According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the death of a close family member is the fourth most stressful life event an adult may experience, after martial separation and tied with personal imprisonment. For “non-adults,” death of a parent is the highest ranked life changer.
I don’t care if your father issues are due to your permanent daddy’s girl status or you haven’t spoken to your mother in 30 years. It doesn’t matter if your mom is June Cleaver. Whether there’s a messy divorce, single parenting, or true martial bliss, when a parent dies, it doesn’t matter. It will change the course of your life.
This is my experience in four parts. It’s heavy, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s true.
Part II – Door-To-Door Limo Service
After my sister studied abroad, I knew I’d spend the second semester of my junior year dicking around Europe. I opted for Italy.
Shortly before I left, I had coffee with my dad and said goodbye. And I’m lucky. So few people get what I got. I had a chance to say, “Bye Dad, I won’t see you for a long time, and I love you.” A few hours after I said that to him, I had a tearful heart-to-heart with my mother. I shared my growing concerns about his health – he was a longtime heavy smoker and went sans doctor for at least 10 years. Teary eyed, I wondered aloud “Who would walk me down the aisle at my wedding if he dies before I get married?” My mother said we’d worry about that if it happened. Keyword, “if,” she whispered, assuring me that we’d cross that bridge when we came to it, was sure to be a long way off.*
On my second or third day in Rome, I found a Facebook message (Facebook, really? wtf) from my father’s friend instructing me to call my mother. I was rooming with my amazing friend E, and I turned to her and said, “I think my dad ‘s dead.” Simultaneously, my mother told me via gchat to turn on Skype and sit down.
10 points for my instincts! My father was dead.
So what next? What time should I leave? How do I get to the airport where I don’t speak the language? How long will I be home? Should I get a return ticket? What do I do?
Apparently nothing. I’d grown mentally paralyzed. All I could do was think about the recent “what to do if your father dies” conversation. I started to shiver. Classes hadn’t begun, and I already had to flee to the Cleve. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. One wildly expensive plane ticket later, I figured I was 20 hours away from things making sense again.
The first few hours are blurry to me. Sent a few emails, cried, whatever. E and my roommates hugged me, cried with me, and tried to understand (for which I am eternally grateful.) But there ain’t much you can do in those first terrible hours.
For a split second, I saw the same thought reflected in each of their eyes. One shared worry – how awful would it be if it happened to me? It’s a knee-jerk reaction, one I would have had if our roles were reversed. It’s even stronger when you’re 1) far from family, and 2) not the age you’re “supposed to be” when your friends’ parents start dying. It’s an understandable feeling, but that brief flicker or emotion I saw nearly broke me. I mean, how dare he bail on me when I was 7,000 miles away and felt all alone?
One sleeping pill later and time for my first major meltdown. At the Italian airport check-in counter, I tried to explain that I had requested a vegetarian meal. Apologetically, the women told me the request wasn’t received 24 hours before departure, so she couldn’t get me a meal. Poof! Defense mechanisms activated and I started bawling. Between sniffles and sobs, I tried to explain and the poor woman held my hand, wanted to help, but she, like everyone else, could do nothing.
After terrible nightmares in the penultimate row of the plane, I landed in Dulles and forgot my cell phone was off for six months. Oops. I left the security checkpoint to meet T (who lovingly schlepped out from DC for a few hugs and a cinnabun) but couldn’t find nor phone her. I asked the help desk if I could use the phone. The woman pointed me towards the payphones. I explained I had no American money and that “I wasn’t supposed to be here. I shouldn’t even be in the country right now.” The woman stared blankly back at me before saying, “Sweetie, you should be careful who you say that too. They may think you’re a terrorist.”
But I made it home to my mother, stepfather, sister, and amazing uncle (my father’s brother). I must have been delirious because the atmosphere seemed surprisingly light. Being the Jews we are, as per tradition, my father was going down under the following day.
The Rabbi came over to review the procedure and grab his feelers out for a few talking points for the ceremony. The service would be in the main sanctuary. I hated that. Now I had to waste time being terrified about a six-person funeral in a big, echoy sanctuary. He said the clergymen wanted to speak and we should let him know if any of us to say anything. This threw me for a loop. Jews don’t tend to eulogize at funerals. A few words, sure, but the service is usually quick, an immediate family heads to the grave briefly, and everyone goes back for bagels and schmear.
Between hugging my father goodbye and laying claim to his “valuables” (Ralph, a six foot stuffed shark and the perfect set of tiny screwdrivers) my not-so-deeply buried id surfaced, and boy, was it ready to kick-off a brief career as a stand-up comedian, doing only death humor of course. Yup, it’s a coping mechanism, but it was mine.
More terrible dreams. Woke up irritable and annoyed that I couldn’t wear sweatpants to a funeral. Have you ever been to Cleveland in January? That’s all I ever wore. And it was MY dad’s funeral, so who was going say shit to me about my outfit?
And that’s when I found the short-term golden ticket death left me. For a few days, I could get away with murder and no one would stop me. I could swear, watch 18 hours of TV, or eat an entire roll of thin mints and no one would hassle me. But, this time, I settled for dress pants. I mean, there was a limo downstairs waiting.
*Full disclosure, I will never get over my goosebumps for that conversation.