An old Pete Seeger children’s song* has taken up residence in my head. It goes: “Why, oh why, oh why, oh; why, oh why, oh why? Because, because, because, because. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”
This is the perfect personal funeral dirge for my father for oh so many reasons, not the least of which is that my father in his older years bears an uncanny resemblance to Pete Seeger. They are both of them old men of an age, with oversize glasses, thinning white hair, slightly scruffy white beards, significant noses, intense blue eyes, and weathered faces of good humor. And it’s not just their faces, it’s body type, and even more, an overall physicality, the way they hold themselves, gestures, nearly unnerving in similarity at times.
And then there’s more than just the physical, it’s the spirit: strong willed, iconoclastic, full on artist down to the bones. A resemblance so strong that when I met Pete in person, I almost called him Dad, that when Ethan peeked over my shoulder at Pete on the computer he said “Let me see that cool picture of Grandpa.” I know that when next that lovely Pete Seeger documentary comes on PBS, I’m going to bawl my eyes out, seeing Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
So it’s all there in that song -- the ultimate question, the ultimate answer, and the ultimate. Why? Because. Goodbye. Do I even need to say more? Obviously I do, because I am going to. My husband, Danny, calls it “long form” when describing why a conversation with someone went on for hours, and yes, obviously, I’m prone to it.
So this is my refrain now: “Why, oh why?” and it’s nothing to do with why he had to die. That’s my poor mother’s broken lament; bereaved and bereft, she has had half her heart torn asunder. I know how old and worn his heart had become, the unfair gift of living beyond the years our bodies were originally engineered for; the parts are past warranty and sometimes they just go. Ninety-three is a goodly long time and I would feel greedy for wanting more, a fact often pointed out to me by my husband who lost his father as a teen, never to see him grow painfully old.
So my big “why?” is not to the universe, it’s internal; for me, to me: Why did I get on a plane to Vermont on Friday morning when I knew there was a 50/50 chance my father wouldn’t make it till my return Sunday night? And any answer I can come up with for that is dicey. It reeks of the clear vision of hindsight.
The full on truth is that I do not know what propelled me to continue with my plans for the Vermont trip, whose significance will be spelled out in a bit. After I went and then returned in a hair raising, white knuckle airplane ride on Saturday through a huge nor’easter, my friends all comforted me with the common wisdom that while parents will often wait for an absent child to return before they die, they will also often wait for a present and care-giving child to leave before they feel it’s OK to go.
We can’t know what Dad’s process was in all this, his thinking folded under the veil of his infirmity. But I do know this: on Thursday night my sister Lois, Dad’s other daughter, was coming up to New York to be with him. Before I left I stood beside his bed, took his huge, gnarled, but amazingly still strong hand in mine, put my face inches from his and looked deep into the blue blue of his eyes. I knew he was lost in there often, but for that moment he swam up to meet me, not quite at the surface, but close enough that I knew he knew I was there.
I told him I was leaving and Lois was coming, that I would be back in two days. I told him my brother Bruce, his son, was coming on Saturday. I told him that I loved him, that I knew he loved me. I thanked him for always believing in me and always supporting me. I told him he was the best father a girl could ever have. Even if not 100% true, and my 20 year-old self would have howled at all this, it was enough true that at this point I could say it and mean it and give that to him.
I asked him to wait for me, but told him that if he couldn’t, if he had to go before I came back, that I understood. And I kissed him, and I kissed him again, and I left. This was the last time I saw my father alive.
My cousin Jessie says that among her many friends who were at her gathering in Vermont, when she told the tale of my absence, she heard many similar stories: of parents who would not die, who clung to wracked, wrecked, pain filled bodies beyond all sense, until their children signaled it was OK to let go by taking leave for a bit. The theory is that by telling my Dad I was going, I gave him permission to die.
I’d like to think this is true, that after all the being there, clear eyed, for every gruesome thing on this journey, I hadn’t just bounced into a bubble of denial. Because when I left on Friday morning, after calling the hospice to see how his night had gone, to see how he was doing, I really thought he was going to wait for me, that he would still be there Monday morning when I would waltz back into his room. There were, actually, some reasons to believe this.
