RIP to Sam McComb III. He loved the beach, his family, a good laugh – and me.
Early morning phone calls or knocks at the door are rarely omens of anything positive. Somewhere between 8 and 9 am, I heard loud knocking at my door, followed by repeated ringing of the doorbell. At the time, I still slept in on weekends and could typically sleep through a tornado siren. That morning I was up and out of bed and racing down my stairs to the front door in seconds. I looked out the peephole to see my mom and her best friend (and neighbor) and knew. I just knew. I opened the door and the first thing my mom said was: your dad’s gone, he went to heaven (my mom doesn’t remember saying this; I still see and hear it, clear as day). In my entire life, I couldn’t remember my mom ever using that language (we weren’t a particularly religious family nor did we even touch on the subject of where people went after death). They both filed into my apartment, and the only thing I can remember is that they were coherent enough to have gotten coffee somewhere along the way (they had been at the hospital for multiple hours already).
Sitting on the couch and chairs around the living room of my first apartment, my mom tried retelling details from the night as I tried to contemplate the magnitude of what she was really saying. Although I knew my mom was also partially in shock, she was surprisingly articulate. I couldn’t even shape elementary-level words. I remember fiddling with the drawstring on the long skirt I had pulled on to race downstairs – for several minutes. I wasn’t really “there”. They were both talking, Kerry (my mom’s close friend to this day and also a widow) adding details wherever my mom may have forgotten them: my mom got a call from the VA (my dad had been in the hospital for a week or more already; in that year, he spent a lot more time in the hospital than ever before), my dad had died in the middle of the night, the hospital staff thought he suffered a major episode of some sort as he slept (heart attack, embolism, we’ll never know). My mom called Kerry, they raced downtown to the VA. The hospital room looked like something insane had happened – my mom told me at some point that she could tell they had tried everything to save him.
04.11.04: (also) Easter Sunday. If there was ever a time I contemplated religion and symbolism, it was probably that time in my life. Easter has never been the same. At the time of his death, my dad had been sick nearly half my life. I worried about him, daily, from the age of 13 to 27. I was angry for just as long. I had visited him two nights before he died by myself and spent time just looking at him. He was going away. My dad was being replaced by a shadow. I called one of my oldest and closest friends Christi that night from the parking lot of the VA and cried hysterically through the telling of what my dad looked like and how I knew he was going to die.
My mom and Kerry said they would drive me to the house; DJ (mom) didn’t want me to be alone. I told her I had to get ready – alone. They left. I may have cried, but I only have a vague memory of standing in the shower wondering how it all had happened. Why? I was only 27. My dad was only 61. I took a very, very long shower and somehow I managed to navigate between the hot water nearly singing my skin and driving the short distance to my mom’s house. I know that I called my best friends, and they came from all corners of Miami. They came to be with me and make phone calls to my and our other friends on my behalf. Beyond the immediate calling campaign, there are two solid weeks of patchy or barely any memories. I remember small moments like my aunt trying to get me to eat something. I remember the decision to call my other best friend Keisha directly. She absolutely loved my father. I also remember her yelling “NO–NO!” multiple times into the phone; we cried together. I was on my parents’ patio. I remember getting ready, a week later, for my dad’s funeral and refusing to be any part of the viewing (he would not have wanted it). I knew the person in the casket was not my dad. I am grateful – to this day – that I didn’t go in to look at him. My closest college friend Sam (also my dad’s namesake) immediately marched out of the room and announced: that does NOT look like your dad. In short, had I walked in and seen him, I would have lost my eternal shit. This small memory remains etched in my mind. Not seeing him in that preserved, unnatural way was the only thing that preserved my sanity in the moment (and possibly moving forward). And, in that moment, I needed it. We needed it.
For the entirety of the funeral, I clutched my mom around the shoulders. The funeral home was packed with neighbors, friends (older and newer) and my dad’s business colleagues. It was probably the only time, in the entire ordeal of dealing with my dad’s illness and death, where I saw my mom fully break down. She isn’t a crier, but she was smaller than I’ve ever seen her, caved in almost with her head in her hands. For whatever reason, while I was my own horrible mess, focusing on my mom was another way for me not to completely go insane. That would happen later. Two weeks later, I had to go back to work. Charlie, my boss at the time, gave me the biggest hug anyone had ever given me. I broke down. I had fits and bursts of emotion at my desk. For weeks and months, I would swear my dad was going to call me, and I would pick up the phone to call him. I picked up a father’s day card to buy for him that first year – and broke down (again). For weeks I had the last phone message my dad ever left me saved in my recorded phone messages and listened to it repeatedly (yes, I am referring to technology half the people reading this may have never experienced) – until it got too hard for me to listen to it anymore. I just knew I was going to walk into the house and see him scratching off lotto tickets at the dining room table (amazing – the things we miss). I still get choked up when I see a fatherly type in a golf shirt and khakis (my dad’s daily attire). Sometimes, when I’m driving, I look over to see the profile of a handsome white-haired guy and think: maybe that’s him. Minimally, I like to think it’s a sign from him – a tiny way of “waving” hello. I recently learned that kids often engage in “magical thinking” when a parent or someone close to them dies, and they can’t accept or don’t understand that they won’t be coming back. They (the kids) move through their routines as though the person is still on the planet. In its own way, in my magical moments (well into my 30s), my brain is still waiting for a wizard of some sort to deliver my dad back to me. I’d give anything to see him walking through the front door (waiting anxiously at the window was a standard tradition for me as a kid) or sitting at our favorite Chinese restaurant waiting for me (another tradition for my dad and I as I got older).
I edit this post often as my dad is an often-thought. Writing and re-writing about this chapter allows me to reach into the dustier corners of my mind and put a more concrete shape to the emotions I still have. Sadly, when you experience loss, grief is never truly far away. In what I know is hardly coincidence, I and several of my closest friends have experienced the loss of a parent while still young. And I believe that each of us is probably never more aware of our loss(es) than when we look directly in the mirror, hear ourselves laugh, or say hi to a passing stranger just because (my dad was famous for being the nicest person on the planet). We may all have eyes whose edges are tinged with grief, but we also have an important story to tell in who our parents were and how they shaped who we have become.