One morning in my 40’s my mother called to tell me my father had died.
Up to that point, people I’d known who’d died were more distant, either in bloodline or geography or both: grandparents, great aunts and uncles, a childhood friend, a college classmate I read about in the alumni magazine who came to an untimely meeting with a bridge abutment. (Footnote: growing up in Pittsburgh, people were always killing themselves by running into bridge abutments. To this day I’m not sure what part of a bridge this is, but there were evidently a lot of them in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.)
I learned of my father’s death one morning when the phone rang in my New York hotel room. I was there on a business trip from my home in California. He and my mother were living –or had been living — in Ohio. I was dutifully shocked and saddened when my mother called. It must have been my mother, for who else would have had the nerve to call with such news, and it must have been the hotel room phone, as this was before the age of cellphones’ ubiquity.
I cannot remember any part of the actual conversation, try as I may. She must have told me in the first sentence or two that he had died, but what words did she use? She was a carefully poised and deeply reserved woman, so she might well have said that he’d “passed away” rather than bluntly said that he’d “died.” I don’t recall, nor do I remember what I said back to her, though I’m sure I responded like her first son, soothing and competent in my lawyerly way. She must have been weeping, as she could not have expressed his death to me otherwise, but that too is lost to me.
So it was all over before I arrived on the scene, my father’s final illness brief and offstage, his remains tidily cremated, the memorial service arranged at the local Presbyterian church, my daughter flying in to join us, and me with really nothing to do but check to see that his will was in order and think of something to say at the service.
My father and I had hardly been estranged, but nor were we close (a middle distance that I suspect many a first son inhabits). He was a Scot, and kept his fatherly emotions on a short leash, and his own father had died before he’d had a chance to see how it might be done. He fetishized all things Scottish, and kept a big map of Scotland (which he hadn’t visited since his widowed mother dragged him to the States as a boy) on our family room wall throughout our life together. In his younger years, when my brother and I were little, he was given to bouts of harrowing temper, which he would express in all its fury without ever uttering a single obscenity. Which is to say he was often loud and angry, but never vulgar. There are worse things to say about a man.
My charge as spokesman for our family at his memorial service was, in essence, to skirt the sentimentality that would have made a liar out of me and a caricature out of him, while somehow evoking and honoring the better angels that we all suspected had been buried inside him. Already my mother had forgotten most of the last 20 years of their rather fractious marriage, during which she’d increasingly assumed the mantle of caretaker and disciplinarian (he would have liked to drink a lot more than she’d let him), and had skipped wildly backward in her memory, like a DVD on fast rewind, to early scenes of his courtly pursuit of her, his thwarted artistic pursuits, his love of Shakespeare, and his natty wardrobe. She remained fixated on these images of him for the rest of her life, an act of hagiography that I found almost as charming as it was preposterous.
As it happened, I managed the passage between the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of fact with the aid of a line out of one of my father’s favorite poems: “Dust thou art, to dust returneth, was not spoken of the soul.” He’d taught me to spout this as an uncomprehending toddler, to the hilarity of guests, and I thought it a fine filial symmetry to put it back in his mouth when he had nothing more to say, in front of a lot more guests. We honored him, and went home.
Much later, it would dawn on me that we should have had bagpipes.