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David Sedaris on the death of his father: ‘I don’t think the coffin could have been any uglier’ | David Sedaris

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Ten days before my father died, he suffered a small stroke and fell. Or perhaps he fell and then had the stroke. Either way, it surprised me when people asked what was the cause of death. I mean, he was 98! Wasn’t that cause enough?

I visited him shortly after his fall, flew down from New York with Amy and Hugh. Gretchen and Paul met us at Springmoor, but he was essentially gone by then. There was a livid gash on his forehead, and he was propped up in his bed, which seemed ridiculously short, like a cut-down one you’d see in a department store. His eyes were closed, his mouth was open, and behind his lips swayed a glistening curtain of spittle.

“Dad?” Amy said.

An aide entered and shook his leg. “Mr Sedaris? Lou? You got some family here to see you.” She looked at us, then back at our father. “He pretty much be this way now.” Another shake of the leg. “Mr Sedaris?”

In response our father gasped for breath.

“Well, he looks good,” Amy said, pulling a chair up to his bedside.

Who is she comparing him to?, I wondered. Google “old man dying”, and I’m pretty sure you’ll see exactly what was in front of us: an unconscious skeleton with just a little meat on it, moaning.

Parents Lou and Sharon Sedaris with (from left) Paul, Lisa, Amy, David and Gretchen
Parents Lou and Sharon Sedaris with (from left) Paul, Lisa, Amy, David and Gretchen. Photograph: Courtesy of David Sedaris

You always think that if you gather round and really concentrate, the person on the bed will let go. We were all there, you imagine yourself saying to friends. And in an odd way, it was sort of beautiful. So you become solemn and silently sit, watching the chest unsteadily rise and fall. You look at the hands as they occasionally stir, doing some imaginary last-minute busywork. The oxygen tube slips, and though you think of readjusting it, you don’t, because, well, it has snot on it. Better to save it for an aide, you tell yourself. After 20 or so minutes your sister Gretchen steps outside. Then Hugh leaves the room, followed by Paul. You go out yourself and find them all gathered in the open-air courtyard, seated in rocking chairs, Gretchen lighting a cigarette. “Did I tell you we’re not allowed to say native plants at work any more?” she asks.

A horticulturist for the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, she’s the only one in the family with a real job, meaning a boss she has to report to and innumerable, pointless meetings that eat up her valuable time. Gretchen talks about work a lot, but I’m always happy to hear it. “What did you say when they told you that?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she tells me. “I just walked out. I mean, it’s ridiculous!”

A minute later Amy joins us.

“Now people are calling for gender-neutral toilets in the city parks,” Gretchen is saying. “There’s not enough in the budget to build them, so most likely the few bathrooms that already exist will wind up being labeled as unisex. I guess this solves the problem, but I like having a separate women’s room.” She crushes her cigarette. “Men’s bathrooms always smell like shit.”

“And the women’s smell like vomit,” Amy says.

“Do they really?” I ask, wondering if my father might die while we’re all sitting outside, talking about how public toilets smell.

“God, yes,” Gretchen says. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a palm-sized black book. “Here.” She hands it to me. “I found this at Dad’s house a few days ago and saved it for you.”

I mistake it for a pocket Bible, super-abbreviated, with only the good parts included, and just as I wonder, Wait – what good parts? I realize it’s for addresses, that it is, true to its color and size, my father’s Little Black Book. “It must have been from before he went to Syracuse and started writing in all capital letters,” Gretchen says.

I open it to find 50 or so names, followed by addresses and phone numbers, mainly of women, and most with a note beside them:

Faith Avery – Too serious!
Beryl Davis – YES!
Dorothy Castle – Short circuit
Edna Hallenbeck – WOW!
Helen Wasto – Beautiful
Pat Smith – Body!!!!!
Mary Hobart – Advanced
Helen Sampson – The Greatest!!
Arlene Knickerbocker – Looks are deceiving
Fredericka Montague – Lovely!
Patty O’Day – Beauty!!! Personality
Ann Quinlan – Body! That’s all!! No brains
Rose Stevens – Aaahh

Returning to the room, I look at my father, still seemingly asleep, and wonder if he had sex with these women or just tried to. Why were none of them Greek, and what does advanced mean? I bring it up with Hugh a few hours later, after we’ve left Springmoor and are on our way to the beach. “If Patty O’Day and Dorothy Castle are still alive, do you think they remember him?”

“I guess it depends on what went on,” Hugh says. “Anyway, I’m sure you can ask your father about it the next time you see him.”

We pass a low brick house with a tattered Trump flag in its front yard. “The next time I see him, he’ll be dead,” I say.

