How to Tell the Story of an Ordinary Death

February 2, 2022   •   By Amy Monticello

QUOTATION A.K.A. the story needs a frame. “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.” — Jacques Derrida, Dissemination

Find the beginning. My father’s death begins with his birth, as all deaths do.

My father’s death begins when he smokes his first cigarette in the mid-to-late 1960s at some undisclosed age and location — on the flood wall by Nanticoke Creek in Endicott, New York, or the back room of the pool hall on Washington Avenue, or the seventh hole of the En-Joie golf course, far enough from my grandfather’s watchful eyes across the green.

My father’s death begins with his first bartending job. The first bar he ever owns. The second bar. The third.

Maybe it begins when I am born. Mine is a Caesarean birth, which in 1982 means that my mother is still conked out from general anesthesia and my father is the first to hold the newest generation of the family, swaddled in a white-and-blue striped hospital blanket. Maybe I jumpstart his death the second he touches me, the force of my existence knocking him into the next age bracket.

Someday, I will be a parent, too. At seven, tugging on her favorite cat leggings, or eating her favorite red rice and pigeon peas, or saying goodnight after her favorite rendition of Emmylou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl,” my daughter will say she wishes I didn’t have to die. It’ll be a casual thing. I wish I had a pet hermit crab and also that you didn’t have to die, Mama.

¤

The beginning in scene. Officially, my father’s death begins with paperwork. September 29, 2012 — his 63rd birthday. My parents have been separated, then divorced, for 30 years, yet we all sit at my mother’s dining room table, a birthday meal of meatloaf and cheesecake congealing in our stomachs. Out of his briefcase, my father produces a questionnaire from the urologist he’s scheduled to see next month. He asks if I’ll help him fill it out.

In the past month, have you:

Had the sensation of not emptying your bladder completely after urinating? Y N

Found it difficult to postpone urination? Y N

Experienced a weak stream of urination? Y N

Had to push or strain in order to urinate? Y N

Had to start and then stop several times in order to urinate? Y N

Mostly, I circle yes. I do this without reaction except to look once or twice at my mother and husband, who listen as I read the questions and record my father’s answers. My mother returns my gaze, her green eyes hard. I know, they say. Don’t scare him.

Now we can see the 30 pounds my father has lost since June. It isn’t shocking on his frame, which a JCPenney clerk once called “portly” while fitting him for a suit. He’s proud of the weight loss — he recently stopped drinking, not so much because he wants to, but because it makes him feel lousy. “I have to go to Kohl’s and get some new pants,” he says, pleased.

I wait until his blue Nissan backs out of my mother’s driveway and turns down the road, out of sight. “Well, it’s bladder cancer,” I say to the room.

¤

Intrinsic connection, a.k.a. the story knows it is only one story and not even close to the saddest. An acquaintance — another writer, a brilliant writer — recently released a new book. It’s about the death of her son and learning to live without him. It’s about not dividing her life in half, into a before and after that ultimately divides the self.

“It’s about resilience,” she told me once. We were standing in the Reykjavik airport after a conference in 2017 when she was still writing it.

At the time, I felt anxious to get home to my then-three-year-old daughter, despite having just spent the past five days in a state of bewildering joy, traveling in a country not one single person in my family going back generations had ever seen. The night before, a friend and I had stayed out until 3:00 a.m. at a Reykjavik bar themed after The Big Lebowski. Then I’d walked back to my tiny, concrete Airbnb, the streets awash in a pink sun that never sets that time of year, a 12-hour-long evening reflected in the cold black sea.

In politeness, the writer asked what I was working on (we were still in conference mode). I said I was also writing a memoir. Mine was about my father’s death and then getting pregnant with my daughter five months later. It was about entwined narratives. It was about the kind of change that rocks us violently but invisibly, so that sometimes grieving and mothering are one thing. Like when my breast milk was just about to let down, and I’d be overcome for 90 seconds with the most intense longing, a scooped feeling in my gut that I mistook for grief but was actually just a hormonal imbalance.

I’d had a C-section, I told her by way of … explanation?

The brilliant writer ate a sandwich standing up in line to board. When I stopped talking, she smiled. “You need a better elevator pitch,” she said.

¤

Meta, a.k.a. the writing of this story has a story. One year after Iceland, when I was in a severe writing dry spell, I submitted the first chapter of my memoir-in-progress to a writing retreat in the mountains with the brilliant writer.

But I couldn’t afford the retreat without getting one of the scholarships it offered. Even though I had a tenure-track teaching job, my husband, daughter, and I live in an extortionate New England city that never lets us get ahead financially. I knew a published writing professor submitting work to this sort of generative retreat was juvenile and quite possibly inappropriate, but I had reached another impasse with my book and the brilliant writer’s name on the call for submissions momentarily beckoned me.

