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Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz Book

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Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz Book Read Online And Epub File Download


Overview: Eighteen months before Kathryn Schulz's father died, she met the woman she would marry. In Lost & Found, she weaves the story of those relationships into a brilliant exploration of the role that loss and discovery play in all of our lives. The resulting book is part memoir, part guidebook to living in a world that is simultaneously full of wonder and joy and wretchedness and suffering--a world that always demands both our gratitude and our grief. A staff writer at The New Yorker and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Schulz writes with curiosity, tenderness, erudition, and wit about our finite yet infinitely complicated lives. Lost & Found is an enduring account of love in all its many forms from one of the great writers of our time. 


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Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz Book Read Online Chapter One


I have always disliked euphemisms for dying. “Passed away,” “gone home,” “no longer with us,” “departed”: although language like this is well-intentioned, it has never brought me any solace. In the name of tact, it turns away from death’s shocking bluntness; in the name of comfort, it chooses the safe and familiar over the beautiful or evocative. To me, all this feels evasive, like a verbal averting of the eyes. But death is so impossible to avoid—that is the basic, bedrock fact of it—that trying to talk around it seems misguided. As the poet Robert Lowell wrote, “Why not say what happened?”

Yet there is one exception to this preference of mine. “I lost my father”: he had barely been dead ten days when I first heard myself use that expression. I was home again by then, after the long unmoored weeks by his side in the hospital, after the death, after the memorial service, thrust back into a life that looked exactly as it had before I left, orderly and daylit, its mundane obligations rendered exhausting by grief. My phone was lodged between my shoulder and my chin. While my father had been in a cardiac unit and then an intensive care unit and then in hospice care, dying, I had received a series of automated messages from the magazine where I work, informing me that I would be locked out of my email if I did not change my password. These arrived with clockwork regularity, reminding me that my access would expire in ten days, in nine days, in eight days, in seven days. It is remarkable how the ordinary and the existential are always stuck together, like the pages in a book so timeworn that the print has transferred from one to the other. I did not fix the password problem. I did lose the access and, with it, any means to solve the problem on my own. And so, after my father died, I found myself on the phone with a customer service representative, explaining, although it was absolutely unnecessary to do so, why I had neglected to address the issue in a timely fashion.

I lost my father last week. Perhaps because I was still in those early, distorted days of mourning, when so much of the familiar world feels alien and inaccessible, I was struck, as I had never been before, by the strangeness of the phrase. Obviously my father hadn’t wandered away from me like a toddler at a picnic, or vanished like an important document in a messy office. And yet, unlike other oblique ways of talking about death, this one did not seem cagey or empty. It seemed plain, plaintive, and lonely, like grief itself. From the first time I said it, that day on the phone, it felt like something I could use, as one uses a shovel or a bell-pull: cold and ringing, containing within it both something desperate and something resigned, accurate to the confusion and desolation of bereavement.

Later, when I looked it up, I learned that there was a reason “lost” felt so apt to me. I had always assumed that, if we were referring to the dead, we were using the word figuratively—that it had been appropriated by those in mourning and contorted far beyond its original meaning. But that turns out not to be true. The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in “forlorn.” It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from an even older word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object only appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and each other and has been steadily expanding ever since.

This is how loss felt to me after my father died: like a force that constantly increased its reach, gradually encroaching on more and more terrain. Eventually I found myself keeping a list of all the other things I had lost over time as well, chiefly because they kept coming back to mind. A childhood toy, a childhood friend, a beloved cat who went outside one day and never returned, the letter my grandmother wrote me when I graduated from college, a threadbare but perfect blue plaid shirt, a journal I’d kept for the better part of five years: on and on it went, a kind of anti-collection, a melancholy catalogue of everything of mine that had ever gone missing.

Any list like this—and all of us have one—quickly reveals the strangeness of the category of loss: how enormous and awkward it is, how little else its contents have in common. I was surprised to realize, when I first began thinking about it, that some kinds of loss are actually positive. We can lose our self-consciousness and our fear, and although it is frightening to be lost in the wilderness, it is wonderful to be lost in thought or a book or a conversation. But those are happy outliers in an otherwise difficult region of human experience; for the most part, our losses lie closer in spirit to the death of my father, in that they diminish our lives. We can lose our credit card, our driver’s license, the receipt for the item we need to return; we can lose our good name, our life savings, our job; we can lose faith and lose hope and lose custody of our children. Much of the experience of heartbreak falls into this category, since an unwanted breakup or divorce entails the loss not only of someone we love but also the familiar texture of our days and a cherished vision of the future. So, too, with serious illness and injury, which can lead to the loss of everything from basic physical abilities to fundamental parts of our identity. Some of our most intimate experiences are here, as when an expectant mother loses a pregnancy, alongside some of the most public and shattering events of history: war, famine, terrorism, natural disaster, pandemic—all the awful collective tragedies that establish the far extremity of what it is possible to lose.

This is the essential, avaricious nature of loss: it encompasses, without distinction, the trivial and the consequential, the abstract and the concrete, the merely misplaced and the permanently gone. We often ignore its true scope if we can, but for a while after my father died, I could not stop seeing the world as it really is, marked everywhere by the evidence of past losses and the imminence of future ones. This was not because his death was a tragedy. My father died peacefully, at seventy-four, tended throughout his final weeks by those he loved most. It was because his death was not a tragedy; what shocked me was that something so sad could be the normal, necessary way of things. In its aftermath, each individual life seemed to contain too much heartbreak for its fleeting duration. History, which I had always loved even in its silences and mysteries, suddenly seemed like little more than a record of loss on an epic scale, especially where it could offer no record at all. The world itself seemed ephemeral, glaciers and species and ecosystems vanishing, the pace of change as swift as in a time-lapse, as if those of us alive today had been permitted to see it from the harrowing perspective of eternity. Everything felt fragile, everything felt vulnerable; the idea of loss pressed in all around me, like a hidden order to existence that emerged only in the presence of grief.

This relentless disappearance is not the whole story of our lives; it is not even the whole story of this book. But in the weeks and months after my father died, I could not stop thinking about it, partly because it seemed important to understand what all of these losses had to do with each other and partly because it seemed important to understand what all of them had to do with me. A lost wallet, a lost treasure, a lost father, a lost species: as different as these were, they and every other missing thing suddenly seemed fundamental to the problem of how to live—seemed, in being gone, to have something urgent to say about being here.



My father had something urgent to say about almost everything. The world was endlessly interesting to him, and he delighted in discussing any part of it: the novels of Edith Wharton, the nature of cosmic background radiation, the infield fly rule in baseball, the lingering impact of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the discovery of a new species of nocturnal monkey in South America, the merits of apple cobblers versus apple crisps. My older sister and I were welcomed into these conversations from more or less the time we could talk, but additional participants were never hard for him to find. When it came to other people, my father possessed the gravitational pull of a mid-sized planet. He had a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly, and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man; collectively, the effect was part Socrates, part Tevye.

The accent was a consequence of my father’s rootless childhood, which also left him fluent in six languages—in rough order of acquisition, Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, German, French, and English. To my subsequent regret, he raised my sister and me to speak only the last of these, but he made up for it by the lavishness with which he did so. It was my mother, a French teacher and wonderfully lucid grammarian, who taught me how to work with language: how to pronounce “epitome,” when to use the subjunctive, how to distinguish “who” from “whom.” But it was my father who taught me how to play with it. Thanks to his polyglot background, he had a relativist’s relationship to the rules of grammar and usage; he did not defy them, exactly, but he loved to bend a phrase right up to the breaking point before letting it spring back into place, reverberating wildly. I have never met anyone else who could generate such surprising sentences on the fly, nor anyone else who derived as much fun just from speaking. When I expressed disbelief at the “epitome” correction, he furnished, in an instant, an unforgettable mnemonic device: “It rhymes with ‘you gotta be kidding me.’ ”

It is a cliché about writers that we come from unhappy families—that we turn to language and stories to either escape from or give voice to our misery. This was not my experience. I came from a happy family, where language and stories were a shared and omnipresent pleasure. One of my earliest memories consists of my father materializing in the doorway of the room where I was playing—all of five foot six, but seeming to my startled eyes like a benevolent and thrilling giant—holding a Norton anthology of poetry in one hand and waving the other aloft like Merlin while reciting “Kubla Khan.” I have a similarly vivid recollection of him entertaining my sister and me a few years later with the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, declaimed out loud in rousing Middle English. My mother gave up early on the project of convincing him not to rile us up at bedtime; it was his job to read aloud to us each night, and he accomplished the task with extravagant gestures, dramatic voices, much thumping of the knees on which we were perched, and an exhilarating disregard for the text on the page. On the best nights, he ditched the books entirely and regaled us with a series of homegrown stories about the adventures of Yana and Egbert, two danger-prone siblings from, of all places, Rotterdam—a location he chose because he knew the sound of it would make his little daughters laugh.

Although my father was far better read than I will ever be, literature was his passion, not his vocation. By training, he was a lawyer and an occasional law school instructor; both jobs suited him, but especially the latter, since he embodied to perfection the figure of the absentminded professor. He had a prodigious memory, a panoptic curiosity, and an ability, in the face of problems of all kinds, to distinguish what was irrelevant from what mattered as swiftly as a coin machine separates pennies from quarters. What he did not have, nine times out of ten, was his wallet, or any notion of where he had parked his car. In keeping with the stereotype, these deficits always seemed like a consequence of his extraordinary intellect, as if he could somehow channel to better purposes all the mental energy the rest of us expend on not misplacing our belongings. Whether or not they were related, however, these curiously contradictory qualities—a remarkable perceptiveness about the world and a remarkable obliviousness to it—were two of the defining features of his character.

Among the many things my father was prone to losing was himself. I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and several times a year, my family would drive to Pittsburgh to visit my maternal grandmother. In theory, that journey took just over two hours, but before I was out of my single digits, I knew to be alarmed when my father settled into the driver’s seat and announced that we were taking a shortcut. Children experience all car trips as eternal, but those really were drastically longer than they needed to be, because my father, constitutionally genial yet also constitutionally stubborn, could not be persuaded that he didn’t know where he was going. I can recall one version of this experience in which we headed west rather than east for a solid half hour, and another where we managed to take the same incorrect highway exit three consecutive times. My mother could have put an end to all of this, because she was a much better navigator, but she was also a loving and pragmatic spouse, and so she intervened only gently on these misadventures unless time was of the essence—which, in my father’s opinion, it seldom was, because, in addition to having no sense of direction, he had no sense of time.

At any rate, as you might infer from his inability to locate Pittsburgh, my father was truly hopeless when it came to keeping track of smaller things. His pet name for my mother was Maggie (derived from Margot, her given name and the one used by everyone else), and one of the phrases I heard most often throughout my childhood was “Maggie, have you seen my”: checkbook, eyeglasses, grocery list, jury summons, coffee mug, winter coat, other sock, baseball tickets—several times a day, some new object gone astray completed that question. Without fail, the second half of this call-and-response was “It’s right here, Isaac.” Luckily for my father, my mother generally had seen the missing item and could remember where it was, and failing that, she had the temperament to track it down. In keeping with her superior navigational abilities, my mother was patient, methodical, and highly attuned to her surroundings.

I inherited these traits; my sister, who is now a cognitive scientist at MIT, did not. In this respect, the four of us, otherwise a fairly similar bunch, were always notably divided. On the spectrum of obsessively orderly to sublimely unconcerned with the everyday physical world, my father and sister were—actually, they were nowhere; they were somewhere near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, still looking for the spectrum itself. My mother and I, meanwhile, were busy organizing it by color and size. I have a vivid memory of watching my mom try to adjust an ever-so-slightly askew picture frame—in the Cleveland Museum of Art. My father, by contrast, once spent an entire vacation wearing two different shoes, because he had packed no others and discovered that the ones on his feet didn’t match only when asked to remove them by airport security. My sister’s best air-travel trick involved losing her own laptop, borrowing her partner’s, and then accidentally leaving it at a United Airlines departure gate one week after 9/11, thereby almost shutting down the Oakland airport. She also excels, as my father did before her, at the more understated art of repetitive losing: cellphone, annually; wallet, quarterly; keys, monthly. On the sole occasion in my adult life when I myself lost a wallet, I made the mistake of trying to complain to her about it and she laughed at me. “Call me,” she said, “when they know your name at the DMV.”

