For a while, it seemed that if I wasn’t writing about my father’s recent death, I was thinking about it. I didn’t want to seem preoccupied with death, so I held off calling to attention to a marvelous essay I read the day after Dad’s funeral.
It was purely coincidental but the piece could not have come at a better time. Authored by Kathryn Schulz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New Yorker, the essay was like an emotional salve. It gave me perspective and it gave me pause — literally — to appreciate the elegant prose.
With six weeks now passed since we paid our final respects to Dad, it’s time to share the author’s reflections and mine, too.
The essay begins on a humorous note. Schulz recalls spending a summer two years in Portland and inexplicably losing things — keys, clothing, a wallet, a cell phone, a bike lock, even a truck she drove downtown to attend an event at Powell’s, the famous bookstore.
Schulz, normally one of those people who organizes things by size and color, consults her sister, a cognitive scientist at M.I.T., to discuss her sudden propensity for losing things. Turns out her sister is “the most scatter-brained person I’ve ever met.” And her father would be the runner-up. having once spent an entire vacation wearing mismatched shoes.
From a discussion of how to find missing objects and why we lose them in the first place, Schulz pivots to self-blame, the failure of memory, and the relative weight we put on these missing objects.
“Part of what makes loss such a surprisingly complicated phenomenon, then, is that it is inextricable from the extremely complicated phenomenon of human cognition,” she writes. “Beyond a certain age, every act of losing gets subjected to an extra layer of scrutiny, in case what you have actually lost is your mind.”
From there, it’s another transition — from the loss of things to the loss of a loved one.
Here, Schulz writes tenderly about losing her father in late September after a decade of poor health. Her scatter-brained father is also someone who immigrated from Germany in 1948 at age 12 on a refugee visa, learned to speak six languages, and made a successful life for himself and his family in the United States..
Here I thought of my father, born into a family of nine children, the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants who moved from the Southwest to California, where they picked lettuce and other crops. My dad grew up learning the value of hard work and urged my sisters and I to pursue the educational opportunities he didn’t have. He joined the Navy at 18, served in World War II, raised a family, became a homeowner, married twice and provided love, encouragement and support along my path from adolescent to college graduate, husband and father.
Schulz even discusses the origin of the verb “to lose” and how the contemporary meaning of “loss” has come to encompass everything from mittens to life savings to loved ones. Ultimately, we will lose everything we love in the end, she observes, so maybe we should spend more time appreciating what we find.
“You meet a stranger passing through your town and know within days you will marry her. You lose your job at fifty-five and shock yourself by finding a new calling ten years later. You have a thought and find the words. You face a crisis and find your courage.”
I read this masterpiece as I was riding shotgun in a rental car hurtling at 75 mph across the desolate stretch of interstate highway from Silver City, New Mexico, to Phoenix, Arizona. My daughter Simone was driving us back from where we had spent time grieving with relatives in the last place my dad lived before passing at age 91.
I read more than one excerpt aloud as the miles flew by. It was pure coincidence that I happened to choose this essay rather than the other compelling material in this late-February issue — the legacy of James Baldwin, a profile of Anthony Bourdain, a review of a new book called “The Refugees.”
Had I chosen one of those articles instead, I would have missed Schulz’s extraordinary essay. And it would have been my loss.
Read the entire piece here: “When Things Go Missing”