I must have received 200 texts and phone calls the week of March 26, 2012. That was the day my father died. I only remember two of them.
One of them was the hopeless listening to the screams and cries of my stepmother, brother, and sister from 3000 miles away as paramedics tried to resuscitate our father after the heart attack that ripped him apart and killed him almost instantly. He didn’t make it out of our driveway.
The second one happened 18 hours later as I had made my way from L.A. to Boston on the first available redeye and sat stunned in his bedroom, refusing to leave the comfort of his favorite chair.
It was my friend Matt, an old coworker from my waiting tables/musician days in Boston. The other phone calls and texts up until then were well-meaning, thoughtful, and as supportive as you would expect in a scenario like this. The usual “Love you buddy, thoughts, and prayers” and “If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate” and countless iterations of both in Spanish and English.
But not Matt’s. Matt had lost his father a few years earlier. And the first tinge of an emotional response that I had just thought was gone forever came to me when I answered the phone.
“Hey, brotha,” (remember: Boston) “welcome to the Dead Dads Club! Here’s what no one will tell you: It’s always gonna suck, It’s not gonna get better and you’ll probably think about him more now than ever before.”
Then, for the first time in a while, laughter came barreling out of me.
In 10 seconds, Matt had managed to tell me what I knew deep down inside but had been covering with fake hope and well-meaning platitudes like a smoker uses nicotine when stressed, or like Dad’s atomic espresso’s that he would drink non-stop every day to suppress the feelings of failure as his health had deteriorated at the same speed as his business ventures had crumbled.
And it was true. The irony of that statement was that it made it ok. It made it ok to not try to fill the proverbial cavernous hole that had been drilled into my heart by the actual hole that had been torn in my father’s heart. It made it ok to keep it together when I could, like during his eulogy of which I remember exactly 0% of the 3-page tome I told family and friends while his lifeless body laid behind me. And it made it ok as my primal instinct took over and I refused to let go of his coffin as it entered the hearse on its way to the crematorium.
It’s always gonna suck, and every March it creeps up on me like an unpaid utility bill making the lights flicker with the fear of not doing enough.
I get a bit morose and accidentally come across the pajamas that he passed away in, his ashes that have yet to be delivered to Buenos Aires, pictures of him, videos of him telling stories that would make Daniel Wallace and Tim Burton wish that they had known him before filming Big Fish.
There are a few other members of the club that I’ve met since and, no matter what the circumstance, there’s always been this instant kinship.
It’s like an unspoken secret death handshake that binds us instantly and leads to some real, raw, and unfortunately, for the bystanders, incredibly awkward conversations.
And for every “How to get over a death of a parent” guide that exists online, I’m here to tell you what Matt told me. What should be the disclaimer at the top of all of those?
You probably won’t get over it. It might always suck, and that’s ok.
But there are a couple of things that you can try. What made it possible for me to deal with it?
It’s been long enough that they understand what you grapple with when you don’t have a parent to call for advice for anything. My father was the biggest Argentina Soccer fan north of the Rio de la Plata and, during the World Cup in 2014, I remember looking around at my living room as it was packed with all of my friends, some of them in newly-acquired Argentina garb, rooting for us against the Germans. And when the inevitable loss happened, again, and I found myself bursting into tears, not because of sports—because that’s silly—but because I had wanted this for my Dad; I found the silent hugs of support worth more than the weight of the golden trophy.
We’re all busy. We’re all always working our tails off, something we learned from Dad’s work ethic of 20-hour days, 7 days a week, which my friends constantly harp on. But something happened post funeral: There were more conversations, more family get-togethers whenever schedules allowed. More visits from my sister, nieces, and brothers to the west coast to spend time together. I even helped my little sister go to London for her graduation present and went so far as to surprise her there, which made for on of the best weeks of my life. We lean on each other and slightly fill the void with familiar feelings.
Dive in. Head first. That’s what I’ve done since and I haven’t looked back. It’s not because of his death that I find myself able be a full-time artist. It’s with his memory that I have been able to motivate myself even more whenever I think, “Maybe I’ll just take it easy this week.” Dad used to berate me whenever I came home with a B+, and combined with the military style upbringing that my older brother Mike put me through, you can bet your ass that I’ve applied that thoroughness to everything I do.
Most importantly…My Dad.
That’s the missing piece that people forget. Don’t hide from it, don’t bottle it up like it never happened. I find myself rooting harder than ever when I see Leo Messi suit it up for the Albiceleste. I find myself making home cooked meals with the need to live up to his standards because it would make the chef/baker in him proud. I find myself listening to Tango and Classical music more often than not, because that’s all we ever played in the house. I find myself defending and helping those less fortunate than me because that’s the way he taught me and the way it should always be. I found myself in his reflection more so now than ever before.
Every March 26, I get together with my closest friends in the world and we celebrate his life over some great food and drink. We revel in some of the stories I have shared with them over the years, we talk about our families, our goals and how lucky we are to have each other. For some people, therapy is the answer, and for others, though I don’t recommend it, holding it in and repressing it can be effective. For me it’s just talking about it, realizing it will always suck and trying to take the good things about the man that raised me and continue that tradition.
We sit and laugh and cry and enjoy the moment. And at the end of night, as we’re all having some kind of terribly unhealthy dessert and coffee, there is one doppio espresso ordered and left for him at the head of the table. We raise a glass to him for the umpteenth time, and for that night, the love from that group helps dull the pain of missing the most important person in my life. They’re not here for him, they’re here for me and I know that would make him so proud. Membership has its privileges.
I’m a card-carrying member of the Dead Dads Club and I hope you don’t get in too soon.
But if you do, give me call; I’ll happily relay what Matt told me and raise a glass to you and yours. Salud.