As the torchbearer for my maternal lineage, at least in this respect, I have always been naturally inclined to do slightly unnatural things, like organizing the pantry by food group or putting every one of sixty-four crayons back in the exact same slot it was assigned at the factory. That kind of fastidiousness, not to say obsessiveness, can come in handy for keeping track of possessions; one reason I seldom lose things is that I get a little itchy if I haven’t returned them to their designated household location. Well into adulthood, this tendency toward order, combined with two immediate family members who made me look good by comparison, led me to believe that I was not one of those people who lose things.

But pride goeth before a forty-minute search for that piece of paper you were just holding, and the fact is, we are all one of those people who lose things. Like being mortal, being slightly scatterbrained is part of the human condition: we have been losing stuff so routinely for so long that the laws laid down in Leviticus include a stipulation against lying about finding someone else’s lost property. Modernity has only made this problem worse. In the developed world, even people of modest means now live in conditions of historically unfathomable abundance, and every extra item we own is an extra item we can lose. Technology, too, has exacerbated the situation, rendering us chronically distracted while simultaneously supplying us with enormous numbers of additional losable things. That has been true for a while now—the remote control is still one of the most frequently misplaced objects in American households—but as our gadgets grow ever smaller, the odds of losing them grow ever larger. It is difficult to lose a desktop computer, easier to lose a laptop, a snap to lose a cellphone, and nearly impossible not to lose a flash drive. Then there is the issue of passwords, which are to computers what socks are to washing machines.

Phone chargers, umbrellas, earrings, scarves, passports, headphones, musical instruments, Christmas ornaments, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range and quantity of things we lose is staggering. Someone like my father might lose ten times as much stuff as someone like my mother, but on average, according to data from surveys and insurance companies, each of us misplaces roughly nine objects per day—which means that by the time we turn sixty, we will have lost nearly two hundred thousand things. Not all of those losses are irreversible, of course, but one of them always is: the time you wasted searching for all the rest. Across your life span, you’ll spend roughly six solid months looking for missing objects. Here in the United States, that translates to, collectively, some fifty-four million hours spent searching per day. Then there’s the associated loss of money: domestically, around thirty billion dollars a year on lost cellphones alone.

There are two prevailing explanations for why we lose all this stuff—one scientific, the other psychoanalytic, both unsatisfying. According to the scientific account, losing things represents a failure, sometimes of recollection and sometimes of attention: either we can’t retrieve a memory of where we put our missing object or we didn’t encode one in the first place. According to the psychoanalytic account, the opposite is true: losing things represents a success, a clever sabotage of our rational mind by our subliminal desires. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud describes “the unconscious dexterity with which an object is mislaid on account of hidden but powerful motives,” including “the low estimation in which the lost object is held, or of a secret antipathy towards it or towards the person that it came from.” A colleague of his put the matter more plainly: “We never lose what we value highly.”

As explanations go, the scientific one is persuasive but uninteresting. Although it makes clear why we are more likely to misplace things when we’re exhausted or distracted, it sheds no light on how it actually feels to lose something, and it provides only the most abstract and impractical notion of how not to do so. (Focus! And while you’re at it, adjust your genes or your circumstances to improve your memory.) The psychoanalytic account, by contrast, is intriguing, entertaining, and theoretically useful (Freud pointed out how swiftly certain people of his acquaintance found something again “once the motive for its being mislaid had expired”) but, in the majority of cases, unconvincing. The most charitable thing to be said about it is that it wildly overestimates our species: absent subconscious motives, apparently, we would never lose anything at all.

That is patently false—but, like many psychological claims, impossible to actually falsify. Maybe my father lost his baseball tickets because he was disappointed in Cleveland’s chronically lousy performance. Maybe my sister loses her wallet so often due to a deep-seated discomfort with capitalism. Freud would stand by such propositions, and no doubt some losses really are occasioned by unconscious emotion, or at least can be plausibly explained that way after the fact. But experience tells us that such cases are exceptional. The better explanation, most of the time, is simply that life is complicated and minds are limited. We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose.



My father’s own ability to lose things was inversely correlated to how much those losses troubled him. He misplaced stuff all the time, but he generally greeted each new loss with equanimity, as if his possessions were merely borrowed and their rightful owner had decided to reclaim them. I suppose that a different person with his talent for losing things might have developed a compensatory ability to find them. But my father had developed, instead, a compensatory ability to be cheerfully resigned to their disappearance.

That is an admirable attitude—close, I think, to what the poet Elizabeth Bishop meant by “the art of losing.” The line comes from “One Art,” a poem I have always loved, and one of the most famous reckonings with loss in all of verse. In it, Bishop suggests that minor losses like keys and watches can help prepare us for more serious ones—in her case, two cities, a continent, and the lover to whom the poem is addressed. At first, this claim seems preposterous. It is one thing to lose a wedding ring and something else entirely to lose a wife, and we are rightly reluctant to equate them. Bishop knows this, of course, and in the poem’s final lines, when she contemplates the loss of her lover, the art of losing suddenly shifts from something that “isn’t hard to master” to something that’s “not too hard to master.” The italics are mine, but the concession is hers, and it undermines her overall assertion so much that it is easy to read the poem as ironic—as acknowledging, in the end, that the loss of a loved one is incommensurable with any other.

Yet it is also possible to hear something else in those final lines: a reluctant admission that all of us must somehow learn to live with even our most devastating losses. In that reading, Bishop’s poem is perfectly sincere. It suggests that if we cultivate equilibrium around everyday losses, we might someday be able to muster a similar serenity when we lose more important things. That claim isn’t preposterous at all. Entire spiritual traditions are built on the idea of nonattachment, on the belief that we can learn to face even our gravest losses with acceptance, equilibrium, and grace.

Like many religious ideals, however, this one is largely aspirational for the majority of people. In practice, most of us experience even trivial losses as exasperating. That isn’t just because they always cost us time and sometimes cost us money. We also pay a psychological price for them: any loss, no matter how minor, can cause a small crisis in our relationship with ourselves, with other people, or with the world. Those crises aren’t triggered by the problem of location—of where to find our missing object. They are triggered by the problem of causation: of who or what made it disappear.

Most of the time, the answer is that we did. In the microdrama of loss, we are nearly always both villain and victim. This is unfortunate for our egos, plus various other parts of ourselves. If you know that you were the last person to handle your child’s beloved stuffed orange orangutan but you have no idea what you did with it, you will rightly blame your memory, sometimes worrying not only about its immediate lapse but also about its overall reliability. Yet it is scarcely more comforting to know exactly how you lost something—as when you can’t find your credit card, then realize that you left it at a restaurant over the weekend. At best, such losses leave us feeling irresponsible. At worst, if we have lost something valuable, they can leave us feeling genuinely anguished. For hours or days or sometimes even years, they focus our attention exactly where it failed to focus in the first place: on the moment, among the least forgiving in all of life, when it was still possible to avert what was to come.

In short, losing things routinely makes us feel lousy about ourselves. As a result, we often decline to take responsibility for it, choosing instead to look for someone else to blame. This is how a problem with an object becomes a problem with a person: you swear you left the bill sitting on the table for your husband to mail; your husband swears with equal vehemence that it was never there; soon enough, you have also both lost your tempers. When there are no other convenient suspects around, you may even find yourself accusing your missing object of engineering its own disappearance, alone or in conjunction with various occult forces. That sounds absurd, but almost all of us have leveled allegations like this at some point, because almost all of us have experienced losses that seem to verge on impossible: the sweater we were just wearing that has somehow vanished in a six-hundred-square-foot apartment; the letter we distinctly remember bringing in from the mailbox that has dematerialized by the time we go looking for it in the kitchen. Given enough time spent searching for lost items like these, even the least superstitious among us will start positing various highly improbable culprits: goblins, aliens, wormholes, ether.

It makes sense that we invoke malign or mysterious powers when something goes missing, because it can feel, in such moments, as if the world is not obeying its customary rules. No matter how many times it happens, we experience loss as surprising and perplexing—as a rupture in the way things are meant to work. It feels inconceivable that you can’t find that sweater or that letter, just as it feels inconceivable that your wife of twenty years came home from work one day and asked for a divorce or that your healthy young uncle died last night in his sleep. In the face of losses both large and small, one of our characteristic reactions is a powerful feeling of disbelief.

That feeling is extremely seductive but also extremely misleading. Consider, for instance, a particularly tragic loss from recent years: that of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which, together with the two hundred and thirty-nine people on board, disappeared in March of 2014 with disturbing thoroughness—no distress call, no fire, no explosion, no claims of responsibility, no credible witnesses, and, for more than a year, not a single scrap of debris. At first, the plane was thought to have gone down somewhere in the South China Sea, partway along its intended route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Only many months later, after much wild speculation—including that it had been shot down by the Chinese government or hijacked by Russians and diverted to a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—did investigators conclude that it had most likely headed south until, finally out of fuel, it crashed somewhere in the remoter reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Like many people who were both gripped and horrified by this story, I found myself repeatedly wondering, while all this speculation was going on, how it was possible, in our ultra-connected, GPS-monitored world, to lose something as large and as closely tracked as a commercial airplane. That incredulity was, in a narrow sense, entirely merited. In the context of aviation, what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was wildly anomalous: over the course of the previous fifty years and almost a billion flights, only one other commercial aircraft, a much smaller one, had simply disappeared. Yet in the context of the larger world, what happened to the airplane wasn’t anomalous at all. Experience and history both teach us that there is nothing on earth that cannot be lost—no matter its value, no matter its size, no matter how vigilantly we try to keep track of it. And a clear-eyed look at the world itself teaches us this, too. We struggle to imagine losing an airplane because it seems enormous when we watch it pass low overhead on the highway, moments before touching down. But that is the wrong scale of resolution at which to consider the problem. A Boeing 777 may seem large compared to us, but you could comfortably fit one hundred and eighty billion of them on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

In the end, this may be why certain losses are so shocking: not because they defy reality but because they reveal it. One of the many ways that loss instructs us is by correcting our sense of scale, showing us the world as it really is: so enormous, complex, and mysterious that there is nothing too large to be lost—and, conversely, no place too small for something to get lost there. A missing wedding ring can turn the modest geography of an urban park into the Rocky Mountains. Losing sight of your child during a hike can turn a peaceful stretch of stream and forest into a formidable wilderness. Like awe and grief, to which it is closely related, loss has the power to instantly resize us against our surroundings; we are never smaller and the world never larger than when something important goes missing.

It is this harsh corrective to our sense of being central, competent, and powerful that makes even trivial losses so difficult to accept. To lose something is a profoundly humbling act. It forces us to confront the limits of our mind: the fact that we left our wallet at the restaurant; the fact that we can’t remember where we left our wallet at all. It forces us to confront the limits of our will: the fact that we are powerless to protect the things we love from time and change and chance. Above all, it forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls on us to reckon with this universal impermanence—with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, just gone.



Ihave sometimes thought that my father’s lifelong habit of misplacing things was the comic-opera version of the tragic series of losses that shaped his childhood. Although you wouldn’t have known it from his later years, which were characterized by abundance, or from his personality, which was characterized by ebullience, my father was born into a family, a culture, and a moment in history defined to an extraordinary degree by loss: loss of knowledge and identity, loss of money and resources and options, loss of homes and homelands and people.

In its broad outlines, the story is familiar, because it belongs to one of the most sweeping and horrific episodes of loss in modern history. My father’s mother, the youngest of eleven children, grew up on a shtetl outside Lodz, in central Poland—by the late 1930s, one of the most dangerous places to be Jewish on an entire continent increasingly dangerous to Jews. Because her family was too large and too poor for all of them to escape the coming war together, her parents arranged, by a private calculus unimaginable to me, to send their youngest child off to safety. That is how, when she was still a teenager, my paternal grandmother found herself more than twenty-five hundred miles from the only world she had ever known, living in Tel Aviv, which at the time was still part of Palestine, and married to a Polish Jew considerably her senior.

