This isn't the column I expected to write this week. I was supposed to write about my yearly trip to St. Louis with my ladyfriend, our third Christmas together. I was looking forward to watching the family eat their bloody prime rib while I ate the vegetarian quiche her father dutifully gets me every year. And then the hours and hours and hours of sitting on the couch watching HGTV, listening to the niece and nephew making their holiday noise, going back for another round of Christmas cookies, staring at our screens next to each other—classic holiday family joy.
But then my little sister called on Saturday afternoon. She told me my dad, in Los Angeles for the annual Drabinski Family Christmas Party, had been hit by a truck. He was out for a walk with my Aunt Eileen. They were crossing the street—in a crosswalk—and a left-turning driver in a Ford F-150 hit him. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, and he didn't make it.
So then it was a different kind of field trip. I headed straight to my neighborhood bar for a grilled cheese sandwich and a beer, because what else are you going to do. I canceled that trip to St. Louis and booked a one-way to Los Angeles—my first Drabinski Family Christmas Party in many years. My dad offered to pay half our way out here this year, but I demurred. Too busy, I said. Suddenly, though, my calendar is completely open.
That night is a blur—a friend brought food over, the ladyfriend packed my suitcase, and the next morning we were on our way to the airport. I stumbled up to the Southwest desk, tried to ask how much it would cost to upgrade to a better boarding position, because really, I did not want to weep in a middle seat for six hours. My weeping got me a free upgrade to family boarding, and, once I was on the plane, several rounds of free drinks from flight attendants who couldn't ignore my heaving self. One of them stared down at me with a giant smile on her face as she gave me another vodka cranberry: "Just think. This is your dad's first Christmas in heaven, and someday you'll get to have Christmas with him there, too."
I immediately wished I could tell my dad that story. He'd love the first-class treatment I managed to get myself, and he'd howl at the idea that there's a heaven, or that he'd be there. Nobody loved life more than my dad, but nobody was less attached to it than he was. My dad was just here in Baltimore for a visit, and he talked a lot about his own death, and his plans to prepare for a good one. He wasn't scared of death—he'd seen too much of it in his life to maintain fear of it. Two tours in the army in Vietnam and he knew that the difference between a returning hero and a casualty was nothing but luck.
And he'd gotten really lucky. He lived a remarkably full life of adventure, collecting stories on his daily long runs, his cross-country bike trips (he did his first on an old 10-speed with a broken front brake—he'd love to tell you all about it), his ski trips and kayak adventures and mountain biking trips and that last gig as city manager of the small mountain town of McCall, Idaho. He lived the biggest life he could and could make a story out of anything, and he taught me to do the same.
This story, though, goes like this. And then I was at LAX and then in a car and then at Cedars-Sinai—leave it to my dad to die in Beverly Hills, across from a mall. I was scared to go into the room where he was lying there, on a breathing machine that made his chest move up and down, giving the illusion of life. My mind knew he was already gone—I know what brainstem death means—but it also felt like he was still there, just long enough to say goodbye.
It was an impossible few hours as we waited for my brother to get there to say his goodbyes too. "It's really hard to stay present," I thought to myself, but I tried to stay there, because there's not really anywhere else to go. There's no guide for this part, and I wished my dad could have been there to tell me what to do. He'd seen his share of too-early death, and he'd have some wisdom to share, for sure. He always did, whether I wanted it or not.
But there's nothing to say, nothing anyone can say. It is just waves of grief. All we can do is lean into it. I thought I'd care about things like who hit him, did he get a ticket—stuff like that. But I don't. I only care that he's gone, that we weren't done yet, that we still had stories to make with each other. We were planning a bike trip together for this summer. He wanted six weeks in the Canadian Rockies. I hadn't found the heart to tell him yet that I don't get six weeks off, but he wouldn't have cared, and he would have let me choose, and he would have loved it, whatever it was.
We won't make new stories together, exactly, but I'll still make plenty that I'll want to tell him. When I had those moments out on my bike, that feeling of real jubilance that would come over me after a particularly challenging ride, or at a particularly fantastic view, I'd often get off my bike and give him a call to tell him about it. No one took more pleasure in my taking pleasure than my dad. My heart is in pieces, and oh, I will miss him. It is a gift, maybe, to have the kind of love that makes such big waves of grief, ones I expect I'll be riding for a very, very long time. Thanks, pops, for teaching me to just head out, see what happens. I'll take it from here.