationship. And we went to the movie, too. A few hours away from the kids and alone with Beth seemed like just what I needed. We saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and then grabbed a quick dinner at an eco-friendly combination salad bar/frozen yogurt place in Bethesda (http://www.sweetgreen.com/). It might seem like seeing a movie about a father-daughter relationship on the day after one’s father has died might be a spectacularly bad idea, but it wasn’t. Parnassus and Valentina did not remind me much of my father or myself. My father never, for instance, made a deal with the devil regarding my soul.
And he left me with some good memories. One of the best ones I already shared on this blog last summer. It was in one of those long beach entries you may just skim through because who but me could possibly want to read so much about the beach? Here it is: “I remember being small, older than June but not by much, riding on my father’s shoulders in the ocean, so deep in that the water sometimes went over his head. He was holding on tight, though, and it never occurred to me to be afraid.”
So now he’s gone, and the condolences are pouring in, and whatever remained undone between us will remain that way forever. I am very glad I got to see him in New York, though, and that we got to make our peace. He told my sister you really find out who loves you when you have cancer and on questioning him further, she found he meant me, among others. It’s something. It has to be enough.