Hugh frowns. “You don’t know that. I mean, he’s pulled through before.”

This was on a Sunday in late May. Six days later, Springmoor called and said that my father had stopped eating and was on morphine. My sister Lisa and her husband, Bob, were at the Sea Section with us by then, as was my friend Ronnie and Hugh’s friend Carol. We all went to dinner that night in the town of Atlantic Beach. “Dad is going to die while we’re eating,” I said as we left the house. It was a hot, humid evening, more summer than spring.

“David!” Hugh scolded.

“I’m not wishing,” I told him, “just predicting.”

And correctly, it turned out. Lisa received the call just as we were finishing our appetizers. There was no music playing at the Island Grille, but because the room was small and filled to capacity, it was too loud to hear the Springmoor representative on the other end. Lisa stepped outside, and I followed a few minutes later. “Dad’s dead,” she said matter-of-factly as I closed the screen door behind me.

She was seated on a bench, and as I took the spot beside her, a young couple left the restaurant hand in hand and headed toward their car, stopping beneath a streetlamp along the way to kiss. The man was thin and bearded, a good deal taller than the young woman. As she stood on her toes to reach his mouth, her skirt rose high enough to expose her underwear. “Look at what that girl is wearing,” Lisa said, the phone still in her lap, half of Paul’s number pushed into it.

“It’s certainly short,” I said, following her eyes. “But it works for her.”

Lisa let out a breath and finished dialling. “If you say so.”

She told Paul that our father had died, and I told the others.

It’s something you think about all your life – getting a call like that. When will it happen, and where will I be?, you wonder.

There’s a responsibility in delivering such news, but the more times you phone and get someone’s voicemail, the less solemn you’re likely to be. In the end I sounded pissed off more than anything. “Where have you been? Dad’s dead.”

Gretchen was particularly hard to contact, and I didn’t reach her until the following morning. We talked for a while, and she called me back a few hours later, sounding almost stoned. “I’m just wandering around in a daze,” she said.

“I hear that’s fairly normal,” I told her, looking out the sliding glass door at the ocean, which was relatively calm and green.

“I mean … I could be coming into some real money!” she continued.

And so, for her, I was the bearer of good news.

When our mother died, my siblings and I fell headfirst into a dark pit. Those first few days were the blackest. It was the same after our sister Tiffany’s suicide. With our father, though, it was different. By the time the check arrived at the Island Grille that night, we were talking about other things: gas stoves versus electric ones, a funny TV show about vampires, the time Lisa ate an entire gallon of ice-cream with her bare hands while driving home from the grocery store, clawing it out of the carton with her increasingly numb fingers. Perhaps we strayed so easily on to other topics because, at my father’s advanced age, this moment was expected. Then too he was Lou Sedaris. By the second half of his 97th year, the man was a pussycat, a delight. Unfortunately there were all those years that preceded it. The world didn’t slow down for his death, much less stop – not even for us, his family.

A month before our father’s stroke, Amy and I went through a box of pictures and chose what we thought might make the perfect obituary photo: Dad at his 50th birthday party, standing in his basement with a ghutra on his head. It might have been a white dishcloth, but the band that held it in place was convincing, as was his tanned skin and clasped hands. He looked like a Saudi diplomat on a short break from brokering a peace deal or ordering the murder of a journalist. Our second runner-up was of him wearing long, thin Willie Nelson braids. They were fake, attached to a headband, and had been put on him by Paul. The pictures made him appear much more fun than he actually was. They did him a favor.

“Ummm, no,” Lisa said when the time came to contact the newspaper. “I want something that people will be able to recognize.” The one she chose amounted to an old person’s senior class photo, a snapshot of our father at age 96, withered and lost-looking, taken at Springmoor.

This is how resentments can build after someone dies: one decision at a time. The obituary was similarly bland – a résumé, essentially. Not that I wanted to write it. Neither did Paul or Gretchen or Amy. None of us could have managed the countless things Lisa saw to: contacting the funeral home; clearing out our father’s room at Springmoor; calling his bank, his lawyer. He wanted a funeral at the Greek Orthodox church. This meant that he couldn’t be cremated, so a casket had to be purchased and clothing picked out.

Most people I know would prefer to be disposed of with as little fanfare as possible. My English friend Andrew, for example, has donated his body to science. “I read an account somewhere or other of medical students using an old woman’s intestines as a skipping rope,” he told me not long after he’d made his arrangements. “It shocked me at first, but I’ll be dead when the time comes, so I probably won’t mind it so much.”

