The day my father died, I was a long way from home. I was a long way from any place familiar, or even recognizable. But to be factual, I was five hours away from home by car or 257 miles to the northeast, according to my parents’ Triple A Trip Book, which they had consulted on the occasion of driving me upstate to college a year and a half earlier.
My father died at the end of my sophomore year in early May 1966. Right on the heels of one last grueling tax season, as befits an unwilling and unhappy accountant. I would have dreams for years in which I visualized my own private version of what I had not been able to witness. In these dreams, my father would enter our house through the front door in full working attire: in a Brooks Brothers suit and tie, handsomely hatted, carrying a well-worn but expensive leather briefcase swollen with papers. He was a dark-haired man, still slender in his early fifties, with only a little softening at the midriff. Here my dream would depart from reality. The antics of our family dog, a dachshund, were pointedly excluded. In reality, this ill-trained little beast, which reserved all its enthusiasm for the one person it feared, would complete several excited circuits of the interior of the house, sprinkling drops of urine in its wake, until landing on its back at my father’s feet. But my dream didn’t allow for comedy.
In my dream, events unfolded this way. My father appears at the door as I am fond of remembering him: an attractive man, a man attractive to women, the kind of man I’m still attracted to fifty years later. But as he passes through the foyer to the living room over the bare parquet floor—and I can see his shoes, good shoes, properly shined— the color drains from his face. It becomes evident that the briefcase is too heavy for him. It is far too heavy. His heartbeats falter and fade. The dusky light of evening, visible through the enormous living room windows that opened like doors on our back yard, drains away as well. It is suddenly nighttime, black and moonless. Then as my father sinks to the floor, stricken, an electric transformer looming through the backyard’s stately trees, bursts into flame, a lurid trellis of flame.
But the night before the day my father died, I slept dreamlessly, like the baby I really was. I slept in the bed and in the arms of a boy from England. His roommate, whom I disliked, slept in the same room, on the other side of an amateurishly rigged curtain. Students did the best they could decorum-wise in 1966. The university, still militantly in loco parentis, did its best to shame and infantilize us. But we had the advantage; our standards were not too high, and we violated them whenever necessary. I remember thinking back then that it was the same kind of advantage American Revolutionary War soldiers exploited against the British by breaking the rules of civilized warfare and firing on the enemy from behind trees. I had learned about this in high school and, now in college, was beginning to make some useful connections. But my father would have been aghast, not so much at the sexual activity itself as at the sub-par conditions under which it took place.
Loren, the boy from England, was a wan but intriguing creature, far from home and forlorn, with an appealing mop of British-boy hair. By American standards he had courtly manners, an excellent vocabulary, a Welsh connection that put me in mind of Dylan Thomas, a cultivated air about him that included an ability to quote poetry—in England they made you memorize Shakespeare and Wordsworth—and, of course, the accent. He also seemed to know something about wine, which was very impressive to a girl like me, whose parents rarely drank and who had little experience with alcohol. He was, all things considered, something new on a menu that I was creating ad hoc now that I’d been launched out of suburban girlhood and set loose in the brave new world of 1966.
Loren’s roommate, whose snoring was almost forceful enough to inflate the thin cotton sheet of Indian paisley that hung between him and the two of us, slept alone. I never saw him with a girl and couldn’t really imagine him actually dating, relating to, or even seducing an ordinary coed. He was more the type to get with some girl from town just before she passed out drunk in a fraternity basement, or maybe even a prostitute. He exuded menace, sexual and physical. He was older, in his late twenties, burly, taciturn, and, most alienatingly, a Vietnam vet. (We were all in the throes of learning the truth—or, for some of us, revising our truth—about Vietnam.) He basically ignored us. He communicated with Loren only so as to make it possible to share space without coming to blows. Of course, it wasn’t really possible to imagine Loren in a fight. The university had thrown Dan and Loren together in the same dorm room because they shared what you might call non-typical student profiles. Their non-typicality was all they had in common.
