The Good Month of February
I went out to Greenport, Long Island this past weekend, to attend a memorial service for a friend’s father who died last week. A small fishing village out on the tip of the North Fork, the place is beautiful—even more so, in some ways, in winter, when it’s empty of the weekender crowds it draws in summertime. It was bitter cold, but the snow that had been predicted never came, and the clouds in the sky over the sound looked like they had been drawn there in fine-point pen.
The memorial was held in a hotel built in 1858, across the street from the house where my friend had grown up. That house was next to a funeral home. My friend’s father was the local funeral director.
Maybe because of this, the expertise, or maybe not, the event was a particularly nice one. Food and drinks were set out in a dining hall with old whaling pictures on the wall, and people sat at long tables while the family shared their memories. My friend read from her dad’s journal about how February was his favorite month, her brothers talked about how he’d rush upstairs to unplug their electric guitars when there was “someone next door.” That phrase had become a town euphemism, in fact. People would ask, “Who’s next door?” Meaning who had died recently, who was being mourned at any given time. One of the brothers spoke about how his father had seen his job as less of a way of making money than as a community service. My friend’s mom talked about life with her husband. “He was really terrific,” she said, more than once.
My son, five years old, played upstairs with my friend’s daughter and a bunch of other kids. They had a blast, largely unsupervised with a whole second story of hotel to explore, pretending they were spies, or hunting a monster who lived up there. They said, the times I went up to check on them, that they were fine, that I should go back downstairs. I did. No one minded the noise they made.
The dining hall was crowded. There were not enough chairs for everyone to sit. That made me feel good, because I imagined that it made my friend feel good. I remembered my own father’s funeral, 20 years ago now, and how, within the strangely numb blur of that day (Why am I not crying, I thought to myself at various points, why am I not more sad?) one of the brighter moments came when I turned around in my seat at the front of the funeral home and saw people spilling out the open double doors in the back. This made me think about that Woody Allen quote about the importance of just showing up.
In deciding whether or not to drive out, my wife and I had considered the fact that bringing our kid to a memorial service would necessitate talking to him about death. Previous discussions of same had been difficult. “Will you die?” he asked, one of the first times. I said yes—we try not to lie to him. “Will mommy die?” Yes again. Then his lip started to quiver and his eyes filled with tears and his voice cracked with real fear as he asked, “But who will take care of me if you and mommy die?” I couldn’t breathe for a second and grabbed something for support and stammered unconvincingly about how that wouldn’t happen for such a long time he didn’t even have to worry about it and changed the subject as fast as I could.
So last week, we told him we were going to a party, but that some people there might be sad, because his friend’s grandpa had died. He asked how old his friend’s grandpa was when he died. 77, we told him. “Okay, so people die when they’re 77,” he said. Some people did, we told him. He didn’t seem too bothered by it.
The next day, as I was walking him to school, he turned to me and said, “Daddy, would you like to live forever?” I told him I didn’t think so. He frowned and asked why not and I said because I think I’d get bored, and, since everybody else would eventually die, lonely. His voice turned sad and imploring. “But what if me and mommy were with you,” he said. “Then would you want to live forever?”
“Okay,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Okay. When I grow up I’m going to be a scientist and build a machine that turns you and me and mommy into vampires so we’ll live forever.”
“Okay,” I said.
We try not to lie to him but I left it at that.