One of my early memories, age five, is of being in bed with my parents and being awoken in the middle of the night by the ringing of the phone. A great commotion of grown-ups followed: Mum going down to make coffee, Pup hunched over the phone, speaking in grave, urgent tones. Of course, I found it all exciting and eventful and hoped it would involve—with any luck—a reprieve from school that day. "What is it?" I asked Mum. "Pup's father has died, darling." Apart from being in the car when she drove over the family cocker spaniel, this was my first brush with death. Then, an even half century later, the phone rang again with the news that my father had died.
In the Zen koan, the noble lord sends word throughout the land, offering a huge reward to anyone who can distill for him in poetry the definition of happiness. (This was in the days before Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) A monk duly shuffled in and handed the nobleman a poem that read, in its entirety: Grandfather dies Father dies Son dies.
His Lordship, having had in mind something a bit more, shall we say, upbeat, unsheathes his sword and is about to lop off the head of the impertinent divine. The monk says (in words to this effect), Dude, chill! This is the definition of perfect happiness—that no father should outlive his son. At this, His Lordship nods—or, more probably, after the fashion of Kurosawa's sixteenth-century warlords, grunts emphatically—and hands the monk a sack of gold. I'm sure the story reads more inspiringly in the original medieval Japanese, brush-painted on a silk scroll, but it's a nifty story, even as I now confront the fact that I have moved to the bottom line. My son, William Conor Buckley, whose namesake grandfather died on the morning of his sixteenth birthday, now himself moves one step closer to the Stygian Green Room, but if the old Zen monk's formula holds, he won't beat me to the river. Or so I, a heathen, fervently pray.
Many of those kind letters I received echoed another apparently universal aspect about parental mortality—namely, that no matter how much you prepare for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard, and unrehearsed. Both my parents had been ill and suffering, so when the end came to each, it was technically a blessing. And yet there you stand in room 2 of the Stamford Hospital critical care unit, having just calmly given the order to remove the breathing tube, sobbing uncontrollably—sobbing, as distinct from crying or weeping—even though you spent eight hours in a car driving toward this scene, knowing pretty much what to expect. Then, ten months later, cradling the phone and wandering foggily and aimlessly about the house, wondering, almost like an actor trying to figure out how to play the scene: Okay, you've just gotten word that your father is dead. You . . . let's see . . . punch the wall, shout, "Why? Why?"—not quite knowing what to do, or say, or what gesture is called for. Something, surely? Before getting the call, I'd been on the way to my little study out back to do my income taxes. (Death and taxes, all in the same day. One reverts to childhood: Go hide. Maybe they won't find you. In the end, I just leaned my forehead against the inside of the front door, took in a few breaths, then walked upstairs to man the phones, which I knew would soon start to ring.