Not long after, my father was born, and not long after that, as a toddler, he was sent away to a kibbutz, to be raised for some years among strangers. While he was there, two formative losses befell his family. First, his biological father died and his mother remarried—a fact my father only learned more than two decades later, on his wedding night. Second, every member of my grandmother’s family that had remained behind in Poland was sent to Auschwitz. Her parents perished there, as did nine of her ten siblings. On January 27, 1945, when the camp was liberated, only her oldest sister, my great-aunt Edzia, walked out alive. I don’t know when or how this information reached my grandmother, or how she learned all the rest of the news that must have made its way to Tel Aviv name by name. Almost a quarter of a million Jews had lived in Lodz when she left it; barely more than nine thousand survived the war. When my father returned from the kibbutz a few years later, it was to a family reconfigured twice over, once by death and remarriage, once by the emotional and practical conditions created by this wholesale annihilation—almost an entire lineage gone, grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors all slaughtered, a mother bereft beyond description.

Tel Aviv had been a relatively good place to weather the war, but it was not a good place to face its aftermath. With the future of the Middle East in flux, the city was increasingly dangerous; one morning, a friend of my father’s was killed by a stray bullet while playing in the street outside their apartment. As conditions deteriorated, the family, never well-off in the first place, struggled to scrape by. My grandfather was a plumber, but work was scarce, and by then he and my grandmother had two other sons to feed as well. In February of 1948, three months before the United Nations carved an entire new country out of Palestine, my grandparents decided that they were done trying to raise their children there. And so, in one of the more unlikely trajectories in the history of modern Judaism, they packed up their meager possessions, left what was about to become the state of Israel, and moved—to Germany.

It was, unsurprisingly, not their first choice. After the war, my grandparents had applied for visas to America, but there were few of those available and eleven million other refugees in need of a place to call home. Between the physical peril and their dwindling finances, they could not afford to wait indefinitely; and so, when my grandfather heard a rumor that it was possible to make a decent living on the black market in postwar Germany, he took notice. He had no religious devotion, no Zionist impulses, and no scruples whatsoever about bending the rule of law in the former Third Reich; his allegiance was to his family, and to survival. If a living could be made in Germany, then never mind that the whole tide of history was just then surging in the other direction: to Germany they would go.

It was a terrible journey. To get to a port with a ship bound for Europe, the family, together with an uncle who had decided to join them, had to travel by car from Tel Aviv to Haifa—a distance of just sixty miles, but hazardous ones, in those days. By then, civil war had broken out in Palestine between Arab nationalists and Jewish Zionists, and blockades, bombings, ambushes, land mines, and sniper fire were all increasingly common. Midway along the route, the uncle was shot in the front seat. My father, seven years old, sat in the back and watched while he gradually died. In later life, my father’s normal volubleness always veered around this tragedy; either from lingering trauma or out of an instinct to protect his children, he recounted it without elaboration, as bare biographical fact. I know only that his family, lacking any other option, continued on to Haifa, where they left the body, then sailed to Genoa and made their way to Germany.

They stayed for four years, settling in a little town in the Black Forest. My father played in the woods and learned to swim in the river and befriended an enormous sheepdog named Fix. At school, he mastered German, the language in which he first read Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and was sent by his teachers to sit alone in the hallway for an hour each afternoon during religious instruction. On evenings and weekends, his father set him down in the sidecar of his motorcycle and drove him all over the country, an adorable bright-eyed decoy atop a stash of Leica cameras and illicit American cigarettes. It was a pleasant existence, but also a precarious one, and the older my father got, the more he understood that his family was in trouble. The money they made was stashed under floorboards and rolled inside curtain rods; there was talk, not meant for the children to hear, of near misses and confrontations, of whether and where and how much the authorities had begun cracking down on smugglers. Over time, it became obvious to my father that his fate hinged on the question of whether the visas or the police would arrive first.

By luck, it was the visas: in 1952, my grandparents packed up their children, made their way to Bremen, and set sail for the United States. My father began throwing up while land was still in sight, and even if the ocean hadn’t been pitching beneath him, it is easy to imagine why he would have felt unstable. By then, he had lost, like Elizabeth Bishop, two cities and a continent, along with almost all of what should have been his family. He had lived on a commune and in a war zone, in the Middle East and in Europe, in the burning forge that made Israel and the cooling embers of the Third Reich. He was not yet twelve years old. He spent almost the entire voyage in his steerage-class berth, at sea in both senses, miserably ill. Only when his parents told him that they were drawing near to port did he struggle up to the deck to look at the view. That is my father’s first memory of his life in America: coming unsteadily into the sunlight and wind and seeing, there in the narrow waters off of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty.



My father could not have known, that day in New York Harbor, that the most difficult parts of his life were already behind him. But I do think he had an intuition that, in putting so much distance between himself and his past, he was incurring losses of a different kind—the kind that, for immigrants and refugees, are often the price of making a home in a new place. His native language, a private creole of Yiddish and Polish, evaporated with the dispersal and death of his immediate family, all of whom he outlived; his native land he saw just once more in his lifetime, fifty years after leaving it behind. One of his final conversations, with a Lebanese friend and fellow refugee, concerned Edward Said’s definition of exile, as a loss so profound that it darkens all future achievements. This my father—a man who found as much as he lost, including enduring happiness—could not entirely endorse. But he knew intimately the cost of assimilation, one of life’s stealthiest forms of loss, as well as the abiding yearning for an unrecoverable home.

Still, it is a testament to the life my father made for himself in America that the upheavals of his childhood seemed like distant history by the time I came along. Upon arriving in this country, his family had settled in Detroit, where he was sent to attend Americanization classes in the leaky basement of the local public high school. His real Americanization, though, took place on his own time, partly on the street corner where a local electronics shop kept the television in its window turned to cowboy shows all day long, but mostly in the nearby alleyways, the de facto playgrounds of inner-city Detroit. Well into his seventies, my father could wax lyrical about those alleys, which he loved—for their trash cans, which were excellent for finding interesting things that other people had thrown away; for their high, narrow walls, perfect for handball; but above all because they were a place to go when his parents were fighting in the family’s cramped apartment. As those arguments intensified in quantity, volume, and viciousness, my father, by then thirteen, started spending less and less time at home.

Some of what he found on his own was trouble. He smoked his first cigarette that year, sneaking one of his father’s Pall Malls in the bathroom and graduating within weeks to a pack a day. (He switched to a pipe when my mother got pregnant and smoked it for years. I loved everything about it—the smell, the quiet pock-pock-pock, the long, fuzzy cleaners I could wrap around my wrist like bracelets—but eventually my sister and I wised up to the dangers and successfully lobbied him to stop.) He also made a best friend, a kid named Lee Larson, the wisecracking, whip-smart son of a local bar owner, and together the two of them drifted toward low-grade delinquency. Even decades later, when his life had taken a turn for the upstanding, my father could not quite keep the fondness from his voice while describing how he and Lee, together with a few other friends, once spent months stealing one traffic cone at a time from all over Detroit, then sat on a hill above a main artery at rush hour, watching the commuters slow to a crawl while diverting around the giant nonexistent roadworks they had made.

For the most part, though, pranks like this were incidental, side effects of the thrill of first encountering the world on his own terms. He collected enough cereal-box tops to earn a ticket to a Tigers game, took himself one sunny day to Briggs Stadium, and promptly fell in love with baseball—which, in some way that tracked all the way back to his thirteen-year-old self, really did feel to him forever afterward like freedom. He went to the public library, which, being free in the other sense, was an excellent place to escape his home life; soon he was spending almost every day after school there, relishing the quiet and reading until closing time. He even went, in a manner of speaking, to church. After the local radio station kept airing the same advertisement again and again, urging listeners to come hear the preacher’s daughter singing with the gospel choir any Sunday morning, he and Lee finally heeded the summons and took a bus to New Bethel Baptist Church, one blond kid and one bespectacled Jew at the back of the chapel, getting their first earful of Aretha Franklin.

Throughout all of this, my father had excelled in school; in 1958, five years after arriving in America, he graduated as his class valedictorian. But very few of his fellow students were going to college, his parents knew nothing about American higher education, and by the time someone suggested that he apply to the University of Michigan, the only open spots were in the school of engineering. He matriculated, hated it, and failed out after one semester. The next year he talked himself back in, this time to the college of liberal arts, which went better until he accidentally set his dorm room on fire and got expelled a second time. When he finally did get his bachelor’s degree, it was the long way, via a stint as a soda jerk in Manhattan, another as a used-clothing salesman in Illinois, a summons from his local draft board, and an exceptionally lucky last-minute reroute to Korea instead of Vietnam. Just before he deployed, he met my mother; upon his return, he married her, finally finished college, went to law school, then settled in Cleveland to start a family and a career. In a kinder world—one where my father’s early years had been less desperate, his fear of financial instability less acute, his sense of the options available to him less constrained—I suspect that he would have chosen a very different line of work: as a professor like my sister, maybe, or as a writer, like me. But if he ever felt that loss, he didn’t show it. He loved the law and he loved his family, and he was proud to be able to give his daughters a far safer and happier childhood than he himself had enjoyed.

Most parents would do anything to provide that kind of life for their children. That is why my grandparents traveled through war zones and risked arrest and twice in four years left behind everything they knew to board a ship bound for a foreign country, and it is why my great-grandparents sent their youngest daughter off to a new home a world away, fully knowing that in all likelihood they would never see her again. I am alive today because both generations succeeded. Still, I know that those successes, like all such successes, were fragile and contingent. Experience teaches us nothing if not that all the things parents seek for their children—safety, stability, happiness, opportunity—are neither equitably distributed nor permanent conditions. Even if we are fortunate enough to have them in the first place, they, too, are susceptible to loss, liable to be swept away at any moment by forces far stronger than we are—stronger, sometimes, than whole peoples and nations. War, famine, genocide, pandemic, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, mass shootings, mass starvation, mass financial ruination: devastation in all its many forms routinely sweeps through entire communities, sometimes through entire countries, and—as during my father’s earliest years, and again in our own times—occasionally and terribly throughout most of the world.

These are the kinds of losses that make all others seem insignificant by comparison. Indeed, a heightened sense of what is trivial versus what actually matters is one of the few things that supposedly emerges from a disaster not merely intact but enhanced, as if catastrophe left moral and emotional clarity in its wake. After witnessing so much distressing loss, the theory goes, we will understand what is really important in life and stop worrying about all the rest. This idea inverts the logic of Elizabeth Bishop: our largest losses, it suggests, can help us cope with our smaller ones, by putting them in perspective.

At first glance, this is an appealing notion. Yet on closer consideration, it is no easier to accept than Bishop’s claim that minor losses prepare us to accept major ones. It is true that many people learn to count their blessings after exposure to serious loss, and also learn not to dwell on their minor frustrations; my father, for one, had an enduring sense of what to care about and what to let go, and for the most part he did not, as they say, sweat the small stuff. But who can know how much of that was personality and how much was circumstance? Certainly my grandmother did not emerge from the horrors of World War II with a renewed appreciation for everything that matters most in life: she emerged from it robbed of almost everything that matters most in life, including the person she might have become under better circumstances. By the time I knew her, she was volatile and unhappy, her inner life armored and inscrutable. It is possible, of course, that some of that was personality, too. Still, given the overall effects of trauma, it is peculiar, and borderline cruel, to imagine that it ultimately operates on us for the better.

Nor do we live our own lives as if this were the case. Granted, most of us do what we can to salvage meaning from our most difficult losses, and some people argue, either out of genuine conviction or an attempt at consolation, that suffering builds character. Still, if parents truly believed that loss had improved their lives and made them better people, they would not work so hard to keep their children from experiencing it—and yet, generation after generation, most of them do. The problem is that there is a limit to how much such efforts can ever succeed. Sufficient financial resources may ward off certain kinds of hardship, and sufficient love and support may leave us better equipped to face life’s inevitable difficulties. But to be prepared is not to be spared. Our parents cannot protect us from experiencing loss forever, because, in the end, barring a worse tragedy, we will lose them.



