A year after my dad died I couldn’t read anything longer than a magazine article. I bought books, people sent me books. Some I threw across the room, some I placed with good intent on my bedside table never to pick up again.
When my mom died (it’s odd how much writing in the past tense violates the truth of how I experience it — her death is still present tense to me), I couldn’t stop reading. Still can’t. Book after book about loss, mostly memoir.
Both my parents were incredible readers. My father leaned more toward biographies and books recounting historical events. His books were generally hardcover — off the “New Arrivals” library shelf, and about four inches thick.
My mother loved true crime or books on unexpected human triumph. More than anything she adored a good story. I prided myself on being “bored” by non-fiction. We rarely read anything similar.
When I saw the inside of my husband’s apartment in our early days of dating, I clocked at least three books beloved by my mother. I knew then, he couldn’t meet her until we were committed. If she discovered their literary kinship, the pressure on the relationship would be too great.
It was pretty common for a phone call to my mother to end with, “Oh! And thank you for the book, “ to which I would reply, “You know that was all Mike,” and she would laugh. My husband cultivated a relationship with my mom through twenty years of best selling non-fiction that was precious to all three of us.
Just after Christmas this year, we had some friends over for brunch. I was practicing my social part again.Mike made all the food and I pretended to have helped. The guests were his friends — people I’d never met which somehow felt safer.
Eventually, because they are human, they mentioned they’d heard about my mother. Someone said they’d also lost a parent (just one. They were each at least five years older and lost one parent between them. This is the data we grievers can’t stop ourselves from collecting — as if we will one day use it to prove our hypothesis “Losing a parent is too painful”). Their words were kind.
I thanked them. I mentioned Christmas was harder than hard, which was followed by a heavy seven-seconds of dead air.
Awkward silence is less painful now, but back then was enough to send me to out of the conversation in a way I couldn’t re-enter for days.
My husband filled it.
“It’s such an odd feeling. I was looking at the New York Times bestseller list just before Christmas and was reminded of a book I’d heard about on NPR. My first thought was, ‘oh THAT’s the book I wanted to get for Meghan’s mom,’ and then I remembered.”
His voice cracked a little.
My heart cracked a lot.
To feel your loved one, loved by a loved one.
My husband genuinely loved my mother. On his own. Without me.
And she always told him, in front of me, “you know you are too good for her.” It was her statement of greatest love.
She was right, of course.
But I don’t collect book titles for her.
I collect stories — things my kids did, something a neighbor said, news events, ridiculous videos of children being cute on the internet, someone kindhearted featured on Ellen DeGeneres (of course Shutterfly gave them $10,000).
I collect memories, so many memories — things from childhood, an image of her tiny self curled on her favorite step, looking out at the water, coffee mug in hand, phrases she used, the way her rings filled up her fingers, the sound she made clearing her throat.
When my dad was dying of cancer, his mobility slowly petered along with his prognosis. My last best memories are him looking healthier and his hair growing back from the chemo that failed him. He’s sitting in an oversized chair with a stack of books around him. Books I don’t recognize, but had given him, nonetheless.
In the months when we knew he was sick, but could still side-eye the idea he was dying, I stopped at our outstanding local bookstore, Politics and Prose. I talked to a lovely woman at the prominent customer service desk and explained myself.
“I’m looking for two to three non-fiction, recent releases. Biography, true crime, stories of human triumph. I’ll need them every ten days or so.”
We set up a system. I’d call in and a small team would collect books I’d pay for over the phone. On my way home from work, I’d pull into the always crowded back parking lot and a staff member would curbside deliver. No rollerskates, no milkshake, but incredible service.
The books were a simple, beautiful, lie. A gift for my parents and me.
Instead of our own painful, non-fiction plot, we pulled focus to the shared experience of a best-seller. Grace I will for which I will forever be grateful.
Yesterday, I did another curbside pick-up at Politics and Prose. Three copies of the “Little Princess” for homeschooling this week. “We only have one paperback. The other two are more expensive — hardback.” The sales assistant who isn’t quarantined said.
The expense is the point. The parking lot was so empty my kids took a picture.
Politics and Prose is locally owned and has its own amazing non-fiction story of human triumph. It hosts book events, signings and large scale events (like my beloved Glennon Doyle’s sold-out, now canceled Untamed book tour), classes for writers, and readers. It is the kind of treasure real estate agents point out when showing homes in the neighborhood.
The bookstore happens to be a few doors down from Comet Pizza of Pizzagate fame. You know the one where Hillary Clinton and John Podesta where selling children into sex slavery? Another local gem that survived a lunatic gunman firing off an automatic weapon inside, staff having their personal information leaked onto the web, being harassed in person and by phone, and living in such fear a security team was staffed outside for months. Really good pizza and the ping pong tables are an inspired addition.
My father’s diagnosis of small cell cancer in June of 2016 predicted his death almost exactly a year later. We didn’t have to name it. It was always going to go down that way.
Today’s cancer is less well known, but we know it’s there. We can feel the fear of loss because of all the love already there. We have so much to lose.
No parents left, though.
Just pizza and books.