In the days after my stepdad died, I marveled at myself from what seemed like a distance. “Wow,” I thought, “You seem chill. Chipper. Happy.” And in a way, I was. With my mother in Hawaii and me in Michigan, dropping everything to run to her side as soon as I heard was impractical. I needed to talk to my boss about whether I could cancel a pre-scheduled vacation and pair that with bereavement days in order to go to Hawaii for a longer stretch of time. And then I needed to book the ticket, and then actually get on the plane. It meant I had a steady stream of things to do in order to eventually not-grieve at the not-wake in Hawaii.
But first, there was the not-wake in Michigan, and it broke my heart.
My stepdad said he didn’t want a funeral. He said all he wanted was to be cremated, and for his friends to come over to the house and have their choice of bourbon, Rolling Rock, porto and / or a joint. Telling stories was okay. Crying was not. But my mom and stepdad lived in Hawaii, thousands of miles away from the town where he grew up, the town where my stepsister and I grew up. Thousands of miles from the dozens of people who cared about him and cared about us. So we decided to throw him a wake at the bar where he and mom worked and met, where my stepsister then worked for ten years, and where I used to slink to the kitchen to learn about making northern Michigan’s best pizza from a blonde waitress named Becky. The bar owned by the man who was best man at my mom and stepdad’s wedding. A bar that feels a little like home.
We invited his friends, our friends, and relatives. My stepsister’s closest friends came. My stepdad’s ex-wife showed up. Old friends from my stepdad’s rugby-playing days showed up. The mother of a friend of mine from high school came. My mom’s sister came. But my mom’s brothers did not. None of my cousins showed up. My best friend lived blocks away and didn’t come. And neither did my dad and stepmom.
I’m not proud of it, but I started keeping track of who offered condolences. It was another task to keep me occupied. It felt like the biggest news in the world, but some people never addressed it at all. They didn’t “like” my Facebook post. They didn’t comment. No private messages, no e-mails, no nexts, no phone calls.
I don’t have tons of friends in the first place. It’s not like I don’t know that I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. I’ve spent most of my life feeling slightly out of step with my peers. But it was hard to know if people were ignoring my stepdad’s death because of Facebook algorithms and their general indifference to me, or if people were just being weird about death.
I asked a friend who had lost her dad fairly recently.
Did this happen to you, too? I keep wondering if it’s just that Facebook algorithms are fucked up and nobody has seen the announcement? I feel like I guess I should have called people directly, but it was just too exhausting.
Friends I had grown up with me KNEW my dad, I’m talking saw him every week for years, didn’t say a word of acknowledgement. NO ONE came to the funeral for me. Hundreds of people, not one for me. It’s not just you, people our age are shitty as fuck.
She advised that I focus on my family. But in stepfamilies, it’s hard to know who counts. I hung out with my stepsister that weekend. There wasn’t anybody else left on my stepdad’s side of the family, and most of my mom’s family skipped what little we did in my stepdad’s memory. But the people I would have expected to show up just because they loved me and just because they cared for me were my best friend, my dad, and my stepmom. And they weren’t there.
When I eventually broke, yelling and crying about it, dad and my stepmom said they didn’t know it was so important to me. I believe them, but it seems incredible to me that it was something I needed to communicate. I thought that the weirdness of going to your first wife’s second husband’s funeral would be negated by the fact that your daughter wanted you there, but that’s not how it works. Especially because I told them, and my best friend, “It’s not a big deal.”
Here’s a tip: if your loved one tells you when and where the not-wake is, it’s a big deal. You need to go.
Telling your parents they’ve hurt your feelings is a lot easier than telling your best friend she’s hurt and offended you, though. But years ago, we had agreed that our friendship would only survive hundreds of miles and being in different places in life if we were honest with each other about our feelings, and right away. We can’t let lingering resentments sit, so I told her I was upset she and her husband didn’t show up at the wake.
She apologized, and then she said something that made my brain stop working for a minute.
I don’t think I realized how you felt about him. I thought you felt more like I do about my stepparents, which I now know is not the case. I don’t know how I didn’t know how you felt about him but I actually didn’t.
It didn’t take long to realize she was right. It seems so stupid that my best friend wouldn’t know that I loved my stepdad, but in that moment I realized at some point I’d made a subconscious decision not to belabor the point with her. First, I’ve never been on board with the whole “We’re a happy family” narrative—I did love my stepdad, but I don’t like to glaze over how stressful our family situation could be—and second, I didn’t want to alienate her for not feeling the same way. Whether it had all started when we were teenagers and I wanted her to like me, or whether I just never wanted my love for my stepdad to sit in judgment of her attitude toward her stepparents, I am not sure. I do know that the fact I loved my stepdad was effectively a secret from the person I tell all my other secrets.
In the first month after he died, the question that haunted me: did he know? I thought about all the times I called and just asked to talk to mom, with hardly a hello. I thought about all the times—too few—when I called and talked to just him.
Bargaining? Sure. I think to myself, “Just one more phone call! Just one more phone call,” but it’s a lie. Because all the while I’m bargaining for that one last phone call, I’m thinking surely I can keep him on the line long enough to make a difference.