We hear these words often, whenever someone asks us about their father. I am so sorry.
And we never know how to respond. We can’t say yes, you should be, even if it’s possible that you should.
How could we face that? The fact that we are people whom others feel sorry for? How could we walk tall, smile, laugh, be intelligent or strong or cheerful knowing that everyone feels sorry for us? We would have to fit in with their expectations and be lost, heartbroken, and hopeless if we agreed that we should be the subjects of sympathy.
We don’t ever say, yes, you should be. What we say is: “It’s ok.”
But it is not ok. It makes us feel very uncomfortable saying that it is. As if we are cold and uncaring, as if we never miss him, as if remembering his death does nothing to impair our high spirits.
Sometimes I laugh when I say it. Not always. It doesn’t even matter that laughter is the worst answer, nothing that I have ever said in response to “I’m so sorry” erases the strangeness that enters the other person's eyes when I say it‘s ok.
What is it? That they actually feel sorry? That they are afraid? That they don’t believe that I’m ok? That they think it’s horrible that I am ok? Maybe they’re just uncomfortable like me?
Inevitably, the next question is: how did he die?
My oldest daughter answers enigmatically. Her top responses are as follows:
“From a head wound.”
“From a gun wound.”
I believe that this works for her because she is young and quiet. Though they don’t know what they really wanted to know they dare not press the issue. Those brief and incomplete explanations send people scurrying as if a grenade has just landed at their feet. The wideness of their eyes parallels the unblinking roundness of a full moon.
I tend to half whisper:
“It was a suicide.”
I feel ashamed every time I am forced to admit this. After the first answer there is just a certain amount of darkness hovering around us, the general gloom of death. We might have been a nice happy family that suffered a tragedy. People might picture him as a war veteran, or the victim of a sudden car accident, or as someone that succumbed to a terminal illness.
Then they learn that he wanted to die. Another question springs to their minds of course, but it is not the kind of question one asks.
Why? Why? Why? It is a much greater darkness, a sin, this particular death. And it implies that we were never a nice happy family, there was always something about us which could have commanded sympathy.
Frequently I wish that I would have thought of something else to say. A complete fabrication. A lie, Huckleberry style.
“He was a lion tamer, like his father before him. It was their final act, the famous 'jaws of death', a real crowd pleaser, but sadly, Cuddles, the lion, sneezed at a most inopportune moment claiming my darling husband's life. Cuddles also had to be put down. Once a man eater, even if by accident, always a man eater.”
“He was walking down California St. and somebody dropped a piano on his head.”
“He was a stunt aviator. A seagull hit his windshield during a loop de loop and he spun wildly out of control.”
“He was a Sherpa. Just before retiring he led one last group into the Himalayas but none of them were ever seen again.”
“He and his party were eaten by cannibals during an anthropological study of indigenous Amazonian peoples.”
“We were at the zoo. An escaped elephant trampled him to death near the penguin exhibit. He ran in front of it actually. To push a baby stroller out of the way.”
I wish I would have chosen one of these and stuck with it until it was as good as true. But I forget that we are shrouded in great darkness and only remember it once the line of questioning brings me back to a half whisper.
We would prefer to be casual acquaintances forever, people you recognize by the way we smile and laugh. People you know who are good at crocheting and singing and giving hugs. People that read a lot and wear funny hats and talk too loudly.
But never people you are sorry for. Never people who lost someone. That is really never ok.
We say these words often, whenever someone asks us about their father. It’s ok. We say them just as often as we hear these words: I’m sorry.
And despite the fact that it never really is, whenever we are asked, it is always ok.