Time of death: guest essay by Ben Tanzer

Experiments in Manhood debuts a new feature: the guest contributor. This month’s essayist, author and e-media mogul Ben Tanzer, explores the effects of his father’s death on his kids and that moment when mortality becomes a fatherly preoccupation.

My father was 59 when he died. I was 32.

I never wondered when I might die or what the world might look like when I was gone and no longer part of it. I didn’t worry about who would come to my funeral or if anyone would even care.

Then I had my own cancer scare. Turned then passed forty. Stopped drinking quite so much or taking so many drugs and went into therapy and learned that in doing all this I would start actually feeling things.

Still, I never actually worried about death before I had kids and became a dad myself.

It started with the boys of course, everything does. Their mere presence makes me think about my father more than I might otherwise. About what he is missing and how much fun he would have had with them.

There is more though. And there always is.

All this thinking about him not living has also got me wondering whether I will outlive him. Maybe? Probably? Okay, but what if I don’t? That’s only sixteen more years. Sixteen. That’s plenty of time to write more, which is good, because there are so many things I want to write about. Like a novel inspired by, or possibly as an homage to, how a character might cope with his father’s slow, though still way too fast death. (Yes, that is a quasi- and probably totally unprofessional plug for my soon to be released novella My Father’s House.)

Sixteen years though is fine, fine for writing.

But the boys, what about the boys?

I am 43 now. Fuck.

Do the math. I don’t want to do the math. I don’t even like math. But that’s just one of the many ways thinking about death starts messing with you, it makes you think about all kinds of things you would rather ignore.

Myles is nine. Noah is five. Fuck. What does that mean? It means, that if I only make it to 59 they will be what, 25 and 21 respectively, and yes, they will be young men, and yes, I will get to see them through high school, and maybe, at least one of them through college, but what about weddings and grandchildren? Not clear.

What about the fact that they could be fatherless like me, what does that mean?

Not sure, not exactly.

It’s funny, because at one time I didn’t really think about them in relation to me. All I cared about was things that could happen to them, irrational things, porch parties and drunk drivers, and Leukemia.

Not that it was all about fear. Some of it was and is, but it has also been about all the great things they might become, documentary filmmakers, explorers, the President, and all the things we might do together, like hiking across the Grand Canyon and then sleeping in the lodge after gorging on enormous steaks and ingesting copious amounts of beer.

Still, good or bad, it was always all about them as separate from me, until it wasn’t, and until I started thinking about time, how much we might have, what we will do with it and do any of us have any control over any of that?

True, I might have cared about death and time and the relationship of all that to my dad as I got older, more sober and therapeutized anyway, maybe. And maybe it would have been unavoidable as I become more like my father all the time, trying to figure out how to live the artist’s life, even eating Maple frosted donuts.

The author's parents, Mike and Judy Tanzer

And when did that start anyway, the latter not the former, though when did the former start taking hold to the extent it has?

Some days, most days, I’m not even sure what I cared about before I became a father, writing for sure; and my wife Debbie, totally, especially if you are reading this baby; and the Knicks, but what did I really care about? I don’t know, because being a father has skewed and fucked everything. The boys are the filter, when I’m happy, or sad, selfish or benevolent, what role did they play in it, what is the affect on them, and what does any of that mean about being the kind of father you want to be, even if you cannot define what that is much of the time?

I wouldn’t go back. If I did who else would kick me in the balls and pretend to be The Beast from X-Men? Or parade around the apartment naked shaking their ass, though Debbie honey, again, if you are actually reading this, you know you are always welcome to dance naked and shake whatever you want. Still, if not the boys, who else would I watch grow-up before me and then someday leave me, us, to have these same kinds of fears, possibly, even as they too grow-old, improbably mind you, and awesome?

Ultimately then, my plan these days is not to die at 59, or die at all if I can swing it, and so any role you can play in accomplishing this would be great. Also, did I mention My Father’s House is coming out soon? Good. But did I also mention it’s currently half-off the cover price if you pre-order it now? Yes, now. There. Perfect. I should add that I’m in no way trying to imply that if you buy My Father’s House it will extend my life, but it could, right? Sure it could. Think about it. And thank you in advance for doing so.

Ben Tanzer is the author of the books 99 Problems and You Can Make Him Like You among others, as well as the forthcoming novella My Father’s House and humor collection This American Life. You can find him online at http://bentanzer.blogspot.com/


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  1. #1 by Patricia Ann McNair on 07/17/2011 - 11:46 AM

    Lovely, thoughtful piece Ben and Rob. Thanks for putting it out there for the rest of us. It is a very complicated thing to recognize that those we love–and ourselves, for that matter–will not live forever. All the things we take for granted get tilted in the shadow of this.

  2. #2 by Robert Duffer on 07/17/2011 - 11:52 AM

    “Tilted in the shadow”. Great way to put it, PMC, thank you.

  3. #3 by Jeff Phillips on 07/17/2011 - 8:42 PM

    I’m glad you wrote this and I’m glad I came across this. I too have been pondering and writing on the similar theme of the awareness of mortality. Was good to hear another pov from a different, more experienced phase of life than me.

    • #4 by Robert Duffer on 07/18/2011 - 10:16 AM

      Thanks, Jeff. Always interesting, and insightful, to note when and why that awareness bubbles up at certain times. Ben spans the affects of time so well in this piece.

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