Who He Really Was

Who He Really Was

You could write a pretty good novel about this.

“In the middle of a global pandemic, a man in his late thirties receives news that his father has died and named him executor of the will. He leaves the city for his rural childhood home, to sort through his father’s enormous collection of hoarded books, receipts, photographs, and music. As he works, the house becomes a physical metaphor for his struggle to reckon with his father’s complicated story, and his own place in it.”

Actually, the novel sounds a little too ponderous, too self-conscious, too depressing. Real life rarely gives us such perfect setups, and the ending would be bound to be either frustratingly ambiguous or overly pat.

Did I mention it happened in Lent? Did I mention I just had a painful breakup? It’s all a little on-the-nose.


When my brother called around midnight to tell me our father was dead, I felt the pain immediately. That was reassuring: the last thing I wanted was complex grief, ambivalence, resentment. I sobbed and howled and pounded the floor — good! — and then went for a long walk with the dog. I bought cigarettes, like you do when you’ve quit smoking and have a really good excuse to take it up again. I walked for an hour and ended up at a locked church. I pressed my palm against the front door and said an old blessing for him, the one he said over me when I left for college:

May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May he make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
May he lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Where was he now? The Church says plenty about the afterlife but not much about the details. I knew he was on some kind of journey towards the Ultimate. I knew that leftover things from his life could hold him back on that journey, and that my actions could help him forward in some undefined but real way.

I said another prayer releasing him from any chains of mine that might bind him. That felt good, and I went home to bed. I knew I’d have to say that prayer a lot more times later, but I’d said it as well as I could.


The day he died, I had said both to my sister and to my therapist that I expected him to die soon. I had been thinking about it for a while, and thought I was ready. In retrospect, I realize that I was only ready for him to die, not for him to be dead. Maybe to be dead for a little while, but certainly not for the next forty or fifty years of my own life.

The first time you fall in love or lose somebody, you realize that every cliche holds such a depth of emotion that you can’t believe nearly everyone has experienced it. You can’t believe they blast this stuff in supermarkets. “I want to be with you forever, I want to give you everything” — no, but literally, I do. “I can’t believe he’s gone” — no, you don’t understand, I actually can’t believe it, I’m continually trying to believe it and failing.

They say when you see the body of someone you’ve loved, you can immediately tell that it’s “not really him” This was not true for me. When I went to see my father’s body, even though his flesh was so cold, he seemed about to wake up, his features about to give way to one of the million expressions I knew so well: annoyance, fondness, interest, irony.


When I’m not writing class papers or arranging the endless logistics of his death, I clean. How badly I want order and open space! I sort books into piles, pack piles into boxes. I bulldoze heaps of receipts and medical bills. I cough at the dust and retch at the scattering of mouse shit. I want to make this place neat and spare. How my mother would have loved to see it that way! I’m sweeping floors and buying curtains.

Here’s his middle school yearbook. Here’s my grandmother’s wedding ring in a crumpled envelope at the back of a drawer. Here’s a handkerchief stained with blood from when he cut the skin that he complained was getting so paper-thin. Here are his pills. Here’s a guitar tuner. Here’s a lego. Here’s another box of envelopes.

If this were a novel, I’d come across something that revealed a terrible truth about his past, something that would make me say, “So this is who he really was!” Maybe that will happen, but so far I keep finding things that tell me what I already knew:

Here’s a scrap of paper where he wrote song lyrics to sing to my mother on his daily visits to the nursing home: You are my sunshine. Here’s a laminated list of the first names of his forty-two grandchildren, from his shirt pocket. Here’s a draft of a letter to the editor protesting an anti-Catholic cartoon. Here are the receipts for all the money he gave to my siblings’ families. Here is a hand-copied poem by Auden. Here are mounds of records by Bach, Brahms, and Bruckner. Here’s a star chart.

I’m relieved he died at home. I’m happy he’s not old anymore; he was so tired of being old. I’m glad the last talk we had wasn’t a fight. I’m grateful my siblings and I aren’t arguing about an inheritance. I’m glad he will never have to die again.

Later I’ll have time to be angry for all the ways he hurt me and grateful for all the ways he loved me. Now, there’s plenty to do.


This is a piece I wrote for him the day after he died.



3 Comments on “Who He Really Was”

  1. Tiffany in Alaska says:

    Well, what a tribute to your past few weeks. That photo has such depth. I’m sorry to read of your loss, his death, and as always — grateful that you’ll lay your sorrows bare. I hope your grief takes occasional rests and offers some relief. I love the song!

  2. Bruce says:

    Sincerest condolences! I’ve been waiting for you to write something for months, but I’m so sorry it’s this.

  3. Jordan says:

    Thé music you wrote for your father sounds……Irish?
    Beautiful reflection.

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