Some Really Sad News
This newsletter was supposed to be about friendship but now I think it's about grief.
My dad died on January 1.
It feels like I will never have another story to tell.
Today is January 14 and my dad died 13 days ago and I don’t know how to keep existing but here I am.
I write about chosen family. I write about queerness. I write about sex. I write about bodies. I write about myself.
But now my dad is dead and I don’t know what to say about anything.
This newsletter is supposed to be about friendship. I’m in love with my friends, I tell everyone I know. Friendship is my north star, I say frequently, so frequently I wanted to title this newsletter FRIENDSHIP IS MY NORTH STAR until I googled the phrase and learned that Beanie Feldstein said it to Harper’s Bazaar in May 2020, so I picked a new phrase with the help of my smart and patient friend Rachel, who brainstormed on the phone with me for more than an hour to pick a title for this project that would be just right. Hey babe is the way I greet my friends, whether it’s text or phone or Zoom or in person, I am always so excited and happy to see a friend, I really really love my friends.
HEY BABE, I say, and that’s how this project got born, that’s how we’re all here right now.
Hey babe, I tapped on my iPhone keyboard on January 1, many times over, letting all my friends know.
Hey babe, I have some really sad news.
When I was in grad school I brought a draft of my book to a meeting with my thesis advisor and I asked for her feedback. This was when I thought my novel was a memoir, so I wasn’t even trying to disguise the main character. The main character was Vanessa and Vanessa was me. Vanessa had lived a very charmed life, to be honest, and Vanessa was obsessed with friendship, and Vanessa — both the character and the writer, the narrator and the author — had very little interest in discussing her childhood or her formative years because that wasn’t the story she was trying to tell. Vanessa was telling a story that began in 2012. No family of origin details needed. No background story necessary.
But my advisor disagreed. Maybe it’s just who I am, she told me, but I’m feeling like I really need some back story about who Vanessa is and why she cares so much about building this community, this chosen family.
I mostly ignored this feedback. I wasn’t telling a story that required that kind of back story on Vanessa, I thought, and anyway, I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. Grown Up Vanessa wanted chosen family because she wanted chosen family. She loved queer friendship because she loved queer friendship. Must everything have an origin story? Does childhood have to show up everywhere? Aren’t some wants simply pure?
Sure. Everything must not have an origin story. Childhood does not have to show up everywhere. Some wants are simply pure.
In my family, we thought of my dad as the shy one. My mom is extroverted and social and loves hosting large Shabbat dinners and parties. My dad is quiet and reserved, sometimes ducks into his basement office before the official end of an evening with friends at our home, would be happy skipping date night with another couple and simply staying home in pajamas and watching television with my mom.
At the virtual shiva we hosted for my dad on January 4, an event where approximately 300 people from all over the world showed up to share memories of my dad — some of them, depending on their location, waking up at 2am and staying awake until 4am just to participate — so many people spoke about my dad’s hospitality, about the way he opened his home to everyone and his heart to the people he loved. More than one person remembered the way my dad would offer you a drink as soon as you took off your coat, recalled the way he kept our liquor cabinet stocked handsomely though he himself didn’t drink alcohol at all, laughed at the way my dad would circle back around after just a few minutes to make sure the drink was just right. Everyone remembered my parents as a team, not my mom as the gregarious one and my dad as the more somber one but simply the two of them as one, Mark and Mandy, the most generous of hosts, the most fun and interesting pair to invite you over for what you knew would be a delicious dinner.
And multiple people spoke of the way my dad showed up for community. My dad and I had different languages when we spoke of the things that mattered to us, but we were often reaching for the same truth.
Judaism, his synagogue, and Jewish community were some of the most important things in my dad’s life. When he and my mom traveled to new cities the first place he wanted to go was the synagogue, or the Jewish cemetery. He experienced the world through the framework of his religion, and he showed up for his community as one does when you love your people.
Queerness, queer spaces, and queer community are some of the most important things in my life. When I travel to new cities the first place I want to go is the queer bar, or the feminist bookstore. I experience the world through the framework of my sexuality and my politics, and I show up for my community as one does when you love your people.
Last Monday, a few minutes after the shiva ended, a friend I had invited to attend texted me. She is a close, dear friend, but she had only met my dad once, briefly, years ago. She is my chosen family but she does not know my family of origin well. She knows me, but she does not know the people who made me.
This is what she wrote:
It’s always amazed me, how you build such strong community no matter where you are, and which you continue to cultivate through the years, even after you move to a new place. And it’s quite clear to me now where you learned to do that, when I see how many people came together to celebrate your father’s life — at all hours of the night, it seems, based on where folks live! It’s a true testament to the way he lived his life, the impact he has had on others, and how you carry on his legacy with the way you live.
My dad died on January 1.
I’m in love with my friends.
Maybe these two things go together because maybe my dad made me into the person I am. Maybe these two things go together because I am a person and I remain myself even when something terrible happens to me. Maybe these two things go together because I am actually no longer the same version of myself that I was on December 31, 2020 and my friends are holding me even when they don’t know how, even when I don’t know how to ask for what I need because what I need is my dad. Maybe these two things don’t go together, not exactly. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I don’t know.
Here is what I know: I don’t want to stop writing. I don’t know how to stop writing. My dad was proud of me for being a writer. My dad was so proud of all my work. I planned to launch this newsletter in January 2021. This newsletter was supposed to be about friendship but now I think it’s about grief.
I’m not sure what will happen next but I’m going to write about it.
Thank you for being here with me.
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