1. Fred, my father-in-law, died last weekend. His son walked into his apartment and found him dead on the floor. The cause of death is unknown, though there's no real mystery; he'd been obese for decades. His health was in decline. Last time I saw him, he was in the hospital after having his toe amputated due to complications from diabetes. But he was supposed to still be alive. Until that afternoon, his death was still theoretical.
2. I was on a bus in rural Virginia when my wife called to tell me the news. I didn't believe her, so she said it again, and a minute later, the call was dropped. I couldn't get Wi-Fi and the signal was so weak I couldn't text anyone. I tried to respond to her in all the possible ways, but I was in one of those strange few places where you're still incapable of contacting people. I wanted to tell her I was coming as fast as I could, but this wasn't technically true, and anyway, what did it matter? My instinct was to rush home and somehow save the day, but what could I do besides arrive at Fred's apartment and confirm that, yes, he was dead, and, yes, we were all sad? This was a useful reminder of my helplessness in the face of real problems; the world does whatever it's going to do, and you have no say in it. Your father-in-law dies sometime on Friday night and lies there on his apartment floor until the next day, and there's nothing you can do about it. You just ride the bus and when you get home, you hug your wife and tell her how sorry you are.
3. My first impulse was to write something about Fred. It's one of the only skills I have. As I sat on the bus taking notes on my phone, I quickly lost faith in the value of writing as a survival skill. And yet, a week later, here I am.
4. My own father died 14 years ago. His was a prolonged illness that gave us time to say our goodbyes and get affairs in order, to warn people, to try to gird ourselves against the injury of his loss. I remember so little about the days following his death, except that I delivered the eulogy, and that I was very angry at everything, and at night I would get so drunk it scared me and when I woke up I hated myself. Later, I wrote a book about it, and even later, I wrote another book driven by the fear of my wife's eventual death. Since then, I've written a book about a school shooting. If it seems sometimes like the only thing I write about is death, it's because that's the only thing, besides food, that I think about every day.
5. About Fred: he worked at La Salle, where I met my wife, and, though he was an enormous man, the size of an NFL offensive lineman, he was the least intimidating person I'd ever met. A different, worse, kind of man would have overstepped his boundaries trying to protect his daughter, using his access to every building on campus to check on us, asking his friends to spy on us. Instead, he would call her a half hour before stopping by her dorm room, then call again to ask if it was okay for him to come in. When he arrived, he would be carrying family sized bags of M&Ms and Wint-O-Green Life Savers. He would drive us to Wendy's and buy us lunch. From the moment he met me, he accepted me, and he trusted me to treat his daughter well. Later, when it became clear I would be around for a while, he began introducing me to strangers as one of his kids. When I had no father, he was there to fill that void. Some people never even get one father, and I was lucky enough to have had two.
6. This is where I'm supposed to share some anecdotes, to distill his existence into a few brief stories. One story will be funny and another will be heartfelt and poignant. Maybe the third will be a small moment that's somehow revealing of Fred's deeper character. Show, don't tell. Scene vs. summary. All that shit. I'm sorry, but I can't do that right now. You're just going to have to believe me when I say he was a very kind man who made the people around him better.