The call came a little after seven. Students didn’t have personal phones back then; we relied on shared phones in the halls of our dorms or frat houses or apartments. Some guy from down Loren’s corridor, probably from the room next to the phone (and he was annoyed because his room was nearest to the phone and he always ended up answering it for everyone else, and anyway it was early in the morning) was banging on the door to our room. Loren answered it; I could hear Dan muttering and groaning ominously on the other side of the curtain. Then Loren came back into the room, looking especially pale. “It’s Susan, for you,” he said. “They’re looking for you. You need to call your mother right away. She’s looking for you. It’s some sort of emergency.”
Susan was my roommate back at the women’s dorm where I had presumably spent the night. She covered for me; this was the era in American colleges of parietal hours, curfews, and, at least in the women’s dorms, vigilant housemothers and mentors. I was afraid to use the boys’ dorm phone, it was too public, so Loren and I jumped back into our clothing from the night before and slipped quietly down the hall, down a flight of stairs and out into the dorm parking lot. He had a racy little green MG, a stick shift, and he drove me back to the women’s side of the campus. He had promised to teach me how to drive. It was spring, but still chilly in the morning. The surface of the MG was wet with dew, and when he cranked back the roof, the wind riffled through his thick, honey-colored hair. I wasn’t very reactive, just quiet, steeling myself. He dropped me off in front of my own dorm, which, unlike its male counterparts, was traditionally designed and graciously landscaped. Tulips were blooming in the flower beds, and the sweet smells of breakfast, coffee and cinnamon, wafted through the sunny reception areas off the dining room. I rushed upstairs and knocked on Susan’s door. She opened it, wide-eyed. “I’m here,” I said, and then turned back into the hall to make my phone call.
My mother answered the phone herself, all those miles away. It seemed like a very great distance back then. She said, “Something has happened to your father.”
I understood at once that something meant something unnameably bad, and immediately did what my mother always resented my doing; I took the vague, negative thing that she had taken care to leave loose between us and closed on it verbally. My father’s health had not been good. He had suffered two mild heart attacks within the last four years, and the second time an ambulance had been called. “Is he dead?” I asked, barely audibly, pressing my lips to the telephone receiver, almost tasting it.
For a moment my mother said nothing. Then she gathered herself back up. “This morning,” she conceded. “In the hospital. We called an ambulance at four, he was hurting so bad. In the ambulance, he was still able to talk.” Here her voice dropped. “They lost him at the hospital. He just slipped away.”
Again a brief silence.
“You need to come home right now,” I heard her resume. “Your aunt and uncle are here already. What do you need to get here?”
For a moment I felt helpless and saw myself as a child incapable of making arrangements. Then, very decisively, I said, “Loren will take me.” I don’t know why I was so sure. “He’ll drive me. We can leave now, I can be home by midday.”
So, first there was the blank shock, and then an unexpected sense of elation. I had suddenly awed my roommate and commandeered my boyfriend’s car and services for the day. I had been set apart. The word consecrated came to mind. After an awkward hug, Susan shadowed me faithfully, quietly, helping me pack a suitcase. I was not crying and barely talking, and perhaps that made it hard for her. I told her that after I was gone she could let others know what had happened. I felt very concentrated and decisive, though that proved to be an illusion. I really had no idea how to behave.
In my world, fathers didn’t die until they were old men with grown grandchildren. But my father was not an old man to me. He was still very much my protector, my standard of male attractiveness and virtue, my judge, and also my nemesis. We both liked to talk and argue. We had most recently argued about Vietnam. He was a tough opponent, but not intractable. I’d begun to feel that he respected my opinions, adult-to-adult, and that he even approved, finally, of my appearance. I’d taken up smoking, and though he’d been told to quit for the sake of his health, I could tell that he liked the way I looked in a good suit with high heels and a cigarette. I was seeing us as a team, myself in the foreground and my father standing back a little, but steadying. He would provide a tempering perspective, I would bring the news. We fought whenever we disappointed each other, but I was not a rebellious or estranged daughter. I thought too highly of him for that.