Andrew wants no church service but wouldn’t object if a few people got together for drinks or a nice meal in his memory. My father, by contrast, insisted on what amounted to a three-part multi-state death tour. As I said to Gretchen, “It’s a lot of running around for someone who couldn’t be bothered to pick us up from the airport.”

There was to be a funeral in Raleigh, a burial almost a week later in my father’s home town of Cortland, New York, then a third service to take place 40 days after his death, a sort of “Don’t think for one minute that you can forget me” sort of thing, after which a traditional dish of boiled wheat berries and pomegranate would be served.

Greek Orthodox funerals, like Catholic ones, are essentially Masses. My father’s took place at Holy Trinity – the church we grew up in – on a Tuesday morning. Paul lives in Raleigh, and Gretchen works there. They could have easily driven to the service from their homes, but instead we all checked into a hotel, a very expensive one, in the town of Cary, and really pushed the boat out, charging everything to the estate: room service, drinks – the works. The staff thought we were attending a wedding, that’s how merry we seemed as we headed to the church in our dress clothes.

“Can you take our picture?” Amy asked one of the doormen as she handed him her phone.

She looked like she was going to a ball thrown by Satan. The dress she wore was black but short, with comically massive sleeves. It was textured like a thick paper towel and was definitely not mournful. Paul, by contrast, looked like he worked at an ice-cream parlor.

“Dad’s casket is cherry with brushed nickel trim,” Lisa informed us as we took our spots in the front pew. “And just so you know, I had him dressed in his underwear, not a diaper. With regular pants over them, of course.”

“Uh … great,” we said, wondering how the coffin she’d selected could possibly have been any uglier. If it was a chair, it would have been high-backed and upholstered in burgundy-colored corduroy. If it was a lamp, it would have had a frosted hurricane shade. Just as the service began, two men in suits lifted the casket’s lid, revealing our father from the sternum up. What struck me, what struck us all, was how tiny he was. His hands – seemingly no larger than a ventriloquist’s dummy’s – rested vampirically across his chest while his face and hair were the spooky off-white of a button mushroom, with a mushroom’s slight sheen as well.

He looked, in Amy’s words, “like he was carved out of makeup”.

“That open-casket business is so tacky,” I said afterward as we gathered for coffee and baklava in the church’s multipurpose room. “If I had to go on display after my death, I’d at least demand that they position me facedown. Then there’d just be the back of my head to worry about.”

Actually I’d love to be cremated in a simple pine box painted by Hugh with the image or pattern of his choice. I honestly think that would be the perfect business for him. “People could live with their coffins for years, using them as blanket chests or bookshelves – even coffee tables,” I said as we left the funeral.

“A-Tisket, A-Casket, the company could be called.”

Our hotel was near a state park, and after changing into our post-funeral outfits, Amy, Gretchen, and I walked to it. The afternoon was hot and bright. On our way over, we passed a furious stick figure of a man who stood beside a dog carrier and an overstuffed sack of clothing, angrily shaking a handwritten sign at the approaching cars. He wore no shirt and had tattoos on his arms and the backs of his hands. People had given him food and water, and the empty bags and plastic bottles littered the ground around him. On our approach we could see the lean-to he’d set up in a thicket, and that too was overspilling with trash.

This got Gretchen to talk about the camps she and her crews find on city property. “It’s sad,” she said, “but if we don’t clear them out, it’s just one phone call after another, with people complaining about human shit and needles.”

It was nice to reach the park and escape the cruel sun, which was now blocked by a high, brilliant canopy of leaves.

It felt 10 degrees cooler in the forest. It felt like the funeral was far behind us. We’d been walking for 10 or so minutes when Gretchen suddenly stopped and knelt before a number of small plants with ragged white blossoms on them. “Look,” she cried, “pussytoes!”

“They’re what?” I asked.

Antennaria plantaginifolia,” she said. “Pussytoes.”

“Oh, that is going to be my password for everything from this moment on,” Amy told us. As she pulled out her phone to make a note, it rang and she answered with a luminous, “Hi, Dad!”

She said it so brightly and naturally that I honestly believed for one crazy moment that this had all been a prank, that the body we’d seen at the church had indeed been a double carved out of makeup, and that our father was still alive. And I thought, Fuck!

Following my mother’s death, had a sorceress said, “I’ll bring her back, but –” I’d have said, “Yes!” without even waiting for the rest of the sentence. And if Mom and I had 20 more years together, her being herself and me being, say, a deaf mouse who had to live in her underpants, I’d still have counted it as a fair exchange.

I’d heard again and again at the church that morning that “Lou was a real character”.