My chapter made it to the final round. In the end, I was offered a spot in the retreat, but not the scholarship. In a kind rejection note, one of the reviewers praised my chapter as a “solidly written, if ordinary story of grief.”

I read the email in the locker room of my women-only gym. Instantly, my cheeks burned amid the soccer moms who’d just finished their dance cardio class, embarrassed not because I didn’t get the scholarship but because I thought the story of my father’s death was not ordinary.

¤

Small plot twist. Not bladder cancer.

The urologist orders a CAT scan and we all crowd around his computer with its special imaging screen. He points with his pen to a baseball-sized mass in my father’s left kidney. “That’s a tumor,” he says. “That’s the problem.”

We file silently into the adjacent exam room with its peach-and-turquoise vinyl furniture. My father hoists himself on to the papered table, head down, shoulders rounded into a hunch. My mother and I call this posture his “White Coat Syndrome”: in the presence of doctors, whom he tends to avoid so he doesn’t have to hear bad news, my father can no longer speak or understand words. He isn’t saying anything and it seems like someone should, so I peel myself from my vinyl chair. “Dad,” I say, crossing the room toward him.

My mother’s eyes catch mine over his shoulder. Don’t. Scare. Him.

At home that evening, I type what I can remember into Google. I find the internet generally agrees that the five-year survival rate for kidney cancer is quite good after a successful operation. Simply cutting the cancer out gives the best chance.

But I am my father’s daughter, the two of us yoked to an endless line of superstitious, Italian, lapsed Catholics. My father and I, we believe only in suffering — the cross, not the miracle. The ancestral fatalist in me says to keep reading.

And there it is. Further down in its prognosis entry, the American Cancer Society describes kidney cancer as slow-growing. It can be symptomless for months or even years; symptoms most likely indicate an advanced stage.

Thirty pounds since June.

“What are the chances we caught it early?” I ask my husband. A rhetorical question.

¤

Broader context, a.k.a. the story cannot be separated from when it is being told. It’s when someone hits their 60s that their death becomes ordinary.

In October 2020, standing in our adjacent backyards blanketed in scarlet leaves from the Japanese maple, our neighbor — an epidemiologist in his 30s studying COVID-19 at Harvard — waved away concerns about our kids playing without masks in the open air.

“Ninety percent of the people who die are over 60,” he said of the virus that had killed two million people worldwide so far. I understood his meaning precisely.

Every day, my mother, who is 69, sends me a message on Facebook. We started doing it before the pandemic, around the time she and her sister had a falling out and my mother’s living alone began to weigh on her. “I don’t want to lie there for days with the dogs,” she said.

So, every morning at 7:45 a.m. — sometimes later if her restless leg acted up the night before, but never after 9:00 a.m., and should it ever be after 12:00 p.m., I’m to call the police — my phone lights up.

Morning!

¤

Plot-ish, a.k.a. inhabiting the experiencing and reflecting self simultaneously. Based on the Hollywood cancer movies I’ve seen (Terms of Endearment, The Doctor, The Bucket List), the fact that it’s kidney cancer livens the story to some degree because of its lack of options.

Renal cell carcinoma — the technical name for my father’s diagnosis — is common enough, but has a bad track record with the usual cancer workhorses: chemo and radiation. Only surgery can reliably cure it. You have to cut it out like I was cut out of my mother. Like my daughter will be cut out of me.

My father’s tumor is too large to be extracted alone, so the urologist schedules him to have his left kidney entirely removed in a procedure called a radical, or complete, nephrectomy.

Nephrectomy. A life-giving operation whether we’re talking about a kidney going in or coming out. The kidney is a valuable organ because a person can survive with only one. It’s the organ embodiment of our potential for shared humanity, or perhaps our cellular-level greed.

But I don’t think of this now. I think of how the sound of the word makes me think of other words:

Nephrectomy. 

Necromancy. 

Necrophilia.

Something is already dead.

¤

Associative leap via analogy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, eight out of 10 people who die from COVID-19 are over 65. My neighbor was right.

But some people think the data is skewed. The former president blamed increased testing for why we had such high daily numbers in the US in the fall of 2020. When news articles came out suggesting the overall death rate in the country had been largely unaffected by COVID-19, a conservative friend complained on Facebook that COVID-19 was getting blamed for deaths that should have been ascribed to more familiar conditions like heart disease and diabetes (both of which my father had).

When I tell my husband this, he modifies an analogy he saw on Twitter. Picture a group of Boy Scouts who get attacked by a bear, he says. One scout has his leg in a cast and can’t run away as fast as the others; that scout is eaten.

“It’s like saying he died because of his leg. No, a bear ate him.”