What becomes of the things we lose and never recover? Nothing consistent, of course. The lost glove rots away unnoticed in a corner of the garden; the handbag languishes for months at a train station before being donated to a secondhand store; the scrap of paper with the phone number on it melts into the slush of a February sidewalk; the wreckage of the missing airplane lies twenty thousand feet below the surface of the ocean, visited from time to time by creatures no human eyes have ever seen.

It is a curious and long-standing habit of the human mind to try to gather all these lost objects together in one place. We don’t just invent fantastical culprits to explain why our possessions have disappeared; we invent fantastical destinations to explain where they can be found. I first came across one of these in childhood, stumbling on it because it was the obscure cousin of a far more famous fictional location. In L. Frank Baum’s Dot and Tot of Merryland, two small children clamber into a boat and are carried by the current to a magical kingdom across a desert from the Land of Oz. That kingdom consists of seven valleys, and although most of them are delightful to explore—full of babies and clowns and candy and kittens—the final one is silent and strange, empty of people and strewn with miscellaneous objects from riverbank to horizon: hats, handkerchiefs, buttons, coats, pocketbooks, shoes, dolls, toys, rings. When Dot looks around in confusion, the Queen of Merryland explains: “It is the Valley of Lost Things.”

Although it often goes by other names, the Valley of Lost Things has haunted our collective imagination for centuries. Over five hundred years ago, Ludovico Ariosto, one of the greatest writers of the Italian Renaissance, summoned a version of it in Orlando Furioso, an epic poem that tells the story of the most famous knight to fight under Charlemagne in the Crusades. In it, Orlando loses the woman he loves to a rival and, as a consequence, also loses his mind. To help him, another knight consults with a prophet, who declares that they must travel to the moon: “A place wherein is wonderfully stored / Whatever on our earth below we lose.” Together they go there (via chariot) and discover not lost hats and shoes and handkerchiefs but lost fortunes, lost fame, lost loves, lost reputations, lost kingdoms, and lost minds—these latter each in its own stoppered vial, one of them labeled “ORLANDO’S WIT.”

Plenty of other versions of the Valley of Lost Things have cropped up over the years, in every context from autobiography to science fiction. In Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, P. L. Travers reprised the idea that everything that vanishes from earth winds up on the moon, although this time the lost items are everyday household objects. (The most recent Mary Poppins film gave this idea a wistful, existential edge: the young protagonists, mourning their dead mother, are led to believe that she dwells on the far side of the moon, “the place where lost things go.”) Other iterations feature other settings. Charles Fort, an early-twentieth-century skeptic and investigator of unexplained natural phenomena, once posited the existence of a “Super-Sargasso Sea”—located not in our earthly oceans but somewhere above them or in a parallel dimension—into which all missing things disppear, including dodos, moas, pterodactyls, and every other lost species.

Part of the enduring appeal of this imaginary destination is that it comports with our real-life experience of losing things: when we can’t find something, it is easy to feel that it has gone somewhere unfindable. But there is also something pleasing about the idea that our missing belongings, unable to find their rightful owners, should at least find each other, gathering together like souls in the bardo or distant relatives at a family reunion. The things we lose are distinguished by their lack of any known location; how clever, how obviously gratifying, to grant them one. And how thrilling to imagine walking around in such a place—harrowed by the worst of the losses, humbled by the heaps of almost identical stuff, delighted when we discover something that once belonged to us, awed by the sheer range of what goes missing.

This may be the most alluring aspect of the Valley of Lost Things: it renders the strangeness of the category of loss visible, like emptying the contents of a jumbled box onto the floor. In my mind, it is a dark, pen-and-ink place, comic and mournful as an Edward Gorey drawing: empty clothing drifting dolefully about, umbrellas piled in heaps like dormant bats, a Tasmanian tiger slinking off with Hemingway’s lost novel in its mouth, glaciers shrinking glumly down into their puddles, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra atilt upon the ground, the air around it filled with the ghosts of nighttime ideas not written down and gone by morning. It is this taxonomically outrageous population, shoes to souls to pterodactyls, that makes the idea of such a place so mesmerizing. Its contents have a unity and meaning based only on the single common quality of being lost, a kind of vast nationality, like “American.”

Still, for all its charm, the Valley of Lost Things is, at its core, a melancholy place. The things we love are banished to it, and we ourselves are banished from it: the one feature every version of it has in common is that, under normal circumstances, it is inaccessible to humans. Only a prophet or Mary Poppins can take you to the repository of lost things on the moon, and Tot understands immediately why he and Dot are allowed to venture into the otherwise unpopulated Valley of Lost Things: “ ’Cause we’re lost, too.” In that sense, the two of them are less closely related to Dorothy and the Tin Man than to Orpheus and Dante, who, unlike most mere mortals, were temporarily permitted to slip into the netherworld. Likewise, the valley and the netherworld are themselves closely related. As with the lost objects we love, so too with the lost people we love: we grant them an afterlife, in the bittersweet knowledge that, at least in this world, we will never again get to see them.



My father’s death was not sudden. For nearly a decade beforehand, his health had been poor, almost impressively so. In addition to suffering from many of the usual complaints of contemporary aging (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease, congestive heart failure), he had endured illnesses unusual for any age and era: viral meningitis, West Nile encephalitis, an autoimmune disorder whose identity eluded the best doctors at the Cleveland Clinic. From there the list spread outward in all directions of physiology and severity. He had fallen in a hotel lobby and torn a shoulder beyond recovery and had obliterated a patellar tendon by missing a step on a friend’s back patio one Fourth of July. His breathing was often labored despite no evident respiratory problem; an errant nerve in his neck intermittently triggered excruciating pain and sent him into temporary near paralysis. He had terrible dental issues, like the impoverished child he had once been, and terrible gout, like the lordly old man he became.

For all this, my father was largely spared one of the most common of late-in-life losses, that of mental capacity. There was, however, one exception to this—a strange and frightening spell that lasted two or three years but, mercifully for us although unusually for the condition, turned out to be reversible. This occurred toward the beginning of his more infirm years, when his autoimmune disorder had first emerged, provoking a series of terrifying health crises and causing an entire team of doctors—cardiologists, nephrologists, immunologists, oncologists, infectious disease specialists—to set about trying to determine what was wrong with him. In the absence of a diagnosis, they resorted to treating his symptoms, which, as often happens in such circumstances, involved an ever longer list of medications: drugs to manage the immediate problems, drugs to manage the resulting side effects, drugs to manage the side effects of the drugs meant to manage the side effects. That all this might create its own crisis is obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t at the time, partly because we were too worried about the underlying disease to focus on anything else and partly because that secondary crisis was slow to make itself known. Eight or nine months went by before my mother and sister and I began to worry, at first quietly and then openly, about what was happening to my father’s mind.

The earliest changes were gradual, the earliest lapses infrequent and indistinct. My father began sleeping more hours at night and nodding off during the day, including during family gatherings, which normally amplified his usual exuberance. In conversation he would sometimes strike off in inexplicable directions, leaving the rest of us to try to tether the strange things he said to relevance, to see our way from there to somewhere lucid. Of all my family members, I was the most guilty of this—of maintaining an insistent, petrified optimism even in the face of moments of obvious incoherence.

Eventually, though, those moments became too regular and too alarming to keep waving off as normal aging. Even my father’s famously hopeless sense of direction could not offer any cover on the evening when he got off the commuter train—at a stop three blocks from his house, from which he had gone back and forth to work for thirty years—and could not remember how to get home. In other ways, too, he began to lose track of himself in space and time. In conversation he grew confused about what year it was, about whether he was in Cleveland or Boston or Italy or Israel. I remember very clearly the completely incomprehensible phone call that finally forced me to confront the truth: the most remarkable mind I had ever encountered was failing—was, in many crucial ways, already gone. If you have ever lived through the cognitive decline of someone you love, you have had a night like the one that followed for me. That was the first time I ever grieved my father.

It was my sister, the scientist, who eventually put two and two together. One day, after a particularly alarming episode of confusion landed my father in the hospital, she called his doctors and told them to start pulling him off of every drug that wasn’t actively saving his life. No matter how long I live, I can’t imagine I will ever witness another transformation as astonishing as the one that followed. The night after he was released from the hospital—my sister and I had by then flown home to be with him—my father stayed up with us until well past two in the morning, talking about the origins of Italian anarchism, the role of the commerce clause in constitutional law, the family relations in Bleak House, and the rival positions on the nature of consciousness espoused by various philosophers. The next day he woke up early and cheery and, together with the rest of us, took his four-year-old granddaughter out sledding.

There is an old saying—of what origin I cannot say—about how to make a man happy. First you take away his donkey; then you give it back. I don’t know anything about donkeys, beyond the fact that the comparison would make my father laugh. But I can affirm that there is nothing in this world more wonderful than the feeling of being reunited with something precious that you thought was permanently lost. It had been upward of two years since I had seen my father even half so much like himself, a year since I had accepted that he would never again be the person I had always known. And then, almost overnight, he was back.

I learned an enormous amount from this experience, including something new about the relationship between small losses and serious ones. Most of the time, losing everyday objects is not indicative of any kind of underlying illness, but real mental decline does often manifest partly as an uptick in lost things. Dementia patients are prone to misplacing their belongings, and people with early-stage Alzheimer’s often can’t find something because they have put it in an unlikely location: the eyeglasses end up in the oven, the dentures in the coffee can. I knew all this, and so when my father began showing signs of cognitive decline, I fell into the habit of scrutinizing his every loss for indications that it might portend a larger one. The misplaced wallet, previously both characteristic and comical, became a potential source of alarm; the word he went looking for and couldn’t find sent me scanning, like an anxious parent at the edge of the ocean, the wide gray expanse between ordinary and ominous. I know now that countless people live with this habit and with this fear, either for themselves or for someone they love, and I understand why. The brain is the deepest and most mysterious of all the Valleys of Lost Things, and it is heartbreaking what can go missing there: the town you live in, the name of your wife, what to do with a hairbrush, the reason a caretaker is in your apartment, who you are, how to find your way home.

Of all of the losses my father suffered in his final years, this was the most terrible—but only for my mother and sister and me. My father himself was largely oblivious to his situation, and therefore largely untroubled by it; I have seen him, while in his right mind, more frustrated by failing to remember the name of the third baseman for the 1956 Detroit Tigers than he was by his whole long iatrogenic decline. As a result, even though he was manifestly a creature of his intellect, he was ultimately far more affected by all the others losses that beset him in old age—and, unlike the cognitive problems, none of these ever reversed themselves. On the contrary, they compounded, growing both individually worse and collectively more numerous with each passing year.

In that sense, although some of my father’s ailments were rare, his overall experience was perfectly common. Most of us alive today will survive into old age, and although that is a welcome development, the price of experiencing more life is sometimes experiencing less of it, too. So many losses routinely precede the final one now: loss of memory, mobility, autonomy, physical strength, intellectual aptitude, a longtime home, the kind of identity derived from vocation, whole habits of being, and perhaps above all a certain forward-tilting sense of self—the feeling that we are still becoming, that there are things left in this world we may yet do. It is possible to live a long life and experience very few of these changes, and it is possible to experience them all and find in them, or alongside them, meaning and gratitude. But for most of us, they will provoke, at one point or another, the usual gamut of emotions inspired by loss, from mild irritation to genuine grief.

I don’t mean to suggest that my father was unhappy at the end of his life; he was not. He had my mother, whom he adored, and who—increasingly out of necessity but always also out of love—seldom left his side. He had my sister and her family and me, and he got a huge amount of delight from all of us. He had a monthly book club that he relished, and a daily book club with himself. He had two cats he pretended to hate, and a group of people he kibitzed with at the pool where he and my mother went regularly to swim, and enormous concentric circles of friends and colleagues and acquaintances all over town.

And yet if “to lose” originally meant to separate, my father was increasingly separated from the man he once had been. He no longer practiced law, although he had a passionate work ethic and had always cherished his colleagues and his job. He no longer traveled, although he loved to see the world, because too many injuries and difficulties befell him when he tried. He no longer drove, although all his life he had maintained a kind of happy teenage pleasure in doing so. He had never been an athlete but he had always been vigorous; now he could barely walk to the end of the block. On top of all of this there was the pain, and pain’s dreadful handmaiden, shame. Even now, I turn away slightly from the memory of my father, sweating visibly in a restaurant from a sudden increase in the agony caused by that nerve in his neck, needing to make it to the bathroom quickly but being unable to do so.

