Death isn’t the end. For those mourning the loss, the communiqués — the reminders — just keep on coming.
‘When was the last time you shopped for car insurance?” asks the letter, which arrived the day before Father’s Day. “If your answer is ‘I haven’t done that in years,’ you may be missing an opportunity to save money and get great service from GEICO.” The letter is addressed to our son, David.
“Treat yourself to a welcome offer,” American Express writes David, providing “an exclusive invitation to apply for our most rewarding Gold Card.”
L.L. Bean has sent him a new Visa Card. His old one is about to expire.
“One Week Left: David, Don’t Miss Out on 25,000 Bonus Miles,” Delta Air Lines writes in an e-mail to our son, whom it deems “a valued SkyMiles member.”
On the other side of the equation, the IRS writes David to tell him that he owes $5.68 based on his 2010 Form 1040.
All of them assume a tone of urgency. But David is now and forever beyond both opportunity and obligation. Two and half years ago, he died after mixing heroin and alcohol, at the age of 21.
That has not stopped the slow and steady trickle of mail and e-mail, oblivious to our loss. A part of me is resentful that it continues, and yet, I keep each bit of mail and e-mail in a file marked “David,” knowing full-well how foolish and pathetic it is. But I cannot do otherwise.
Indeed, in some strange way, I cherish them all — even the dunning notice from the IRS — as if each were a signal from the Great Beyond that it didn’t happen, that his life goes on, that the nightmare was just that, something from which I may surface at any moment. The Delta miles unredeemed, the credit card renewed, the debt unpaid, are each, in their sorry way, welcomed. I hold on to them, as if, one day, I might have cause to forward them to him. It is the last responsibility left to me as a father. That is the one thing I cannot seem to let go of, the need to watch out for him. The role of father is not so easily extinguished.
I cannot help but marvel at the momentum that life takes on, how it has a continuity that disregards death, a commercial and mechanical force all its own. It is as if the cosmos has not yet gotten the memo, part of a grand disconnect. Our son soldiers on in the realm of credit cards and frequent-flier miles. The interest on his savings bond continues to accrue. (A sympathetic bank manager said she would allow me to forge his signature, but I prefer the knowledge that at least the bond will reach maturity.) The tragic and the mundane run their parallel courses, never intersecting. It is all a perfect reflection of my own denial.
The thing about death is that it is not nearly so final or absolute as those in mourning may wish. The sheer momentum of our being has its own trajectory that animates the dead and taunts — or comforts — the living.
On the flight from Akron to Boston, as we carried our son’s ashes home, the alarm on his cellphone went off in the overhead compartment, telling him it was time to get up and go to class. I jumped up out of my seat and tore his suitcase apart desperately trying to silence the alarm.
Eleven months later, I come upon his dog-eared copy of “Make Way for Ducklings.” On the back cover, I discover a note in pencil and in the hand of a child. It reads: “WAKE ME UP PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.”
If only I could.
I had nearly forgotten how death plays out over time — not the biological episode that collapses it all into a nanosecond of being and nonbeing, but the slower arc of our leaving, the long goodbye — sorting through the mail, paying the bills, stumbling upon notes. It is like the decommissioning of a great battleship. There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows — the disposition of so much tonnage. Eulogies are never the last word.
I have been through this before. My father was 50 when he died. A year later I got a letter from him. It was covered in postmarks of various countries as it tried to keep pace with my travels. Finally, exhausted, and freed of forwarding addresses, it found its way back home. I opened it with trepidation, knowing these would be the last words I would hear from him. He wrote of Mother’s burning the chocolate chip cookies, of having to open up the windows in January to let the smoke out, and the neighbors thinking him crazy. And it closed with an off-color joke about Nixon. I laughed. And then, I cried.
A few months after David’s death, my wife and I attended a gathering of grieving parents who spoke lovingly of their lost ones, and then of the knowledge that their child was now at Jesus’ side. There was a light in their faces. I envied them their resurrection, and did not return.
Have I no more than these solicitations, these invitations, these letters delivered late? I do. I have memories. I have places where I feel both his closeness and his distance. And I have the all-too-brief visitations allowed in dreams. For the nonbeliever I’ve become, it is what passes for an afterlife.
Ted Gup is the author of several nonfiction books, most recently “A Secret Gift.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.
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