Requiem: Week Two of Lenten Observance

My dad as a young man, probably around 18 years old
My dad as a young man, probably around 18 years old

My second Lenten observance post is, like the first, more reflective than repentant. I will get to repentance (although I’ll admit, regret has never been my strong suit) but today I mean to write a requiem, of sorts. Truly only a token, a small expression of remembrance but also some reflections on living and Lent and striking up conversations with strangers and Thursdays and food shopping and yes, dying, too.

This week is the two-year anniversary of my father’s death: March 7, 2013. He was 83 years old. He was as good a man as you’ll ever find in this world. I miss him, every day.

I got home two days before he died, but I wasn’t with him when he passed. My older sister was, so he didn’t die alone. Why is that important to me, do you think? All I can tell you is I’ve never liked the thought of someone dying or eating alone. Ask my kids about eating alone. My daughter must have liked the attention: sometimes we sat over a meal for an hour or more. It got more complicated when she had basketball practice and her brother a soccer game and we engaged in consecutive (as opposed to communal) dining; it seemed, sometimes, like I lived at that kitchen table.

I had nothing–nothing, I assure you–better to do. Neither do you, actually. It’s something my father taught me.

But we’re supposed to be talking about dying, right? It’s easier to talk about anything than dying, I think.

My father died on a Thursday, always my least favorite day of the week. That singular dislike started for two reasons. First, Thursday was the day for “religious education release time.” At something like 2 or 3pm every Thursday, the Catholic kids got bussed from our public elementary school over to church for religious education. (Who strong-armed and paid for  that arrangement, I can’t imagine.) In any case, I mostly couldn’t stand the other Catholic kids; my best friends in elementary school were Jewish. (I grew up on Long Island and was fully 15 or 16 years old before I understood Jews and Catholics were minorities in this country.) To make matters worse, what they took us out of was what we called “assembly”–plays by other classes, special guests, talent shows. Last but not least…nuns. ‘Nuff said.

Oh, and reason #2 for hating Thursdays: it was food shopping night. (Someone once told me that only east-coasters say “food shopping,” that everyone else says “grocery shopping.”) My mother didn’t drive (think about that for a few minutes) and my father and she ran a tight ship regarding budgets of money and time and, come to think of it, family togetherness: why didn’t my sisters and I just stay home? But we didn’t. Instead, every Thursday night we all rushed through a dinner of leftovers (we went food shopping once a week–that’s it, with only the very occasional exception of being sent to the corner store for a pound of chuck chopped). After dinner my father drove us all to the A &P or Grand Union or Pathmark (although my mother didn’t like Pathmark, certain that roaches came home in their paper bags). The best thing about A & P was the conveyor belt running from their basement to the main floor. I see those boxes riding up so clearly I believe I must have camped out in front of that conveyor belt for most of the hour-long, weekly food shopping foray.

And look what happened. Strayed away, again, from death.

My father died during Lent. I hated Lent for the no meat-on-Fridays rule (although for much of my Catholic upbringing the fish-on-Friday deal held for all Fridays, and not just Lent.) For some reason I can still taste the slice of bologna a deli man gave me on what must have been on a Friday in Lent, down the hatch before I realized I had sinned. Good God, that bologna was delicious.

Maybe by now you’re thinking it’s disrespectful for me to go on and on like this under the guise of my father’s memory. If you knew him, you’d just laugh. He’d probably laugh, too. And the bottom line is this: I’d rather think of all of us laughing than of him, dying.

Did I tell you he was as fine a man as you’ll ever meet in this world?

He was not a person to talk much about death, although he was fond of dismissing anyone’s certainty about what happens after you die with “So far nobody’s come back to tell us about it.” He loved a good argument and didn’t mind things getting a little heated over politics or religion. My father had a way–which my sisters and I see in each other, more frequently as time passes–of striking up a conversation with just about anyone: the man pumping gas, a little kid in the food store, and always, always, the friends we brought home. I can tell you with perfect honesty I never, not once, cringed when he did this. He was the best dad ever, we all knew it and were happy to have everyone else know it, too.

He cared about people so much that he was pretty indifferent to animals. Pets were tolerated, but as a kind of unavoidable (four kids can make a lot of requests) waste of food and human effort. Instead, “Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes” was something lived by, daily. “Have a little consideration:” this, too, I can hear him saying, even now.

My father lived in possession of the world’s most sensitive bullshit detector. Trust me, you did not want to lie to him. I didn’t, most of the time. If any of my sisters did with any greater frequency, “It all came out in the wash,” as he was fond of saying. He had a big heart, was slow to anger (but watch out when he chewed his tongue!) and quick to forgive.

He died well, I think: mentally entirely intact, asking about each of his grandchildren in turn hours before he passed. He seemed more impatient for death than afraid; while his mind was sharp his body had been failing for years. I think he’d had enough–and that’s a satisfactory  place to be at the end of a good, long, life.

The only problem is, we hadn’t had nearly enough of him.

My dad at our daughter's wedding, 8 months before he died
My dad at our daughter’s wedding, 8 months before he died