It’s late and I ought to be in bed, but I’m not.
There’s a lot I want to write about, but I’ve spent all day playing catch up and I’m just going to let this come out however and go to sleep without looking at it again for typos, word echoes, and stray commas or whatever, because I don’t think I can.
See, back on January 30th, my son and I boarded a train and headed east to Rochester, NY, for what’s likely to be the last time. My father-in-law had just passed away and we needed to be there for the funeral and to do some good for my wife.
He was a good man and a good father. He was upbeat and hopeful, full of ideas for projects and constantly brainstorming ways to help his kids get ahead. He worked in advertising–he worked for years on all those white and red Marlboro ads most people remember so well (the ones with all the cowboys and other he-men) but he also designed the Sandy Strong character for the Strong Memorial Hospital, gratis.
But he’d reached 80 and his health had been troubled for a long time. My wife and I first met back in 1993, and she was concerned she might lose him even then. That he held on so long is a testament to his good cheer, his will, and the sustaining power of having projects to work on.
He’d done a great deal of fine art in his life, and he’d always wanted to be a cartoonist. For many years, he would draw all sorts of single-panel or three-panel comics, trying to break into the newspapers. It never really happened for him; while his art was superb, he couldn’t really do funny. His comics were always sweet and somewhat harmless–his work made The Family Circus seem like a Jim Thompson novel. But his line art was always extraordinarily expressive and his paintings were bright and lovely.
When his body finally gave out, and he decided he’d had enough, he let himself die. Which meant that his three kids were left with his house and all of the art he’d made in his life.
None of them have houses of their own, and none of them have much space in their apartments. What’s more, not only did they want to save his work, they wanted to save their own; a father who spent his life doing projects would have kids who did the same, and the house was full of their old works–not high school or grade school art (well, not much) but art school projects, and post-college work: pictures of gallery shows, illustrated childrens books, canvas after canvas, and my wife’s “wearable art” which she did in the mid-eighties until she kicked the New York scene all together.
So that’s what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing: helping my wife and her siblings safely wrap up her father’s work and moving it into storage, then going through their own work and deciding what they could save and what would have to be photographed and abandoned to the dumpster.
I almost wish I hadn’t found any time over those weeks to go online at all. Yeah I managed a few happy moments touching base with people online, but I also went to Twitter during a particularly dark moment and complained that the modern American grieving process had become much less about the memory of the person you loved and lost and much more about a frantic scramble to deal with their possessions.
Which is totally fucking unfair of me and I wish I hadn’t. It’s true that we spent too much time going through boxes and not enough sharing old stories over glasses of wine, but what I didn’t understand then was that it wasn’t just my father-in-law who had passed. The family home had passed away with him.
The bank will be taking it within a few weeks or months (and the details thereof are not for me to share). There won’t be any more Christmases celebrated around that giant table with the annoying wooden benches, no more hiking a few dozen feet through a snowy wood to avoid a half-mile hike along the road, no more wandering the rooms–including the basement and garage–marveling that they held so many books. (They were avid collectors, and their taste and mine barely overlapped at all.) No more complaining that someone closed the perpetually-locked door on the upstairs bathroom, no more halubki out of the oven, no more sausage out of the freezer, no more walking around the room with a glass in your hand looking for a bare horizontal space to set it down.
No more gatherings there.
Everything is temporary. Even the time the family got to spend around that big table, laughing and telling stories, their voices rising from delight as the evening went on–sometimes becoming so boisterous that I had to go into the other room because it was too intense for me–even that had to end. But it’s a sturdy house with bad gutters and good floors in a really nice neighborhood; someone new will move in and fix it up. I can only hope that they’ll love each other as much. That, if they have kids, they will teach them how to work. Shit, anyone can learn “the value of hard work.” That’s a tedious, pedestrian lesson to learn. I hope the new family learns enthusiasm for the work they were meant to do, and the joy of working together, and perseverance in the face of every obstacle.
My wife wept when her mom died last year, and she wept hard tears again these past few weeks. She didn’t just lose her parents; they were her friends as well. She was incredibly lucky in the parents she had and she knew it, so this has hit her pretty hard. I’ve never heard her voice sound like it does when her grief is too strong to hold in. Standing at her parents’ dual grave just before we drove to the airport, the strength of her sorrow frightened me a little and made me stand very close.
But she had also cried a few minutes before as we drove away from her childhood home for the last time. The people and the places we love are all temporary, and we don’t get nearly enough time with them.