¤

Context. I spent the first year of the pandemic grilling my mother about her social life. She lives five hours away by car, but doesn’t mind making the trip every other month to see her granddaughter. I wouldn’t say my mother was living recklessly — she dutifully wore masks and stayed home much of the time in the early weeks and months — but even then she did go grocery shopping, and to the vet, and to Home Depot to get materials for her endless home improvement projects. And sometimes — not often at all, she insisted, once a week, maybe — she went out to eat with her best friend, or invited a younger woman she mentors to come over for dinner with her baby. She made it seem like these things were obligations, that she couldn’t say no. “What am I supposed to do, Amy?” she said.

I told her to say no. Four years of the Trump administration had brought us into an uneven alliance; my mother votes Democrat and we broadly agree on most issues, but we do have some sticking points. One of them is around what I might call her sense of personal freedom and she might call my spoilsport neuroses. When I explained that our visits were at least somewhat contingent on her choices and that we really, really didn’t want her to get sick — when I began reading news articles out loud to her about aerosol droplets and the futility of six feet of distance — she’d sigh and say, Okay, and then hurry off the phone to clean up after a dog.

¤

Meta. Writers are taught that the death in any story is the least interesting part. The most interesting part lies before and after the death. One problem with telling the story of my father’s death is that it obscures him as a character. Unless I tell you more — unless I tell you how he lived instead of how he died, or how his death changed my little broken family — he’s reduced to a 63-year-old man who gets told he’s going to die and then dies.

But I was also taught that anything with a set of possible meanings can be a text. If that’s true, then death can be a text.

Jacques Derrida, founder of Deconstruction, is often quoted as saying, “There is nothing outside the text.” If we take that idea at face value, then whatever came before or after my father’s death would be considered immaterial. My father’s death needs no other interpretive lens.

But according to scholars of Deconstruction, this is a mistranslation of Derrida’s claim. What Derrida really meant, these scholars say, is that hors-texte actually translates to “outside-text.” To paraphrase the scholars, this translation suggests that a text has no meaning without context, and it is the reader who supplies this context, not the author. Which is to say, the text changes with the context of who or what is interpreting it.

I deconstruct my father’s death in different contexts, which then become part of the endless text I’m writing about his death. And now you’re doing the same: adding to the text, changing the meaning of his death, with your own context.

I wonder what story you’re reading.

¤

Plot, a.k.a. I planted this earlier. My father has a pre-op appointment (more paperwork) where the hospital runs some standard tests ahead of his surgery: urine, EKG, chest X-ray. Afterward, my mother shoos me home to my husband, whom I haven’t seen in days. “Go out,” she says. “Go out on a date!” But a few hours later, after my husband and I have gone to dinner, she calls saying I need to come back tomorrow. Something with my father’s test results, she says.

I wake at 5:30 a.m. to drive the hour to my father’s house, load him into the car, and then drive to meet my mother at the urologist’s office at 7:00 a.m.

The urologist gets right to the point: Metastasis. The X-ray on his screen shows tumors in my father’s lungs like clouds of cancer. He explains there’s no longer any reason to have the nephrectomy; once kidney cancer spreads, there’s no cure. He’ll refer us to an oncologist.

My father hasn’t had coffee, is not quite awake yet to what’s being said. He tilts his head from the White Coat Syndrome position. “Wait,” he says. “Are you saying this is gonna get me?”

The urologist, his wire-rimmed glasses slipping down his nose, explains about treatments to shrink the tumors, as well as treatments for pain management. Palliative care, he says, a term my father doesn’t know but I do. He assures us the oncologist will work with us to develop the best plan.

“You could have six or eight good months,” the urologist says. “But yes, eventually, this is gonna get you.”

Our responses — my mother’s and father’s and mine — are muted. We say little as we shuffle our coats back on and each shake the doctor’s hand. In the elevator, my mother reaches into her green tote. All the way down, she digs for something, arm in up to her elbow.

In the lobby, winter coat boxy on his diminished frame, skin the palest his Italian genes can manage, my father turns morbid. “What’s the point of treatment if it’s gonna get me anyway?” he says. We are repeating things now, chewing them in our mouths.

My mother stops rummaging. Looking back on this scene, I can see she’s in a kind of pain the ex-wives of her generation have been given no language for, which may be why she goes with a more reliable response: she berates him for saying something ridiculous. She reminds him that my husband and I are trying to have a baby.

“You want to meet your grandchild? Is that something you’d like to see?” she says. The rummaging resumes. It’s like she’s trying to rip up the lining, clawing at it like itchy, tortured skin.

My father’s legs sink a bit into the floor. “Yeah, it is,” he says.

“Then stop acting like you’ve got nothing to live for when we’re right here.”

