Updated: May 2, 2021
The morning after my father died, everything seemed quieter when I woke up. The phone didn’t ring. The angry winds that gusted over 70 mph the day before had died down. The early spring crickets hadn’t yet started their chirpy love songs. Even the branches of the willows outside the windows, that looked like sails yesterday, went back to weeping. Nature paused. The world was at half-staff in salute to my father.
The question became how to go on.
My father’s death wasn’t a surprise. I had been anticipatorily grieving him for the last year and a half when we got the diagnosis and prognosis: stage IV bone cancer and less than two years left. He had battled throat cancer several years prior. After a couple of years of clean PET scans, the Sloan Kettering doctors in Manhattan pronounced my dad cured. Or so we all thought. We didn’t know that the cancer hid traces of itself in his blood, settling stealthily in his hips and lower back and reinventing itself as metastatic bone cancer.
There was no more discussion of a cure. There was only treatment to prolong life for as long as he could tolerate it. My dad didn’t know or understand the full extent of his illness. He was a Russian immigrant and since English was not his first language, I played the role of translator/doctor-patient liaison/agent and health care proxy - an awesome responsibility that bestows certain discretion. Since my father was one of those rare optimists, I determined not to tell him the full truth. I didn’t see the benefit. Our doctors tacitly agreed with me. None of us were going to lie if he asked about his prognosis, but we weren’t going to volunteer it either. I couldn’t protect my dad’s body from cancer. But maybe I could protect his cheerful disposition and leave intact a bit of hope.
I remember learning at a retreat years ago how we are all pre-programmed for certain thresholds of happiness and resiliency. We can work to try to be happier or more resilient, but to a large extent, just like most other aspects of our personalities, these thresholds are built-in. So if you’ve ever read those self-help articles claiming that if you would only “Choose Happiness!” you would be happier, but no matter how many times you forced the naturally downward-pointing corners of your mouth up, you still maintained your same baseline, don’t fret. It is not your fault and you are not alone.
If you are like me, you did not inherit my father’s optimism. And that is okay. I am not saying that I’m a downright pessimist - I prefer Russian fatalist - but I do tend to lean towards the idiomatic shoe-dropping. Which may explain why I took my father’s impending death so hard. While I held it together at his appointments - making calm decisions about treatment and relaying information to my father dispassionately - I dissolved into a weeping, slobbering mess when I got home. Especially when I would recite for my husband how the doctors could go after only some but not all of my father’s tumors. “I can’t put your father in a microwave,” our beloved oncologist told me. The cancer was in my dad’s spine and hips and legs and liver and pancreas, and it was spreading. Every new scan revealed more metastases. My husband would try to comfort me in those early days. He would remind me that my father was still alive and that I shouldn’t bury him prematurely. He would remind me of Justice Ginsberg’s multiple, successful bouts with cancer.
Yet all of my husband’s attempts to comfort me inevitably failed. Because there is no comforting someone grieving. There is nothing anyone can say or do to make the pain of slowly losing someone so dear less acute. The griever needs time with her grief. She needs to embrace it and lean into it. Surrender to the pain. There is no way out of it.
To my husband and to all of my friends, thank you. Thank you for trying so hard to help me feel better. But please don’t ask me what I need. I won’t tell you. Mainly because I don’t know and also because there is nothing that will make me feel better other than time. If you really want to do something, send me something. Chocolate-covered pineapple slices are a revelation - the perfect edible reminder of the sweet-tartness of life. Or if you prefer to give me something more personal, cook me a meal. I’ll never forget Alex showing up one day on my doorstep with lasagna. I cried when she left - from happiness and relief that I wouldn’t have to think about at least nine dinners for my family.
Don’t expect me to ask for a meal. Not because I don’t want to. Because I know I’m not supposed to. My perfectly American husband has finally inculcated in me that when people ask what they can bring, they don’t expect you to answer. You’re supposed to say "nothing" and if they insist then you’re supposed to say “whatever you want.” It took me decades of living here to internalize this concept. I finally learned my lesson after telling a friend to bring his famous strawberry pie to a BBQ after he asked me what he could bring. My friend was shocked and dismayed by my boldness. He had no intention of bringing what I asked for. It’s like when people ask how you are but don’t expect you to launch into how you actually are.
One day many years ago my dad and I were driving somewhere in Brooklyn. I don’t remember where, but I remember Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time was playing on the radio. Although my dad and I didn’t agree on all of our music choices, we had many genres and singers in common and Whitney was definitely one of them. As I hummed quietly the chorus: I want one moment in time when I’m more than I thought I could be, my dad turned his head briefly away from the steering wheel to look at me and out of nowhere said that he always dreamed of having a daughter just like me. I was blown away. Although my parents and I loved each other very much, we didn’t say it. It’s not the Russian way. And praise, praise is also not the Russian way. You’re expected to do well and when you do it’s not praiseworthy. It’s your responsibility.
He always dreamed of having a daughter just like me.
It made me feel so good to hear my father say that. I remember melting into Whitney’s pure, beautiful voice. But I also remember feeling a little bit like a fraud. I am reactive and can be unkind and jealous at times. Someone even described me as pathologically insecure. How could my father, the eternally good and optimistic man, ever dream of having someone as fallible as me? Did he not know me? Was he so blinded by parental love that he didn’t see that I wasn’t worthy?
And so dear friends, I am in the throes of a life-altering, monumental loss. A loss the likes of which I have never experienced before in my forty-six years. I am not okay right now and there is nothing you can do to make me feel better. Thank you for wanting to help. I appreciate it. But I need time. And if you really insist, I love lasagna.