I took a big field trip this past week, all the way back to Idaho for my dad's memorial service. He died so unexpectedly at Christmas, hit by a left-turning driver, that none of us were ready to plan that whole funeral thing. My stepmother, an incredibly private person with a husband who was bigger than life, wasn't feeling a big show—too much to put together too soon when we were all at our lowest capacities, too many eyeballs peering in on our tears. I got that, and I was fine to say my goodbyes to my dad in that hospital in Los Angeles and head back home to sit in my pajamas, eat the Edible Arrangements that came to my door, and wait out the first wave of unbearable grief day to day, which, it turns out, we are actually built to bear.
But you have to have something, right? So we did. Five of his six siblings flew in, partners in tow, and my sister, brother, and his wife and two kiddos. I brought the ladyfriend and a dress she'd iron for me—my nod to the formality of the occasion. I briefly wondered if I should wear black, but if my dad had been attending this thing, he'd have worn dressy jeans and an old Hawaiian shirt, and I wouldn't want to show him up.
I spent the morning of the service scribbling down some notes for my part of the eulogy. My little sister picked us up in her big car and we headed out to the cemetery. That's when it hit me—we're doing this, and it will be the last time we do this, gather as a big family to say goodbye to our dad. The anxiety rose into my throat and choked off the air, tears started squeezing out of my tight eyeballs, and it felt, all over again, oh so final. As we made our left turn into the Idaho Veterans Cemetery, I was pretty sure I couldn't do this, couldn't say this round of goodbyes, couldn't say my goodbyes out loud.
But I did. After the crispy flag unfolding and folding again—my dad would have smiled big and laughed at all that precision—it was my turn to get up, urged on by my big brother to go ahead and go first. I promised I'd cry, and then I did, as I thanked my dad for teaching me so many things. More than anything, I said, he taught me about pleasure. There's so much of it in the world, and it's in everything, and we best grab as much as we can. It's in the bus ride, the mountain peak, the snowflake. It's in having a different jacket for every five degree difference in temperature and riding your bike just a mile further than you think you can. It's in getting to know how your local sewer district works and developing a strong opinion about it, writing strongly worded letters to your local politicians and newspapers, and in figuring out how to call bullshit on all the bullshit. And it's also in the same bowl of Grape Nuts every morning, using the same Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap on everything for decade after decade, smoking a bowl before a long run, and stopping each morning to greet the sun. My dad had seen the very worst in himself and others—war will show you that—and maybe that's why he saw the best in everything.
And then my brother gave his eulogy, my Uncle Kevin's his, and it was time for us to move out and make way so they could set up for the next funeral. They shooed us out, and I was reminded of both how personal death is when it's happening in your family, but how shared the experience is as well. My dad died, and in that six-month period, a whole bunch of other dads have died, along with moms, sisters, brothers, lovers, friends, grandparents. Death is coming for us all, sooner or later. It came late for my dad, and also far too soon. We all hopped back into our cars and made our way up the hill to check out what will be his final resting place. He'll overlook the Boise foothills and all its sagebrush and grasshoppers and dry soil. It's a fantastic view, and I'll be happy to see it when I visit him at this spot again. And then we took off for lunch at Jack in the Box, because what else are you going to do?
I spent the rest of the weekend in McCall, Idaho, the tiny mountain town where my dad lived and my stepmother and little sister still do. And then I woke up to news of a massacre in Orlando that got worse as the hours went by, and I was stunned by it, unable to look directly at it. The magnitude of loss there is beyond words. I thought of all the words I've used in my own time of grief, and how much they are not enough, and was floored by the knowledge that so many people must now embark on this lonely journey. There are no words, and I wish for all of us to give each other the space and time to grieve and remember that our grief is not a call to war.
Before leaving McCall, I went through my dad's stuff and took a few things for myself: the Veterans for Peace button off his bicycle bag, his bike tour journal, the rolling papers from his sock drawer, his senior National Parks Pass, and his NO WAR Vietnam Veterans vanity license plate—reminders of pleasures we shared, pleasures I'll have without him now. There's no redemption in his death, in any of these deaths. They are too soon, too violent, too common. I wish that these experiences of grief—and if you haven't had yours yet, know that it's coming—could teach us that our most important task is ending our too-many wars. Thanks for teaching me that, Pops.