Loren was so kind to me that day. He was usually kind and solicitous, but fear made him even more so on this occasion. He made sure I was comfortable in his little car. Did I want the top up or down? Was the wind too much? Did I need to stop on the road? Would I care for some coffee? Lunch? He didn’t touch me and he didn’t try to make conversation. I was very grateful. I even felt free enough to let a few tears escape. I wasn’t sure how many I had in there.
I think now that he might have made someone a very good husband. He was much more solicitous of me than most of his successors. I was thinking then that we were about to experience something deep and unexpected together.
We were sailing through the Catskills on a winding two-lane road when a cop pulled us over. We’d been doing well over seventy.
He gave the car a good look-see. “Speeding,” he said.
Loren explained diplomatically in his British accent, “Officer, I know, and I’m very sorry. But, you see, there’s been a death in my friend’s family. Her father. I’m trying to get her home as quickly as possible.”
The cop was already writing out the ticket. He was a man of few words. “Won’t take long,” he said.
I raised my sunglasses and fixed my eyes on the policeman, but there was nothing adequately devastated in my face to sway him from his duty.
“I’ll pay,” I told Loren as we pulled away. “It’s not your fault.” I knew he had problems with money, sporty car notwithstanding. He’d been looking a bit crestfallen, but then he very lightly patted the back of my nearer hand.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, manning up.
By noon the traffic had thickened, and the monotonous upstate countryside had given way to alternating bands of affluent suburban neighborhoods and ex-urban blight surrounding the city. It was early afternoon when we pulled up in front of my parents’ house. I wasn’t sure that I still considered it my house, not that I had any other.
There were automobiles, only some of which I could identify, parked on the street in front of the house and in the driveway behind my parents’ Oldsmobile, the one that my father had tried to teach me to drive. He had not been an especially patient teacher or a calm passenger, and I had failed my first driving test and never gone back for a retest. I knew I wouldn’t get much use of the car anyway, and I didn’t like the way it seemed to idle at fifteen miles per hour, lurching sickeningly forward every time I eased my foot off the brake. I didn’t like my father being irascible with me, either. I felt more independent getting lifts from friends than negotiating privileges with my parents.
I turned to Loren. “Everyone is here,” I said lamely. Neither of us had any idea what was required. I cast around and asked him, “Do you want to park and come in?” I was already way ahead of myself, trying to make out the gathered company inside, the relatives and friends, a few of whose names or even faces I might have forgotten, and in their anxious, protective midst, my mother, with my younger sister at her side. Would there be tears? I hadn’t shed one yet. But Lauren was white as a sheet. He had never met a soul in my family. Who can say what he’d expected my family home to look like? The thought of bringing him in any closer suddenly terrified me, and I could see he was terrified. too.
He said what I wanted to hear, and he tried to make it sound decisive, but he was entirely too pale. “You go on in. This isn’t the place for me. You need to be with your family.”
He helped me lift my suitcase from the car and then stood there awkwardly. In an instant he had been transformed into a stranger, or at least an outsider. But I was moving—no, I was being moved—too fast to do anything more than kiss him lightly and say, “Thank you so much.” I promised him I would call. I believe I did, a day or two later, and then when I returned to school to take exams at the end of the semester, I broke it off.
The inner circles of the clan had already gathered: the aunt and uncle who were closest to my mother, a few of my mother’s cousins who lived nearby, my mother’s best friend, already a widow herself, several other friends, and a down-the-street neighbor with whom my mother had recently grown closer. It seemed strange not to see my father there, as well. The family dog that had so effusively greeted him on his return home every workday evening throughout my childhood suddenly seemed missing, too. It had died three years earlier.
The crowd grew quiet when I entered the house. I felt myself an object of respect and concern, but I really didn’t know how to behave under the circumstances. “Alexa,” someone said softly. “You’re here.” I was a militant believer in behaving naturally, but my problem was that I didn’t feel anything natural suggesting itself. I simply stood still until my mother came towards me and embraced me. My fifteen-year-old sister hovered behind her, looking as if she needed to be hugged, too, so I obliged.
