With Regrets

A death in the family.

An image of my father at some dinner somewhere, wearing a black jacket and a pink shirt. He's smiling.
Sidney Freeman Wilner, 1943-2022.

Hi, everybody. Just a quick note to let you know there won’t be any proper editions of the newsletter this week; my father died suddenly, early Wednesday morning, and as you can imagine that’s derailed everything else I was planning to do.

I’m writing this in the little window of quiet after walking the dog and before I head back into family stuff. You don’t have to keep reading if you don’t want to. (Seriously, if you’re only here for the movie stuff, that’s entirely cool: Go see Aftersun and The Banshees of Inisherin this weekend, they’re two of the best things you’ll see this year, and I’ll be back on topic next week with all the stuff I promised before, and also the Top Gun sequel.)

My father was 79, and – as it turns out – in terrible health. Heart disease, kidney disease, a decade or more of muscular degeneration, all sorts of other stuff I didn’t know that because he never told me, or most anybody else. He insisted he was fine in every situation; he had to have emergency surgery in early September for a shattered heel, and it turned out he’d been walking on the splintered bone for at least a few days before he allowed that maybe it hurt a little and went to the ER. Was that part of whatever happened Wednesday morning when he  climbed the stairs to go to bed, collapsed on the landing and never got up again? I don’t know. I’ll never know.

My father and I had a tricky relationship, thanks to issues that I didn’t fully understand until I had the distance of adulthood. My parents’ marriage was a disaster, and they divorced when I was ten; nine years later, my father married a woman who happened to be my mother’s cousin, a shanda several years in the making. It caused a schism in the family that was never healed, and only widened over the decades, and as much as I know it hurt him my father was also better for it, because with his second marriage he found the right person. They were married for 36 years, precisely two-thirds of my life, and they were genuinely happy together. Codependent, sure, but in a positive and supportive way; my father was fiercely loyal, and it was them against the world. Sometimes literally.

It’s a very strange thing to realize both of your parents would be better off if they’d never been married – I can’t say “if they’d never met” because marrying my mother was how he came to meet my stepmother – but that’s the truth of it. (I am certain Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies because Marty’s attempts to unite his parents and secure his own existence also winds up giving their teenage selves moments to realize who they are and what they want, which creates a romance that lasts their entire lives rather than the exhausted, apathetic marriage we see in the opening reel.)

Aaaaanyway. I don’t know really how to talk about my father’s estrangement from most of his family – a soft departure that started with the divorce, and became more or less concrete after the deaths of his parents about fifteen years ago – because that’s a whole thing, and most of it isn’t my story to tell. Also from the Back to the Future story you can see I still have a deLorean’s worth of issues around it. I’m just trying to express this strange feeling of knowing that whatever unresolved issues he had with his family – or with me, for that matter – will now forever go unresolved. Death is absolute; it’s not so much the closing of a door but the collapse of the whole building, and the rest of us have to crawl out of the rubble.

But I also know he would have wanted a quick death. Both of his parents died slowly and miserably: His mother from a cancer she tried to deny for months, his father from a withering dementia that allowed him to outlive her and vaguely comprehend he’d lost her over and over again, which is the cruelest fate I can imagine for anyone.

I’m sure my father would have preferred to live a lot longer, even if he wasn’t in the best of shape, but I’m equally sure he’d be okay with dying the way he did. You’re home, it’s quiet, you drifted off on the couch again. The love of your life nudges you and says it’s time for bed. You head on up.

Bye, dad.

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