Everything Is Normal, Until It Isn’t

“ Look, death is easy. People just want finality, an end to their grief.”

My brother is known to butt dial me. It’s why I usually ignore his calls the first time around, waiting for a voice mail or a text to confirm this one’s real. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I returned to my desk at work and found out I’d missed dozens of calls from him. The only reason I even checked my phone was because my brother got in touch with my wife, who reached out to someone at work, and asked me to check my phone. I remember looking around the room, absentmindedly muttering a joke: “Oh, that can’t be good.”

My Dad had passed away of a sudden, fatal heart attack at 56-years-old. Though overweight in the way most Midwestern people are overweight, there was no warning. He hadn’t had issues with his heart in the past. Just weeks before my wedding, the wedding of his oldest son, he was gone. On the brink of retirement, after a lifetime of hard work, he was gone. A few years before he’d have a chance to meet his first grandchild, Jessica Rose, he was gone.

He would have been a good grandfather. He was a good father.

My life shattered on that day. (Sometimes, I can’t remember how long it’s been. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing.) Everything is normal, until it isn’t. We weren’t given a chance to prepare for my father’s death, it just happened. My last phone call with him was about getting fitted for my upcoming wedding. I don’t know what we talked about in person. My last text, though, was this:

“Tried to give ya a call. Happy father’s day and hope everything is going okay.”

He didn’t answer. Two weeks later, he was gone.

Everything is normal, until it isn’t.

Apologies for the long preamble, but it’s part of my deep connection with The Leftovers, a show that, sadly, finishes tonight on HBO. The premise, if you’re not aware, is about a world where 2% of the population vanishes without a trace, a la The Rapture. Years later, no one knows why. God? Scientific accident? Aliens? The Leftovers isn’t concerned with those questions, but rather, what happens to the people without any answers. Three seasons later, I’m (mostly) confident the show will end without answering “Why?” The operating question of The Leftovers is altogether different: “What’s next?”

I’ve spent the five years since my father passed trying to answer that, too.

It’s not a show that I’d recommend to everyone. The first season is dark, without hope. It’s people being angry, no light at the end of the tunnel. As the show goes on, in the same way people process grief, it becomes a spectrum. (And, crucially, very funny. Humor helps the pain.) Emotionally, it becomes about realizing there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and your journey in that tunnel is what’s important. You don’t know how much time you have.

When you experience a tragedy, people give you a lot of advice. “I’m sorry.” “My thoughts and prayers are with your family.” “It’ll get better with time.” No one ever tells you: “This is unfair. You’re okay to be angry. You’re okay to be fucking angry. It’s fine to wish the rest of the world burns with your rage.”

(When people tell stories about their own fathers in front of me, I have to hold myself steady, as jealously and resentment simmer through my veins.)

I was, and still am, angry. I don’t believe in a higher power, though if there’s one belief I’ll be happy to be wrong about, it’s that one. I’d like nothing more than to see my Dad again. But in the absence of answers, I’m left with anger.

The Leftovers is a very angry show. It’s about unspeakable grief, those who wallow in it, and those who allow themselves to be consumed by it — sometimes in public, often in private. Because since it’s fiction, we’re allowed to witness that grief. The show provides us permission to bear witness.

Because my Dad was cremated, we were left with his belongings. That included his wedding ring, a simple gold band that’d been passed down to him from his father, too. Rather than buy my own, my Mom gifted me the ring, which weighs heavy on my left hand to this day. At the time, I didn’t consider what I was agreeing to. In some ways, I wish I’d said no; there was no way to comprehend what it’d be like to shoulder that burden, a day in and day out reminder of what’s been lost. This shouldn’t be mine. It’s not my ring.

In 2014, I wrote a blog post remembering my Dad and my Giant Bomb colleague Ryan Davis, who, ridiculously, passed on the same day, a year later:

“People also tell you it gets better with time, and they’re right. I don’t like the reason why, though. We forget them. It’s natural. We don’t see them anymore. We don’t make new memories, we mine old ones. But I don’t like knowing it’s getting easier because there’s less of them. The burden of memories weighs heavy.”

This is why I’m glad I wear that ring: it’s a reminder. I don’t want to forget.

The Leftovers has, for me, served two functions: allowing me to indulge and process my own grief. The characters in the show don’t quietly perform the act of grieving, as polite society would have one do. A Facebook status with a funny memory, a text message saying “I’m thinking of you.” No. They yell. They break things. They fight. They have too much to drink. They scream because, as it turns out, nothing else makes you feel alive in the same way. They’re so fucking angry — and it’s okay. It’s not okay okay, but, well, it’s okay.

Though The Leftovers deals with a nigh-supernatural event, it’s a perfect stand-in for all manners of tragedy. My Dad didn’t vanish into thin air — his heart stopped. But for all intents and purposes, as someone on the other side of the country when it happened, he did vanish into thin air. We never said goodbye. He didn’t have the kind of health scare that prompts fathers and sons to drop the bullshit and talk about their feelings and say I love you.

I don’t know the last time I told my Dad I loved him, though he knew I did.

“What’s next?”

I got married, moved back home, bought a house, had a kid. Life is good.

But The Leftovers helps me go to a place emotionally, the kind of place that comes up when you’re scrolling through old photos and text messages, and even though you think you’re past things, you’re not. It’s happening to other people — fictional people— but I’m right there with them. I hear their pain, and sympathize with their struggle to use those feelings to build a new life.

I’m still angry, and sometimes, that anger feels good. It’s how I remember.

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