It was terribly upsetting to bear witness to all of these changes. I hated to see my father diminished and suffering, and I worried, not wrongly, that what I was witnessing was the beginning of the end. But only belatedly did I start to reckon with the incompatibility between my sympathy and my fear: with the fact that the time would come when only death would release my father from pain. That is often true at the end of life, and so one way to think about the many losses associated with illness and aging is that they help us make our peace with the ultimate one. You hear people make this case all the time, especially retroactively. “At least he’s no longer suffering,” we say after someone has died. “At least she’s out of pain.”

It is true that this can be a consolation. With life as with so many things, more is not necessarily better; all of us can imagine countless conditions, inner as well as outer, that may make an earlier death better than a later one. No one, I think, would wish a longer life on an eighty-year-old Jewish man about to die peacefully in Poland in 1938. And very few of us would wish longevity on someone whose bodily suffering has become so unbearable that they no longer regard their life as worth living. But even if we could somehow maintain perfect health in perpetuity, we should not necessarily want to prolong life forever. It is very tempting, as the French scholar Philippe Ariès once wrote about death, to “annex it to the territory of the devil.” But many very wise thinkers regard a timely death as fundamentally good, and make far bolder claims for its merits than mere relief from pain. The devout may view death as an important transformation or a welcome homecoming, while the secular may see it as both morally and psychologically necessary, because a life that went on forever would be devoid of meaning.

I have always thought that this was true; our time here, it seems to me, is made precious by virtue of being scarce. But, as I have discovered again and again, what one thinks and how one feels can part ways radically in the face of grief. I am glad, unequivocally, that my father is out of pain, but that is as far as I am able to go. Way down in the core of selfhood where emotion begins, it is impossible for me to offer death any more gratitude than that, or to pretend I don’t wish that my father—my brilliant, funny, adoring, endearing father—were still alive, and would be alive forever. “The best argument I know for an immortal life,” William James once wrote, “was the existence of a man who deserved one.”



Like death more generally, my father’s own was somehow both predictable and shocking. It happened one September, just before the autumn equinox, that time of year when the axis of the world tilts definitively toward darkness. By then it was so evident that my father was in the autumn of his own life that I suppose I should have been more prepared for him to die. But as the ER visits had piled up over the years, I had gradually curbed my initial feelings of panic and dread—partly because no one can live in a state of crisis forever but also because, by and large, he himself bore his infirmity with insouciance. (“Biopsy Thursday,” he once wrote me about a problem with his carotid artery. “Have no idea when the autopsy will be and may not be informed of it.”) More to the point, against considerable odds, he just kept on being alive. Intellectually, I knew that no one could bear up under such a serious disease burden forever. Yet the sheer number of times my father had courted death and then recovered had served, perversely, to make him seem indomitable.

As a result, I was not overly alarmed when my mother called me one day to say that my father had been hospitalized with a bout of atrial fibrillation. Nor was I surprised, when my partner and I got to town that evening, to learn that his heart rhythm had already stabilized. The doctors were keeping him in the hospital chiefly for observation, they told us, and also because his white blood cell count was mysteriously high. When my father narrated the chain of events to us—he had gone to a routine cardiology appointment, only to be shunted straight to the ICU—he was jovial and accurate and eminently himself. He apologized for inconveniencing us, confessed that he was nonetheless delighted to see us, and attempted to thwart the cardiac-friendly dinner prescribed by the hospital by sending us out to find a decent bowl of chili. Maybe tomorrow, we said, figuring that he would be discharged by then; but the next day, although he remained in good spirits, something was amiss. When we arrived in the morning, we found him extremely garrulous, not in his usual effusive way but slightly manic, slightly off: a consequence, the doctors said, of toxins building up in his bloodstream from temporary loss of kidney function. If it didn’t resolve on its own, they planned to give him a round or two of dialysis to clear it.

That was on a Wednesday. Over the next two days, the garrulousness declined toward incoherence; then, on Saturday, my father ceased to talk. This was as mysterious to his medical team as it was distressing to the rest of us. In addition to cherishing conversation, my father had always made sense of the world through speech; all his life, he had talked his way into, out of, and through everything, including illness. Over the years of medical emergencies, I had seen him racked and raving with fever. I had seen him in a dozen different kinds of pain. I had seen him hallucinating—sometimes while fully aware of it, describing his visions and discussing the mysterious nature of cognition. I had seen him cast about in a mind temporarily compromised by illness and catch only strange, dark, hadal creatures, unknown and fearsome to the rest of us. In all that time, under all those varied conditions, I had never known him to lack for words. But now, for five days, he held his silence. On the sixth, he lurched back into sound, but not into himself; there followed an awful night of struggle and agitation. After that, aside from a few scattered words, some baffling, some seemingly lucid—“Hi!”; “Machu Picchu”; “I’m dying”—my father never spoke again.

Even so, for a while longer, he endured—I mean his him-ness, his Isaac-ness, that inexplicable, assertive bit of self in each of us. A week after he had ceased to speak, having ignored every request made of him by a constant stream of medical professionals (“Mr. Schulz, can you wiggle your toes?” “Mr. Schulz, can you squeeze my hand?”), my father chose to respond to one final command: Mr. Schulz, we learned to our amusement, could still stick out his tongue. But his sweetest voluntary movement, which he retained almost to the end, was the ability to kiss my mother. Whenever she leaned in close to brush his lips, he puckered up and returned the same brief, adoring gesture I had seen all my days. In front of my sister and me, at least, it was my parents’ hello and goodbye, their “Sweet dreams” and “I’m only teasing,” their “I’m sorry” and “You’re beautiful” and “I love you”—the basic punctuation mark of their common language, the sign and seal of fifty years of happiness.

One night, while that essence still persisted, we gathered around my father and filled his silence with all the things we did not want to leave unsaid. I had always regarded my family as close, so it was startling to realize how much closer we could get, how near we drew around his waning flame. The room we were in was a cube of white, lit up like the aisle of a grocery store, yet in my memory, that night is as dark and vibrant as a Rembrandt painting. We talked only of love; there was nothing else to say. We told him how grateful we were, how happy he had made us, how fully and honorably he had lived out his days. My father, mute but seemingly alert, looked from one face to the next as we spoke, his brown eyes shining with tears. I had always hated to see him cry, and seldom did, but for once, I was grateful. It gave me hope that, for what may have been the last time in his life, and perhaps the most important, he understood. If nothing else, I knew that everywhere he looked that evening, he found himself where he had always been with his family: the center of the circle, the source and subject of our abiding love.

All of this makes dying sound meaningful and sweet—and it is true that, if you are lucky, there is a seam of sweetness and meaning to be found within it, a vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground. Still, the cave is a cave. We had, by then, spent two vertiginous, elongated, atemporal weeks in the hospital. At no point during that time did we have a diagnosis, still less a prognosis. At every point, we were besieged with new possibilities, new tests, new doctors, new hopes, new fears. Every night we arrived home exhausted and talked through what had happened as if doing so might guide us through the following day. Then we woke up and resumed the routine of the parking garage and the ICU check-in desk and the twenty-four-hour Au Bon Pain, only to discover that, beyond those things, there was no routine at all, nothing whatsoever to help us prepare or plan. It was like trying to dress every morning for the weather in a nation we had never heard of.

Living through the death of someone you love is such an intimate act that, inevitably, the memory of it inheres in odd, specific things: the voicemail you left for your cousin that he will never hear; the television show that was on in the background when the phone with its terrible foreknowledge began to ring; the darkened windowpane in the front door, turning red and then blue and then red again from the police lights revolving silently outside it. Yet for all this variability, a kind of sameness shapes the experience of death for many of us today, because so much of it takes place in hospitals. A hundred thousand plots unfold in just one setting; it is as if we had all wandered into the same upsetting dream. And while a hospital can be, in many ways, a good place to die, it is a strange and difficult place to begin to mourn. In my many previous visits, I had always tried to temper any negative feelings I had about hospitals, because I knew that wonderful things happened in them, too—that all around me, lives were being saved, pain ameliorated, hope restored, babies born. And I had witnessed some of this myself. My niece, three pounds at birth, terrifying in her miniature perfection: a month in the neonatal intensive care unit gave her back to us, squalling, healthy, unblemished, miraculous. My father’s pulmonary artery, mended at forty-five, again at sixty, barely so much as a scar paid either time for the price of all those extra years. I would forgive hospitals almost anything for such gifts as these.

And yet it was awful, awful and dismal, to sit in one day after day while my father was dying. It was cold almost all of the time; I begged the nurses for extra blankets and piled them, thin and white, in threes and fours on top of my mother, who sat in a vinyl recliner at my father’s side, reading or dozing and holding his hand. There was a bench seat opposite the doorway, a metal chair against the wall; I stretched out on the one or sat in the other or stood up and looked out the window. It would have been boring if it hadn’t also been horrible; something extremely urgent was happening, yet there was nothing whatsoever to do. The hours were interminable but infinitely subdivided—by a machine that beeped, a phlebotomist drawing blood, someone stopping by to check the levels in the bags of fluid that hung above my father’s head. From time to time, a nurse would come in and everyone but my mother would discreetly leave the room, even though the need to do so had long since passed, modesty and privacy the least of anyone’s worries anymore.

At other times, one of us would leave the room for some reason of our own, to make a phone call or go for a walk or head down to the cafeteria. In the elevator, thin old men in gowns gingerly escorted their own oxygen stands and mothers stood like weary sentinels behind their children’s wheelchairs and brisk, busy doctors went respectfully silent while the doors opened up at one floor after another, the directory of destinations—NEUROLOGY, NEPHROLOGY, ONCOLOGY, RADIOLOGY, PATHOLOGY, PAIN MANAGEMENT, PEDIATRIC INTENSIVE CARE—offering up a vision of hell as thoroughgoing and carefully striated as the one Dante gave us. Some days, there was a woman stationed in the main lobby playing the harp, a gesture I found too cloying to be beautiful, even though the fountain just outside, which rippled in a similar way and was there for a similar reason, soothed and mesmerized me. In the hallway behind her there was a bookstore with a window display full of teddy bears, and beyond that the cafeteria, where, once a day or so, I wandered in circles around the offerings, trying and failing to summon any desire at all to eat.

On and on it went like this, day after day. I was conscious of how lucky we were that the era of limited visiting hours and one-guest-at-a-time policies had passed, just as I am conscious, writing this now, of how lucky we were that the era of no guests at all was not yet upon us: that my father did not sicken and die during the coronavirus pandemic, when everyone’s grief was compounded by isolation—by the loss, on top of everything else, of the chance to sit with your loved one and say, “I’m right here.” It was a privilege and a comfort to be at my father’s side throughout his final weeks; if he was going to be confined to that room for so long, we wanted to be with one another, and with him.

Still, unless you work there, a hospital is no kind of place to spend so much time. Like a storefront church, its physical presence is at odds with its existential responsibilities. In an ICU, you are as aware of the brevity of life and the great looming precipice of eternity as Wordsworth was at Tintern Abbey, yet at the same time you are basically stuck in an airport. There is the same combination of impatience and impotence; the same constant proximity to strangers; the same unavoidable dependence on professionals either kindly or officious; the same long walk to unappealing, overpriced commerce; the same creeping exhaustion that enters, like a quality of the air, almost the moment you walk through the door; the same sense of temporal dislocation, of existing in some stranded time zone distinct from all those in the outside world. In our case, because my father’s condition was so mysterious, there was also the sense of being on a layover in a distant city when your flight has been canceled and no further information is forthcoming—except that, instead of waiting for a plane, we were waiting for devastation or deliverance.

