Death Valley At Night. By Dan Duriscoe, for the en:U.S. National Park Service. — http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap070508.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2296361

The Best Worst Thing

Jeanne M. Lambin
Nostalgia Monkey
Published in
16 min readAug 24, 2021

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My father died on January 20, 1996. I was 26 years old. It was my birthday.

It was the longest shortest day of my life.

That morning, when I woke up, I had a father. My life was okay enough. I was optimistic about the future. It was my birthday.

And then, in a twelve-hour span, everything changed.

That night when I went to bed, I no longer had a father. Or to be more precise, I still had a father, but I had no idea where he went. My optimism vanished along with my father. The thought the thought of a future without him terrified me. It was still my birthday and my life…my life was definitely not okay.

It was an undiagnosed aortal aneurysm that ruptured and silently, slowly, stealthily, killed him. I didn’t know what was happening until it had happened. The insect in amber has no idea how it got there but there it is. I think about that day and how many things I wish I had done differently, the constant yammering of what ifs. You do stupid things because you don’t know that what it is you are experiencing because you’ve never experienced it before. You are a trapped in endless loop of navigating the unfamiliar. There is no audience in the darkened theater of the mind shouting, “look behind you!”

So, I didn’t look. Or perhaps I couldn’t. Had I looked perhaps I might have seen death closing in. I felt I had some sort of special immunity. Earlier in the day, I made the still-cringe-inducing statement to a friend, “It’s my birthday. My Dad can’t die on my birthday.”

Well…he did. He died at the very same hospital at which I was born.

That Day

My birthday became that day. The ash line that demarcated the start of the rest of my life.

And it’s not like I hadn’t spent a good part of my life knowing that day was coming. My Dad was almost fifty when I was born. As I grew up, he also grew older. By the time I was in my 20s, he was in his 70s. He was old as some of my friend’s grandparents. There was always a sense that this day was coming. Always. I peered into the darkened theater, but I didn’t want to look.

He was a psychologist and worked at the Veteran’s Hospital in North Chicago. It was a long drive there and back. As an anxious child, I was often worried about his safe return. He usually get home around 6:30 and I would keep an ear out for the tell-tale sign that he was home. When he arrived at the junction in the alley behind our house, he would gently tap the horn to warn other motorists, that he was there. For me, when I heard the sound, it meant, yes! He is home! Here! Safe. In my life another day. Perhaps I was an odd child.

I would sit next to him at the dinner table. Always. When I was younger, he would turn his hand into a makeshift elephant that would explore the dinner table, inspecting various things with its trunk. This always delighted me. Always. And yet, it all felt so precarious. Always.

I spent so much time worrying about that day, how did I not recognize it when it arrived?

With the passage of time, the once well-ordered slide tray of memory gets jumbled. First a rather inconsequential reordering of events or days, and then at some point, there is a full on, turn the tray over, dump all the slides. You try to put them back in, back in order, but you long for a different order, you want a different order because you long for a different outcome.

The morning after that day, when I woke up, for a moment I forgot what had happened. I was lingering at the threshold of the life I used to have, then the door swung open, and I fell headlong into the present. I started sobbing. There weren’t even transitional or warning tears. Just an immediate decent. Sobbing is perhaps an inadequate word for what was happening. It felt like the accumulation of every unstated anguish I had ever experienced trying to escape through my tear ducts all at once. Finding this passage inadequate and small, the sobs came out my throat and rappelled down my chest. I wailed. It sounded like the braying of some great giant grieving machine.

When I wasn’t crying, I was vomiting. I couldn’t keep food down. I eventually stopped eating solid food and tried strawberry milk. At least that made my puke taste better. I could keep alcohol down, but I seemed impervious to its effects. I had always had a hard time with unwanted and unwelcomed crying. If you are an easy crier, you know how frustrating this could be.

I felt like I was under siege, I didn’t know if I would puke, or sob, or both and sometimes I did.

