I have now spent one year of my life without my father. This was my first year without my father, as well as my first year as an orphan, if it’s possible to be an orphan in your 40s.
I wrote last year that my father’s death felt like the new dividing line in my life: there was Dad and then there was Not Dad. There was me with him and there is me without him. I am the same person, and I am not.
My lovely father died exactly one year ago, on April 1, 2020, of COVID-19. Technically, he died of kidney failure, or maybe it was heart failure, or both. His lungs also failed. If he had held on much longer his brain would have failed, too. This was all because of COVID-19, so I am fine, although perhaps not technically correct, in saying that this is the thing that killed him.
COVID-19 has killed a lot of people. To be exact: 2,833,203 as of this writing, a number I had to update from when I first wrote it to this piece’s final edit, and will likely be out of date once this post is published.
That number is hard to comprehend. Can you picture 2,833,203 people? I can’t. I can picture about 20, maybe 30 people. Even then, I can’t simultaneously picture them individually. They all appear in the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye, a mass of clothing, skin, and hair. If I focus on one, the others get blurry.
In regard to the current pandemic, my father was only one of a very large number. But his place as a seemingly insignificant statistic in a sea of anonymous, blurred faces does not diminish the importance he played in my life, and in the lives of my sisters, nephews, and other family members.
In a way, he is still the most important person in my life.
I have talked to my dad a lot this past year. More accurately, I have talked to his face in photographs inside various frames, propped up against walls and books around my apartment, smiling back at me, sometimes with a younger face and more hair. Sometimes I talk into the air, often looking up, as though he is floating a few feet above my head, because I assume, if they exist at all, this is what spirits do. There is a futility to seated spirits; I don’t think they have gravity on that side.
I’ll be honest, in talking to my dad this past year, I haven’t always been nice. I’ve often angrily asked him why he had to die, and why he had to die two and a half years after my mom died. Neither of them could stick around for legitimate old age? They had to both peace out before their 80s? Before their nephews grew up? Before they could be great grandparents? What was the rush? What the hell, man?
I often refer to my dad’s death as “dumb.” Not publicly, but to myself and to him. I acknowledge the seeming flippancy of this remark but he would understand what I meant, although his photos have never so much as blinked in response.
I’m still not sure if it was a blessing or a curse that my father’s death coincided with a sudden, massive influx of free time.
Last April, after I returned from my dad’s house upstate, I found myself without any of the usual things that had kept me busy in the months prior: photographing people for both a living and for fun, meeting up with my running club, volunteering at a local nursing home, the occasional coffee with the one or two friends who have not left New York City for Los Angeles, visiting my sisters and nephews.
Those things were all gone, at least for now. I had a father to grieve as well as all the time in the world. A fine pairing.
Looking back, I can see why I immersed myself in various projects. I started a food blog, something I intended from day one to be a business, so I took it very seriously. I studied the hell out of how to be a food blogger. My god, there is so much to know. There was so much to learn. So much information to take up the cavernous space inside my head I did not want to remain empty for long.
I became increasingly more organized, to the point where every waking hour of every day is now sorted into colored blocks on my Google calendar, where I obsessively keep track of everything I want to do and everything I have done. I’m not that anal – I round everything to the nearest five minutes.
I walk my dog four to five times a day. I keep track of what I feed him and what his poop looks like.
Workouts, runs, expenses, workflows, photos, recipe testing, grocery costs, and more are recorded in detailed spreadsheets. I need to write down everything lest I forget anything. Keeping records has become my religion. If I can’t control whether my parents live or die, then I will sure as hell control my information.
Throughout this pandemic, the thing I have come to fear the most is not death. It is idle time.
The subject I have delved into the most this past year has been my family tree.
In the weeks and months following my father’s death, I had a newfound desire to know everything I could about my bloodlines. I think I was only partially aware that this need to learn about my relatives might have something to do with the fact that I had just lost my most beloved one.
My aunt – my mother’s sister, a retired physical therapist and skilled seamstress who lives about a 15-minute walk from me and who has provided me with many expertly-crafted masks throughout this pandemic – is an amateur but experienced genealogist. She never practiced professionally, but the extent of her knowledge is such that she could have.
So with my aunt’s guidance, I started researching my dad’s side of the family, the side I knew least about since my aunt has already extensively researched my mom’s.
I started by messaging various DNA relatives on 23 and Me.
My father had his DNA tested on 23 and Me a few years ago, as did I and two of my sisters, so I know who among my 1500 DNA relatives on that site are on my father’s side. This makes it easier to know who to contact.
Throughout the spring and summer, I messaged complete strangers who happened to have in common a tiny piece of DNA with me, asking them what they knew about their German, Irish, or Italian lines, trying to piece together the clues of what my father had told me about his family history with what I could find online. I perused census reports, birth and death certificates, marriage records, draft cards, and purchased family tree software so I had a place to record it all. I would spend hours doing this before realizing I needed to eat or my dog needed walking.
