Last month, my father-in-law died.
Writing it down like that seems shocking in it’s finality.
He had been sick on and off but had always recovered. So when my husband, Jason and I got the call, it felt like a dream or a mistake or another one of his strange jokes.
Jason and I flew to Tucson as soon as we heard that Ron (my father-in-law) had taken a turn for the worse but we didn’t make it in time.
Ron’s death was like his life: dramatic and on his own schedule.
(He was also a big ham and would love knowing that a bunch of Midwesterners were sitting around, reading an article about him.)
The next day, we went to the funeral home to make arrangements and fill out an endless amount of forms.
I watched my mother-in-law answer all the dry questions on the page: Where was he born? When was he born? Who were his parents?
When she got to “Job” we all paused. Ron had worked as an artist at an ad agency in San Francisco before moving home to Tucson. He was a traveler, a musician, a wood worker, a consummate host and a generous friend but sitting there in the funeral home his whole life boiled down to this one little line.
After he returned to Arizona, Ron worked as an administrator for the city of Tucson. So that’s what we wrote.
Years from now, when people looked back on his life, that’s what they’ll see. Not the fact that he had a rich, deep baritone voice or that he was terrible at cards. Not that he spoke two languages or that he once sang in a Doo-Wop band. Not that he loved his Midwestern daughter-in-law as if I was his own blood and would tell anyone who would listen how much I meant to him.
It felt unfair. It felt limiting. And unless the city of Tucson allowed me to attach a 300-page document and a Power-Point presentation, we would never really be able to explain the man Ron was.
Sitting there, I realized that it’s now up to Jason and I to explain Ron’s life to our future children.
My paternal grandmother died a year before I was born and I’ve spent my life wondering if I was similar to her – if we had some of the same qualities or ideas.
Someday, if Jason and I have a baby boy, will he come out like Ron? Singing Mariachi with a moon shaped face and a deep love of Western history.
Will our son look around and wonder where he came from? Will he feel the way I felt about my grandmother – that maybe there was someone on this earth that would have deeply understood me but I just missed her.
The next afternoon, I took a break from the forms and planning and scheduling to step outside. The Arizona sky was vast and the sun on my arms made me feel alive.
Standing out there, I wondered how a person can be so completely in life and then suddenly just… not.
Before where there’d been songs and jokes and the best Thanksgiving stuffing I’d ever had, now there was just empty space. (And a ridiculous amount of baseball hats.)
I watched the clouds and thought about how I would write about Ron later and try to describe exactly what his loss meant to me and to Jason. Even then, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully capture it.
My husband had a complicated relationship with his father, full of passion and heartache and so much love it could break you in half.
Ron wasn’t perfect and that’s why we loved him.
That small form at the funeral home was not nearly enough for the giant life we knew.
What we lost is not really quantified with words.
It’s deeper than that. It’s emptier.
It’s somewhere between piles of baseball hats and a broken heart.
This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum. You can find them (and me) here.
Photo by The Image Is Found