The two men who came to take his body smelled like cigarettes. I remember it because it makes me angry: here was a man who had never smoked in his life, a brilliant man, a man whose indulgences were green tea and good bread, here he was lying dead on a hospital bed in the middle of our living room, and in come these two men in state-trooper jackets, jackets whose shade of muddy-blue alone was ugly enough to disturb the sanctity of the just-dead. In come these two men and the pungent, wrinkly smell of cigarettes, a smell that says, you are just another house on our route. We have more bodies in the back of our station wagon, and after we unload them at the morgue we’ll go out back and smoke a pack to forget that we traffic in cadavers. I made sure to watch as they maneuvered his body into the long, ugly-red duffel bag. I had decided to watch this process long before I knew they would smell like smoke. First they wrapped his body in a white sheet. Then they half-rolled it into the duffel, half-lifted it. Then they carried it down our front stairs and loaded it into their station wagon. Not that I expected anything different. Not that I blame them — they were polite enough. But what I saw as my dad’s corpse, they saw as twenty minutes between them and their next break. The room smelled like cigarettes after they left.
The much discussed, all-purpose grief never struck me. (A bit of depression, perhaps, but that’s different.) Instead, I’ve found that my grief is very specific. It manifests in moments that make me indignant, and in traditions that make me nostalgic. It’s up to me to take out the anger and examine it on rainy days or quiet nights, or to incorporate the nostalgia into my daily life. I like this set-up. The grief is easy to find when I look for it.
At home we cooked bread together, dense peasant bread with rye and buckwheat. 500 grams flour, 375 grams water, 10 to 15 grams salt, to taste. Stir with wooden spoon and store in plastic container until ready to bake in Dutch oven. Cook is ideally wearing a black Patagonia fleece and has a greying, scraggly beard. Now in my apartment, I cook the same recipes with the same kitchen scale and the same Dutch oven. I miss his commentary, and his beard. “Slower on the water. You can always add more.” Then when the bread comes out of the oven and the crust is crackling from the temperature shock — “listen, it’s singing!” I cherish the words of his that I have, because I will have no more.
Like a collage, the memories overlap and form a whole, yet no discernible pattern emerges from its parts. It is best described by its title: Grief. Mixed media. Anger, familial traditions, one son, one corpse. Boston, 2016.
Only a week before he died, my dad and I set out on a walk. We called them “loops,” as in “I’m taking the dog on a loop, want to come?” He took my arm, shuffled slowly along the sidewalk. This a man who had walked five miles every day for the pleasure of being alone, a disciplined man, a fit man whose calves doctors always complimented when he was in for surgery. Here he was, constipated, feet in pain, leaning on me, bundled in coats, going for a walk, and we couldn’t make it fifty feet. He said to me, I don’t think I can go on a loop. I’m worried I might shit my pants. Not even around the block? I’m sorry. Let’s go back, then. And the next time he left the house was in a duffel bag.
We were walking on a beach. My arm was around his shoulder. I remember how it was, the radiant sun, the cold Atlantic. We stopped and looked at the ocean instead of making eye contact. Dad, you’re never going to see me get married. I rested my head on his shoulder. No, probably not; I’m sorry. But at least you’ll get to see me graduate? If we’re lucky.