The Busyness of Death

I had thought about that day, the moment, of him being gone, but I hadn’t really thought about what came after. There is the busyness of death. When someone dies, especially when someone dies suddenly, there is a lot to do — -like let people know. This happened in the days before cell phones and before everyone had e-mail. You had to call people and it’s not like there was a list, “please call these people after I die”. I used my Dad’s address book, my Mom’s address book, the phone book. This was the worst kind of cold calling. Then came the problem of whether or not to leave a message and if so what to say. Do you just blurt it out? Tell them to call? Hang up and try again, and again, and again?

There is a coffin to buy, burial arrangements to be made. Will it be an open-or closed casket? If open, you need to pick out an outfit. There are so many awful things to help arrange. The business of death is exhausting. The wake, the funeral, the luncheon, the memorial service at his work. My heart and head were somewhere else. There is your own grief, and the grief of your family, and all those that knew and loved him. And then there is all the collective grief, dormant in so many off us, that gets awoken every time someone else dies.

“Welcome to the Club”

When I told my friend Kay, she said, “welcome to the club.” I said, “what club” and she said, “the Dead Parent’s Club, membership is a bitch.” She wasn’t kidding. Kay, having lost her mother several years before, was one of the first of my friends to join. At that point, very few of our friends had lost a parent. Thus, our club had very few members, but the kinship was strong. Implicit in the invitation to join was permission. Permission to grieve and permission to talk about it. Her invitation was a great kindness.

But still, I was so uncertain. I had no idea how to approach this relentless reordering of everything. When I am uncertain, I read. Hence, to understand this club and the benefits of membership therein entailed, I bought books, I stayed late at work and went on-line. In the early creaking, slow-loading, dial-up days of the internet, I would wander in search of something or someone to help. I would click through stories of loss after loss after loss. In a life lit by the flicker of a screen, I thought, I am not alone. I am not alone, but yet, I was.

Because in my real actual life, I never knew just exactly when those tears would just demand to be let out. They were indifferent to social norms, expectations, timing. It was still so profoundly isolating and painful. There were days where the mere thought of getting up and brushing my teeth seemed an insurmountable obstacle. The rutted monotony of repetition was more than I could bear. On my wall calendar, I brocaded each day that I made it through with a large red X. These X marks slowly accumulated. Yet still, sometimes I didn’t know how I was going to endure. The thought of more days, weeks, months, and years without my Dad was unbearable. Part of what kept me going was not wanting to inflict this pain on anyone else.

“Break It Down”

After lamenting about the impossibility of it all, a friend told me to break it down. If a day was too much, do an hour, if an hour was too much, do a minute, and if a minute too much a second. My days were made up of a lot of seconds. And in most of those seconds, I was so fragile. Red roses, stainless steel, the sound of an ambulance, hospital scenes on television, other people’s fathers, alarm clocks, piano music, these were all things that could send me spiraling.

Tears were pretty much always waiting in the wings.

Another friend told me that I was “kind of a drag to hang out with.” She was right, I probably was. And in fairness, she probably said all sorts of other, nicer things that I don’t remember, some probably helpful, but the chasm of my grief was so endless, that those words just fell into me and kept echoing all the way down.

The Antlers of Grief

Time, as the saying goes, heals all wounds. What’s not addressed is how much time it will take. A few weeks, maybe a month had passed, and I felt a general expectation that I should be over it. I wanted to go back to the time when people wore all black, or wore a pin, or broach, or an arm band. I wanted some cue, some recognition, so that people could look at me and know that I was utterly lost, and I wouldn’t have to explain.

I drew a sketch of myself, with giant antlers. The antlers of grief. I explained to a friend that I felt that I had grown a set of giant invisible antlers, they were heavy and cumbersome and caused me to move in the world in a way I never had to before.

I longed for the antlers to be visible. People could see my antlers from a great distance. I would get a kind glance, maybe a comforting pat on the arm, someone would ask if I am okay. Would I like a margarita? “Yes, with extra salt please” In this world everyone knew someone who had worn them because no one could hide them. Everyone knew that they would wear them someday and we were all kind because of it. Alas, my antlers were invisible, their awkwardness isolating, my propensity for crying unprovoked, socially awkward.

While wearing the antlers, slow deliberate movement is required, lest you bump into something, or simply get caught. They are heavy, they change the way you move, where you can go, where you can fit in. A friend might be having a party. You might want to go, but oh…the antlers. You used to run joyfully and freely in the world. Now you just move. And some days? Just that is an accomplishment. You used to give little thought about how you moved through that world and now the antlers could make it hard just to get out of bed.

