Dad and I have always talked about everything: why my hair grows back after a cutting, but my doll's hair, cut by my brother-the-barber, never regained its length and volume; why Nancy Drew was a detective, but everyone said I had to be a secretary, nurse or teacher; why people might bully me, while Dad would always be by my side -- and on my side.
Dad and I always talk, but we tend to avoid the subject of death, a topic that comes with anxiety and fear. The older we get -- Dad is 97 and I am 65 -- and the more mortality becomes less of a concept and more of a reality, the less we discuss the inevitable. Yet Dad's recent hospitalizations forced us to have a conversation that could no longer be avoided.
As Dad lay in the hospital for the third time in two months, again awaiting anesthesia and an hour-long procedure, we discussed the possibilities of a bad outcome and what Dad wanted in terms of a service -- and in terms of how I should continue with my life.
He told me he wanted to leave this world with as little fanfare as possible. "Just the immediate family," he said, although I wondered about all the non-related family he has accumulated along the way and how these people would feel about not being able to say good-bye: the staff at my brother's office, the workers at the Shadyside mailroom where he volunteered, the teachers at Pitt who welcome him to the Writing Center when I work there, the women with whom I go to dinner and the theater and who consider him the "sheik of their harem," the friends I have made who have become his friends.
He also told me that he does not want me to let grief destroy me. That will be a tough request to honor because I cannot imagine a life without Dad. I cannot imagine living alone in the apartment I have visited for 26 years -- and lived in for the past 10. And I cannot imagine Dad living alone should death claim me first.
Dealing with death and its repercussions is a messy business -- almost as messy as dealing with life and its challenges.
And then, when the topic of death overwhelms us, we revert to our usual way of handling the subject: humor. Together, we read the obituaries -- as we always do to start our day. Not finding either of our names, we know we are good to go.
I wish we had a stronger foundation than black comedy to deal with the inevitable. Yet faith is believing in something without evidence to support that belief. And Dad and I are "prove it to me" people.
At one point, a few months after Ma died in 2007, we almost thought we had the empirical data we needed to have faith in the afterlife when we discovered 1) a strand of red thread lying atop a white t-shirt; Ma always sewed with red thread; 2) a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk; Ma always sent the grandchildren notes with a five-dollar bill enclosed; and 3) a bobby pin lying on the floor; Ma always used bobby pins to keep stray hairs in place.
Dad and I were convinced that these findings were signs of Ma communicating and telling us to believe she was OK and that there was a kind of life after death. Then, we heard nothing more, and our faith weakened.
I wish someone would come back after being gone for a few days or, better yet, a few weeks, and hold a lecture on What Lies Beyond. I would need definite proof, however, that this person had really died, spent time in some kind of refrigeration and was not just hallucinating about a near-death experience.
In the meantime, Dad and I try to take life one day at a time. This is not always easy when we find ourselves seeing the primary care physician more than usual, filling prescriptions at the drugstore more than usual and staying at home to rest more than usual. It is not easy when every movement causes a new ache here and a new pain there.
So, Dad and I will talk about why we delight in well-done fish but cannot tolerate well-done meat, why Agatha Christie still writes a better whodunit than most modern mystery writers and why 2013 is moving by more quickly than 2012.
We will not talk about death. And, hopefully, death will not think about us either.
Ronna L. Edelstein is a teacher and writer living in Oakland (firstname.lastname@example.org).