My wife IMed to

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My wife IMed to ask if I was at my desk: “Hold on. I’m calling.” I didn’t think anything of it until I heard her speak. But then I knew something was terribly wrong. Her voice was broken and distraught. She cried my name in a way I’d never heard before. But I could tell she was crying for my pain. My chest started to tighten. Is it my dad, I asked? He had a heart attack, she said. I allowed myself a moment of hope. A heart attack doesn’t mean he’s dead. If he were dead, she’d say so. Is he okay, I asked? “He didn’t make it.” I knew. But even then I didn’t quite know. There was still a split second trying to process what the words meant. But ‘process’ is too methodical and antiseptic – more like a moment of desperate tugging and tearing at the words to see if I could find any way out. Any way free.

Not long before, my father had finished teaching his morning classes at Irvine Valley College, south of Los Angeles. He was back in his office chatting with a fellow instructor when he started to feel flush, hot. He said he was feeling light-headed and his friend helped him lay down. Almost immediately, he lost consciousness. And he never woke up.

I assume, though I haven’t tried to learn the details, that medics tried all the frantic efforts to revive him, sent electric shocks surging through his chest. But nothing worked.

The news pinged from the school to my dad’s wife, to my sister (who tried but couldn’t get through to me), to my wife and then to me.

Perhaps because of my mother’s sudden death twenty-five years earlier or my father’s health problems, I had feared and dreaded this moment my whole adult life, like a bird flying over me as I made my way in life. I’d built a protective wall around myself trying simply not to be caught off guard again. But when it happened, it came out of nowhere like a bat swung into my forehead or dull knife ripped through my brain.

The first thing I could think of to do was to call my sister. Her voice quaked. I told her I already knew. A friend was driving her down to Irvine where my dad lived. I must have asked her what she was going down there to do. “I guess to say goodbye to dad.” I think that was the first moment I felt grief and sadness more than shock. I put down the phone and put my head in my hands. I looked around our office. It was quiet. Everyone was working. No different than it had been a few moments earlier before the phone rang.

In the two weeks since my dad died I’ve struggled to know how to describe him to those who didn’t know him. I can see him in my mind’s eye. I can feel who he was. I remember the texture of his skin and all his unique gestures. I felt his hand on my shoulder the day after he died. But like a fish who can’t describe the sea, because he was so central to my experience, I find it difficult to know how to explain who he was, how to decide which details to pick out of the panorama of my life with him. The qualities I remember are his curiosity and his integrity, his gentleness of spirit. The sounds and memories are of his laughter and wit, his lack of cant or pretense, the way he called me “my boy”. But these recollections each stemmed from those first three qualities.

He wasn’t a monk. He didn’t sell his possessions to help the poor. He was a man of appetites. He was unconventional; he had a ribald side. He had this thick beard all the time I knew him, often unruly, though trimmer as he aged. He loved The Band and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. In his middle years, though, and for the rest of his life he loved Willie Nelson, whose music was playing as his ashes were scattered into the sea. After my mother died, in the small apartment we still lived in for several years after her death, in a case near his bed, he slowly assembled a vast collection of Willie Nelson cassette tapes – it seemed like new ones were released every month, Willie with This Guy, Willie & So-and-So — which he used to wash away his grief over her death.

My father’s name was Alan Cohen. He was born in St. Louis in 1938. He was the first person in his family to go to college. He got a doctorate in Marine botany. In 1975 he moved to Southern California with his wife and young son, where he spent the last thirty-one years of his life. In 1977 he had a daughter. In 1981 his wife died in an auto-accident. He left the teaching profession for photography, then returned to teaching a decade later, and finally married again in 2003. He raised two children.

He was a biologist. And his specialty was the study of marine plants. But his fascination with living things went well beyond that discrete area of study. Some of my deepest memories of him, stretching far back into my childhood, are of times when he would pick up some plant or maybe some creature he’d spotted in a tide pool we were exploring together. He would hold it up with his thick fingers, push back a petal or a stem, and pointing with his other hand, explain some element of our quarry’s life and function. Most often he would be telling me how it had evolved and adapted to survive in some special niche. Fica … Cycad … Somethingadendron … He’d do that widening of his eyes – my cue to be as amazed as he was. There was nothing pedantic in the way he spoke. No tone of instruction, though he loved teaching. What I hear in his voice was his wonderment. Like a teenage boy who had found some amazing contraption with a fascinating secret that he couldn’t help sharing with me.