A character is what you call a massively difficult person once he has reached the age of 85. It’s what Hitler might have been labelled had he lived another three decades, and Idi Amin.

But there’s a role you have to play when a parent dies, so I’d said, each time I’d heard it, “Yes, he certainly was unique.”

“I know you’re going to miss him terribly” was another often repeated line.

“Oh, goodness, yes,” I’d say – not a lie, exactly. I think I’ll miss him the same way I missed getting colds during the pandemic, but who knows how I might feel a few years down the line?

illustration of a tree cut down
Illustration: Paul Blow/The Guardian

It used to be that people’s parents died in their 60s and 70s, cleanly, of good old-fashioned cancers and heart attacks, meaning the child was on his or her own by the age of 45 or so. Now, though, with people living longer and longer, you can be a grandparent and still be somebody’s son or daughter. The woman across the road from us in Normandy was 80 when her mother died – 80! That, to me, is terrifying. It’s disfiguring to be a child for that long, or at least it is if your relationship with that parent is troubled. For years I’d felt like one of those pollarded plane trees I’ll forever associate with Paris, the sort that’s been brutally pruned since saplinghood and in winter resembles a towering fist.

As long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me. In my youth I just took it. Then I started to write about it, to actually profit from it. The money was a comfort, but better yet was the roar of live audiences as they laughed at how petty and arrogant he was.

“Well, I feel sorry for him,” Hugh has taken to saying. “Nobody was born acting the way he did. Something must have happened that made him that mean.”

This is true, but getting to the root of my father was virtually impossible. He never answered questions about his youth, saying only: “What do you want to know that for?”

During one of the many prayer breaks at his funeral, on my knees but with my eyes open, I remembered the time I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at Princeton. Those things are difficult to write, at least for me. The audience is always exhausted, it’s always unbearably hot out, and on top of it all, you’re forced to wear a dark, heavy robe and what looks like a cushion on your head. I was going to decline the offer, but instead I called my father and said that if he would like to accompany me, I’d do it. The Ivy League stuff really appealed to him – though, in fairness, it always has to me as well. People who attended Harvard or Princeton or Yale are always maddeningly discreet about it. “I went to school in the Boston area,” they say, or, “I think I spent some time in New Jersey once.” Had I graduated from a top-notch school, I’d have found a way to work it into every conversation I had: “Would you like that coffee hot or iced?” “Back at Columbia I always had it hot, but what the hell, let’s try something new.”

Now my father said, “Princeton! Are you kidding! I’d love to go.”

Before the graduation ceremony, we attended a luncheon and sat at a table with the president of the university. There were other people joining us, dignitaries of one stripe or another, and as our food was delivered, my father – who had earlier referred to Bill Clinton, who would be speaking the following day, as “Slick Willie” – told the president that she had made a terrible mistake. “You asked my son to give this speech, but the person you really want is my daughter Amy. She’d have the audience in the palm of her hand. They’d eat her up, I’m telling you. I’ve got videotapes I can send you, her on some of the talkshows. Then you’ll see! Amy’s the ticket, not David.”

The university president politely thanked him for his suggestion. Then she asked me a question about the lecture tour I had just wrapped up, and my father started in again. “I can see the graduates and their families right now. They’d go home talking about her! They’d tell all their friends! Amy’s who you want.”

“Is this why you came here with me?” I asked him afterward, as a car arrived to take us to New York.

“Oh, don’t pull that business,” my father said. “The woman needed to know that she could have done better.”

I was 50 years old at the time, and what hurt were not my father’s words – I was immune by this point – but the fact that he was still trying to undermine me. I never blamed Amy when things like this happened. It wasn’t her fault. Likewise, I never blamed Gretchen when I had an art show and he told whoever was in charge that the person they really needed was his daughter Gretchen. “She’s got the talent, not him.”

He was always trying to pit his children against one another, never understanding the bond we shared. It was forged by having him as a father, and as long as he was alive, it held. One always hears of families falling apart after the death of a parent. Lifelong checks are no longer in place and the balance is thrown off. Slights become insurmountable. There are squabbles over the estate, etc. It’s a pretty rough patch of road.

Saul Bellow wrote, “Losing a parent is something like driving through a plateglass window. You didn’t know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you’re picking up the pieces.” I felt like I’d collected all the big, easy-to-reach, obvious ones. The splinters, though, will definitely take a while – the rest of my life, perhaps. I could feel them beneath my skin as I paused with my sisters in this cool, shady glen, orphaned at last among the pussytoes.

Extracted from Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris, published on 2 June by Little, Brown (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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