A New Vessel

My father went to see his doctor on Friday, March 27, 2020. Only his housekeeper accompanied him on the short taxi ride from his apartment. He was short of breath, shaky, disoriented. On examination the doctor decided he needed to go to the hospital right away. He had already been admitted by the time I knew what was happening. And was already quarantined before I could get word to him. He died without me ever seeing or speaking to him again, 11 days later, on April 6, 2020, alone, in that hospital’s overcrowded Covid-19 ICU. 

In the months that followed, I kept looking at that short span on my calendar – just a week and a half, bracketed at one end by the fact that my father was alive, and at the other by the fact that he was dead. In the terrible blank middle he was unseeable and unreachable. Then he was gone. His disappearance felt less like a death due to illness and more like an unsolved crime.

In normal times I would still have had to walk the pathways of grief. People lose their parents. But in normal times I’d be traveling through places where others were gathered to help me anchor, in the reality of their physical presence, the shock and loss I felt.

In normal times people dress up and accompany you through the rituals at the funeral home, synagogue, cemetery. They come back to your home afterwards and tell stories. There are platters of food and noisy relatives and a sense of the group as we are the ones who will carry on. And then, after the mourners go home, you remember what they said and notice what they left behind. A scarf. A tray. I would have welcomed the small chore of reuniting the things I found with those who had lost something.

None of that happened. 

After he died, I could not show up to claim my father’s body, and thereby separate him from anonymity. I could not watch over him. I could not ensure his dignity. I could not shepherd him respectfully through his soul’s last passage, as Jewish tradition asks our burial society, the Chevra Kadisha, to do. I could not convene the quarrelsome family and require myself to open to the ways we are different, to soften, to seek harmony. No, no, no.

I could not walk through his apartment with its creaky parquet floors, look out his windows, sit in his favorite chair. I could not open his drawers and look for the letters I wrote him. No. The home my father lived in for 40 years would be sold without me ever saying goodbye to his deeply embedded presence and the time we spent together there. The way I experienced the end of his life – this deeply logical and physical man – lacked both sense and sensation.

Where can I put all this not-doing? How can I hold it? What do I do with something that’s both so large and so insubstantial as my non-presence at my father’s sudden absence?

I need a container, but I don’t have the materials. So I am building a new vessel. This one is made of no-things. Of these, I have way more than necessary. Like every vessel, its interior is hollow, waiting for what comes in. 

I can put in my rage for all the not-doing and not-being at the end of my father’s life. I can put in the way our relationship evolved from distant and inaccessible to tender and close. I can put in the time we had together – long at the beginning and short at the end.

I can add the sounds: his lion’s roar when his team scored a point and his dry, knowing chuckle at the wordplay he relished and his enormous unconstrained explosion of a sneeze. 

And the awkward feelings — the discomfort of being challenged by his rat-a-tat interrogations of any life plan I ever proposed. And the startling progress, too. Like the weird habit he acquired, late in life, of signifying “I love you” by saying just one abrupt word, “Love.” with a distinct period after it, at the end of a phone call, leaving the “I” and the “you” implied.

“Love.” he’d say.

A no-frills telegraph message to acknowledge our bond, truncated because you pay by the word. Imperfect and unfinished, like the vessel I am building. He wasn’t raised to say things like that, but somehow he choked it out.

The edges of my vessel cannot quite surround its center – like a group of people, fingertips barely touching, straining to encircle a giant, long-lived sequoia sempervirens. I think it will grow to hold more over time. It is porous, as am I. I choose not to glaze it; let it leak. There’s more going in and, as long as life carries me, more coming out.