Both my mother and sister were red-eyed. I felt myself tear up a little in reflex sympathy, the kind I sometimes experienced when watching a movie in which someone was weeping. The tears welled up, but didn’t go anywhere, didn’t even slip down my cheeks. Everyone seemed to be watching. Even I seemed to be watching. My mother understood this and ushered me out of the foyer, down the hall, and into the privacy of the master bedroom. My sister followed behind her like a shadow. As my mother closed the door behind the three of us, I became aware of the hastily made-up bed beyond her. My father— conscious then? already unconscious? I didn’t know— had been lifted out of that bed only hours before by ambulance medics. I tried to picture it and failed. I lacked so many details. I was here now, so soon afterwards, but there was a big hole, a missing space at the heart of it. I had not been there when it happened. I felt marked by this, somehow, as if there were a visible smudge on my forehead, the kind I’d seen on Catholic friends observing Ash Wednesday.
My mother hugged me again and began to fill in those details, but I was not able to listen or absorb what she was saying.
People began to take charge. Someone put a lunch plate together for me. My uncle, who was my mother’s brother, and his wife, orchestrated events in consultation with my mother. A rabbi arrived to lay down some guidelines and provide venues and scheduling. The funeral home managed the disposition of the body and attention to legal documents. Under my aunt’s direction, a cadre of women organized themselves to feed us and clean up afterwards. A funeral date materialized; the event began to take shape. The funeral was set for the morning after next. And then we would sit shiva, for three days at least. My father’s younger brother drove my elderly grandparents out from the city, and my mother’s mother joined her at our house. My father’s mother behaved strangely, as if she were responding to the protocol of a foreign country; she keened and sighed, walked unsteadily, and even seemed to faint against her younger son. I was offended by her behavior without understanding it or even trying to. For years she had aggravated my father. At one point, I overheard her moaning, “Why did this happen to me?” and I felt a shudder of revulsion. My grandfather, his watery blue eyes set too deep in their sockets to be read, barely spoke at all. He seemed smaller and lighter than ever, as if he might blow away. His personality over the years had become so withdrawn that I was no longer certain he knew what was going on around him.
I drifted through the front rooms of the house as if, like my grandfather, I too could be carried along on arbitrary eddies of air. I was hugged repeatedly by friends and relatives, sometimes wordlessly, but more often not. The rabbi reminded me that if I needed to speak to him privately, he would be available. When I was at a loss, I learned, I could simply retire to the back of the house in the bedroom that was still mine. I sat on the edge of the bed, surrounded by reminders of high school and childhood: my books; the not very portable typewriter I couldn’t lug to college; a desiccated corsage from my senior prom still propped in its original box; stuffed toys, kittens and lambs, either used up, their seams splitting and their fur matted, or neglected and sadly pristine under a layer of dust; a few sloppily hung high school pennants that now embarrassed me and that I’d meant to take down and discard. I discovered I could soothe myself by singing softly under my breath. I favored folk songs about broken love affairs and friendships from parts of the country I’d never visited. They were the songs of rougher people than my own, people who knew how to get in real trouble and suffer:
Never had no money
To pay his room and board
He was a friend of mine.
I wished I could sing out louder. Later, during the shiva, when the hours of public mourning were more defined and when I could rely on an interval of real privacy, I would get my wish.
But it was still mid-afternoon on that first day, the day my father died, when I realized I had not packed my one good suit. It was a very dark navy blue suit, a well-made, stylish suit that fitted me beautifully. My father, who had only approved of me in conservative dress and who hadn’t anticipated the riotous sixties or come to grips with its sartorial chaos, had approved of me in this suit. Anyway, I had nothing else appropriate for a funeral.
A sense of panic swept over me. It commandeered all the available but still unclaimed emotion loose in my psyche. I stood up and went to find my mother.
The kitchen was at the opposite end of the house, and I thought I would find her there. My mother’s cousin Debbie was at the sink, her square back moving purposefully over a load of dishes. A small knot of older women clustered around the kitchen table, arranging platters of cake slices and cookies. “Where’s my mom?” I asked no one in particular.
