A note on saying goodbye

My father died on June 26, 2017, one hour into his 78th birthday. I have had a strange, comical urge when asked "How was your summer?" by people who don't know, to answer, "Fine! My dad died!" but haven't gone through with it yet, thank god. 

Four months before, he was fine. He was the one-of-a-kind, full of gusto Fred Rotondaro, aka Dad, aka Pops aka Papa Raspa, a moniker he gave himself when he signed his name that way in an email (misspellings things in emails was a hilarious specialty of his). He was booking trips and rallying political activists. He had presence and influence in all the right ways. He had nights out with my mom and lunches with friends. He was very mad about Trump and the next minute wanted me to know about this fabulous new red wine he'd discovered. The first thing I tell people when they say how sorry they are is that I miss him so much, but the fact that my dad lived such a full life makes it easier, and inspires me to do the same. And it's 100 percent true. 

He died of glioblastoma, which is a very aggressive brain cancer. I learned a lot about the disease while we were dealing with his illness, and learned a lot of other things too, like that if you are trying to get tons of calories into a smoothie, macademia nuts is a good option. I learned that my little brother is an absolute hero, and was even more convinced of the fact that my mom is the champion of managing the most challenging situations. I reaffirmed that being part of the Rotondaro family of four is one of the greatest honors of my life. 

I also learned is that the circumstances surrounding a person's sickness or death are often complicated, and that's a lesson I'll carry with me, hopefully making me a more compassionate person. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that someone passed away and exclaimed, "Wait. What happened? I didn't even know he was sick." It was valuable to witness that these things don't always play out in an easy-to-follow narrative, despite everybody's best efforts.

It's too much to write the whole story here, but my dad's sickness revealed itself with a stammer he suddenly developed - a type of speech aphasia - and after his first trip to the hospital, the whole thing went very quickly. What we thought was a minor stroke wasn't; what we thought was a small, operable brain tumor was a high-grade cancer with a harsh prognosis; there was a car accident and other complications. There were brilliant, aggressive doctors and there was our amazing caretaker Janie, and there were so many other details that played a part, but in the end, he didn't go through chemo and radiation, because of those complications and the tumor's rapid growth. Treatment, the incredibly wise doctors told my mom and brother during one of their visits, wouldn't improve his quality of life or increase his time with us. My father was stoic and funny throughout the experince, never losing his sense of self. He died peacefully at home. 

It's impossible to know, but we feel with this kind of disease, and considering my dad's personality, the way it happened might have been a blessing. Let's put it this way: he liked having his own form of transporation when we went to social events, because although he was an incredibly friendly person, he never wanted a late night. This was a man who always wanted to leave the party early. Everyone knew of the "Fred exit."

"Dad did it just right," my brother told me in a text shortly after the funeral, when I was feeling low and asking a lot of "what ifs." Vinnie - then, and many times since - gave me so much solace with his assessment. I agreed. 

We tried to provide regular updates, but I know that for all our friends and family, it went really fast. Now, in retrospect, I see that. But when it was happening? I was so entrenched in his illness, both from afar and periodically in person - visiting my family in Maryland whenever I could - and it seemed endless. Often that was wonderful, as though time were doing me a favor, slowing down just enough so that me and my family could process each step, and spend hours talking about and researching my dad's condition. Most importantly, so that we could spend unhurried time together. Of course, when I was worried about his condition, or waiting for information, the hours seemed like days. That was less pleasant.

But - and I know it sounds really crazy - during those intense, eventful weeks, when I'd sometimes go to bed texting my brother until I fell asleep, we had a lot of good times.

Hard times too, I mean, I'm not a lunatic (HI JANIE!) who thinks a parent dying is a walk in the park, but it was an amazing experience, those few months marked by so many tangible, ineffible details; long nights over bottles of wine, discussing brain injuries; my sister-in-law Audrey and uncle Mark trying to light paper lanterns to release out over the Bay, as we laughed at their repeated failure; giving my dad one 100 kisses on the forehead as I marched in and out of his bedroom, his smiles in return; and way back at the beginning, eating at the seafood restaurant my wonderful cousin Sam manages in Baltimore the night after my dad's surgery, the cheerful crowd such a salve to a stressful day.

The funeral was held at a Catholic Church, where the helpful priest informed us that having a trumpet player inside during the service would be, ahem, "a little too much," but that we could have him playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" (which my father had informed us on many occasionas he wanted at his funeral) just outside. So as the numerous attendees departed into the hot summer sun, there was our guy playing jauntily under a lone tree in the churchyard. I could hear the somber silence turn into a ripple of laughter, and people started singing along.

Then there was a party, where old family friends, colleagues and high school and college buddies who had traveled to support us lingered for long enough that pizza was ordered not once, but twice

My dad would have loved it. He would have absolutely loved it. 

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I could try to express here what my dad was like, and what he meant to me, but, first of all, how long do you guys have?Secondly, I think you know. You know if you knew him, and you know if you've ever talked to me about him. You know if you've read my stories about him, or been on the receiving end of one of his many emails. If you've shared a meal with him, or been there for the end of the meal when he pulls out 1,000 different after-dinner drinks, including grappa for the bravest souls. You know if you're from where he's from, in the coalmining country of northeastern Pennsylvania, if you worked with him in an office, or on one of his amazing projects, always railing against injustice, always connecting the right people. 

