I was watching the dates a little over a year ago, morbidly perhaps, to determine when I would pass the exact age at which my father died. I have always been finely attuned to time—how long I’ve known someone, how old I was when Richard Nixon resigned, the years from my son being in preschool to college that overlapped with our last cat’s life. I am a historian after all. Many would call me sentimental. I’ve long felt, like Proust, a visceral quality to time and its passage.
My father died nearly 38 years ago, when he was two months shy of turning 61. I was 25 and had barely known him as an adult. I feel forever grateful that teenage tensions had turned into a good relationship during his last years. On what was to be our last weekend together—the Fourth of July 1982—we had gone to see ET and he was so proud of one of my first bylined articles in the New York Times. But his death during a routine hospital visit a few weeks later not only should not have happened, but also it froze one very important time vector in my life.
My father—like my mother a research psychologist at the National Institutes of Health—was a thoughtful, kind man who grew up in Pennsylvania’s coal country and moved upward to reach the upper rungs of his profession.
As I recently told a friend whose father had just died, the idea that death is “being absent” may be the most memorable notion I took away from reading Jean-Paul Sartre decades ago. Dying, being absent, my father wasn’t there for what could have been a long adult friendship and a relationship with my son who, in many ways, is so much like him.
When I turned 60 and 10 months in April 2018, I didn’t so much think about the prospect of my own death—although that crossed my mind—as I did about what a life that length would mean for me, my loved ones, my friends, posterity. My father and mother were both very accomplished professionals, but in part because my mother lived a quarter century longer, she may be better remembered in their profession and got the longer obituary. (Not many not-famous people care about the length of obituaries unless one has written them, as I have.) That quarter century also enabled her to know not only my son and the ups and downs of my life until age 50, but also that communism had collapsed and the Internet was revolutionizing how people lived and worked.
For me, there was a huge additional trove of memories with and of my mother, captured not only on the Kodachrome slides that my father loved but also on digital cameras that were starting to appear. When I lived in New York, she would regularly visit at my apartment and meet my friends, and I would get off Amtrak at Washington’s Union Station late Friday nights to visit her, go to museums, and watch old British comedies on PBS. Later, before she got quite ill, she would play Legos and go berry picking with my son and me.
My father missed all of that because he had died at the age I had just turned. So, I thought: What would I miss and what would my son and others miss if I died at the same time (or a few or more years later)?
I first thought of my son: He would not have had me at his college graduation this spring, much less when he starts his career, or may marry, have children, achieve great things, have setbacks, and have stories to tell. Our discussions of politics and the Economist and cats would have ended early in the Trump administration and, of all the Indian dinners we’d had together, he would never have the possibility of eating Indian food with me in India. I thought of my partner and how we would only have known each other a few years, not had countless new joys and occasional sorrows, and not “grown old together.” Colleagues and others would never see me publish another article or book—maybe the one that would hit the big time. Among my friends from childhood and college, long friendships would have ended in middle age, with no new experiences together and no more times to remember the “good old days” over a bottle of wine. Newer friendships would have been shallower and be cut short. I wouldn’t learn anything more about myself if, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggested, friendship is founded on seeing oneself in the eyes of others.
That’s roughly what happened for my father. For him, I would never be more than the son who had just left graduate school and started at the Times. His marriage to my mother would end at 33 years, far short of those I’ve known who have celebrated 60th or even 70th anniversaries. That next paper or experiment or speech he may have been thinking about writing, doing, or giving would never happen. He never could have thought that when he walked into that hospital that hot July day in 1982, and—unless one believes in some form of eternal consciousness—the very contemplation of these possibilities died with him.
For his friends and colleagues, he has receded far deeper into memory than my mother has. My son tries to “know” him by reading his papers and exploring on Ancestry.com. I try to learn something new about him by talking to distant relatives I barely know and renting a car in Lithuania to drive to the town where his ancestors once lived. Neither my son nor I nor anyone else will ever be able to ask him any more questions, have any more serious or trivial conversations that would make me know him better, love him more, confer new respect, or even annoy me. (I can’t think of him annoying me, but since we all annoy one another at some point, there are all sorts of hypothetical annoyances that could have been if he had lived.)
A post-1982 future could only be hypothetical or conjectural. Which brings me back to the thought: What if I had died at my father’s age, or in that ballpark that I’m still in? As a father, what would that mean for my son? And what about when he hits the age at which I die?
I would like to live a long life, but I also need to—for my son, my partner and friends, and to be able to do what I can to help the world be a better place for those who come after me.
Andrew L. Yarrow is a 63-year-old former New York Times reporter, historian, and author, most recently of Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, excerpted in the Fall 2018 issue of Voice Male.