Lessons from a Dead Dad on Father’s Day

Jun 15, 2014 | 0 comments

Dad in recliner illustration

Illustration by Carson Ellis for the New York Times

In today’s New York Times, an opinion column by Josh Max, titled “My Father, Body and Soul,” provides a fitting Father’s Day salute, with a lesson on encountering the dead.

Shortly after turning 81, his dad had announced he would live another 10 years – not surprising, given his genetics (his mother lived to 93). To everyone’s shock, Dad died shortly thereafter, while relaxing in his recliner one July day. His body wasn’t discovered until three days later, after 72 hours of sweltering temperatures and no air conditioning had helped decomposition do its work.

He got the news from his brother over the phone. Thoughtfully, his brother told him to pull over first before he told him that their dad was gone. From the essay:

My brother told me to go there right away. I pulled myself together and numbly drove to Dad’s apartment, where a lone, hard detective stood in a full suit and tie in the blistering July heat. “You might not want to go in,” the detective said. “He’s been there awhile.” My dad would have liked this guy.

“I don’t care,” I said. “He’s my father.” I went in and I instantly knew why the cop had suggested otherwise. He’d been lying there three days with no air-conditioning. I couldn’t look directly at the figure in the chair. Instead, I looked at his swollen feet. When a bluebottle fly landed on his big toe, I turned away and wandered around the rest of the apartment.

He goes on to talk about great characteristics of his father, who had said he would rather die than endure Alzheimer’s, dementia or a disabling illness. It turns out he didn’t need whatever plan he made.

I checked the apartment for signs of self-harm, but mostly I looked for a note. There was nothing. Satisfied, I put my hand on the doorknob, ready to leave, then turned back and glanced at my father’s face for the last time as quickly as you snap a photo. His face was purple and his features had collapsed onto themselves. It was clear that whatever that was in the chair, it was not the man responsible for bringing me into the world.

It was both a blessing and a curse to see his body like that — raw, unarranged, not prettied up. The curse, of course, was losing my pops, the guy who had carried me on his shoulders when I was 3 and taught me to drive sitting on his lap, who got huge joy from each of his three boys and often said, “Christ, what would my life have been without you guys?”

Highlights of the blessing thoughts from the essay:

The blessing, as I see it now that enough time has passed, was seeing death up close in all its gruesome reality, burning into my consciousness. No hospital, no nurses, no embalming, nothing cleaned up….

In that last split-second glance, I was able to truly see the body as a shell, a vessel that must give out, releasing the spirit to wherever its next journey is — if you buy that sort of thing….

Seeing my father’s lifeless body that day was the biggest shock of my life, but it was also his last lesson to me, and it didn’t come from a book or a lecture: “This is what death looks like, son. It doesn’t come with your hands pre-folded, wearing your best suit and your hair combed.”

It’s an awesome Father’s Day tribute. Read the full story at the New York Times website.

A Good Goodbye