He had arrived at the hospice terribly dehydrated, having not taken much of anything in for two days prior. And besides the fluids flowing into his veins through the IV, he was actually eating and drinking a bit now, too. A half cup of juice here, a few slurps of soup there, even a whole bowl full of applesauce, twice. And he did indeed have a good day on Friday: he recognized my sister, Lois and kissed her. Three times. He recognized my mother and opened his arms and hugged her. He ate a bowl of soup with gusto. But it was not to last. We have been calling it, half jokingly, the New England Clam Chowder of Death, because not long after dinner Dad had a crisis that turned the tide, and then by midnight, gone.
All this was relayed to me by phone, Vermont not the getaway that it was supposed to be, but instead a series of phone calls, intercut with a few moments of rest, food and family. But in those few moments I was loved and nurtured in a way that allowed me to come home and do all the rest, the sad and ongoing tasks of cleaning up after a life lived.
And now, the “Why?” of the Vermont trip: this is the year I turn fifty, the big 5-0, half a century, officially middle aged (if I’m planning to live to a hundred). My cousin Jessie turns all our ages 4 months before me, my personal herald, paving my way into the next year. And since so many of her friends also turn 50 this year, she wanted to make her birthday special, planned a weekend party for just us fiftyish females at a winter lodge up the mountain: a Saturday afternoon of cross country skiing and snowshoeing, then an amazing potluck dinner followed by a giant slumber party at the lodge and brunch the next morning. Heaven.
There is not room, nor is this the place, to go into why my cousin Jessie is so special and important to me, why my bond with her, in spite of our sometimes not connecting for busy busy months on end, is spider silk strong and permanent. Our lives are intertwined, her children dear to my heart, mine to hers. I have come to stay with her often enough that I know her friends, and to spend this time together would have been deeply significant to me.
The other leg of this thing is that this was going to be the first time since the boys were born that I had gone away alone. In all these years I have never had more than a few hours to myself, have never taken even a train ride, no less an airplane trip by myself. For 48 hours I was not going to have to take care of anyone. I had been looking forward to it as if my life depended on it, feeling that it did, telling everyone I was finally getting away. Big mistake.
When Jessie told me date of her party in January, a chill went up my spine, but I ignored it. I joked about it: “What do you want to bet that Dad decides to pack it in that weekend and there goes my trip?” But I didn’t think it was actually going to happen, what were the odds? But really, when I booked the flight I should have just picked up a pen and written in that square on my calendar “Jim Steinhardt to die today”.
It’s like my boys’ birth date. One pregnant morning in January, when I knew I was having twins, but not yet the gender, and when I certainly had an accurate due date, their being conception known down to the nanosecond IVF twins, I awoke with a vision. Well, that’s not exactly the right term, since there was no startling image involved. It was more like this, these words bubbled up into my consciousness as if read from a book: “The twins will be born on July 29th.” And I then went about the rest of my pregnancy with that date stuck in my head, announced it to anyone who asked, even planned my parents’ trip up from Florida with it in mind.
By mid June, heaving my torpedo shaped belly onto the sofa to splay under the air conditioning, a beached whale, I thought “This is insane, I’m never going to make it to July 29th, that’s 39 weeks, there’s no way I’m lasting more than another month like this!” But read my boys’ birth certificate: July 29th.
So even though I never thought Dad would last this long, and even though I simultaneously and conversely thought he was holding out for his 93rd birthday on March 25th, there was this nagging feeling that March 13th was the day, painted like a nasty red target, because on that date was scheduled the one thing big I was going to do, entirely for myself, in seven and a half years.
And so, why? Why, oh why, oh why, oh why; why, oh why, oh why? The only answer: “Because,” and then, well, “goodbye.”
This song was actually written by Woody Guthrie, and if you want to Google it and hear it, you’re probably going to get Woody's version. It’s lovely, but the one in my head is Pete’s from his 1964 Prague concert album from my childhood.