Debbie turned from the sink. Her short arms were encased to the elbow in my mother’s yellow rubber gloves. She could see I needed something, and I could see that she’d taken charge of the kitchen. Debbie was what my mother called “brisk.”
“She’s at the funeral home,” Debbie told me. Then she added, “What is it you need? Maybe I can help you.”
“I don’t have anything to wear tomorrow,” I blurted out. “I left my suit at school.” And for the first time I started to cry. The women sorting pastries at the kitchen table were all looking at me. I felt their tacit sympathy envelop me. “I’ve got to get someone to send it down here overnight. It’s important.”
For a moment no one responded. Two of the women at the table exchanged quick, cryptic glances with one another. Then Debbie said decisively, “It’s not so important. There are more important things happening here. You can find something to wear, I'm sure.”
My tears ceased as quickly as they’d begun. I would not cry in front of a woman who misunderstood and opposed me. But I was going to have my suit.
“How would you know what’s important to me right now?” I hissed. I could feel the full force of myself behind what I was saying, and I hadn’t even had to think about it. It felt good. No one in the room knew how to answer me.
My father would have wanted me to wear that suit. I turned on my heel and walked out.
I wore the blue suit to the funeral. My mother, at least, had understood. I called my roommate upstate, and she found it hanging in my closet and had it shipped special delivery overnight. I looked good. At the grave, I stood dry-eyed next to the heap of earth that we would shovel over the coffin. My high heels sank a little into the turf, but I managed my ritual shovelfuls without incident. Just once I shot a long steady look at my mother’s offending cousin. When we returned to the house to begin sitting shiva, the rabbi affixed a black-ribboned button to my suit collar and then ripped the dangling ribbon halfway through with a rasp. This represented a rending of the mourner’s clothes. I was glad that I hadn’t had to tear my suit. I knew I would want to wear it again.
I suppose I’d begun to feel that I’d gotten my bearings back and was learning how to navigate troubled and unexpected waters as the person I wanted to be. I was cordial but aloof with our many visitors. When the house emptied, I would listen to music, alone in my old bedroom, or play the guitar and hum or sing softly more sad, simple songs that seemed to express what I was feeling, though not very clearly, at the time. My sister and my mother slipped to the peripheries of my consciousness, gently and without complaint. It never occurred to me that they might feel my absence. They formed with each other a protective entanglement of which I was then only vaguely aware and which, though I didn’t know it at the time, I would never again fully penetrate or be part of.
And there were other things I didn’t know.
That my mother’s cousin Debbie would suffer a stroke two years later that would leave her paralyzed and unable to speak.
That my grandparents would all be gone within five years.
That death is the rule in life, not the exception, and that my first twenty years of feckless and lucky living would have to be recompensed. That when you are young, and for as long as possible thereafter, until it catches up with you, you will likely fail to do the math. And that death would mark me and set me apart.
That I would never see much of Loren again, or want to, much less continue our intimacy. Back at school about a week later, I summoned him for coffee and broke it off. I was not especially nice about it. He struck me as young and effete. He struck me as unpleasantly foreign, composed of some very different substance from myself. No man I saw thereafter would resemble him in the slightest. My partners had to be men I was anxious to please, like my father.
The one thing I did know was that I missed my father. In those first days after he died, my missing him was more an idea than a feeling, though I thought about that idea constantly. There were so many things I was going to show him, tell him about, explain to him— things I knew he would want to know especially from me about the new world we both sensed was coming. All that had been ruled out. I was still inchoate and he was absent for good. We had missed our moment.
And there were things I wanted to prove to him, things I hadn’t finished proving to him, and needed to prove. The blue suit had been the beginning.
For a few months I would dream at intervals that we sat and talked in a rose garden, each of us on benches on opposite sides of a white picket fence. The rose bushes were so unnaturally thick with leaves and flowers that we could barely see each other. We spoke, but our speech was inaudible. Then the dreams stopped, and his absence enveloped me like a light fog that just wouldn’t quite burn off.