¤

Associative leap, a.k.a. the present — or a present, one of many contexts — comes to bear upon the past. I grew up believing that all divorce means is that you don’t live together anymore. For years, one of my aunts delivered her alcoholic ex-husband homemade dog biscuits for his Shepherd, until the dog died. When my mother had depressive episodes in my childhood, she would drag the kitchen phone on its giant spiraled cord into her bedroom to call my father, who had ways of making her laugh. What I’m saying is that I learned very different lessons about breakups than most divorced kids; to me, the end just seemed to usher in a new phase of the relationship you could call divorce.

So when my high school sweetheart’s brother-in-law was shot to death in a Philadelphia office building seven years after we’d broken up, and my mother sent me the newspaper clipping, my response was automatic. Outside, a blizzard bore down on central Ohio, where I was living with my husband years before he was my husband. Our apartment complex’s courtyard filled with snow like a pool. It was Valentine’s Day — our first together. We’d just sat down on his Salvation Army couch with martinis when the email dinged.

I asked not-yet-husband, my barely-boyfriend, to excuse me so I could locate my ex.

When my old love answered the same phone number I called when we were 16, his voice cracked. “Thank you for calling,” he said. “I knew you would.”

¤

Plot. I answer my father’s questions as honestly as I can. Directly after the appointment with the cancer-clouded lungs, he commands me to drive him to his lawyer’s office so he can finalize his will. I tell him this is not necessary, not today. He insists.

In my car, ashing his illicit cigarette out the passenger-side window, he asks. “Will I be in pain?”

I do not hesitate. “No,” I say. “We’ll use drugs.”

At the lawyer’s office, Donna — the paralegal my mother calls Fat Donna for hitting on an old boyfriend of hers (my mother is not Italian, but holds grudges like one) — squeezes my father’s hand and tells him how sorry she is. “We’ll take care of it,” she says of the will.

Donna leads us to a small conference room. My father, who owns nothing outright except his car (he still has a mortgage on his house and a lease for the bar) has requested a straightforward will with a sole beneficiary: me.

In the glassed-in room, we wait and watch as other paralegals run sheafs of paper and coffee cups into lawyers’ offices. We sit at a long table around which I imagine heated legal debates about matters much more important than this one being held. What do we talk about while we wait? Does my father crack a macabre joke? Amy, I’m about to make you a very rich woman! Is it now when he instructs me on writing his obituary? Don’t go on, okay, hon? Keep it classy.

Twenty minutes later, a lawyer whose face I instantly forget follows Donna inside the conference room. “Mr. Monticello, I’m sorry about the circumstances,” he says in a lawyerly voice. “We’ve got you all set here.” He shows my father where to sign.

My father is left-handed, as the granddaughter he never meets will be. He flips through the documents and signs his name and the date, November 8, 2012, on a slant I won’t immediately recognize when, a year from now, a friend gives me a bracelet engraved with this handwriting. A bracelet I will promptly lose while moving from Wisconsin to Massachusetts with my husband and six-month-old, and never speak of again to my friend out of shame.

My father hands the pen back to Donna and squeezes my arm. “Bank,” he says.

¤

Associative leap. A year before COVID-19 took 20,000 lives in New York City over the course of a spring — the sirens in Brooklyn going off all day and night — a friend traveled there to donate one of her kidneys. She quietly spent many months being tested on behalf of multiple strangers, and did not go public with her plan until she was finally and successfully matched with a young mother. When asked by friends and acquaintances on Facebook her reasons for this extreme generosity, my friend said she had long wanted to be an organ donor and especially hoped to prolong the life of someone younger than herself, someone with children. In her post, she used the technical name for the operation she would be having: a radical nephrectomy.

On the day of her surgery, she posted on Facebook, prepped in a hospital gown, ready, and of course a little scared. Hundreds of us waited for her next post. Hours later, when another photo finally showed up in my newsfeed — my friend’s skin pale, but her eyes radiant, her IV’d hand clutched gratefully over her heart — I wept with astonishment. In the photo, her smile can only be described as beatific. Exalted.

“This is among the very best days of my life,” she wrote.

¤

Meta. I was taught to write in the past tense — this way, the narrator can properly reflect on events from a more distanced vantage. But the parts of the story I focus on keep changing with each year I continue to live and my father continues not to — the language of his death fixed; the context, fluid.

It’s like watching a complicated TV drama over and over (something my father and I did often) — you notice something new each time.

It’s like when I call my mother, which I do most evenings in the pandemic. I start out sitting down to talk, but then I immediately get up and start to pace. I walk the floors of my apartment and talk to her for hours, for as long as she’ll grant me. Each room hears a different part of the conversation.

The text as alive as my friend’s kidney in the body of another mother. Alive as dividing cancer cells. Alive as a virus mutating its form.

¤

Plot. The bones, the brain, the lungs: the sites where renal cell carcinoma most often metastasizes. The lungs, we knew. The rest would have to be hunted down in scans.

