My father sat across from me in a restaurant booth. Here was a man I hardly recognized: vulnerable. Two days before, cancer had killed my mom in the bedroom they shared for almost 30 years.
"So how's school going?" he asked.
"Fine," I said.
"You know, your mother wanted you to go."
"I know, Dad."
"You know, she was happy that you..."
"I know, Dad."
I've since heard my father compared to early Paul Newman characters like Cool Hand Luke, a prisoner whose bulletproof resolve leads to trouble. But if my dad—a retired air force colonel, devoted Christian, and family patriarch—has a flaw, it's one we share. Or, as Luke put it, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
Because we couldn't talk about God, politics, or her, we went to Best Buy. We trolled the fluorescent aisles, browsing among shiny objects. It smelled like plastic. It sounded like static, an incipient white noise holding hostage otherwise erratic thoughts.
Talking about operating systems counts as a conversation between my father and me. The man owns his own power generator, fiber-optic flashlight, and solar-powered radio. I've had my gearhead phases, too: rock climbing, photography, and lighting design equipment. We are a lot alike. We are completely opposite. I'm Apple, he's PC.
While we've always been gadget crazed, the high-tech spree began after the hospital sent her home to die under hospice care. My father upgraded every possible device to provide comfort and make life easier. But the week preceding the funeral was an all-out electronics binge.
My dad bought two additional keyboards (one collapsible, one hardwired) for his newly acquired laptop, a wireless mouse and a wireless modem to connect our portables along with his desktop to the printer. We had a lot of work to do, a funeral to plan. We needed all systems up and running. This we threw ourselves into with zealotry fit for presidential elections. Every hour brought something else we needed: USB cables, another modem, better software, photo paper, ink cartridges.
My older sister arrived with a PowerPoint presentation featuring family photographs set to music—a Hawaiian ukulele player's rendition of "Over the Rainbow." We bought an LCD projector to display the slideshow. We could have borrowed one, but all projectors were not created equal, we knew.
I drove an hour south to buy a mini disc player to record the service. It wasn't enough to turn on an analog tape recorder. We needed top-quality sound, good enough for a movie, but burnable to CD.
We spent a lot of time getting these devices to work. While my brothers transported family members, and my sisters went to the morgue, my dad and I saw to all things technical. We hardly had time for condolences.
When visitors arrived, we made them watch the PowerPoint presentation, thereby determining the proper focus for any given square feet of distance, from projector to screen.
"Computer stuff," my older brother said, when someone asked our whereabouts. "They're in there doing computer stuff."
I used to think the digital binge was about my shortcomings. I couldn't help my mother as she sat keening with pain. I stared at the white wall bawling until my sister (a nurse who was doing all the work anyway) mercifully asked me to get something from the other room. But I could set up the laptop near her bed, just in case she wanted to do any typing.
For my father, it was typical "dad response." He could buy stuff and figure it out. He could get wireless Internet for a family full of laptops. Had we wanted the funeral to be like a Broadway show, he would've rented the theater.
And the funeral went off without a hitch. But our penchant for circuitry didn't end there. We bought more to dull the ache: a large-screen television that told us who was calling through its connection to the phone, a light box for seasonal affective disorder, a clock that projected time onto the bedroom ceiling.
Sometimes materialism quells sorrow. My electronics purchases were funded in part with money from my mother's life-insurance policy. After the cash ran out, I felt better—it was never a fair trade from the start. How could it be?
Lately, though, I've come to wonder what prevented us from confronting the magnitude of our loss. This behavior was such an obvious if unconscious retreat. We flicked the off switch in our grief box. Why couldn't we look each other in the eye and say, "The person who loved us most and whom we loved most is gone. I have no more mother/I have no more wife."
Maybe sharing a bathetic moment of understanding would have felt cheap. Even more, I wonder if we would have told the truth instead of obscuring each other with saccharine sayings and a dose of God.
And what is the truth? That death changed us, that our bond felt tenuous.
These days, spending time together has to be enough. Whether we're having a silent drive or an awkward meal, language is bound to struggle.
But recently we've begun exchanging e-mails. My father wrote—and this is something I've never heard him say—"Always remember; my love for you is not conditional.... I love you because you are my lovely daughter, and nothing can ever change that."
At the moment of crisis, we are workers in a hive, busy little bees. We are documentarians, resurrecting the dead in high-definition sound. They say funerals are for the living. But death, too, is all about the living.
Kristy Davis is an assistant editor at O. She is also at work on a collection of short stories.