Family Tree

Dad’s voice pops up on my iTunes all the time. I recorded almost all our phone calls after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Our chats are part of my shuffle, along with Roseanne Cash and The Waterboys. In most of them, I am chewing gum. Destroying it actually, working 2 or 3 pieces of Trident into a united, flavorless mass while nagging my dad about his weight.

“119? Dad, c’mon. I want you up to 125,” I’d say, because I didn’t understand that dying people lose their appetite.

After he was gone, I joined Ancestry.com. I had a deep need to place my dad, historically, and remind myself that loss is normal. It worked. Just a few generations back, I discovered trees full of women on both sides who suffered Rose Kennedy levels of tragedy. Stillbirths, dead children, dead mothers, drowning in a pond to save a toddler.

I started to feel lucky. I had the privilege of not experiencing real grief until middle age.

This summer, I visited Ireland for the first time, with my 8 year old son. It’s a thing, over there. Irish-Americans coming home to a place they’re never been.

“I’m here to put my Dad’s ashes-”

“Yeah, yeah,” they will cut you off, nodding. They don’t want your story, they’ve heard it. The Irish are knee deep in our parents ashes.

A distant cousin gave me exact GPS coordinates to the stone house that Dad’s great grandmother had left during the Famine. Holding my phone, incurring insane data charges, my son and I walked up a green road the width of a horse cart, dodging flower bushes and their happy bees. We sprinkled Dad’s ashes on the steps of the grey ruin.

I cried.

“Imagine,” I told my son, “your great great great grandmother left everything she knew, and walked down this very green road one last time, carrying the family baton to America.”

“Can I see the baton?”

“No. It’s a metaphor. The point is, school starts next month, please get better grades.”

Three days ago, my son suffered what he would call his first big death: Mr. Chubbs. Not a cat or a dog or even a fish, which one can imagine developing a fondness for at a young age. No, our Mr. Chubbs was a caterpillar seized from a sidewalk and put in a Trader Joe’s plastic salad container. Chubbs nibbled on arugula lettuce for a day or two, and then built its cocoon. My son checked on Chubbs night and day, until it was time to spend the weekend at his father’s house. Then the tending to of Chubbs was left to me which is why the next time I noticed the salad container, it contained a dead butterfly.

“Mr Chubbs, Mr. Chubbs!” sobbed my son, back from his father’s. His head was buried in my chest, so I was free to laugh.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” I patted his shaking back.

“He had a soul. He was part of our family. Like Grandpa.”

Like what now?

The trip to Ireland, the telling and re-telling of stories. The reminding him that “Grandpa would be so proud of you” when he got more rights than wrongs on a math test. All so my Dad would remain real to him, and not turn into another name on a branch.

It helps be to nimble, when you’re a parent. Yesterday, my son came home from school with much longed-for good news. After months of bad reports, culminating in a 2 parent meeting with 3 school officials, he had a very solid week of not talking back, not doodling on tests, and keeping his finger guns in their holsters.

“Honey,” I said, “Grandpa and Mr. Chubbs would be so proud of you.”