On the death of my father

My dad liked to read my blog. In fact, the last time I saw him he bragged to my mom that he had “made it onto Wistar’s blog!” (I’d recently written a post about our mutual glee regarding the Dictionary.com snafu.) Dad also played a crucial role in the One Star Watt Turtle/Frog/Spider Saga of 2008. After a woman wrote a letter to the Charlottesville Daily Progress chastising pool owners for letting innocent creatures drown, my guilt-ridden father fashioned wooden rafts for the pool filters. He envisioned that the tiny ladders he attached would enable mice or frogs to climb to safety until they could be rescued. But Dad said the rafts hadn’t worked as well as he’d hoped so he was devising another system when he, himself, drowned.

You can imagine that I have a lot of feelings about my father’s recent, unanticipated, unfathomable death, and many of them are on the verge of being unbearable, and others are too private to express here, but there are a few things I would like to share with my people on the other side of this immortal Internet.

1) When the worst happens, it is okay to cope by picturing your loved one working really late at the office. If a week goes by and he or she is still not home, then start thinking California or New Zealand. I bet the weather is great there this time of year. I hope Dad remembered his hiking boots!

2) Diet Coke is the official bereavement beverage. My friend Mary and I decided the company should launch a new marketing campaign. Maybe the ads could show a glass of Diet Coke on ice beside a glass of fizzy tears on ice. “Can you taste the difference? No. Unfortunately I can’t taste anything right now.” That slogan needs some work.

3) When close friends fly in to be with your distraught siblings, it is probably not okay to fuck with them by yelling, “Dad’s favorite coffee mug!” when they accidentally knock one from the kitchen cabinet to the floor.

4) Online registries have provided many newlywed couples with china and silver, but a bereavement registry has even more potential. “Toilet paper, plastic cups, cheap white wine, whiskey, we’re good on Kleenex.” We also considered an iPhone app that would photograph and take notes on flower arrangements so you won’t get in trouble with your mother by just writing “flowers” in the little book. The app would be called iMsad.

5) Bringing babies to a household in mourning is always a good idea. Just make sure you dress them in their cutest outfits, or let them get into something beforehand like one greasy, adorable, unsalted visitor whom we were forced to nickname “Butter Baby.” Kids rubbed in food make good conversation starters. If you truly feel sympathetic toward the grieving family, you will sacrifice your child’s dignity to make us laugh. Puppies are also good accessories.

6) For at least the first few weeks (also known as that endless day) after you’ve lost someone (Where is he? When is he coming home? He forgot all his stuff!), don’t try to drive. Don’t try to leave the mourning compound. Don’t try to return phone calls. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to say. There’s no focus, there’s no agency. Find the safest, most loving place and just be there quietly until your legs and arms and lungs work properly again.

7) Count your blessings if you have a mother who allows you to joke about “Dad’s other family” that might show up at any minute asking for money and heirlooms.

8 ) Recall the Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, tote water, chop wood. After enlightenment, tote water, chop wood.” Lugging around compost buckets, trash bags, vacuum cleaners, and frozen lasagna can be pretty Zen too.

9) Speaking of toting, don’t come over unless you come bearing soup, alcohol, a Virginia ham, or pie. Exceptions can be made for people who give really good hugs or for those who possess a sick sense of humor.

10) Every email, card, text, Facebook comment, and phone call matters, even if you don’t get a response right away. Don’t be a stranger. If you feel uncomfortable getting in touch or you don’t know what to say, just remember that no one knows how to navigate death*, least of all the people who just had their hearts ripped out. And if you want to come over and be awkward or accidentally have your fly undone when you do the hugging rounds, all the better. We will find comfort in laughing at you later. Again, sacrifice.

Dad, you made the blog. I love you.

Latham Murray


27 Thoughts on “On the death of my father

  1. For the record, I think there’s nothing funnier or more ok than the darkest and cruellest of personal jokes. The best part about the “dad’s favorite…” is that you can do it endlessly and nobody will ever second guess you. Also, you should trademark iMsad, and make bucketloads of money in the process.
    Well done. I was happy to read this. It’s writing to be proud of.

  2. Thanks Wistar. Your thoughts had me simultaneously laughing out loud and crying at the airport this morning.

  3. Robin from Looziana on January 4, 2010 at 7:45 am said:

    Dearest Wistar,
    Thank you for the gift of your thoughts. Your dad lives on through you.
    You are precious soul that came from two precious souls.


  4. marcelle on January 4, 2010 at 8:18 am said:


    This is great. Laughing and crying go well together! I hope we were able to succeed by bringing the babies over and sacrificing their dignity for you….I feel like eating bagels with cream cheese and changing poopie diapers on the floor may have done the trick.

    I love your dad and miss him. I think about you guys all the time.

    love marcelle

  5. Luvin Cuz on January 4, 2010 at 8:49 am said:

    Crying now. Loving you so much.

  6. Lots of love to you, Wistar… I am in tears at my desk and getting stared at…g2g. Love,

  7. I don’t know what to say and what else could you expect from me except tote water, chop wood.

    Beautifully written, as always.

