His Office Cenotaph
My place of mourning is his lifelong place of employment.
He’s still in the box he arrived in, sitting on the same shelf we placed him on weeks after his death.
Always an unceremonious bunch, the idea of spreading his ashes seemed stilted, yet chucking his last remains seemed, even for us, too flippant. So on the shelf he went, among the few souvenirs, keepsakes and mementos that evidence my family’s time in yesterdays.
Most of those objects bear The Washington Post logo.
Dad worked at The Post for several decades and, much like Johnny Cash’s Psycho-Billy Cadillac, he amassed his Post memorabilia one piece at time: a commemorative insert here, a newspaper display rack there, and enough branded pens to supply a school district.
In retrospect, his resting place among Post ephemera is fitting. Not because he was with us for a short time but because he was for all those years a newspaper man, a Washington Post man.
That a copy of The Post could be found each morning on my family’s kitchen table didn’t set my childhood experience apart from my peers. The Post was ubiquitous those days, the glory days of headlines and Woodwords and Bernsteins (may it too rest in peace). However, unlike my classmates, each time I saw The Post I saw my father and its ubiquity only reaffirmed the association.
The inextricable link between The Post and my Dad wasn’t forged from a childhood inability to compartmentalize the working man from the man himself — though the difference between the two is often subtle to point of being indistinguishable — it was because Dad loved his job.
I’m not certain at those tender ages I was able to discern pride in other men, but I could detect it in Dad whenever he identified himself as a Washington Post man. He loved The Washington Post and for that reason I loved The Washington Post.
Despite my love for Dad’s affiliation with The Post, I understood little about what he did there. I knew he worked in management, responsible for single copy sales, but how he spent his decades of days at work, I had no clue.
I’m not sure now why the concept of management eluded me in my youth but, for some reason, I couldn’t comprehend what being a manager entailed.
Why couldn’t I conceptualize or even care about the details of his job? Is it that children are generally unaware of the supply and demand driven world beyond their own, a world of hiding places, critters and running open-mouthed to the place where a lightning bug’s glow just expired?
I could easily grasp work performed by hand. Builders built, Police policed and Doctors doctored. Yet management, the job of organizing resources and leading men, was effected largely through skills hidden from my view. And because I couldn’t see my Dad work, my only way of learning about his working life was to ask him.
School mandated parent-child work excursions forced me to ask him on occasion. His answers, always, were short. My understanding would never be advanced. Lacking the language or interest to probe further on those rare occasions, I remained oblivious to how my father spent the majority of his time.
This void in understanding prevented me from knowing my Dad at all, for if he loved his work and I knew nothing about his work, then I knew nothing about his love.
By early adulthood I may’ve had the eyes to finally see the specifics of his job, but by then I was too self-absorbed to view his work at all. Against his urgings, I spent my post-collegiate days pursuing everything but a long-term career. Had I heeded his call to take up a briefcase in arms I would’ve learned the language of management. I would’ve stopped taking for granted his unremitting daily procession to and from The Post and had both the temerity and terminology to ask him what he did when he arrived there.
I never had the chance to ask.
When the pancreatic cancer killed him he was still a man whose life pursuits I couldn’t relate to. His home office was filled not with pictures of triumph and adventure, but with objects adorned with The Post logo. His internet homepage was The Washington Post website; the desktop background on his computer was an image of the hallway to The Post’s cafeteria, a hallway painted with a pattern of brightly colored circles that diminish down its length. A hall he walked many times before never walking it again. In that office, in a box, he remains today.
In eschewing a ritual burial we’ve left ourselves with no place to mourn him. Mourning needn’t be confined to one particular spot, of course. Yet I find myself longing for a place to sit, tranquil, asking all I didn’t before because I was too young, or too selfish, or too terrified to waste what fleeting time we had together prying answers from his weakening body.
I wasn’t intending to mourn him when, nearly a decade after his death, I directed the cabbie to The Post building on 15th St., I just wanted to revisit the place Dad spent so much of his short life. Ironically it business, true white-collar management work, that brought me momentarily back to D.C..
I’d only accompanied Dad to work a handful of times and couldn’t recognize the streets and buildings as they passed. I did recognize The Post building the moment we arrived and its instant familiarity freed memories long suppressed. Despite my quickening pulse I slowly entered the lobby. The floor was the same floor from twenty years ago, the floor my father walked countless times, and the sight of it was overwhelming. I felt, for the first the first time since his death, as though he was with me.
The security desk had been relocated since my last visit, now positioned before locked glass doors to prevent, I assume, crazed letter to the editor writers from entering.
One of my sharpest memories from accompanying Dad to work is of him jovially greeting the lobby security guards. Though Dad greeted the men with a theatric enthusiasm seemingly done as show for me, the tone between them, these strangers and my father, was that of true friendship. These men I didn’t know were friends with a part of my father I couldn’t know. It filled me with confusion and I remember feeling happy when the elevator arrived and Dad waved them goodbye.
The current security guard had no such friendship with me, asking matter-of-factly who I had an appointment with.
No one, I said. My Dad used to work here and I’d like to look around.
He wouldn’t let me in.
I told the man, pleadingly, that I would only go to the elevators, not up. He must’ve sensed the emotion behind my words because with resignation he extended a sign-in sheet and opened the glass door for me.
The secure area beyond the glass wall was small, just enough space for employees to wait for the elevators to arrive. It was also enough room for me to pace back and forth in, the memories of my previous visits with Dad flashing in my mind. I felt him with me, felt his love for this place, this newspaper, and yet, as I stood before the elevators I thought of how little I knew about any of it. What he knew about this building died with him. I can stand where he once stood, but I can never know what he thought while standing there.
This thought finally pushed my sadness beyond my body. After a few more minutes of tearful pacing, I turned to leave.
On my way I out I noticed an installation displaying historic Washington Post front pages. I read the famous headlines and dates, marveling at the maddening pace of history, the world we lived in, the world that preceded us.
Dad worked for an organization that primarily exists to document the past. He ensured that this neat package of the previous day’s events was available to anyone who wanted to buy it. He anticipated demand. A forward looking man in a backward looking industry. I don’t know what he saw in those headlines, what inspired him, what enraged him, and I never will. I don’t know which floor he worked on or the names of the security guards he greeted on his way out. All I will ever know is that he spent a great deal of his life here, selling this newspaper.
I exited the building into a downpour with Post employees whose workday was complete. They were all young, as my father once was. No one said goodbye to the security guard or noticed me in their midst.
Outside, the rain seemed to explode on the entirety of my body. It disguised the tears on my face and forced passersby to move with such velocity that none saw my bloodshot eyes.
I was hungry and wondered where Dad ate after his workdays but, without anyone to ask, I went empty and exhausted back to my hotel. There I called my son who, for now, is blissfully unaware of the life I lead when not by his side. The life of mine he too may never know.
My management life. My Dad’s life.