A few of these strangers got back to me. Some didn’t know much beyond what I had told them. A few didn’t reply at all. Which was fine. I just messaged others. I started a spreadsheet for this, too.
Last summer, I discovered that my great grandparents Charles and Catherine – my father’s father’s parents – were buried in Brooklyn, just a couple of subway rides away from where I live. I kicked myself for having lived in this city for the better part of the last quarter century not already knowing this.
Then I found out my father’s father’s father’s parents, Charles and Lena, were buried in Queens, not far from the Brooklyn cemetery where their son was buried. I knew very little about this couple, and their identities were something I don’t even think my father knew about – when he had described his great grandfather, he had Germanized his entire name and said he was born in Germany, two things I discovered were not correct: the guy was born here, in New York City, and only his last name was German. (In the 1930s, his children and all of their children would change the family name from Schott to Scott, an apparent attempt to disguise their heritage during World War II.)
I wished I could tell my dad about all of this. I kept asking myself why I hadn’t done this research earlier – the irony, of course, being that it was my father’s death that led me on this journey in the first place.
Wanting to see these gravestones in person, I contacted the cemeteries to get exact plot locations. The summer was too close to the height of the pandemic to feel safe enough to travel, but I was determined to make the trip at some point. I studied the cemetery maps, even considering running there at one point (they’re about 11 miles away, and I didn’t yet feel up to that mileage last fall).
Finally, with the winter snow out of the way and the weather a bit warmer, I headed to Brooklyn two weekends ago.
My great grandparents Charles and Catherine – he German and she Irish, a scandalous pairing at the time of their wedding – lived in Brooklyn their entire lives. He was a receiving clerk for a navigation manufacturing company, she a homemaker, or, as the census reports state, “Housewife.” They had 14 children; my grandfather, Charles III, was in the middle. Charles II died in 1944, less than a year after the fourth and final Charles, my father, was born. Catherine died in 1966.
It’s a nice gravestone. The cemetery is well-kept, and on the day I visited, their stone was facing the sun, framed by a bright blue sky. They share a single stone with their son Thomas. Mae West is buried on the second floor of a large building a few feet away.
After my father’s family moved neighborhoods in Brooklyn in the 1940s, he grew apart from his dad’s family and got closer to his mom’s. I couldn’t picture my dad visiting this gravestone and feeling any kind of emotion about it. I didn’t know these people – they both died long before I came along. Still, sitting on the grass while staring at their names made me feel closer to my dad. This couple’s existence led to his, and to mine. If I couldn’t be close to them in life, death would have to do.
The following weekend I made the trip to Queens to visit the resting place of my great great grandparents, Charles I and Lena Schott. They are buried in a public lot and share a plot with three other people: a daughter and another couple with last names I don’t recognize, another mystery to unfold.
After stumbling around patches of thick, dried grass in an area of the cemetery with smaller and older headstones, some of them having fallen face forward into the grass in much the same way exhausted people flop into bed at night, I managed to find the location of their plot. It was empty. There was no stone. My aunt had suspected they didn’t have the funds for one, and it looked like she was right.
I took pictures of the brown grass covering the earth above their bodies anyway, wanting to be able to preserve the image, stone or no stone. I lingered there for a while, finding myself talking out loud to them, as if spirits are forever hovering around the bodies they inhabited. I told them I was sorry they didn’t have a stone, that maybe I’d get one for them someday. The only response came in the form of chirping birds and a car stereo a few hundred feet away playing Madonna’s “Dress You Up.”
There is a lot I still don’t know about Charles I and Lena, so after the cemetery visit I decided to send away for their death certificates, if only to get handwritten confirmation of the names of their parents.
This morning, exactly one year to the day my father died, his great grandparents’ death certificates arrived in my email inbox.
There is something strangely comforting about receiving these death certificates on this day, as I grieve a man they never knew would exist but who existed because of them. They never knew about World War II or that their children would change their last name out of fear. They never knew about ancestry websites. They never knew about email, or that their son’s son’s son’s daughter would, in the 21st century, receive confirmation of their deaths through it.
Even if they never knew about me, I know about them. They are my dad’s ancestors, and I know about them. That gives me some comfort.
Last January, one of the 23 and Me relatives I had last messaged back in August sent me a reply. Her father’s mother was my grandfather’s sister, making her my second cousin. The set of great grandparents we share is the couple buried in Brooklyn.
We wound up exchanging a few emails back and forth. I sent her two census reports; she sent me a photo of her parents on their wedding day, telling me that her father passed away two years ago. I felt a kinship with her, not because we were related but because we were strangers, both having lost our fathers, making a connection solely due to some microscopic strands of genetic code we could not see but that we know are there.
Sometimes there is great significance in the things we can’t see.
I have more research to do, as my great great grandmother’s death certificate lists her father’s name but not her mother’s. There is still more to learn, and I will likely find more records to uncover, more cemeteries to visit, and more mysteries to solve. But I have time. As long as I am alive, I still have time.