When I was 13, my aunt’s mother-in-law died of bone cancer. One night just before the hospice phase, my aunt came to our house after a particularly hard caretaking shift. She described the task of turning her mother-in-law over in bed. “I could feel her bones breaking in my hands,” she said.

Now, at my mother’s new house — the 19th-century fixer-upper farmhouse she bought 10 years ago, not the home she once shared with my father, the home where my aunt came when the sisters were still close — I stand in front of her wood pellet stove. In November, air becomes visible. Our breath turns to fog, the wind to blade, the heat into melting windshield frost.

I haven’t stopped moving in days. I go to the bank to make last night’s deposits from the bar. I go to the warehouse for more frozen onion rings. I go to CVS to pick up prescriptions. I take my father all over town to different doctors — cardiologist, gastroenterologist, primary care — trying and sort out his palpitations, his insomnia, his jaundiced skin.

I have never been more awake in my life. I don’t understand it yet, but this is the sorcery of caretaking: all certainty and purpose. Decisions come easily now, the motion unceasing. I achieve flow.

My mother’s stove blows hot, smoky air under my sweater. What fools the body more than warmth? wrote the poet Stephen Dunn. Heat calms me. At the old house — the one my father lived in until I was two — I would sit on the floor vents and let the hot air travel up my back like a hand.

If the cancer is in my father’s bones, I think, they might break in my hands, too. How will I turn him over in bed? How will I do it without causing him pain?

Sometimes, when Italians really want to ward off evil, we make ourselves imagine what we fear in torturous detail. The key is to really suffer when you do this, or it won’t work.

So, in my mind’s eye, I see my father’s yellow A-frame house on the north side of my hometown — once cheery, now dull and sunken into the hillside. I walk up the three steps and open the door directly into the living room. The walls are popcorn-textured and streaked orange with nicotine. A stale haze hangs over everything: old cigarette smoke. My father’s sooty gingham furniture has been rearranged, the couch and loveseat pushed to opposite walls, the coffee table moved to another room. In its place is a hospital bed, which faces a 56-inch flatscreen TV.

In the bed, I see a body. My father, six months from now, thinner than I’ve ever seen him except in photos as a small, good-natured middle child. He’s lying on his back. I announce my intentions. Dad, I say. I’m going to turn you onto your side now.

I slide my fingers — light as a feather, stiff as a board — under his sharp shoulders, his disintegrating hips, and use my own body — my core, my legs — for torque. But just as his body begins to lift (a body so wasted I cannot bear to look at his face), I feel the small pops beneath my fingers.

¤

Backstory, a.k.a. there have been worse deaths in my family. Less than two years before my father’s death, one of my other aunts died. A cyst had quietly swelled on the left ventricle of her heart and burst the morning after her daughter’s 16th birthday party. She was 46.

“Gone before she hit the floor,” my uncle said when I got into town. I understood the implication was that she didn’t suffer.

My cousin suffered. She and her mother had had an argument the night before, after the party.

The next day I found her, 16 and a day, at the top of the stairs in her brother’s house, sitting with the boyfriend who had tried to resuscitate my aunt on the bathroom floor. I sat on the stair below them and hugged my cousin’s knees.

“It’s my fault,” she said.

For the next six years, no mother to ground her, to forbid her from shouldering this undeserved blame, my cousin punished herself with a drug addiction that almost killed her, too, but extraordinarily did not.

¤

Meta. A death like millions of other unspecial deaths — a few thousand packs of cigarettes, then cancer, then paperwork. It isn’t even interesting paperwork. The power of attorney form with my name on it doesn’t say what it means: You will be a fatherless child soon, like we all will if we are lucky enough to live long enough.

¤

Context, a.k.a. 700K Americans have died from COVID-19. My friend’s father was early, one of the first recorded deaths in the state of West Virginia.

Days later, the country shut down. Our governor said it would last three weeks to “flatten the curve” — a strategy to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed by the waves of illness expected. My husband and I wiped down the groceries delivered to our house. We taught our classes over Zoom. We watched Tiger King in a state of denial about everything but whether Carole Baskin really fed her ex-husband to big cats.

My friend posted on Facebook:

I was told that one of the hard things about grief is that everyone who isn’t affected just goes about their daily lives as if the whole world wasn’t fundamentally changed. I have to say, there is some small grace in the fact that, nope, our dad died and the whole world did grind to a halt.

¤

False climax, a.k.a. it was the bear. Three days after finalizing his will at the lawyer’s office, my father dies. He dies just after midnight on Monday, November 12, 2012, less than two months after his 63rd birthday at my mother’s house. Most likely, he dies in the ambulance before we reach the hospital. Cardiac arrest, not cancer.

In other words, my father had a broken leg, but was eaten by a bear.

But you’ve known that part all along: that my father dies. Only inexperienced writers make the death the climax.

