I looked down at my phone and saw “Dad” pop-up and thought it was strange because he hadn’t called me in months.
I assumed it was bad news and I wanted to ignore the first call because bad news makes me anxious, but it kept ringing.
I picked it up.
“Hey! How are you?” he asked and I said, “I think I know what this is about.”
And then he told me that my uncle Mike was dead.
My immediate reaction was horror and then I felt numb.
I was stone-cold.
Moments later, I reminded myself: that guy that you were hanging out with a few weeks ago, he’s gone.
He isn’t here anymore.
And that thought crushed me and then I could feel the tears start to well up in my eye-sockets and this intense wave of concern wash over me.
So I started to cry and kept repeating into the phone, “this fucking sucks…” etc.
My dad was stoic on the other side of the phone but I know he was hurting, too.
And then I stopped crying.
Because I was out in public in front of a restaurant next to a busy street and I shouldn’t be crying. It’s not fucking manly.
Then I reminded myself: feel these fucking feelings.
Because, one day, they’ll go away.
And then I felt a wave of shame and guilt because I knew that he was gone.
And more and more I felt like I hadn’t called him enough.
Or seen him enough.
Or spent enough time with family.
And now he was gone and the only person left to face that guilt was me.
I felt pathetic and lost and ashamed.
So I started crying some more while my dad was on the other side of the phone.
And then I realize that I had a moment, right now, to apologize. To apologize to somebody who I’d been holding deep resentment and anger towards. and that I wouldn’t get another golden moment like this to apologize again.
And so, I told my dad, “I’m sorry for being an asshole to you about all of this…” because I felt bad and like I’d been a shitty, selfish piece of shit when he needed it the most.
“It’s okay son,” he said.
When I walked through the door, I was shocked because the person who I saw inside the front door wasn’t the uncle I’d grown accustomed to over the years.
He was a much skinnier, hollowed out version of that guy.
Low-energy with a sullen, raspy voice.
Everybody knows that cancer is a cunt, but you don’t understand how vicious it is until you’ve seen it sink its teeth into somebody you love.
The high-energy, joke-fueled life-of-the-party that I got to know got replaced.
He didn’t have the energy to move from one couch to another. Let alone the charisma to tell another hilarious dirty joke.
I didn’t have any family in Denver, so I figured I’d spend the last Christmas I’d ever spend with Mike and the rest of my family in Kentucky.
But it was difficult because the big elephant in the room — his impending death — wasn’t ever anything we got an opportunity to address.
I brought it up a few times, and we got emotional about it but I felt like a piece of shit for even mentioning it.
Because it felt like everyone wanted to avoid talking about it but me.
I brought it up once with Mike.
I asked him, “how are you doing?”
I didn’t want the canned answer that everyone gives.
And we both started to cry because even recognizing the specter felt like a dangerous move.
Like it would push the timeline forward a few week or even months.
I left on Christmas Eve to grab my flight back to Denver. And there was a morose cloud that seemed to taint every interaction we’d had together that weekend.
We knew that, for worse, this would be the last Christmas we spent together.
I hugged him once, on my way out.
And then again, as I was heading out the door.
And I didn’t know a way to tell him because I didn’t want to sour the exchange.
And I said something like, “keep at it, you know?”
“Just keep fightin’ the good fight?” he remarked.
“Yeah, something like that,” I said, and walked out the door.
I drove back to the airport in my cigarette-smoke encrusted rental car thinking about that conversation again and again.
That’d be the last time I’d see him again until the day of his funeral.
Things that bring us together.
Over the last three or so years, I’ve gone to five funerals for family-members.
Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side, my great-uncle and great-aunt and now, most recently, my uncle on my father’s side.
At each of them, I’d seen somebody in my family or a friend who I’d not seen in, I don’t know, decades in some cases.
They say that the two biggest reunions are weddings and funerals. That’s fitting because they both operate on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum.
The most I’ve seen my dad’s family throughout my entire life has been the last few months.
As soon as we heard of my uncle’s illness, we
Places I’d never seen before in my life, like Yellowstone.
It was the first Christmas I’d spend in Kentucky ever (I think).
We tend to forget that we’re mere mortals until we’re faces with the inevitability of death.
My Uncle Mike stood as a reminder that we had an end date. And that sometimes that date was sooner than we wanted it to be.
So, I spent more time with family.
I called him more in the last few months than I had in my entire life.
And I cherished those last few conversations that we did have even when we didn’t have anything particularly exciting to talk about.
Because even the most mundane conversations are all the more vivid by the prospect of death.
There’s no “right” way to respond to a death.
My first reaction is almost always to be stoic because even when the world is falling down around me I try to ensure that at least I’m left standing.
The first death in my family that I remember going through in my life was soon after my Bar Mitzvah.
As soon as I got home from school my parent’s delivered the shitty news: “your grandpa passed away.”
I cried a lot, then and felt guilty and like it was somehow my fault.
Would everyone be okay?
Would grandma be okay?
What are we going to do?
A few days later, we were in Kentucky for the visitation.
I didn’t like seeing his body holed up in that narrow casket.
It felt strange.
Like, is that all that becomes of us at the end of life?
A few months ago, I was shoveling dirt onto my uncle Jakob’s grave following, as is customary among us Jews.
Surrounded by family, I couldn’t help but feel isolated. I looked down at his casket, as other people shoveled dirt onto it, and started to gush tears.
His legacy, his stories, his personality. Gone. Dirt.
Diminished to a sack of bones and flesh in an ugly box.
I passed the shovel off to the person who was next in line, wiped away my tears and walked away from the grave.
The familiar sound of shovels digging up dirt kept ringing in the background.
And yet, life goes on.
My uncle’s face was covered in makeup and he looked like something out of Madame Tussaud’s.
He’d lost a lot of weight leading up to his death, and so the body that was in the casket now was a stark contrast to the person I’d grown up around.
The visitation felt long. It was only a few hours, but it might as well have been a few days.
The next day was the actual ceremony, and it was formal and there were lots of Biblical passages quoted that I’ll never remember.
A few hours later, we were at my uncle Greg’s house.
A cousin of mine poured me a shot of bourbon and even though I wasn’t trying to drink that much, I’d drink to celebrate Mike.
Mike was a lover of fine bourbon and as I felt the familiar sting of alcohol scorch my throat on its way down, I glanced around the room.
Everyone was smiling and laughing, and nobody seemed particularly solemn.
How quickly we get on with our lives, I thought.
Because the next day or two days after, everyone will be back at work and refocused on their anxieties and problems and not on death.
Not until it strikes again, at least.
Later that night, I still felt hazy following the drinking from earlier and I was tired but I didn’t want my night to end.
So I was sitting on the toilet at my grandma’s house, swiping away on some online dating app.
And I connected with a cute match and we messaged back and forth.
But I didn’t want to meet up with anyone because it felt like an insane thing to do while visiting family for a funeral.
Because, for some reason, I wanted to continue to let the hurt seep in and ignore the world for as long as you can.
And I felt like I’d been pushing that off because these experiences always felt surreal.
Like, did I cry enough? Or too much?
Am I acting too jovial right now?
So I pushed off the outside world for a few more days or hours and ignored whatever other real-life responsibilities I’d been shirking.
“Do you want to be pen-pals?” I asked her, brushing off any potential meeting.
And then I deleted the app, left the bathroom and rejoined my family.