You know the important parts, his great loves and his funny habits. His adoration of my mother and of our family; his proclivity for striking up a conversation with every single person he met (even though they sometimes didn't want to talk, DAD);  his penchant for muttering "Whhhhhaaaaaaaaaatever" when a conversation got longwinded.

I could go on about him forever, but to be totally honest my purpose here is a little more selfish. Because what I really set out to do in writing this was to talk about how I'm feeling.  

In terms of grieving, wise friends who've been through similar things told me that the funeral would be the easy part - that it would get harder from there - and it was easy to see their point. At first there are so many people wishing you well and sharing memories. Then, there are less (although if you're lucky like me, you've still got a lot of people to talk to, including my mother and brother, a husband who does the best job ever taking care of me when I'm feeling sad and the most loving friends in the universe).

Now, a few months out, I'd say my feelings are fairly simple to explain. I feel great about my relationship with my father and about his full, rewarding, inspiring life. But I miss him. 

I just miss him. 

My dad and I were very close. We had the parent-child relationship everybody wants: open and loving and supportive, complete with plenty of visits and, yes, prone to the occasional, explosive fight. But also? We talked all the time. We talked on the phone when we were bored. I sent him emails about amusing little things that would happen during my day, including things the kids said or did, and more serious emails about writing projects. I asked him where to pitch stories and if he'd edit my pieces. We talked about politics, and about strategies to get Republicans and Democrats to talk to one another in a civil way. We talked about how my brother was always trying to get my parents to drink less coffee and how ridiculous that was (Vinnie, it's ridiculous). 

I am so fortunate that I have a mother (HI MOM you're the best!) who I can also email randomly with funny pictures and random little stories, and who I can call whenever I want career or other life advice, or just want to chat. Who encourages me and, let's be frank, is a much better editor than my dad, who was always "getting back" to me on things (I know what you were up to, you were NAPPING). 

But still. Lately, I'll have a conversation with someone or an experience with the kids - like recently when I took them to town hall and I bored them with a monologue about what the mayor does and the democratic process in general - and I just want to tell him. I can't, though, because he's not there anymore, and it still seems so impossible for that to be true. 

I know that this part will get easier and that I'm just going to have to be patient. There are things however, things right now, that help immensely. 

One of them is the idea that he's still around. Now, I'm not sure what I think about the afterlife (don't tell the Catholics!) but I am a big fan of the American transcendentalist movement. The idea of the "oversoul" and of all people  being connected. During the eulogy I gave at my father's service, I read the end of Walt Whitman's glorious "Song of Myself," a poem my dad had read many times over, and that me and Vinnie read to him while he was sick. 

 

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, 

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. 

 

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, 

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. 

 

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, 

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, 

And filter and fibre your blood. 

 

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, 

Missing me one place search another, 

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

 

I don't know exactly what Whitman was talking about when he wrote these lines, but to me they are a beautiful description of life's continuity, even in death. Although I never would have imagined this, since my father's death, I find such comfort in the wind rusting the tree branches; the crash of the waves on the rocks in Maine. I surprise myself by thinking, "there you are."

There are human reminders, too, including my children and the memories they'll carry. Just last summer my dad took Gabriel to art camp one-hour away from the house in Boothbay every single day for a week, afterwards stopping at a hot dog stand where he'd buy my son a dog, a chocolate milk and - Gabriel recently admitted - a brownie (that is too much sugar!)

I took the kids for "Nonno walks" this summer after he died, gathering treats for the house and striking up conversations with whoever, as well as stopping by a favorite shop to buy them a gift. "You get to choose one book each!" I told them, proud of my emulating his generous spirit. "Um Mommy," Nora helpfully informed me, "Nonno would have let us buy lots of books." 

Another thing that has helped recently is that I've allowed myself to start talking to my him. No, not out loud, but whenever I have those previously mentioned moments, wanting to share something specific with him. I recognize that, logically speaking, all I'm doing is talking to a memory, but so what? When you've known someone quite literally since the moment you were born, it seems far too difficult to so abruptly end the dialouge. So I talk to him occasionally, and it's not always the most urgent stuff, like this morning when we'd run out of beans and I didn't have coffee for two and a half hours after waking up (can you even believe it?)

There's another thing too, a mantra of sorts. And it helps me the most. 

It's so simple but so true, and it works in every situation: when I wonder why this all happened, when I find myself crying in the car or when I'm feeling really good.

I just remind myself: because of you, I will be a better person.

See? Nothing major. Just that sentence, so adaptable. A call to action, an easy promise. 

Because of you I will be a better person. Because of you I will be the kind of person who loves hearing mundane stories about everyday life. Because of you I will bring my husband coffee in bed. Because of you I won't let myself wallow - there are too many things to get done! Because of you I'll book that new restaurant. Because of you I'll make friends with strangers. Because of you - ok, I will buy them lots of books. I will finish "Ulysses," have alone time when I need it and carry on your good fights. 

When I'm out for a run by the water or caught up in the mindless insanity of the day. When I think about the ways we'll celebrate all these memories for years to come. When the wind is rusting the leaves on a quiet September afternoon. Because of you I will be a better person. Because of you I will be a better person. Because of you. Because of you. Because of you.