Without the antlers to signal others, when I ventured out into the world, running into people I knew but hadn’t see for a while usually went something along the lines of…

A Chance Encounter

“Hey! I haven’t seen you in a while, how are you!”

“I’m…uh…okay.”

And then what next? If I don’t mention that my Dad died? then it would seem weird, at least to me. That answer also seemed somehow wrong to do to him. Conversely, if I did mention it, it’s not like that wasn’t also awkward.

It was just hard to talk.

One night I was out at a bar. I ran into an ex-boyfriend. He was there with a friend. He asked how I was and I told him about my father in a plume of sentences. I waited for the look of panic, pity, and the flailing for appropriate words, any words. I think people I think want to be kind. They rummage desperately for words and pull out the first ones they can find. I know this can be hard for them too. No one wants to say the wrong thing. Many had. And yet somehow, he didn’t.

He said that he was sorry and gave me a hug. His friend proceeded to buy me a drink and invited me to join them when my friends left. Actually, I don’t even know if they offered, or I just attached myself to them like a grief-stricken barnacle. Whatever it was, we were there until last call and the Ex and his friend drove me home. It was January, he had a jeep with one of those covers that is basically industrial grade saran-wrap. It was so cold the seat was hard. The vinyl, now with the surface of ice rink. The seatbelt was inaccessible, so I slid from one side of the backseat to the other as, turn after turn, they made their way to my apartment building. The antlers and the movement were too heavy, and I just laid down across the backseat and watched the streetlights scroll by above till we arrived at my door.

It’s challenging to explain precisely what an act of kindness this was, one that I remember so many years later. My grief felt so large, so isolating, scary and weird, and they just accepted me. They never said a word about my antlers, but that was okay, I knew they could see them.

“There is Always Something Left to Say”

In those early days, I would still forget sometimes, I would see the him that wasn’t him walking down the street. I would think of something I wanted to tell him and realize that he wasn’t around to hear it and then a deluge of fresh grief.

I was talking about this with my cousin. Her brother had died just a few years before my Dad. She was there with her brother to the end. She thought because she had known, because there was time, that there would be a sense of closure, a chance to say all the things you need or want to, to say good-bye. I told her how much I missed my Dad, how many things were left unsaid. She listened kindly and observed “that is the nature of loving someone — -there is always something left to say.” Years later, her husband would die unexpectedly on my birthday.

And that is so true, today as I sit at my desk writing this, with an ever-growing stockpile of things I want to talk about my Dad about: Kandinsky, improvisation, psychology, philosophy, Liebnitz, music, concerts that he saw, family history, why Schoenberg his least favorite composer? What was his favorite food? What was it like losing both his parents within a relatively short span? What about his time in the service? He served as a navigator in the Air Corps during World War II but never saw active combat — what was it like to fly over Death Valley in the dark of the night, navigating only by the light of the stars?

My father trained first as a pilot then as a navigator c.1944.

And this will sound weird, I miss the intensity of that grief, I have a certain nostalgia for it because, when I was in that state, I felt closer to my Dad. The grief was so visceral, so present, it seemed appropriately scaled to the devastating and debilitating impact of his sudden absence.

What is amazing to me is that it can still blindside me. It is as if grief throws me a surprise party and I am the only invited guest. This can make for some weird circumstances. A few years ago, I was in an acting workshop. The guy teaching the workshop, who actually reminded me a bit of my Dad, was leading us on an exercise where he was inviting us to stand as though we were different people. First, it was a very straightforward run of people: a cop, a teacher, a superhero. And then he moved on to the prompt, “stand like someone you know. How would your father stand?” And for a moment, I couldn’t remember. I could not remember how my Dad stood. The grief of that loss, the on-going erosion of the little details, the disintegration of the fine filigree of memory. The tears appeared but I didn’t want to run out or even walk out. I didn’t want any attention. I took deep breaths and looked at the floor. I willed the tears to roll back from whence they came. I had lost him again.

