Published on November 24th, 2021 | by Lindsey Newman4
Losing my Father, Raising my Son
My father died suddenly of a heart attack the week of Thanksgiving, when my son was twelve weeks old. My mom was out buying shoes. He was able to call an ambulance himself, but the event was swift, irreversible, and catastrophic. He was with paramedics, the two dogs, his guitar on the couch, when my mom got home. And he was gone.
I remember vividly what happened. The phone call, holding my son, who was not quite three months yet. Wailing at the house, hitting the wall, calling my therapist, who told me to make a cup of tea. Calling my husband. Calling the friends who were closest to my father, who had known him since we were all teenagers. Taking care of Benny, our baby. Drinking whiskey and trying to eat that night. And the next day, flying home a few days before Thanksgiving from Austin, Texas, to Seattle, Washington, on an impossibly crowded, stuffy airplane, with my husband Steven and our fussy, crying three-month-old.
Stepping into our house, where my parents had lived for forty years, on a tree-lined street in a Seattle suburb, it was as if all the air had been sucked out. I knew we had been hit by a train—with no warning, it bore down on us and there was no time to move, no time to stop it. There was now the before and after. The wholeness of our family, and now the absence of Pa.
My father’s nickname in his twenties was Man Mountain. He was a 6’ 2”, non-practicing Jew from Canarsie, Brooklyn. He taught himself to play soccer and coached his three daughters’ soccer teams. He loved playing guitar, listening to Bob Dylan and The Band, and turning the music up LOUD. He loved the Seattle Sounders, and reading for hours in his big leather chair. He loved our dogs; they walked many times a day. He liked watching the neighborhood crows. He adored my Mom and me and my sisters. He liked his cocktails in the early evening, sometimes a joint too. And he loved being a grandfather.
Benny was the first grandchild in the family. A hoped for and cherished blessing. My childhood was spent ensconced in the love of my family: playing puppets and watching Sesame Street with Pa, hours in the backyard with my younger sisters, listening to music, reading. It was a lucky and nourishing childhood, and I recognize it as the great gift that it was, and continues to be.
My parents’ role in my life was outsized. Their presence, warmth, and support was the foundation my adult life was built on. Who would my son be without my father?
We planned a celebration of life for Pa. Everyone came. All three of his girls spoke. So did his best friend, Ellis, and my mom. We sang and played guitar: “Hobo’s Lullaby” by Woody Guthrie, and “Across the Great Divide” by Kate Wolf. I played his Larrivee parlor guitar, which is with me in Austin now. We had Manhattans afterwards. And good food. It was terrible, and it was beautiful too. We held it at a civic center on Lake Washington. A friend told me later it was so spiritual and no one talked about God. We talked about love and fatherhood, music and family. When I stepped outside, the late November sky was slate gray, the wind was icy, the waves crashing against the dock and mourning with us.
My mom told me that five days before his heart attack, when Benny and I flew back to Austin, my dad was doing dishes and crying when she got home. “I already miss Benny,” he said.
Remarkably, all of us had gotten to see Pa shortly before he died. He and my Mom were there for Benny’s birth, and they took turns and he came back to help on his own for a week about a month later. He said he wanted to see my sister Melissa in Virginia, so he flew to see her too. And when I brought Benny home to Seattle in early November, my sister Shelley flew back from her teaching job in Japan for two weeks to be with us.
What does our spirit know? I don’t believe in this bullshit that everything happens for a reason, and your silver lining can kiss my ass. And yet.
I struggled with depression during and after my pregnancy, and my parents were concerned. They told me, gently and straightforwardly, that I might need more help.
Among the last things Pa said to me were that he loved me, and he was proud of what an amazing mother I was. I cried into his big chest and let him stroke my hair and hold my hand in his, and I was surrounded by such big love.
In the weeks, months, and now almost four years since he left to go wander the cosmos, that big love is still here. I have cried through every birthday at some point—Benny’s birthdays, my birthdays, Pa’s birthdays. We celebrate his birthday. Pesto and steak, Manhattans and loud music. Benny loves The Band. And sticking his fingers in my cocktail to lick it off his fingers. He has a wild magic about him, an intensity like Pa, a big love.
I am pregnant again, for the second time, presumably the last. Another wild and magical boy. Another grandchild, one that Pa will not be able to bless with his hands. Will not be able, even for those few weeks, to rock back and forth and say “Easy, easy. You’re okay. I got you.” Will not send me off to get coffee so that he can hold him in his big arms. Won’t be here to wage war against the Texas mosquitos and yell “Bullshit!” as he whips the back door with a dish towel.
So I will be the one to teach Benny guitar. To play him the music of our family. To teach him and his brother about the best Sesame Street voices, how to make a strong cocktail, how to play soccer. It will never be the same without him. But I live knowing that all of our days will one day collectively be gone. Our time will come. So I keep Pa’s memory vital, and present, and do the only thing I can think of. I live with big love, give it freely to the people that make up my heart, and I will always let my sons know how proud they have made me.