But he gave me something more enduring.
On Thanksgiving week the year I turned 11, my father had a heart attack and died suddenly in his sleep. My parents had divorced when I was two, and my dad lived by himself in an apartment in suburban Atlanta.
He was a man of exceptional kindness and gentleness, gifted in music and patient with the elderly. But when I visited him on the weekends, I got the impression things weren’t going well for him. He was overweight and sedentary, and his apartment was often full of empty pizza boxes and fast-food wrappers, disheveled clothes and dirty dishes. He had remarried after my parents split up, but that relationship had foundered as well, so he was alone when he died. In the parlance of our times, I would classify my dad’s passing as a “death of despair.”
I was shooting hoops at my grandmother’s house when my mom arrived and tearfully broke the news to me. As a preteen, the unfamiliar, highly physical sensation of grief was terrifying to me. It was not unlike seasickness, except that I could not find the horizon. I was overcome by a brutal combination of anxiety, nausea, and vertigo, a visceral experience that over the years I’ve come to refer to as “the pit.”
A brief encounter with this toxic brew of emotions made me dead certain I needed to move on from the pain as quickly as possible. No one in my family told me I needed to, and in fact, to her great credit, my mom did everything in her power to keep me connected with my dad’s family and his memory until I left home.
But I silently intuited the existential danger posed to me by my father’s death. If I become vulnerable to the suffering, I thought, I will enter an unremitting darkness and chaos with no companions or guides …