He was like a father to me, but when we lost him, I had to ask myself whether I had the right to be so sad.
Last spring, as my fellow Portlanders were shaking off the slow drizzle of winter, I was — as they say — having a day: Haircut. Bookstore. Vintage shopping. A stop by a favorite spot for a beer. Then came a text message.
My very dear friend Marguerite, whom I had grown up with in Philadelphia, had suddenly lost her father, Joseph. Growing up, Marguerite’s family might have seemed formal to others. Yet, it was at their dining room table that we had discussed many a teenage problem with real, adult gravitas.
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When my own father had passed away years earlier, Marguerite told me to go to Joseph with any problems a young man in want of a father might have. One night, after the dinner plates were cleared away, he sat with me and talked about my future. I told him I wanted to write. “With the Internet today, everyone thinks they can write,” Joseph had said. “The difference is you know how.”
When I made the decision to relocate to Miami (one of my many, many moves), I avoided telling either Joseph or Marguerite’s mom. Marguerite herself had been doing plenty of her own traveling — off to California and to study Spanish in Mexico and to work with refugees in the Middle East. Why, I thought, bother her parents with the details of where I was headed? But Marguerite had already told Joseph, and when he was supportive of the decision, I was so relieved, especially because my own family had been more suspicious of the idea.
After I received the text message with news of his passing, I sat there, my craft beer growing warm, feeling for all the world like my own father had died all over again. But I wondered: What right had I to be so upset over the passing of someone else’s father? Was I appropriating her loss? My own mother reinforced my concerns. “Marguerite and her sister lost a father, not you,” Mother remarked a few days later. “Don’t be so upset. It’s none of your business.”
When a familiar cashier at Trader Joe’s noted I was not my usual, chatty self, I suddenly found myself blurting: “The father of one my best friend’s died, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to get a ticket back East, and…” It all came out in a gush and was, to say the least, not typical check-out line banter.
But life went on, and several weeks ago, I was rushing out the door to a job interview, and there was a package for me. The return address was that of Marguerite’s mother. Knowing I had developed a fondness for bow ties, Marguerite and her mother had decided I should have Joseph’s. In the moment — jobless and with nowhere worth wearing such beautiful ties, the gift felt like a reminder of my own failure. So I folded them back up in their tissue paper and put them aside.
However, the interview went well, and as a result of it, I would be again be writing and editing, just as I had discussed with Joseph on that long ago night. Suddenly I could see the bow ties — and the fact that his wife and daughter wanted me to have them — as confirmation that I hadn’t appropriated their grief. Someone I loved and respected had passed. My grief over him was my own.
And now, when I wear them, I still hear the echoes his words of encouragement: “The difference is you know how.”
Last modified: December 21, 2018