I won’t say I spoke too soon, or too strongly. Despite our guilty good fortune, losing all our routines and school was quite a grief. Is, still.

But then what to call losing my dad, without being able to say goodbye, or gather numbly with family to remember him. What words can I amp up to? I feel like language fails when I try.

Of course these losses can’t be ranked. I’ve long taken comfort in Stephen Levine’s observation that grief isn’t a contest and that no apologies need to be made. Losing the goldfish, facing a terminal diagnosis: whatever tears our hearts open brings us all to the hot messy core of our feelings, our deepest being. Despite my struggles to avoid it, facing what’s real in here is clearly the only true way forward.

So I guess I have to say, wow. Shit! Oh.

2020 brought so many things to a head, we’ll be thinking about them for a long time to come. Right now the profound and the minor are all mixed up. I don’t think I want to be cremated anymore, but is this important or relevant? 

These days I’m mostly looking for insight from others.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations, six essays about life since COVID, are just as clear-eyed and heart felt as you’d expect. Reading her I realize she’s right, one of the intense humiliations about quarantine is that your family sees what your work is. It feels so important when they’re all away at their own tasks, but seeing how thin and unimportant much of it is, all things told, is a cold slap.

Then there are the novels, my usual escape. Roddy Doyle’s Love is a drunken-night-at-the-pubs lens on male friendship, and how we tell or don’t tell each other how we feel. Téa Obreht’s Inland is a western about drought, survival and camels in the Civil War. Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend features three women in a cabin facing hard truths from their 40 years of friendship. Mark Doty’s What Is the Grass is about his lifelong love and close, intelligent reading of Walt Whitman’s poetry and life.

All of these books turned out, magically or maybe unsurprisingly, to be about death and grief. “What is the grass?” asks Whitman in Song of Myself, arriving at:

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them, soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.Cite

Walt Whitman

I guess I was looking to dive into it all along, even if I didn’t know.

In a similar way, even though I entertain vivid dreams of escape, I know the one sure thing that would await me at any destination is myself. Everyone’s kitchen looks great on Zoom, their vacations, moving closer to family, their trips to the beach, the happy way they play the guitar as a family while my children give me dirty looks and explode things in video games. The online real estate and cost-of-living calculators make St Paul and Portland and Wisconsin (the most ethnically diverse city in the midwest! Friday fish fry! Cool arts scene!) seem like a tantalizing place for a new start.

But in all of these places, each possible future life, anywhere in the world, there’s still no dad. He’s gone from this earth, and only here in my heart.