Here is another way that hospitals, in my experience, too seldom live up to their existential obligations: in all the time my father was in the ICU—heart rhythm erratic, kidneys failing, blood pressure dropping, white blood cell count soaring, barely responsive, neither eating nor drinking—the doctors assigned to his care suggested everything under the sun (a different combination of drugs, more dialysis, a spinal tap, a blood test to rule out a rare disease, an MRI of his heart and lungs) except that he was dying and that we could choose to let him do so in peace. Even when my mother and sister began asking point-blank about the odds of survival, and the odds in that case that he would emerge afterward with a life worth living, they refused to answer, or to say anything more than that it was a complex case and up to the family to make a decision—as if, despite having none of their medical knowledge, we were somehow better off arriving at one on our own than with their assistance.

I wish it had been otherwise; I wish that all doctors spoke honestly about death when it is imminent. But I can’t wholly blame those who fail to do so, because, on my own, I would have served my father and my family just as poorly. I am badly built for the kind of wisdom required in extremis: I love life too much, am too willing to gamble on terrible odds, too inclined to hope against hope for more hope. But I knew my sister was right on the day when she sat down beside me and told me, very gently, that even if by drastic intervention my father could be brought back from his precarious place out there on the edge of the end, we would be getting, in all the ways that mattered to us, less of him, not more. And I wept with gratitude when, finally, two doctors who were not on my father’s medical team but were simply his friends came by to see him and told us, when we asked, that if it were up to them, as people who also loved him very much, they would let him go.

And so, one afternoon, instead of continuing to try to stave off death, we unbarred the door and began to wait. It was a relief to watch a nurse bandage up the dialysis port in my father’s arm, remove the many sticky-backed sensors with their tangle of wires from his skin, and detach him from all his machines. She was infinitely gentle, with him and with us, the last of a thousand kindnesses from the nursing staff—all those blankets, all those compassionate words, all those questions answered and doctors summoned and extra chairs procured—before they transferred him to hospice care. When she was done, the rest of us gathered up our belongings and went down the hallway and up the elevator and settled, alongside my father, into his new and final room.

It was smaller and simpler than the one in the ICU, and much quieter. A few times a day, a nurse slipped in to check on him, but otherwise, we were alone with our thoughts and each other and, for one final spell, with my father. To my surprise, I found it comforting to be with him during this time, to sit by his side and hold his hand and watch his chest rise and fall with a familiar little riffle of snore. It was not, as they say, unbearably sad; on the contrary, it was bearably sad—a tranquil, contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow. I thought, as it turns out mistakenly, that what I was doing during those days was making my peace with his death. But I have learned since then that even one’s unresponsive and dying father is, in some extremely salient way, still alive.

And then, very early one morning, he was not. I remember the way my mind absented itself immediately, so that the few cool syllables to which I had access seemed almost to have formed outside of me: so this is it. I remember feeling simultaneously heavy and empty, like a steel safe with nothing inside. I remember seeing my little niece place a letter she had written to her grandpa on his chest, where, for all the long moments that I looked at it, it failed to move. But what I remember most from those first hours after my father died is watching my mother cradle the top of his bald head in her hand. A wife holding her dead husband, without trepidation, without denial, without any possibility of being cared for in return, just for the chance to be tender toward him one last time: it was the purest act of love I’d ever seen. She looked bereft, beautiful, unimaginably calm. He did not yet look dead. He looked like my father. I could not stop picturing the way he used to push his glasses up onto his forehead to read. It struck me, right before everything else struck me much harder, that I should set them by his bed in case he needed them.



So began my long sojourn in the Valley of Lost Things. Three weeks after my father died, I lost another family member, this one to cancer. Three weeks after that, in the tenth inning of the seventh game, my hometown baseball team lost the World Series—an outcome that wouldn’t have particularly affected me if my father hadn’t been such a passionate fan. One week later, Hillary Clinton, together with a little over half this nation’s voters, lost the presidential election.

Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom during that difficult fall could I distinguish my distress over these other losses from my sadness about my father. I had maintained my composure during his memorial service, even while delivering the eulogy. But when the son of the deceased stood up to speak at the second funeral, I wept. Afterward, I couldn’t shake the sense that another shoe was about to drop—that I would learn at any moment that someone else close to me had died. The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent as well: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.

For weeks, I slogged on like this, through waves of both actual and imagined grief. I couldn’t stop picturing catastrophes, both political and personal. I felt a rising fear whenever my mother didn’t answer her phone, hated to see my sister board an airplane, could barely let my partner get in a car. “So many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote, and as much or more than my specific unhappiness, it was just that—the sheer quantity and inevitability of further suffering—that undid me.

Yet for all that I wanted to keep those I loved close, even their presence occasioned a certain amount of pain. One consequence of losing a parent—obvious enough, although it hadn’t occurred to me beforehand—is that it reconfigures the rest of your family. All my life, it had been the four of us; to the extent that had ever changed, it had only been joyfully, in the direction of more. But part of mourning my father involved acclimating to a new family geometry, a triangle instead of a square. As a unit, we were smaller, differently balanced, and, at first, unavoidably sadder.

A large part of that sadness was the terrible severing of my father from my mother. I had spent a decade worrying about him, but almost immediately after he died, as if by some law of conservation of anxiety, my fears redirected themselves toward my mother. These were not, for the most part, about her physical health, which was considerably better than his had been. Instead, what worried me was the gaping emptiness in her life after a half century of my father’s steadfast presence. “I can’t imagine her without him,” people routinely say of those who have lost a spouse, but my problem was that I imagined it constantly. As often as not, in those early days, my own grief took the form of being undone by the thought of my mother going about her days alone.

Eventually, I realized that I had underestimated my mother, as adult children so often do. She really did miss my father as much as I feared, but I soon found that she grieved as she had always done everything: patiently and tenderly, with a remarkable ability to accept the worst days as inevitable and a remarkable will to live as well as possible on all the rest. Her grace and fortitude awed me, not least because I kept demonstrating the opposite qualities, literally: in the aftermath of my father’s death, I grew uncharacteristically clumsy and prone to ailment and injury. I ran a low-grade fever for the better part of three weeks, suffered a pinched nerve, pulled a hamstring, fell twice for no reason, was plagued by unexplained tooth pain, and, worst of all, one terrible morning while making coffee, overturned an entire carafe of boiling water onto my forearm. A psychologist would say that some part of me was unconsciously trying to make manifest my emotional pain, and I’m sure that’s true. Yet at the time, all these mishaps and maladies felt less like an ongoing psychosomatic calamity than like a pervasive loss of balance, as if I were no longer on familiar terms with the basic physical operations of my body and the world.

Whatever caused them, the cumulative effect of these various debilities was to make me feel tremendously old. Or maybe that’s backward—maybe I incurred all those debilities because I already felt old. Grief of any kind will age you, partly from exhaustion but chiefly from the confrontation with mortality: to feel old (as distinct from actually being old, which can be a perfectly contented state) is to feel that both your days and your remaining quantity of joy are diminishing. But grief over a parent will also age you because it pitches you forward an entire life stage. Losing my father felt like advancing one notch in the march of generations—like taking, all at once, one very large step toward oblivion. I seemed overnight to have become middle-aged, which was strange, because my sadness also sometimes made me feel very young, still needing my father and not yet fit to be left without him. In a peculiar, circular way, I felt old because I felt like a child, at a time when I also felt that I had been a child so very long ago.

Disoriented, anxious, injured, ill: given all this, it is hardly surprising that, for some time after my father died, I was also spectacularly useless. I had lost, along with everything else, all motivation; day after day, I did as close as humanly possible to nothing. In part, that was because action felt like acceleration, and I dreaded getting further from the time when my father was still alive. But it was also because, after all the obvious tasks of mourning were completed—the service over, the clothing donated, the thank-you cards written—I had no idea what else to do. Although I had spent almost a decade worrying about losing my father, I had never once thought about what would come next. Like a heart, my imagination had always stopped at the moment of death.

Now, obliged to carry onward through time, I realized that I didn’t know how. I found some consolation in poetry, but otherwise, for the first time in my life, I did not care to read. Nor could I bring myself to write. In theory, I had a full-time magazine job, but I worked from home, on a schedule of my own choosing. That was a luxury I had previously cherished, but in the early days of mourning, it left me unmoored; even after the tactful post-death pause had passed and obligations and deadlines began crowding in on me, I found myself too drained and preoccupied to focus. Day after day, I turned my laptop on and stared at it for a while and turned it off again, feeling a profound kinship with its empty screen. I knew that for emotional as well as professional and financial reasons, I needed to start writing again; I knew that I needed to go to sleep at a decent hour and wake up at one, too; I knew that I needed to eat right and reach out to friends and call up a therapist I hadn’t spoken to in years. I knew everything I should be doing, yet knew of nothing at all that I wanted to do.

It was my father, predictably, who gave me the word for the one thing I was doing. In his lifetime, he had possessed an astonishing vocabulary, one so nuanced and capacious that even when it failed him, it succeeded. Once, after I somehow came across the word “circumjoviating” and had to look it up—it means “orbiting around Jupiter”—I challenged him to define it. He thought for perhaps five seconds, then guessed, logically and sublimely: “avoiding God.” I have used it that way ever since then—for what other word so concisely describes the experience of ducking one’s deity or conscience or responsibilities? Like so much of what I got from my father, it is a gift of ethics inside a gift of language. And so it came back to me after he died, when I sat there impassively and watched it start to define me: avoiding work, avoiding books, avoiding time, avoiding joy, avoiding reality.

I did not exactly feel lost, as my father was unto me. I felt at a loss—a strange turn of phrase, as if loss were a place in the physical world, a kind of reverse oasis or Bermuda Triangle where the spirit fails and the compass needle spins. I stretched out for as long as I could the small acts that felt manageable and right (calling my mother and sister, curling up with my partner, playing with the cats), but these alone could not fill up the days. Every night I went to bed exhausted and slept for an absurd number of hours, slept in a way I had only done before when seriously ill. Every morning I woke up in the grip of two opposite fears: that my time on earth was streaming away behind me with unbearable swiftness; that another day loomed up in front of me with leaden interminability. Not since the age of eight, when I was still learning to master boredom, had life struck me so much as simply a problem of what to do.



It was during this time of torpor and drift that I began to go out looking for my father. Because I find peace and clarity in nature, I did this searching outside, sometimes while walking, sometimes while out on a run. (Running was the one thing I kept doing during those long doldrums after my father died. I knew enough about its role in my life—as body maintainer, mind clearer, mood regulator—that I didn’t dare stop.) Like so much else during those difficult early days of grief, these expeditions had a hazy, half-formed quality. They came about without any planning or perceptible decision, as if I knew that they wouldn’t bear the weight of serious thought—which they would not, because nothing in my understanding of death suggested that they would succeed. I don’t believe that the essence of each of us endures unchanged after we die, or that the dead can commune with the living. But grief makes reckless cosmologists of us all, and I thought it possible, in an impossible kind of way, that if I went out looking, I might find myself, however briefly or inexplicably, in my father’s company again.

I have subsequently learned that this searching behavior, as it is called, is common among the bereaved. It is so common, in fact, that the psychologist John Bowlby, a contemporary of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s, regarded the second stage of grief, after shock and numbness, as “yearning and searching.” And yet, before my father died, I myself had never engaged in it—perhaps because, until then, my dead had always saved me the trouble by coming to look for me. When I was fourteen, my maternal great-grandmother died in her sleep at the age of ninety-three. For as long as I had known her, she had been the very soul of gentleness, but some months later, when I was slouched on our living room couch reading a book, I heard her voice just behind me, telling me sharply to sit up straight and cross my legs, please. Twenty-three years later, her daughter, my grandmother, died at ninety-five. She had definitely not been the soul of gentleness, but she was an excellent grandparent, fierce and smart and interesting, and so it was characteristic, if also extremely startling, when I stood up one night to go to bed, having decided to give up on some piece of writing that was going badly, and heard her say behind me, “That’s a terrible idea.”