I could never quite match the awe my dad had for the architecture of life. My interests turned eventually to history and politics. But he infected me with his love of science, astronomy, space and space travel, and wonder about the future, which were the building blocks of my childhood.

My father enlisted in the Army after he graduated from college in 1960. And as a college graduate he’d had the opportunity to go to officers training school but chose not to. One day when I was a child I asked him why he hadn’t been an officer. His answer was that he didn’t want to. He wanted to be “one of the men,” he told me. He didn’t want to be above anyone else.

When he told me that he said it with an air of ‘wasn’t I silly when I was young’ or perhaps even one of missed opportunity. Part of me agreed or pretended to. But this little fact imbedded itself in me as an artifact of my dad’s identity, an object of pride and connection and knowledge.

His modesty was the root of his gentleness and empathy and, in a way I’m not sure I realized before he died, his curiosity. But it could also break my heart because sometimes I would look at it from another angle and see his insecurities and doubts.

I knew my father for close to forty years. In that time we lived in a quasi-ghetto in St. Louis, an anonymous apartment complex in Southern California’s endless surburbia, around scientists and artists. He spent the last dozen-odd years of his life teaching at a community college in Orange County where he moved in the middle 1990s. He never had any real wealth and never held a position of power. But at every stage of his life he was surrounded by this web of devoted friends who gravitated to him, like something that grew up around him wherever he went.

When I was child I couldn’t see this, or rather I didn’t understand it. When we’re young we treat everything we experience as a given. Only when we grow older and our horizons broaden do we see the range of alternative possibilities in life and start to understand who we and those around us really are. As I grew older and stopped seeing my dad as the all-knowing, all-powerful figure I saw through a child’s eyes, I saw him as a man. And I saw how people were drawn to him, loved him. I would come back home from the East Coast to see him in some new community or setting but with the same pattern always recreated. He would introduce me to the new people in his life. And they wanted to know me, in part I think because of what he’d told them about me, but more, I knew, because they thought I’d be some reflection of him.

One of the great heartbreaks of my life is that my dad did not live to see his first grandson who – God willing – will be born in November. But even in the midst of the grief that crashed over me I had the satisfaction of knowing that my father had lived long enough to see me make something of myself. And I knew he was proud of me. What I worried and grieved about after he died was whether I had made it clear enough while he was alive how proud I was of him, how much I loved him and how he’d been my anchor through my life. He meant so much to me that my fear of his death sometimes scared me away.

Because I was so close to my mother and because she died so young, I’ve spent many years struggling with and celebrating her imprint on my life. Since he died though I’ve realized how much he shaped me, perhaps much more, how the main guideposts of my life were ones he put in place. How much I was, in a word, his son. And that is, paradoxically, all the more precious to me since we shared not a drop of blood between us.

My biological parents were divorced soon after I was born. I don’t know just how old I was when my mother started dating Alan. But I know that he was there at my first birthday party. And I have no memory of anything before him.

Our love for each other transcended biology.

In the days after my dad died many friends came by our apartment to support me in my grief. One of them, who is not much younger than my dad was, told me how after his father died he’d always felt that he’d needed a few more years with him – that there was more to learn or too much left unsaid.

I turned this over in my mind many times. And I decided it wasn’t true for us. I wish that my dad had lived another ten years. But I think we understood each other. I remember last year at my wedding, after I broke the glass and kissed my new wife, turning to him and hugging him, holding and being held by him. And I think it was complete. In all the years I knew my father I don’t think there was any time I knew him happier or more content than in the final years of his life.

Two days after he died I wrote him a long letter that was with him when he was cremated. I told him how much I missed him and how much I loved him. I asked him to tell my mother I love her. And I told him I’d see them both again.

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