When writing the story of an ordinary death, it’s best to show restraint. Resist the urge to describe what a person’s chest does during CPR or what your father’s last words were.

¤

Context, a.k.a. a year of ordinary death. The scale of it, we say. But sometimes it is scale itself that makes something ordinary. Stalin’s famous words: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” See something a few hundred thousand times and you acclimate. You don’t even stop to look.

Last year, The New York Times began a series of eulogies meant to keep us from getting inured to so much death. “Those We’ve Lost” profiles both the ordinary and famous (or locally famous) who have died from COVID-19 — beloved schoolteachers and hotshot developers and former diplomats, fashion designers and playwrights and comedians. The first woman bus driver in Nashville. The last living male of the indigenous Juma tribe of Brazil. Marguerite Derrida, wife of Jacques Derrida.

¤

False climax, part two. How can there be a climax to an ongoing story?

¤

Climax, a.k.a. I know the rules, but my mother says fuck the rules. My father is still conscious when my husband and I pull up to the yellow house — I see his lips moving as we walk in. But I am not allowed to speak to him. A paramedic at least five years younger than me steers me aside for questions. I tell him about the prescription bottles on the coffee table. I tell him about the cancer. He calmly nods and writes down what I say, and I feel relief that his manner isn’t hurried.

But when I turn around, my father’s eyes have rolled back into his head. Two other EMTs yank an oxygen mask over his face and then four of them lift him onto a stretcher. Once outside, someone tells me I can ride in the ambulance. They lead me to the front passenger door, not the back where the stretcher will go; this confuses me, but not for long. As we drive the empty suburban streets, coasting through red lights toward the hospital where I was born, I hear the sound of defibrillator pads passing electric currents to my father’s heart. I can’t be back there, I realize, because the EMTs are trying to save his life. Which means he is dying. A heavy purple curtain — vaudevillian, absurd in its richness of berry colored fabric, who put this here? — separates us.           

I try to peek anyway. “Don’t,” the driver says. “Stay up here with me.”

My politeness robot takes over. “Thank you,” I say.

When we arrive at the hospital, I’m told to wait in the ambulance. The paramedics unload my father from the back and wheel the stretcher toward the hospital doors in front of me. Rain gathers on the huge flat windshield, but this only partially obstructs the view of my father on the stretcher. He is no longer moving except artificially — the hands of the tallest paramedic pump his chest up and down as they wheel him through the automated double doors.

I watch him as he goes.

I’m alone in the ambulance maybe three minutes. Then, out of the rainy dark, my mother’s face materializes in the passenger-side window.

“They told me to wait here,” I say through the glass.

“Too bad for them,” she says. She opens the door and pulls me out.

¤

Plot. No fewer than three of my ex-boyfriends attended my father’s wake. One of them, my very first boyfriend from middle school, drove two-and-a-half hours from Connecticut with his wife. They waited over an hour in the long line of elderly Italians, and when they finally reached the receiving line, we all took an extra moment to hug. Then they drove the two-and-a-half hours back home.

¤

Meditation, a.k.a. an attempt to stumble upon meaning. My father’s ashes were given to me in a plastic bag, inside a hard plastic box, inside a burgundy cloth bag. He left no instructions in his will about his remains; all he told me was that he wanted to be cremated.

For the first year after his death, I thought often of scattering his ashes in far-flung locales: a handful from the window of a trulli in Alberobello (where our ancestors are from), a handful in the Nor Noi grass in Thailand (where his older brother was killed in a military accident in 1968 loading bombs bound for Cambodia and Laos), a handful, maybe, at Yankee Stadium (though my father swore he’d never set foot in the new stadium, saying the Yankees weren’t for regular people anymore).

But nine years later, the ashes still sit at the top of my closet. When I’m lying in bed, I have a clear view of the burgundy bag. I don’t visit my father’s grave because my home is his grave.

My mother wants to be cremated, too. I don’t want this same problem to happen again, so I periodically ask her where she wants her ashes scattered. She used to tell me the trash was fine with her, but over time she’s come to understand I need a real answer. She’s thinking about it.

We joke about scattering my father’s ashes with hers.

“The divorce never really took,” I say, and we laugh because it’s true.

She cared for him plenty in their three decades apart — advised him on his business, included him in holidays. She showed up at his house the night he was arrested for DUI to tell him he wasn’t a terrible, irredeemable person. And my father cared for her: he paid for a new roof on our old house, bought her Liz Claiborne and her favorite Halston perfume for her birthday and Christmas every year. When I lived with him my junior year of high school, my mother broke up with her then-boyfriend. She called crying to tell me about it and because I had left over the boyfriend in the first place, I stonewalled her with a That’s what you get attitude.

“Get your coat,” my father said when I told him.

