My Dad Is Still Dead
It’s been six months, two weeks, and three days since my father succumbed after a long battle with cancer. In the first few days following his death, I was inundated with calls and texts, everyone wanting to know how I was “holding up.” Though I regarded many of the sentiments as boilerplate, I at least felt comforted by the collective acknowledgement of my pain.
As the weeks went by, calls turned into texts, and texts to emojis sent through Facebook Messenger. A line of hearts. Or sad faces. Or prayer hands. Standard sympathy fare. After about a month, most people stopped reaching out. I get it. It saddens me to admit that I’ve done the same, not out of apathy, but of ignorance. I’d never experienced the loss of a parent, and honestly could not fathom the depth and scope of the grief.
What bothered me most was the idea that people seemed to forget. My friend Julie, who lost her mother a few years ago, said that for her, one of the hardest parts was the realization that life goes on as we grieve. When I returned from three months of mourning in Florida to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, I’d run into friends and colleagues around town and it was as if I’d been on holiday in the Mediterranean.
“You look rested,” they’d say, with forced smiles. “What are you working on now? Any exciting projects on the horizon?”
Perplexed, my knee-jerk reaction would be, “Oh, my dad died. Did you know my dad died?”
This would prompt an awkward silence, accompanied by a look that I interpreted as, “Is that still going on?”
No one actually said that. But I’d reply as if they had.
“Yep,” I’d say, nodding my head, “He’s still dead.”
Gradually, my reminders turned into a habit. I couldn’t stop myself. I was becoming that morose woman in the room every one avoided. I decided to skip social events for a while, but I still had a life to live, and everywhere I went—to do laundry, to the deli, down to the subway—I found some way to bring up the fact that my father was dead, still dead, to every person I encountered.
I felt ashamed about making others uncomfortable. About my lack of social savvy. About feeling bad. Why couldn’t I grieve gracefully? Why couldn’t I just move on the way I was supposed to?
Barista at the coffee shop: “How’s it going today?”
Me: “Meh. My dad’s dead but I’ll have a medium latte.”
Members at the gym where I teach Cardio Bootcamp classes: “What equipment will we need today?”
Me: “Just two sets of weights. Also, my Dad is still dead.”
Dude trying to pick me up at a bar: “Can I buy you a drink?”
Me: “I’d love one. I keep thinking about that time I watched my father die a few months ago.”
O.K., I may be exaggerating a bit…but just a bit. Despite my desire to keep conversations light, I managed to drag death into every interaction. Even the kind man who makes my falafel platter got an ear full of dead Dad. He struggled to find the right words while nervously squeezing white sauce over my rice from inside his food truck. When I noticed his discomfort, I backpedaled in an effort to ease his burden.
“Oh, it was a while ago. I’m fine. I mean, not fine but…. You see, he was sick. For a long time. He was very, very sick for a very long time and so it’s, it’s been…it’s been a…while.”
He handed me my pita and I silently walked away, feeling like I’d just passed gas, stinking up the joint with my grief.
I did that a lot. Apologetically oversharing, offering the fact that my father had finally succumbed after a long illness as if it cancelled out the need for condolences. But the most disturbing aspect of it all was my shame.
I felt ashamed about making others uncomfortable. About my lack of social savvy. About feeling bad. Why couldn’t I grieve gracefully? Why couldn’t I just move on the way I was supposed to? When a friend or colleague asked about various other aspects of my life without acknowledging the obvious, I told myself they had the right idea. That I should be thinking about, literally, anything besides my father.
But the opposite was true. I thought about him, and talked about him, and looked at pictures, and even carried an old letter of his in my wallet. The letter, written on March 6, 1971, three years before my birth, has nothing to do with me. I came across it while emptying his closets, and the sight of his distinct, elegant penmanship took my breath away. I tucked the letter into my wallet, desperately wanting to move through the world with his words on my person. I also brought back his cardigan, which remains draped over my favorite chair. It sits with me as I sip morning coffee, and welcomes me home at the end of the day. He wore it often while lounging on his favorite corner of the sofa, watching Wheel of Fortune and reruns of The Jeffersons.
Two days before he passed, I sat next to him on that very sofa. He couldn’t breathe. My mom had stepped out to run errands. I told Dad I was calling 911 and he begged me to wait until my mother was back. He said he didn’t want the ambulance to take him away before she returned. “I won’t leave without her,” he gasped. I think I knew then. He knew. He wasn’t talking about leaving for the hospital. He was talking about leaving.
I called my Mom, then 911, pleading to both, “Come quick.” As we waited, he asked me, through shallow breaths, to rub his back the way my mother did. His voice was soft and quivering; his eyes didn’t quite meet mine. Or maybe I was the one who looked away. It was hard to see my father scared, hard to see him prepare for, and resist, the inevitable. And so I looked away as I gently massaged his back with one hand, and violently dug my nails into the sofa with the other.
Maybe if we allowed ourselves to talk about death, we wouldn’t be so scared of it. Maybe if we didn’t freak out when someone expressed raw emotion, we’d be more compassionate.
Five hours later, my mother, brothers, and I stood around him in the hospital. The doctor on call suggested several options but the only words that stuck were “Your father is very ill.” Then he excused himself to allow us to discuss privately. My father held an oxygen mask to his face. In the midst of our discussion, he lowered the mask and whispered “M’aprale,” which means I’m going, in Creole.
I don’t know if anyone else heard him. But I did. I knew.
Later that night, he went into cardiac arrest. The next time I saw him he was intubated. For the next 12 hours, I watched him wrestle and surrender, all at once. I held his hand and spoke into his ear, “Don’t be scared. It’s OK. I love you.”
This is what I want people to know when they ask how I’m doing, or what I’m working on, or if I want anything else with my cappuccino. But if you’re caught grieving in public you might as well take your clothes off and run through the streets stark naked while you’re at it. Take that grief inside and, for God’s sake, draw the curtains. No one needs to see all that.
Except maybe we do. Maybe if we allowed ourselves to talk about death, we wouldn’t be so scared of it. Maybe if we didn’t freak out when someone expressed raw emotion, we’d be more compassionate. We’d know just what to say. Or maybe we’d be O.K. with the silence of empathy.
Today, back in my bootcamp class, a woman showed up whom I hadn’t seen in a year. Salina had been one of my regulars. She is a young, beautiful, West African firecracker who made me laugh and worked her ass off. After class, I approached her with open arms. “Long time, Mama. Where have you been?”
Without missing a beat, she replied, “My husband died. He had a brain tumor. It was sudden. It’s been hard.”
I held her tight, telling her how sorry I was. I looked into her eyes as she continued to tell me about her ordeal. I kept my hand on her shoulder as the rest of the class returned their equipment, the electro dance music still blaring from the stereo. I kept looking into her eyes as if to say, I see you. I know.
France-Luce Benson is a New York–based playwright. She is a Miranda Foundation grant recipient for her play The Deportation Chronicles, currently in development at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. She is also working on Deux Femmes on the Edge of a Revolution, which she developed as a Dramatist Guild Fellow, and a Djerassi Artist in Residence. Her plays have been produced by The Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Fire This Time Festival, City Theatre of Miami, Crossroads Theatre, The Billy Holiday Theatre, and Loyola Marymount University among others. She’s been published by Samuel French and Routledge press. You can read more about her at francelucebenson.com.