My dad sent me 1,936 emails between 2008 and 2015. Most were brief and business-oriented, even when the business was pleasure: “got tix for you, don’t be late. xo, d.” Others were longer, the type of letters that columnists claim people don’t write anymore. They were unusual love letters filled but with the unflinching love of a parent who might miss my childhood if only he could stop being so damn excited about the adult I was becoming.
1,936 emails, but there’s just one I keep returning to, where he told me “please know that I am with you.”
And then he wasn’t.
My father collapsed at his office in the Times Building on February 12 of last year. My stepmom called me to the hospital and panic enveloped me immediately. Dad was our fearless tribal leader (a self-assigned moniker). What the hell would we do without him? I was worried about my sisters, stepmom, my dad’s extended family and then, as per the instincts of survival, I was worried about myself. Where to go from here?
I went to other people. I reached out to women whom I knew had lost a parent. I asked them questions — basic, logistical issues, such as: “How do I sleep? How do I work? How do I stop myself from murdering someone when they tell me It Will All Be Okay?” The answers were in the same instructional DIY spirit: “I passed out when I was tired, I worked when I absolutely had to.” Some answers weren’t answers, just reality: “Waking up is the worst part because you have to remind yourself.”
I’m a year out, and I’m still rendering. If I could talk to that grief stricken kid, because I was a kid before my dad passed away, I would say this: you will feel uncomfortable when people light cigarettes around you. You will want to hit the mute button when friends complain about their parents. You will lose some of those friends. You will leave the room when your boyfriend picks up his phone to whisper hello to his very alive father. You will curse yourself for deleting the voicemails he left you. You will feel like the world is flooded with jello and you’re walking through it wearing ankle weights.
But if that kid kept listening, I’d continue:
You will start a group text with your sisters and stepmom to keep in touch and comfort each other. You will make it through work events without pulling a Christian Bale. You will show up for people as much as you can. You will join a grief group called The Dinner Party where you meet other men and women in their 20/30s who have lost a parent. You will learn that crying can feel good, especially when done away from work. You will stop drinking after conducting extensive field research on the reaction between wine and grief. You will spend hours scanning incredible photos from the 80s and 90s of the little family that could. You will find that your family, now even littler, still can. You will make your dad proud.
Six months ago, I had a big meeting. The kind of meeting that wrenches you awake at 6am in a cold sweat, with the feeling that you hadn’t ever really fallen asleep. I arrived an hour early, naturally, so I went to a nearby cafe. I was prepared, I had my hard drives, and they had great stuff on them, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had forgotten something. As I sat there and stress ate a piece of chocolate fudge cake, I realized I felt off because I hadn’t talked to my dad, a tradition I observed before every big meeting. I wasn’t able have the prep phone-call the night before to go over the words that could win me anything. I just had my own thoughts rattling around in my head. I felt like I had lost my ace in the deck and if you knew my dad, I promise you’d agree.
The meeting went well. I walked out in a daze and realized that a year minus one day earlier I had walked out of a meeting with HBO and headed straight to the New York Times. After an intense 9-month development deal, HBO had decided to greenlight my film. My dad was standing outside holding a cigarette and his cell phone. He looked up and said “I gotta call you back, my kid’s here.” I told him the good news and he smiled the biggest shit-eating grin, “I knew it.” Inside, his coworkers came up to him to chat, but he wouldn’t let them start before they knew: “Erin here was just greenlit by HBO.” At that point, no paperwork had been signed so I wasn’t sure if it was the right move to start telling reporters from the New York Times. Dad hushed me when I tried to vocalize my worries.
A year and a day later, I was back with good news. I walked over to the New York Times and whispered my good news out loud. No one heard me, of course. I cried, and hard. I wasn’t ashamed. I was closer to being the person my Dad saw when he smiled at me: a person who only existed because of combat with catastrophe, who survived that fight because of his confidence in me, and who learned that it’s ok to take a moment to celebrate, even if the contract is not signed and the outcome is far from certain. There’s only so many moments in a life, anyway.
Thanks, Dad. Miss you.
“Press Play,” by David Carr for Medium (2014)
“The Wrestler,” by David Carr for Medium (2014)
“At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture” by David Carr for The New York Times (2010)
“The Night of the Gun” by David Carr (2009)