My most memorable experiences of this kind, however, began the year I turned sixteen, following the shocking loss of one of my closest friends. One evening after school we talked on the phone for a while, as we often did; hours later, she was murdered. It was sudden and shattering and I was still very young, and the combination made her death exceptionally difficult to absorb. For years afterward, I had dreams that she had faked it, or that we had both been subjected to an elaborate hoax. I suspect it was for this same reason—the near impossibility of believing that she was gone—that, for quite a while, I felt her presence with some regularity. The first time, I was walking home from school when I heard her say my name, sounding simultaneously exasperated and encouraging, as if in cheerful rebuke to my grief. Far more strangely, I was twice jolted into the conviction that I had encountered her again in an altered but unmistakable form: first as a caterpillar and then, much later and even more improbably, as a plastic bag—or, rather, as the breeze inside it that sent it tumbling past me on a dusty back road late one summer afternoon. I hadn’t been thinking of my friend at all that day; ten years had passed since she had died. Yet the moment I saw the bag, I laughed out loud. For no apparent reason—surely nothing could be further from our customary notions of visitation and rebirth—it filled me with instant, overwhelming recognition.

Only years later did I learn that experiences like these are also common among the grieving. “I never thought Michiko would come back / after she died,” the poet Jack Gilbert wrote of his wife in “Alone.” “It is strange that she has returned / as somebody’s dalmatian.” When they involve seeing, hearing, or sensing the dead, such encounters are called bereavement hallucinations, and somewhat more than half of people report having experienced them. (That percentage is even higher among the widowed, and it rises in tandem with the length of the marriage.) No one knows what causes them, but, as the neurologist Oliver Sacks once observed, they have something in common with the hallucinations experienced by people in solitary confinement, people who have recently gone blind, and people who are exposed exclusively to monotonous landscapes, as on ocean crossings or long polar voyages. In all these cases, and perhaps in bereavement as well, the abrupt withdrawal of familiar sensory input leads the mind to fill in what has always been there before but is suddenly missing.

Plenty of people who have experienced bereavement hallucinations don’t believe in any kind of afterlife, and I am one of them. Vivid as mine were, they neither comported with my understanding of death nor, strange as this may seem, changed it. If they brought me nearer to any kind of faith, it was only to one I have always had, in the infinite mysteries of the human mind. In every case, they were welcome and startling and also somehow slightly comic, yet they felt far more earthly than holy. I never sensed that I was in the presence of anything either angelic or ghostly, or that the curtain had somehow thinned between this world and another. But I also didn’t experience these interactions as happening inside my own head. The voices, in particular—of my grandmother chiding me or my friend saying my name—had a kind of exteriority entirely unlike thoughts or memories or even dreams. To the extent that I could categorize them at all, they seemed to belong less to the uncanny than to its opposite: to the deeply familiar, as if they were a form I hadn’t known that love could take until I experienced grief.

It was this comforting rush of familiarity that I was seeking when I went out looking for my father: since he hadn’t come to me in the weeks after his death, I thought perhaps that I could go to him. The first time I tried—it was late one October afternoon, gray and cheerless, with the first intimation of winter in the air—I turned around after five minutes. I have seldom attempted anything that felt so futile. It brought back a memory from when I was nine or ten years old and had set about experimenting with telekinesis. I succeeded that October day at summoning my father about as well as I had succeeded back then in sliding a pencil off my desk from across the room—which is to say that not only didn’t it work, I couldn’t imagine any mechanism, mental state, physical act, expression of commitment, or admission of need that could possibly make it work, or even count as practice. And yet, in both cases, I kept trying.

It didn’t work the next time, either; it has never worked. I don’t know why I haven’t felt my father’s presence since his death, as I have with other people I’ve loved and mourned. I do know, though, that I have no business feeling surprised and denied when the universe behaves in accordance with my own understanding of it. I have always regarded this to be one of the inviolable terms of our existence: the people we love cease to exist upon death, as definitively as water flows out of a glass when you overturn it.

I know that not everyone shares this conviction. Some people feel watched over by their late loved ones in this lifetime, and some are confident that they will encounter them again in the next one. But I also know that this sense of absolute loss is not just the burden of agnostics and atheists. After his wife, Joy Davidman, died of breast cancer, C. S. Lewis, that most devout and knowledgeable of Christians, wrote a slim and devastating little book called A Grief Observed. He published it under a pseudonym, knowing that it might trouble his more pious admirers—not because it was blasphemous or because he had ceased to believe in God but because the explication of faith it contained was almost entirely lacking in the usual comforts. “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly,” he wrote. “Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” The self unaltered by death, the past restored, a glorious reunion on some shining farther shore: that’s “all out of bad hymns and lithographs,” Lewis continued. “There’s not a word of it in the Bible.” Nothing in Scripture promised him that he would be reunited with his wife after his own death, and he felt sure that he would not be, because he felt sure that the woman he longed for no longer existed. “I look up at the night sky,” he wrote: “Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch?” Between his late wife and himself, he felt only “the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero.”

Thus have I felt about my father since he died. Never in all the time I spent searching did I find the slightest trace of him. In the years since then, I have tried in quiet moments to summon some suggestion of his presence but have felt no stirring whatsoever, no sign at all beyond my own mind and memories. Being his daughter now is like holding one of those homemade tin-can telephones with no tin can on the other end of the string. His absence is total; where there was him, there is nothing.



Traditionally, mourning is a public and a structured process. We attend viewings and funerals and memorial services, cover our mirrors, sit shiva for a week, recite the kaddish for at least a month, wear black for a year and a day. Grief, by contrast, is a private experience, unconstrained by ritual or time. Popular wisdom will tell you that it comes in stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—and that may be true. But the Paleozoic era also came in stages—Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian—and it lasted two hundred and ninety million years.

Like anything that goes on for too long, grief is (I don’t know why people don’t talk about this aspect of it more often) unbelievably boring. I don’t mean in its earliest days, when the sorrow is too acute and the overall rearrangement of life too recent to allow for anything like tedium. Eventually, though, as you grow accustomed to its constant companionship, the monotony sets in. I can’t recall exactly how long after my father’s death this happened for me, because mourning also played havoc with my sense of time, but I think several months must have passed when the grief that had sloshed around turbulently inside me ebbed into a stagnant pool. It made life seem extremely dull and it made me seem extremely dull and, above all, it became, itself, unbelievably wearying. I remember declaring out loud one day how sick I was of it—of the blanched, lethargic, dismal endlessness of grieving. It seemed an affront to my father, who was among the least boring people ever to live, as well as a waste of time, which, as his death had just reminded me in the strongest possible terms, is a precious and finite gift. But I could no more will away the dreariness than I could will back him.

To make matters worse, this boredom offered no protection from the capriciousness of grief. We think of “boring” as synonymous with “predictable,” but I found the process of grieving to be simultaneously volatile and tedious. In this, it resembled the experience of being in the hospital while my father was dying; the emotions were enormous and erratic, the days cramped and repetitive. Like stress, depression, and physical pain, grief wears us down by the mere fact of always being there. Each day you wake up and the mortgage is unpaid, each day you wake up and your back hurts, each day you wake up and your father is dead. But every climate has its weather, and on top of this bleakness, my grief felt chaotic—affected so constantly and subtly by so many different factors that its behavior at any given moment could shock me.

Some days, for instance, I would find myself feeling genuinely, deeply, gloriously fine. I recall in particular returning from one bright, cold winter run full of the exuberant conviction that I was okay, everything was okay, I was grateful for my father’s life and at peace with his death and aware that he had given me everything I could possibly need to go on without him—all of which was completely true but, as a mid-grief mood, unsustainable. Other days, I felt like a ghostly simulacrum of fine: calm, blank, functional, feelingless. Still other days, I was filled with a strange, undirected anxiety, as if part of my mind had forgotten that my father had died and was casting around with increasing dread trying to figure out what was wrong. I felt like I was waiting for the thing that had already happened, and it made me jumpy and distracted. (“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” C. S. Lewis wrote. “The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”)

Another thing I felt, albeit thinly, was anger. It is common enough for the bereft to experience fits of rage—at oneself, at God, at the injustice of the world, at the dead for dying, at a total stranger for having the nerve to still have a living spouse or child, at the sudden unbearable indignity and release of whacking your head on an open cabinet door. I had felt this kind of irrational, surging fury in the past while grieving, but after my father died, I found myself subject only to its lackluster cousin: irritability. Like sleep deprivation, grief makes it hard to maintain equilibrium, and regrettably often after my father died, I felt myself becoming testy and difficult. Minor things that would not normally have bothered me occasioned a hot spike of infuriation: the grocery store clerk needing to summon a manager to complete a transaction when I was in a hurry, my mother forgetting to turn down the television in the background when she and I were on the phone. Even in the midst of those moments, I knew that the ostensible object of my aggravation was not the issue. I was just frustrated with the new terms of my life—with the fact that my father was gone, and with the necessity of grieving him. “It’s so annoying that my father died,” I announced one day, which was completely true, although I had meant to say, “It’s so annoying that my phone died.”

Of all the ways that grief affected me, I liked this one the least. It paid poor tribute to the loss that caused it, and it left me in a strange, self-devouring mood, minor but with a vicious existential edge. Among the many emotional reactions I had to my father’s death, it felt furthest from the root state of sorrow—although, in my experience, sorrow often feels surprisingly distant when we grieve. Before I had ever experienced it, I’d assumed that grief was a form of sadness, basically synonymous with it but more extreme. And maybe, in some subterranean way, that’s true; maybe all the other things I felt along the way—anxiety and exhaustion and irritability and lassitude—were just secondary phenomena, produced by and more accessible than the sorrow they obscured. In the end, though, it makes no difference, because, by common consensus, it is all these other things that the bereft most often feel. Ever since Kübler-Ross proposed her taxonomy of grief (originally to describe the experience of facing one’s own death but now widely used for those in mourning), people have been debating the validity and universality of her five stages and proposing additional ones: shock, pain, guilt, reflection, reconstruction, hope. Yet neither the old model nor any of the new ones include sadness as a defining feature of grief.

That surprising omission accurately reflects my own experience. Obviously I often was and sometimes still am deeply sad about my father’s death. I can remember whole days when sorrow pooled around me, so palpable and unadulterated that the only answer to questions about how I was doing or what was going on was “I’m just sad.” And I can remember other days when a more dire form of that feeling would overtake me—the thing I thought grief would always be like, a tidal wave roaring up to swamp me with the undiminished measure of my loss. But neither one, the pool or the wave, were regular components of my grief.

Instead, I found sadness to be, in every sense, a vulnerable thing, a small neutral nation on a bellicose continent whose borders were constantly overrun by more aggressive emotions. I also found it to be strangely furtive, strangely insubordinate; it went into hiding easily and could not be roused against its will. I could think about my father, I could miss my father, I could love my father, but I could not make myself sad about him when and where I chose, any more than I could tickle myself or compel myself to fall in love. It rose up in me of its own accord, for reasons I could only sometimes deduce even after the fact, or it was provoked by one or another cause entirely external to me. These were seldom the predictable triggers of holidays or my parents’ anniversary or the necessity of attending a funeral, all of which I could brace myself to experience. By contrast, the things that undid me were almost always unexpected and generally oblique—as on the day a little over a year after my father died when, in an instant, the words on my laptop blurred over in front of me and a bite of bagel turned to chalk in my mouth because, sitting in a café in Manhattan, I overheard a man say to his lunch companion, “I wish my daughter would call me more often.”

I sometimes yearned for more moments like that, moments when my sorrow ran through me like a river at night, dark and clear, untainted by any more insidious emotion. Yet such things aren’t responsive to our wishes. If we could summon sorrow, we could banish it, but the whole lesson grief teaches us is that we are not the ones in control. Books and manuals and websites about bereavement are full of advice about how to “move through grief,” and it is true that there are better and worse ways to cope with the death of someone you love. I tried hard to steer to the side of better—to not mourn alone, not remain too much indoors, not numb or deny the pain, not neglect too often or for too long my family and friends and body and work and the events and needs of the rest of the world. I am sure it all helped, if only by keeping things from getting worse. But even in the midst of those acts of self-care, it never felt to me like I was moving through grief, with all the striding agency that phrase implies. It felt like grief was moving through me—like it was a force outside my influence, entirely wild, no more swayed by my will than a mountain lion or a storm. Like all truly wild things, it was overwhelming and sometimes frightening up close but strangely compelling from a little distance, stark and awesome in the old sense of the word; and when it went away again, especially as the amount of time between its unpredictable appearances lengthened, I sometimes longed, perversely, for its return.

