Excerpted from FatherLoss, by Neil Chethik. FatherLoss is available here.
After a loved one’s death, we don’t always have the opportunity to hold a funeral. Over the past year, for example, the pandemic has prevented or delayed thousands of funerals.
This is the story of one man who could not have a timely funeral for his father. He had to find another way to honor his dad and get on with his life.
Frank Hernandez was thirty-two years old when he took his father, who was suffering from emphysema, into his home for the last two-plus years of the older man’s life.
Father’s Condition Worsens
During those years, as the father’s condition worsened, Frank’s responsibilities grew. Frank filled prescriptions and dispensed medication. He prepared all of his father’s meals. Late at night, on occasion, he even served as his father’s confidant. His dad would sometimes call to him in the wee hours, half dreaming, to review incidents from his past. Once, the older man asked Frank to help end his life. Frank said he couldn’t do it.
Death finally came to Frank’s father at a particularly awkward time for his son. Frank, an operating-room technician, was scheduled to fly one morning from his home in St. Louis to San Francisco to take three days of re-certification tests; without them, he couldn’t continue to practice in the operating room.
On the morning he was to leave, however, as he was dropping off his father at a VA hospital to be cared for, the older man suffered a heart attack and died.
Frank was devastated, but he could not cancel his trip. So he informed his siblings of the death, arranged for cremation, and caught his flight to the west coast.
Frank had spent forty-five minutes with his father’s body, in a hospital room, after the death. On the plane trip west, he was emotionally upset and restless. Fortunately, his father had a connection with Frank’s destination; the older man had been based in San Francisco during World War II. About a decade earlier, in fact, Frank and his father had spent a couple of days together in that city, walking the streets and reminiscing about the father’s wartime experiences.
When Frank landed in San Francisco this time, he had several hours before his first exam. So after checking into his hotel, he began strolling the same streets he had with his father all those years earlier.
“I felt good walking around where I knew he spent time,” Frank told me. “Real or imagined, it felt like a spiritual connection.” Frank kept walking until he reached Fisherman’s Wharf, where he bought a bouquet of flowers.
A Self-Created Ritual
Frank still had time before his exam, so he purchased a ticket for the next ferry to Sausalito, a small town just north of San Francisco, a couple of miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. When he reached Sausalito, he started hiking the steep streets back toward the bridge.
It was a long haul. But Frank now felt he was on a mission. When he reached “the dead center” of the bridge, as he put it, he looked out over the San Francisco skyline, prayed a few words of remembrance about his dad, and flung the bouquet of flowers into the sea. Then Frank returned to the city to take his exams.
“I’m not sure what drove me” to carry out the ritual, Frank, a burly man with close-cropped brown hair, told me eight years after the death. “It felt really good to do it…. I felt like there needed to be some gesture on my part. I’d had a relationship with my dad for two years. It was a very personal, one-on-one thing. I didn’t share it with anybody else. I was honoring that.”
Learn more about the book FatherLoss at www.fatherloss.com.