He stopped to get a pizza on the way and then called two of his cooks — guys I went to school with — to come to my mother’s and move the boyfriend’s things out to the curb. Then he sat at her kitchen table all evening making her laugh, telling her only once that the boyfriend was a chump.

But my mother did leave my father. She chose to end the marriage. Maybe it’s disrespectful to make her spend eternity with a man she left, especially since I’ve never seen her happier with any man than I’ve seen her living on her own terms.

Or maybe being scattered together, each body returned to dust, to the beginning of all existence, to whatever my parents were before they were anything, would be their divorce’s supreme final act.

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Associative leap. On my last day in Iceland, I took a bus 30 minutes outside Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa that resides on many a bucket list, but which I had not heard of until I booked my trip.

The bus drove us tourists out of the industrial aesthetics of the city — the black plate glass and geometric shapes, the black volcanic mountains and slate gray sea, both of which only make the bursts of red, pink, and yellow tulips more saturated; the white stucco houses with brightly painted doors; the street art that looked straight out of Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman — until the land turned to lava fields, the black, treeless earth painted in green moss so vivid it looked radioactive.

The Blue Lagoon is a big operation — spa and upscale restaurant to one side, locker rooms to the other — but there’s not much to do when you’re actually in the lagoon. All around me, people clustered in groups taking selfies, laughing and drinking champagne from the swim-up bar. Without my phone, which I left in the locker room, I was alone.

The five years since my father’s death had been busy: my husband and me managing and then selling the bar, getting pregnant, moving 1,000 miles for new teaching jobs, giving birth, and then moving another 1,000 miles for new jobs yet again. Life bubbled over the rim of a glass — even the joy that had followed our sorrow was messy and tiring.

And of course, the grief. Grief that my daughter was born 14 months after my father died. Grief that I had, by necessity, become a different person from the one he knew, someone who fired one his cooks, who moved halfway across the country twice, who gave birth to her own child via Caesarean. Someone who now had both more and less empathy for others whose loved ones die. Someone who had traveled alone to an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, surrounded by active volcanos that sometimes sent plumes of ash into the sky.

Some of that ash likely ends up in the geothermal pools of Iceland, mixing with the silica that forms a white mud at the bottom of the Blue Lagoon.

The brilliant writer, also somewhere in Iceland then, wrote in her new book that her ex-husband had stolen their son’s ashes, promising she’d never know what he did with them.

Another writer I know once described swallowing bone fragments that came mixed with her mother’s ashes.

Ashes as text.

The lagoon mud is said to perform miracles. Tourists smeared it on their bodies, painting themselves the color of clay. I couldn’t see the bottom, but I could feel for it. I scooped the silken mud into my hands. I rubbed two lines down my arms and then pressed my palms to my face.

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Meta, a.k.a. the beginning of this story had another implication. If my father’s death began with his birth, or with my birth, then my mother’s death is in motion, too. Hence, the morning messages. Morning! means Not today!

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Speculation, a.k.a. the path not taken. That my father didn’t suffer is a point I once disputed with people. An early essay I wrote about his death described my bereavement that we didn’t get the cancer death we’d expected — the loss of him stretched over months instead of days, managed by pain medication and love, my love. Commenters called me psychopathic for wishing his death longer and slower.

But I do not believe in a good death. I do not believe in a pain-free death, either. When my father felt the first symptoms of cardiac arrest, he managed to pick up the phone and call my mother’s house where I answered. “Hon,” he said, gasping. “I’m in agony.”

Those were his last words to me.

How do I compare this to the plan of hospice? To me moving in with him, commuting the hour to work for as long as I could before taking on a full-time caretaking role? I had already imagined what that could entail, as much as it was possible to imagine. Mentally, I had prepared for bones breaking in my hands and my own desperation and lack of experience bringing me to my knees in humility. Or futility.

But now I know that’s what I wanted. If I had to lose my father when I was 30 years old, I wanted it to bring me to my knees. It would be there, on my knees, that the dutiful only child who, on nights her father had been drinking, used to promise him over and over that she would never abandon him when he got old and sick, that she would never allow him to die alone, would stop doubting whether she deserved a happy life because she will have earned it like a good Italian daughter. A saint.

On my knees, I’d become unimpeachable. If I did this, I thought — take responsibility for my father’s care and see his death through so that when the coroner came to take his body away, they would find me still holding his hand and stroking his brown, bald head — then I would never again wonder if I was worthy enough to have a child of my own. I would wake up pregnant the next day, like a miracle.In other words, I wanted my father to do one last thing for me. I wanted his death to make me believe in something.

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Plot. A large envelope arrives in the mail. It’s from Donate Life America and the paperwork inside informs me that my father’s eyes were taken after his death. I knew of cornea transplants, but it turns out entire eyes can be taken and used for their various transplantable parts, or for scientific research. A letter thanks my father’s surviving family for this gift.