Most people, I think, are at least a little afraid of ceasing to grieve. I know that I was. However terrible our sorrow may be, we understand that it is made in the image of love, that it shares the characteristics of the person we mourn. Maybe there was a day in your life when you were brought to your knees by a faded blue ball cap or a tote bag full of knitting supplies or the sound of a Brahms piano concerto. For my part, I have been moved to tears by a pile of my father’s button-down shirts, amassed in my parents’ bedroom awaiting donation; by a polished wooden wall clock, identical to one he had in his law office when I was young, that shocked me with how much of my childhood it suddenly summoned; by a battered edition of Middlemarch, creased down the middle where its spine had been broken (my father bent his paperbacks in half to read them as reflexively and contentedly as New Yorkers fold a piece of pizza before eating it); and by a pale green packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum, half its little paper sleeves emptied of their silver foil. But here is the curious part: all of these things, which grief wielded like weapons, are actually quite wonderful to me—strange, specific, welcome returnees from their long exile in the land of the past. Part of what makes grief so seductive, then, is that it seems to offer us what life no longer can: an ongoing, emotionally potent connection to the dead. And so it is easy to feel that once that bleak gift is gone, the person we love will somehow be more gone, too.

Thus our strange relationship with the pain of grief. In the early days, we wish only for it to end; later on, we fear that it will. And when it finally does begin to ease, it also does not, because, at first, feeling better can feel like loss, too. “The trees are coming into leaf,” the poet Philip Larkin once wrote,


Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

This type of circular mourning, the grieving of grief itself, is perfectly normal and possibly inevitable yet also misguided and useless. There is no honor in feeling awful and no betrayal in feeling better, and no matter how dark and salted and bitter cold your grief may be, it will never preserve anything about the person you mourn. Despite how it sometimes feels, it has never kept anyone alive, not even in memory. If anything, it keeps them dead: eventually, if you cannot stop mourning, the person you love will come to be made only of grief.



The loss of someone you love is too immense an experience to take in all at once. Only belatedly does it begin to reveal itself in its fullness, after the terrible king tide of grief has receded, leaving all kinds of strange things behind. I would not have predicted, for instance, that of everything about those final weeks in the hospital, what would stay with me most is my father’s silence. Although it baffled and upset me at the time, it did not command as large a share of my emotional attention as it does now. There was so much else going on, so many critical systems of his body in crisis, so many hours spent talking through seemingly pressing issues that, in the end, would never matter—would he be on dialysis for the rest of his life? did we need to look into long-term care?—that his mysterious inability to speak did not seem like the most urgent of his problems. No one, after all, has ever died of silence.

And yet if anyone ever could die that way, it might well have been my effusive, communicative, multilingual father. His silence was so unlike him, so contrary to the whole spirit of his existence, that in retrospect I feel I should have known what it portended. Instead, I did everything I could to counterbalance it. Together with the rest of my family, I sat by my father’s bed and talked to him, recited him poetry, called up music on my laptop and filled his hospital room with Tchaikovsky and Chopin and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” All the things he loved, all the remarkable things people have forged out of ideas and emotion and sound: I hoped then, and still hope now, that he could hear them and know them for what they were. Failing that, I hope he could hear them and find them wonderful all over again, wonderful the way they were the first time he encountered them. Failing that, I hope he was at peace.

My father’s familiar brown eyes, following me mutely around a hospital room: this is always what I think of now when I think of the time he was dying. I wonder often what was going on behind them. It is impossible to say whether his silence reflected a deeper breakdown, the slow coming apart of thought itself, or if it was simply the result of a breach in his relationship with the world—some barrier descending or some longstanding connection being severed. Was the silence inner as well as outer? Or was it, for him, like looking through a window in a lighted room at night, the interior illuminated, everything outside shadowy and difficult to see? I don’t know, and I don’t know why I am so troubled by not knowing. In the end, we leave the world and we leave ourselves, and I suppose it doesn’t really matter in which order. I could not even tell you which of the two I think is lonelier.

In Roman mythology, one of the goddesses of death was named Tacita: the silent one. Ovid reports that, to propitiate her on the Day of the Dead, the devout sacrificed to her a fish with its mouth sewn shut. It was an apt offering, to an apt deity. Death sews every mouth shut; everything about it defies language. The dead themselves can’t speak, and the living can’t speak firsthand about dying, and even finding appropriate words for mourning can be extremely difficult. You learn something about grief from grieving, but it is a lonely, threadbare knowledge, hard to describe, bespoke in almost every detail. I was vexed to discover, after my father died, how useless I was when called upon to console someone else in the face of death, how almost impossible it was to say anything at all that, in accuracy or helpfulness, could best the average platitude. Even when I was talking with my sister, whose sorrow pains me more than my own and who is the only other person on the planet to grieve my father as a father—even then, I don’t think I ever once said anything remotely comforting or useful. What comes to mind now is being on the phone with her one afternoon some months after his death and, into the silence following a sad acknowledgment of how much we both missed him, saying only “Ugh.”

It was a representative syllable. Ugh, ach, argh, oy: those inarticulate, literally meaningless little interjections are the equivalent, on a less dire day, of moaning and keening. Even when grief doesn’t level us, it mocks our ability to put the world into words. The stark fact at the heart of it—gone, gone, gone, gone—is at once too obvious to merit saying and too terrible to say as often and indiscriminately as we feel it. Tearing our hair, gnashing our teeth, rending our clothes: the impulse may be there, but the action is generally inhibited by the helpful but comically mismatched dictates of polite society. You go to work, you go to the baby shower, you say that you are hanging in there, thanks for asking. And all the while you are suppressing the news that someone you love has undergone that everyday, unimaginable passage out of this world.

I suppose that is the other reason why my father’s silence has stayed with me: because it is still with me. It was a foretaste of the permanent one to come, a loss so total that for a while I did not understand its real scope. And then one night, during that early stretch of grief when I could find solace only in poetry, my partner sat me down and read me “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” In it, Walt Whitman leans against the railing of a ship, just north of where my father first looked out on New York Harbor, and exalts in all that he sees. So expansive is Whitman’s vision that it includes not just the piers and sails and reeling gulls but everyone else who makes the crossing, too: all those who stood at the railing watching before his birth, all those presently watching around him, and all those who will be there watching after his death—which, in the poem, he doesn’t so much foresee as, through a wild, craning omniscience, look back on. “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,” he admonishes, kindly.

And just like that, mid-poem, mid-grief, my understanding of loss revealed itself as terribly narrow. What I had been missing about my father—talking with him, laughing with him, sharing my thoughts and feelings in order to hear his own in response—was life as it looked filtered through him, held up and considered against his inner lights. But the most important thing that had vanished when he died, I realized in that instant, is wholly unavailable to me: life as it looked to him, life as we all live it, from the inside out. All of my memories can’t add up to a single moment of what it was like to be him, and all of my loss pales beside his own. Like Whitman’s, my father’s love of life had been exuberant, exhaustive; he must have hated, truly hated, to leave it behind—not just the people he adored, but all of it, sea to shining sea.

It is breathtaking, the extinguishing of a consciousness. Viewed from any distance at all, it is, I know, the most common of all losses, repeated every hour of every day since the dawn of history. But viewed up close, it is shocking, a whole universe flashing out of existence. I lost my father; my father lost everything. That is the absolute loss that his silence in the hospital foretold: the end of the mind, the end of the self, the end of being a part of all of this—the harbor, the city, the poetry, the world. “He became his admirers,” a different poet, W. H. Auden, wrote of Yeats when the latter died. Now we who loved my father are all that is left of him.



There is a chair in my sister’s living room that my father used to claim as his own every November when our family descended on her house for Thanksgiving. He would settle into it shortly after arriving and occupy it more or less continuously until the time came to leave, give or take meals and the occasional stroll down the hall to his granddaughter’s room for bedtime stories and animated discussions about current affairs in the land of dolls and stuffed animals. This was toward the end of his life—in earlier years, my parents had hosted the holiday themselves—when, between poor balance, a bad back, and time served, my father had been permanently discharged from kitchen duties. “I have become,” he once declared, after the act of standing up from the chair to help out had triggered a chorus of voices ordering him to sit back down, “an adornment.”

Neither in the pejorative nor in the complimentary sense was my father ever what you would call ornamental. Still, he did improve every room he ever entered. At Thanksgiving, he would sit there all day in his chair, not exactly holding court and not exactly holding forth yet nonetheless seeming like our own private philosopher-king. When the rest of us were lounging around in the living room with him, he would play with great gusto his many overlapping roles: father, grandfather, scholar, wiseacre, fielder of questions, benevolent inquisitor, master of ceremonies. When we were busy cooking or working or out for a walk, he would push his glasses up onto his forehead and return to whichever book he was reading—“Hebrew for Ancient People,” he once joked when I asked him, an effortless double entendre.

“Where there was him, there is nothing,” I wrote of my father earlier, and that is true, with the caveat that “nothing” is not a neutral blankness. In the lane behind my house, there is a tree where I once saw an owl; now, every time I pass it, I look up automatically. That is something like the nothingness left behind after death: the place in the tree where the owl is not. From the first Thanksgiving after my father died, I have never once looked at that chair without remembering my father in it. And it is not just the chair. My father is not in my life in the same way he used to be in my life: everywhere and unmistakably. I imagine this is true for almost everyone who has lost someone they love. To be bereft is to live with the constant presence of absence.

This sounds upsetting, and at first it is. From almost the moment he died, I understood that my father, who never wanted anything more than for his daughters to be happy, would not want me to remember him in sorrow. And yet for a long time afterward, my world turned into, in both senses, a negative space: a map of where my father was not. That map did not just include all those places, like the chair, where he had always been. It also included all the places where he would never be. Not long after his death, I fell to talking with an older friend, who told me that his own father was still alive, at ninety-four. I can’t remember what I said in response, and I don’t know how I kept the conversation going, because all I could think was: twenty more years. I could have had my father in my life for another two decades—an unfathomably long extension, a literal generation of more time with him.

This kind of temporal reckoning is a common part of grieving. No matter when your loved ones die, there will always be a litany of things they did not live long enough to do: attend your graduation, dance at your wedding, see the house you bought, see the life you built, read the book you wrote, meet your children. Even if those future occurrences are wonderful in themselves, the thought of them after a death can be distressing. Grief confuses us by spinning us around to face backward, because memories are all we have left, but of course it isn’t the past we mourn when someone dies; it’s the future. That’s what I realized while talking with my friend—that everything that happened in my life from that point on would be something else my father would not see.

It takes a long time to be done grieving, and even longer to know it. The periodicity of grief is too unreliable and the overall condition too chameleon to track with any certainty. Are you still mourning or just in a lousy mood? Have you crossed that faint boundary that marks the end of bereavement and the beginning of sorrow, an emotion you may feel on and off for the rest of your days? It is very difficult to say, especially because even when the worst has passed, or seems to have passed, there is nothing to prevent its return. Grief has an appalling recidivism rate, and it is common to find yourself back in it long past the point when you thought you were truly, thoroughly done. Still, for almost everyone, it really does fade away eventually. At some point, always retroactively, you look around your life and realize that it is gone.

The same is not true, however, for all the absences left behind by the death of someone you love. These just start to feel different, filled up as they finally are with something other than grief. I still notice, almost daily, all the places where my father is missing. I come upon them in photographs and in books that I’m reading, in the sound of my own sentences and the shape of my thoughts, in my mother and my sister, in my own face in the mirror, in the familiar sight of his wallet—safe now, as it never was with him—in my top dresser drawer. Some of these absences make me grateful, for who my father was and for the excuse to pause and spend a moment thinking of him. Some still have a melancholy, twilight feel. Some, like that chair, are a kind of commonplace memorial, a candle I don’t have to light because it is always bright with him. Collectively, all of them serve to make the world a little less incomplete than it would otherwise be. They are still here, unlike him, and I assume they always will be, as enduring as the love that made them. This is the fundamental paradox of loss: it never disappears. 



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