The Piano

There is a scene in The Piano and, as I remember it, Holly Hunter is being rowed across from the island to her boat. She is in said boat with her giant massive piano, the piano falls overboard, the ropes that they had used to hoist the piano into the boat are coiled in the bottom of the boat. As the boat plummets below the depths, the rope uncoils and gets wrapped around Holly Hunter’s ankle. She is yanked out of the boat, into the water, being towed into the depths by the piano. This is another way I thought about my grief, one minute I’m in a boat, the next minute, I’m underwater, my grief pulling me out of wherever I am and into the depths.

My ankle will be forever caught in that rope. I don’t know if I ever want it loosed. Those moments, where I still feel the loss, his absence, and the giant void that left in my life. Somehow it is comforting to have something there.

I still dream about him. In some dreams he has been “here” the whole time. I ask him how that is possible, but he doesn’t answer. And for all I know he might be, I have no idea how the threads of the universe are woven together.

A Conversation

Perhaps I grew up predisposed to be yolked to the past. I grew up in the house that my father grew up in, and stuffed in closets and drawers, mementos, and artifacts of the lives that came before I arrived. I joked that all my relatives were ghosts and it did seem that this partition between what’s here and next was a gossamer scrim of stories of relatives I would never meet. As a kid was constantly asking about the time before. My father and I would go spelunking through boxes of letters and old photo albums. One day we came across this picture.

My father, Henry J. Lambin. The photo was likely taken some time time in the 1940s.

I couldn’t believe we didn’t have that car anymore, how can you get rid of something like that?

He looked at me and paused (as he often did) then he said, “because we didn’t know it was special.” I think of that conversation so much. How many things, how many moments, how many people do we let go of, before we realize only to late that it was special. Perhaps that is why I would go on to be a saver of old buildings and forgotten stories.

Today I still runnel through these papers, pictures, mementos. His letters home when he was in the service, notebooks from college, a binder full of notes from a creative writing workshop he took when I was a kid, the list seems endless. I try to reanimate his life from words on a page. I comb old letters, census records, and news articles to conjure life events of people I never met.

The Best Worst Thing
My father always got me a birthday card. This ritual was often marked by him coming home from work, dashing off to the drugstore, procuring said card, signing it, then giving it to me. Surprise! Somehow, I appreciated the visible machinations. Some years there were gifts too, other years an series of IOUs written on an 3x5 index card in his elegant script. Somewhere I hope I still have these, a trip to McDonald’s, to the ballet, to Old Chicago. Somewhere I hope we will still take them.

After he died, I looked in his office for a card. Maybe he bought one early. There was no card to be found but there was a tiny little porcelain figurine of a mouse. When I was a kid he joked that I must be a mouse because of how much I liked cheese. I hoped that it was for me. That was over twenty years ago.

And yet, still, each year on that day I am somehow always caught off guard. In the early years, I would try to hide my birthday. I didn’t want to respond to greetings and well-wishers with a loud sob. I also tried to outrun it, flying backwards in time so that the lines of demarcation of the day would blur. One year, in January in Chicago, I walked seven miles from the apartment I had been living in, to the hospital where he died. There have been so many other experiments and attempts. I have not yet figured out what to do with that day.

Each year, I inch closer to having lived longer without my father than I lived with him.

I hope that the day that I came into his life was a good day and maybe it even was one of his best days. It is appropriate that it is one of my worst. There is something that I am still trying to figure out about the asynchronous synchronicity of that entrance and exit.

I remain awed and humbled by the fearsome anguish of grief, by its variety, by its constancy. By its beauty. By its details.

It’s the clothes waiting in the closet for the person that will never return, the books and newspapers waiting to be read, the shoes by the door, the briefcase full of notes that no longer matter, and the words caught forever in the throat never to be again heard from or said to them, “I love you.” Being bowled over by the momentum a life that suddenly stopped.

It is the best to have loved someone so much. It is the worst when they are gone. It is unfathomable that that day is wrapped into one. For the time he was here, I am so grateful. I knew he was special — but the expanse of years that have elapsed since he left my life, I have learned just how special he was.

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Jeanne M. Lambin
Nostalgia Monkey

I help people imagine, create, and live better stories for themselves, their communities, and the world.