  8. Well said, W., well said. Been thinking about you and the family. Wishing for the best.


  9. Lisa Eller on January 4, 2010 at 11:07 am said:

    All I can give you is gratitude for sharing your pain with humor. I have felt so much of what you describe. It is as if once you have experienced such deep sorrow and loss you are part of tribe of the others who have been here. Your writing should be part of a class in how to be present with those in grief. I remember feeling so pissed at the realization of how afraid people were to talk to me, hug me, recall my mom’s name. It was as if they were afraid to bring her in for fear of making me sad. She has been gone for almost 10 years now. The sadness is always here, the connections with those that knew her are welcome because it brings her into the room for a moment. I did not know your dad but I know the depth of your loss. May your heart stay open and connect with your dad and loved ones in every moment.
    Love, Lisa

  10. Maggie on January 4, 2010 at 11:07 am said:

    i love this.

  11. For one who makes a living with words spoken, in this case for me they are hard to come by. So also, I suppose, with the written variety, though you have struggled through the welter of emotions and thoughts to find in your writing not only insight, but humor; which is therapy of a sort too probably. And I hope you, as we, are the better for it. Best to all and hope to see you soon……D

  12. Thank you. Today has been really hard because I had some loose ends to tie up and some important goodbyes to say before leaving for New York tomorrow. All your comments helped me immensely. xo

  13. I’ve been thinking of you and your family, Wistar. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m so sorry!
    Love, J

  14. dondee, friend of margo's in nm on January 4, 2010 at 11:05 pm said:

    I am so glad Margo wrote in her fb about you being, and i quote, a “brillinat” writer. You spell much better than she does.

    Thank you for sharing. Best wishes to you and yours.


  15. Wistar, your dad loved you fiercely. What I’ve always loved is how real you are. I’m thinking back to turbulent times and a short, fuzzy, furry brownish (?) prom dress you once madeā€¦ Couple ‘real’ with irreverent genius and dynamite writing, and you are who I want to be.

  16. Yes, as my daughter, Marcelle, said, laughing and crying is what I did all through your blog about your Dad, our best friend. I have been meaning to find a time to tell you about the last time we were with your Mom and Dad. It was the Saturday before the weekend he died. We were eating at a new Chinese restaurant when toward the end of dinner, Latham just started talking about you. He told us how incredibly proud he was of you, your new life and endeavors at school. That NY was so right for you and you were just tearing it up!
    Of course, we ended the meal laughing as we always do when he got out his IPhone and showed me his new IBird App with its bird sounds. When he, Mike and I started sharing all of our Apps, your Mom (who does not have a IPhone) stood up, pointed her finger at us and explained, “Stop, put all those phones away. What is this? We are eating dinner, you guys!” Of course, we did not pay any attention to her, which made her even madder.
    (Over my shoulder, Jake says stop, Mom, this is Wister’s blog.) Sorry

  17. Dad loved that iPhone. He and Margaret had an ongoing game of Scrabble on it too.

  18. Wistar,

    This piece is so honest and I love you. I’m proud of you and impressed by your writing skill and courage. Thank you for being open and funny and sad and for admitting that no one knows how to do this thing: there’s no way out but through.

    You’re the best, feel free to prank me at any time.

  19. Meredith on January 6, 2010 at 12:05 pm said:

    What a beautiful entry. I so badly wanted to stop by over Christmas. Mom was sick and the time escaped me but not a moment passed when I didnt think about your amazing family. Your dad was a legend and we are all grateful for the mark he made in this world. Send love to your family and remember that a good whiskey on the rocks is never a cure but can certainly taste damn good in the right moment.


  20. Wister,

    Although I barely got to see you when you were still living here, I am wishing we could hang out. I need a little more caustic humor in my life. And reading about your father makes me wish I got to meet and hang out with him too. It’s amazing how present your father is through his reflections on the people who surrounded and loved him.


  21. Linda Thompson on January 7, 2010 at 10:42 pm said:

    Hi Wistar,
    I knew you and your brother Brad when you were the most adorable babies in Cooperstown. I came across your blog when reading about your dad. I expect I will visit often. Such a beautiful entry, Wistar.

  22. Julia Hauser on January 8, 2010 at 9:48 am said:

    This is really helpful to people.

    Julia Hauser

  23. Lauren Neese on January 11, 2010 at 11:31 am said:

    I’m glad to see your are writing on your blog again – i’ve missed reading it everyday. We love you all very much.
    Much love and peace,

  24. Megan Wenrich on January 11, 2010 at 4:16 pm said:

    Wistar – Mike just shared this me. You have such a gift for words. Thanks for sharing. We’ve got you and your family in our thoughts and prayers. Sounds like I need to send you some more diet coke, a Virginia Ham, and photo of Mike with his fly down. Luckily you live have public transit in NYC and I won’t have to take away your car keys. Big hugs – Megan

  25. What a gift to give your readers, Wistar. I didn’t know your dad, but I do know that he was one lucky guy to have you for a daughter. He may be gone, but his love for you will be with you your entire life – his gift to you.

  26. So beautiful, your dad would be so proud. Love reading your entries. We miss him terribly.

  27. Ms. Wistar-

    I am a complete stranger who ran across your blog researching a completely different subject.

    I read this entry, and I felt like leaving without acknowledgement would be akin to disrespect as I was so moved by your post to your late Father.

    I have no doubt you would have heard the door creak on my way out.

    I think your 10,000 watts, not one star.

    Blessings and Peace to You.


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