I’d like to tell you one more thing. I’d like to tell you my father’s last request of me. It was after 9 p.m., and we were preparing for a night in the hospital, and I was asking him what he wanted me to fetch him from his house: pajamas, toiletries … and what about a book? Which book should I bring from his sprawling literary library?
His answer was unhesitant. “Pinocchio,” he said. He and my mom had given Eurydice an attractive, detailed version of the Pinocchio story for Christmas, but it was too long to read to her word by word. “I want to preread Pinocchio,” he explained, “so I can tell it to the Lovebug in my words when I see her next.”
My father never saw the Lovebug again—and I never fetched Pinocchio. Moments after this conversation, a new doctor arrived in the ER and discharged us over my mother’s and my loud protests. “Your dad probably just has a flu,” she said. “Have him take two Tylenol and sleep it off.” The next day, my dad was still sleeping. He’s still sleeping now.
Eurydice covered him with kisses as he lay beside his bed after the paramedics had given up at 7 the next morning. She caressed his cooling cheek as he had caressed her cheek so many times. She smiled at him gently as he had smiled at her, just the day before, with all the pain he’d been in.
My dad had the most radiant smile of any man I know. Eurydice has a pretty radiant smile, too. Somehow I hope the smiles of this unlikely pair are so wide that they touch each other.
There’s a lot of talk in my little world of being ready. Ready to commit to a relationship, ready to write your own syllabus, ready to potty train, ready to proceed to the next stage. “Readiness is all,” says even Shakespeare. Readiness is good, or so we are supposed to think.
And yet my dad was not ready to die. I am devastated to say—and I’m also proud to say—he was the unreadiest to die of any person I’ve ever met. He may have lived in a little house and driven a 30-year-old Volvo, but my dad was a man who changed, who widened, who loved, who explored, who drank life to the lees, who went the extra hundred miles for those he loved whether they were a promising young literary scholar or a toddler with down syndrome.
And perhaps that is the greatest counterintuitive lesson we can glean from Prof. Nehring: to be unready to die. To be planning a rendezvous in Paris when Death comes for you, to be moving to new continents, planting new trees, inaugurating new love stories with special kids, serving your wife the outlandishly expensive wine she likes—and reading Pinocchio in the ER.
Not everyone who met my externally austere Germanic dad would have known he was such a bon vivant—but he was. When he died in the wee hours of Jan. 3, he had just marked the two calendars I’d given him for the holidays with yellow happy faces to distinguish them from the ones I’d made for my mother. He was preparing to hang them in his graduate director’s office. He loved those baby calendars so much, he’d repeated. But he sure didn’t get far in the year with them.
Now it is up to those of us who are still here to fill those calendars to bursting.