Everyone agrees, when starting a puzzle, you begin with the edges. You separate them into a pile, sort out the colors and put together the outline. But what is the next step? Do you sort by color, by shape, do you start with hardest or easiest? Looking at them laid out in front of you, how do you even begin to find any two pieces that fit together? At first, the puzzle seems impossible. But then, piece by piece, it begins to seem not only possible but inevitable.
When we arrived that afternoon, my sister and stepmom had already completed a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. It was placed carefully on the table by the balcony for us to admire. Another puzzle lay on the dining room table in pieces. Each piece had been placed face up. But not a single piece had been put together. Entering the apartment, tears already flowing down my cheeks, I felt all the feelings, layered on top of one another.
When I was a child, this was where my grandparents lived. Walking through these rooms I am constantly seeing two images in my mind, layered on top of one another. That is where my dad keeps his coats. The same closet where my grandmother kept hat boxes, each one filled with a beautiful creation I was not allowed to touch. This is my stepmom’s office, where she keeps souvenirs from all the trips they took together. This is the room where my grandfather smoked his pipes. This is the kitchen my husband helped remodel. This is where the same comic book strip hung throughout my childhood: faded and gray at the edges. What did it say? I remember the picture but not the caption since it made no sense to me as a child. This is where we sat through Passover Sedars that felt like they would never end. This is where we complete jigsaw puzzles while my dad naps. All of us crowded around, day after day, meticulously working.
The past two weeks with him in the hospital were hell. For all of us. But mostly for my dad, my stepmom and my sister who came for a short visit only to stay for an indeterminate amount of time. Those weeks were a rollercoaster. One day, he was recovering and soon to be discharged. The next day, the doctors were more concerned. Then my sister called me at work to say that he was being sent home on hospice. There would be no recovery. We should fly to Chicago immediately to see him.
My brothers, my sister, my stepmom, my husband and I gathered around him with a feeling of mutual relief, that he escaped from hell and was home. That we had all made it here to be with him. That he was lucid and knew who we all were and what was happening. But all the other feelings were layered on top. Fear, grief, shock, desperation. I ran to him. I kissed him and I sat next to him on his hospital bed and lay my head on his shoulder. I was 36 and was 75 and I felt exactly like it did when I was five, cuddling my dad during story time. I told him, “Dad my book is published” and I brought it to him. He pulled me close and whispered, “I’m so proud. I’ve always been so proud of you. Your whole life.” My whole life. Not just now, when I’ve done so much to impress him, gone to graduate school, become a therapist, written a book. He’s been so proud of me the whole time.
The next few days my friends texted “how is he?” What do I say? Is he getting better? Is he dying? It was both things. As he gained strength from being out of the hospital my dad went from sucking on a straw to eating solid food. When he had strength, he used his walker to get around. Sometimes, he sounded like his old sense: witty, slightly grouchy. He asked, “which chapter from my book most inspired your own work?” He still used vocabulary words I didn’t know. One day, we took him to the Botanic Gardens. He led us around by pointing from his wheelchair. But he also forgot our names. He kept calling my husband by his father’s name and he called his own sister “grandma.” Sometimes, he barely had the strength to turn over. It was both things. He was getting better. But he was also dying.
There is so much to say about this man. My dad was an arrogant, brilliant high school student, the top of his class. He got an undergraduate degree from Harvard in only three years. Then went on to get a graduate degree in psychology from Harvard soon after. He was a professor in Cambridge, at the University of Chicago and at Northwestern. He helped to create the psychological field of Infant Mental Health through his pioneering work on mother/baby attachment. He published a bestselling parenting book in the 1990s. He created and funded a conservation award that is recognized around the world. He sent the past few years teaching ESL to recent immigrants. He spoke Spanish. When he was fifty he learned how to fly his own plane. He and my stepmom travelled the world together. He had friends of all types, men, women, gay, straight, young, old, and he was a loyal friend to them all. He did things for people that they never forgot. And he did it with his usual candor and wit, lovingly teasing them, never letting them thank him too profusely. My dad had four children who he was somehow always there for, every time we needed him. He coached our soccer teams. He pushed us to work hard, to do more, to be better and smarter. And when we failed…he still loved us. Always he loved us.
We spent our days close by. Jumping up as soon as he moved and rushing to be by his side. “What do you need dad? Where are you trying to go?” Then he went back to sleep and we went back to our puzzles. Passing pieces back and forth between us.
After a week, my husband and I flew home to our kids. My sister stayed. My brothers stayed, each returning home for brief stints before coming back out. I made another trip out, one week later, with my six-year-old daughter Hazel. She did jigsaw puzzles at the table near my dad’s bed. She was un-characteristically quiet and well behaved. My dad told her, “Oh honey you are so sweet. So smart and so sweet.” I could tell she was fearful of him. We live in California and there has been a global pandemic for the past year. She didn’t know him that well.
My dad always loved children. They were his life’s work. My sister once asked him “what’s your favorite thing about babies?” and without missing a beat he responded, “how their little butts look in pants when they are wearing diapers.” I watched him with Hazel and ached for the things he will miss. For helping her with science projects. For watching my son play sports. It is almost unbearably sad to think of these moments he will miss. And yet. We were there. And I was grateful for those moments.
Two weeks later I get the call I have been dreading. It is midnight and my sister is on the phone sitting next to my dad’s bed with my stepmom and my brothers. She says, “he just took his last breath.” When I get off the phone I lay in bed and think “what am I going to feel?” and then I feel it like a wave crashing on top of my body. I sob uncontrollably on my husband chest and I just repeat this: “dad.” Dad.
It hits me. I can never again call my dad during my commute and whine about my coworkers. I can never again tell him my aspirations and ask him what he thinks I should do next. If I want his advice, I will find it in my memories only. There won’t be another chance to tell him. Did he know? Did he know how much he meant to me? How much I cared about what he thought? How hard I have worked in my life because of him, inspired by him, to make him proud. And yet, he was always proud of me. My whole life. And I somehow always knew this too.
That is quite a feat. How does a parent do that? How do you inspire your children to work hard for your approval and yet also make them understand that you will always love them? That you were always proud of them and you will always be.
My dad died at 75 years old. Peacefully, in his sleep with his loving wife and three of his four children by his side. He left behind four successful grown children and five smart, healthy grandchildren. He lived an expansive life. A full life. What more could any of us what then this?
This we know; it was his time to go. And yet, it is both things. We are grateful and we are furious. He promised to take my family on a trip to a national park next summer. He never saw our new house. He didn’t see my sister finish graduate school. He never saw my brother finish the music project he has been working on for years. He missed my nephew’s first year of college. He will never meet my sister’s future kids.
This moment marks the beginning of our missing. From now on, at every milestone we will be wishing for him. For him to love us and support us. And tell us the music is too loud. And call us by each other’s names. And let us know, a few hours into a family gathering, that he’s had enough and is ready to go home. From now on, we will wonder what he would say. We are left to complete the jigsaw on our own.
In 2012, in response to me defending my use of a commonly used grammatical error my dad said: “let’s uphold our standards, even as the rest of the world slips into barbarity.”
In 2021, after reading him a chapter of my book I asked him “what do you think?” He turned over in his hospital bed and replied, “I would have cut a lot of that.”
It is both things. He was proud of us our whole lives. And he knows that we can, that we should always try, to do even better.