Monday, October 12, 2009

"Dad's dead."

"Dad's dead."

The opening line of Jonathan Tropper's new novel, This Is Where I Leave You, brought me back 7 years to May of 2002. It was a Saturday morning and I was at home in our apartment in Lincoln Park when the phone rang. I answered it in Josh's office--a small second bedroom cluttered with a deck and wall-to-wall CD shelves.

My mother was on the other line. She was calling me from a satellite phone from a hilltop in Albania. "Joe--Dad--he's dead. We were hiking...I went ahead...He collapsed...I ran back...Chest compressions..."

My father died of a heart attack. He was 55 years old.

The days that followed were a blur. Since Dad was the U.S. Ambassador to Albania and a popular figure in that small Mediterranean country, my mom needed to focus on honoring his memory there. She asked me to help coordinate a memorial service Stateside. A liaison from the State Department would be calling me to help. "Would it be okay if we had it at Dacor-Bacon House?" Mom asked, her voice strained and the connection crackling, "I can't think of anywhere else. Will it ruin your wedding memories?"

I assured her it wouldn't. Her next request was tougher. "Can you call Grandma Marge and the relatives?" Calling my nearly-deaf grandmother to tell her that her beloved son had died was unbelievably hard, but at that moment I was willing to do anything to shoulder some--any--of my mother's pain.

My sister and her fiance flew in from Australia. Friends and relatives gathered in Washington, D.C. My mother proved, once again, she's no shrinking violet. Where others might have collapsed in a heap of tears and sorrow, she showed fierce determination to get. things. done. She located photographs. She donated my dad's clothes. She made speeches and thanked well-wishers. Hell, she was back in the U.S. in less than a week, where she proceeded to buy a car, find a place to live and figure out what the second half of her life might look like.

Unlike the dysfunctional family in Tropper's book, we didn't sit shiva for Dad. He wasn't Jewish, so Mom went ahead and had his remains cremated. Some of them are still in a box in her living room, but thanks in part to my pestering, the rest of Dad's dust rests behind a bronze plaque at a cemetery not far from Mom's house.

This post was inspired by the Silicon Valley Moms Group book club. We each receive a copy of the book selection and write a related blog post (not a review). I haven't exactly finished This Is Where I Leave You, but I'm halfway through and enjoying it--although it reads like an funny/earnest/uncomfortable indie movie script. Think a masculine Rachel Getting Married.