I wonder if my father’s eyes — an intense dark brown, almost black, exactly like mine — have a paper trail somewhere. Are they entered into a database? If a scientist uses one, do they fill out a form about the specimen? Do his eyes have a number? A number for each eye? I want to know where the living tissues of my father are now.

I try not to feel selfish about my father’s eyes being excluded from his ashes. I try not to think about what I whispered to my mother when the doctor offered to let us view my father’s body before they took his eyes and let the rest go to the morgue.

Do I have to?

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Meta. I once kept some of my father’s ashes inside a gorgeous silver locket a friend had given me. When my daughter was five and asking a lot of questions about death, I offered to show her the locket ashes. You could argue this was a poor parenting decision — too macabre for a kindergartener — but my daughter was born into my grief and is one of the few people who’s never been afraid of it.

But when I opened the locket to show her, the packet of ashes was missing.

I’m so tempted to make a clumsy metaphor here about resurrection — the stone rolled away from the empty grave and all that. I’m tempted to revisit the part of the story where I say my father and I didn’t believe in miracles and undermine it with the glittering uncertainty that is faith to so many. I’m tempted to allow the mystery of what happened to the ashes to take on meaning through a new context. To become a story about how they fell to the bottom of the Blue Lagoon and mixed with the miraculous mud, implying that my father, wherever and whatever he is now, still has agency.

But he would be the first to tell me that, just as likely, the ashes fell out on the train I take to work each day, ended up on the bottom of someone’s shoe, and eventually got kicked into a storm drain.

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Context, a.k.a. the present comes to bear upon the past. We talk of returning to pre-pandemic life. The word “return” makes me think of other words: restore, reinstate, revert. But scientists warn that COVID-19 might never be eradicated from the planet. Now that vaccines are available, we’re talking about annual boosters, cluster outbreaks in low-vaccination areas, the continuation of masks on public transit. Some call this the “new normal.”

I don’t know how much our lives will ever resemble what they looked like before COVID-19, but any resemblance will be just that: its synonyms are similitude, closeness, parallel. It may look like a text you’ve read before, but the context in which you now experience it will change its meaning.

Everything we get back will be remade by what was lost for good. Four million people worldwide as of this writing. Four million mostly ordinary deaths of people mostly over 60, all of whom died mostly alone and in pain and left behind millions more of their loved ones who will spend the rest of their lives trying to understand how the text works so that they might be healed.

We shake our heads. The scale of it, we say.

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A text as living tissue. Derrida writes,

What must a text be if it can, by itself in a way, turn itself in order to shine again, after an eclipse, with a different light, in a time that is no longer that of its productive source (and was it ever contemporaneous with it?), and then again repeat this resurgence after several deaths, counting, among several others, those of the author, and the simulacrum of a multiple extinction?

My father has been dead nine years, but I resurrect him so he can die again and again. Now he has died in a pandemic. When will he die next?

On the morning of my mother’s second shot, her message read, Today’s the day! A phrase that would read very differently now if she hadn’t made it home from the clinic.

But she did.

So: Not today when I am writing this.

So: When my daughter reads it — maybe years and years from now, when I, too, am gone — my mother will suddenly materialize and open a door.

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The end, a.k.a. coming full circle but the loop will never close. My husband was the first to hold our daughter after she was born. I was awake when she was cut out of me 14 months after my father died, but my arms were outstretched on either side and strapped down to the gurney. A position from which, if you saw a lot of religious imagery as a child, it is certainly easier to imagine your own death. The martyred Catholics of 16th-century England would stretch out their arms on the block, signaling the axe to usher in the miracle they were promised.

Seven years later, a pandemic wiping out a generation (including 18,000 people in our state), my husband and I would finally make our wills, each one funneling to a sole beneficiary. We would sign them at work, our colleagues turned witnesses. This is pretty morbid, I would think as my masked department chair leaned over a small table with his pen.

But I would think, too, of the paperwork my father signed at the hospital before the operation that never took place. Next to my mother’s name, he asked the nurse to write “best friend.” Then he put his arm around me. “This is my daughter,” he said. “She’s the one in charge.”

If being knocked into the next age bracket began my death, it was the subtlest of blows. My husband put our newborn daughter — black eyes that would turn marine blue, black hair that would turn honey, like my mother’s — on my chest. Instinctively, I strained my arms against the straps, desperate to touch her with my hands. But it was useless; beyond a green curtain dividing me in half, my insides were getting sewn back together. So, I curled my upper body just enough to make a small hollow. I held her the only way I could.

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Amy Monticello is the author of Close Quarters, a chapbook memoir about unconventional divorce (Sweet Publications), and the essay collection How to Euthanize a Horse, which won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize in Nonfiction.

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Featured image: “Blue Lagoon – Iceland” by Heather R is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.