My dad died on May 29, 2020, at the height of the pandemic and two months after I was laid off.
His death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) had really begun years before, but it feels like that awful year expedited things.
He lived in Florida while I live in Connecticut, and I made his final medical decisions—and his final arrangements. I was naïve in that I had no idea he would die seven days after finally agreeing to go to hospice.
Why did I think we had more time?
When I got the call that Friday morning, I knew it was coming, based on my continued conversations throughout the week with his nurses, the social worker, and the hospital chaplain.
One of the last things I told my father on the phone was, “Your laugh is my laugh,” meaning that we not only shared the same sense of humor, but we also had the same cougher’s laugh. This is ironic in some ways since he smoked, and I did not. It is that laugh you have when something is so funny, you can’t catch your breath. (COPD later had that same effect on him, as well.) He was too sedated with morphine to respond, but he had breathed in response to my words.
When I hung up the phone after learning he was gone, I ambled into the living room and immediately watched “The Naked Gun” with Leslie Nielsen, a movie we had seen together when I was a child in the ‘80s. We were both cinephiles but enjoyed watching comedies the most. As “Frank Drebin” performed a series of familiar, funny stunts, my dad echoed through me as I laughed through the tears.
This laughter tempered the pain in my heart—which felt like it was being squeezed in a vise grip, an ache I felt knowing that my paternal anchor was gone forever. Leslie Nielsen and Steve Martin had ranked among his favorite performers, and I included these details, among other funny anecdotes he’d shared with me over the years, in the lengthy obituary I later wrote in his honor. As I wrote it, my dad echoed through me again. Laughter and tears, ad infinitum.
Laughter got me through a lot of 2020. And however personal this story is to me, I can’t ignore the fact that it was set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. In that way, I am one of the millions, globally, who not only lost a parent during this terrifying time but never saw them again as they lay dying, alone. There is a strange comfort in that, but it is also discomforting at the same time because, in some ways, my loss feels…unoriginal.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, “There is no such thing as a new idea,” which, to me, includes experiences and thoughts. Is everything derivative? Is anything unique?
While my grief is not particularly “new” or “original,” it feels new and original to me.
As 2022 quickly approaches, I think of the Golden Age of Hollywood director and choreographer Busby Berkeley. Why? He was known for his elaborate camera work featuring closeups of a dancer’s face, and then pulling back to a wide aerial shot, revealing dozens of dancers working together in synchronized movements. Their bodies created geometric, kaleidoscopic patterns—living, breathing art. I liken these images to 2020, a year of tremendous loss on a global scale.
We can focus on our own pain and experience as we move through the grief that tears us in two, but when we pull back and look at the combined experience of so many souls, it is like a human mosaic.
It is original, and that’s where the beauty is.