7. He had just moved to a new apartment, and the only time I'd been there, I was helping him unpack. Even though he'd moved several times in the past few years, and he'd shed a lot of his belongings, he still had so much stuff. He was a deeply sentimental man and had a hard time parting with his possessions. There was the flimsy plastic centerpiece we'd bought for his 60th birthday, three years ago. The carpet he'd been saving for 25 years, just in case he ever needed it, because it once belonged to his grandmother. The panoramic poster of the Milky Way he'd been carrying in his car trunk for at least 8 years, just in case he had time to get it framed. Christmas decorations of every conceivable size and shape. A series of file folders of incredible specificity, including Cable TV Remote Instructions, Tom-Fred Halloween, How to Read a Palm, and Snow History - Past Bad Winters. Two weeks after we unpacked his things, I was back in his house repacking everything, boxing some items to donate and bagging others for trash. The remainder is stacked in my basement so later my wife and her siblings can sort through it and determine which of of these things will constitute their inheritance. When I was twelve years old, I had to help clear out my grandmother's three-story house; she and her children had accumulated so much junk during the decades they'd lived there that it took us nearly three full days to empty everything. That weekend was, and still is, the hardest work I've done in my life. Since then, I've been afraid of leaving a mountain of junk behind me, have hated clutter and viewed it as a sort of prison, have tried annually to walk through my house and throw out anything I don't need because I don't want to subject someone else to sorting through all my odds and ends after I'm dead, trying to determine why I kept this newspaper clipping or that magnet. And yet, I felt impossibly sad when I pulled Fred's winter hat out of his car. I placed it on top of the Keepers pile for reasons I can't explain, except that it seemed too intimate a belonging to throw away, not when there are still loose hairs in there, not when it still seems like he might show up again with a cold head. I thought then: maybe clinging to every object is the only way to live. Maybe our junk is the thing that defines us. Maybe the only way to really know someone is to dig through their knick-knacks and garbage and see the things they valued beyond all reason.
8. The truth is, it doesn't feel like he's dead. I just haven't seen him for a couple weeks, which isn't unusual. That's all death is: it's not seeing someone again, for a very long time. Eventually, you see everyone for a last time, and you rarely know when it's coming. This is my final text to him: I think we've done 400 at 8-10. Tails on. It was about shrimp. Most of the time, your last words to someone are as meaningless as a guess at a shrimp recipe.
9. In the aftermath of the death, the procedural details are easy. You call the people you have to call. You arrange pictures artfully on a piece of poster board. You go through the motions of being alive because there's nothing else you can do. You tell everyone you're doing your best.
10. Okay, here's one story: when my memoir was published in 2010, I tried many unsuccessful marketing strategies, including setting up a sales table at a bar in Bethlehem, PA, where the Philadelphia Eagles hold their training camp. The book had an Eagles angle, and I hoped to intercept hundreds of Eagles fans between practices, sell out of fifty books in a couple hours, have a nice lunch, and head home. Fred drove with me, ninety minutes from his apartment, and sat there with me for five hours. We went home with forty-nine books, and that one sale was only because Fred had finally convinced the restaurant manager to buy one. One man asked me why anybody would ever write a book. Another spent a half hour telling me I was too young to have written a memoir, and he was the one who should have written a book. Several people asked me where to locate the restroom. Not only did Fred never complain about wasting a whole day to make one pity sale, but later he would talk about that day fondly, as if it had been a great success. The next year, he asked if I wanted to go again.
11. Fred's final years were a struggle, a litany of bad breaks and health problems, and every time he called, I worried he was going to tell me about some new catastrophe. We complained about him too often, about the ways he'd become a burden and the poor decisions he'd made-- eating badly, skipping his physical therapy, not applying for a new job, everything. We worried he would end up having to move in with us as he gradually lost his legs and his ability to work. We talked about the renovations we'd have to make to accommodate him. We dreaded having to become his full-time caretakers. As you get older, you spend more and more time complaining about your parents, their foibles and bad habits, even though you know their time is limited. You love them, but they also know how to annoy you in a way that nobody else can. The complaining is a kind of fear, that before long you'll adopt those same bad habits that annoy you so much. That eventually, you will decline and become demanding and frustrating, held hostage by your own character flaws. That you will wear out your welcome. Later, we felt guilty for all the complaining, for being so wrapped up in ourselves that we didn't realize how little time he had left. But that's an essential part of it too: the regret, the failures.
12. I got that phone call last weekend, and I wanted to rush home and I wanted to do something. I knew I couldn't save him, and I knew I could only do so much to help my wife, but what I wanted to do more than anything was to be there in the moment and to see him, to bear witness to his life. To say, yes, this man lived, and he was good. It wasn't always the life he wanted but it was a life still, and it mattered, no matter how you parse all the details.
13. One of the happiest times of Fred's life was when he worked for the Girl Scouts. He told me often that the number one rule at camp was to always leave a site in better condition than it was in when you'd found it. We don't get to determine how people remember us, but if he could, I think he would want everyone to know that nobody ever worked harder at following that rule.