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Becoming a Member of the 'Sick Parents Society'

“I don’t know why you thought you could handle being a part of a podcast called ‘Dead Parents Society,’” my friend Swathi told me, reaching over to snag a piece of tuna sashimi from my plate. We were sitting across from each other, small plates of rainbow rolls scattered on the peeling table in front of us. I nodded; It was a fair question — the night before, I had started crying in the library, my father’s impending PET scans lodged in my throat like jagged glass: why in the world did I think I had enough distance to take on a project like this one?

I applied to be a part of Dead Parents Society in the October of 2017, a little over a year after my father was diagnosed with renal cancer – in addition to his pulmonary embolism, aortic dissection, hypertension, and diabetes. Dead Parents Society was one of the projects offered as part of the Bassini apprenticeships, a program run out of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Each spring, members of the faculty associated with Penn’s writing program select an apprentice to help them develop a major writing project, providing the apprentices with experience in the research and planning process of a professional writing project.

I was always interested in the program, but I didn’t think I was going to take on any more extracurricular activities my junior year. I applied to be Jamie-Lee Josselyn’s apprentice on a whim, drawn to the subject matter of her project and to the parenthetical phrase slipped into her summary: “the apprentice certainly does not need to be a ‘member’ of the Dead Parents Society (that is: a dead parent is not required to be considered).” Truthfully, without that qualifier, I probably wouldn’t have applied. While my father’s illness had caused me to think for the first time about the possibility of losing him, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable co-opting a title like that considering my reality. I was only a member of the Sick Parents Society, straddling the nebulous gray area between grieving and anxiety, where my father was sick, but still alive, where each month it felt like we were fielding new health calamities, but he was still waiting for me each time I went home.

A key similarity between the Dead Parents Society and the Sick Parents Society is the obscurity of both; they’re largely underground clubs, ones you can only really discover over $3 drink specials at the campus watering hole when you accidentally let slip a sentence like, “Oh yeah, my dad has cancer” and the person you’re with starts laughing before responding, “Me too!” In the haze of alcohol and confusion you find another one among your ranks — and to be clear, membership to either club isn’t exclusive, but it’s members are elusive, and most of us spend our days trying to conceal our edibility rather than reveal it.

Maybe that’s why I was drawn to Jamie-Lee’s apprenticeship — because I thought I would finally be able to talk about the big questions I didn’t yet have the words to phrase. At Dead Parents Society, we read works that explored the nuances of parental loss, and then we invited these emerging writers to talk about what was probably one of the most traumatic moments of their lives. The essays and poetry we read were raw and touching, illuminating and heartbreaking, but often the podcasts created were funny and self-deprecating, filled with equal parts laughter and poignant, critical discussions —
discussions I never had the chance to explore in my life as a college student.

I rarely speak about my grief with my friends — it seems self-indulgent, and no one really knows how to respond. When I became an apprentice for Dead Parents Society, I felt like I was finally reading essays that touched on all the questions I had regarding the grieving process. In the first episode of the series, Emily Harnett reads from her essay “When Art Cannot Console Us in Death,” which questions the notion that “art is a form of immortality…that art is what we get in return for a world without God.” In her piece, Harnett explores reasons we create art. Is it to evade morality? To seek consolation? To channel sorrow into something bigger? Or maybe, as Harnett ultimately determines, we create art not “to compensate for death, to trade our pain for diamonds of prose,” but simply “because we like it.”

This is a viewpoint I defend during our critical discussion, and our conversation has stuck in my mind since that day in the studio. I really believe there’s something more to art than death, something beyond momento mori (“remember, you must die”), a Latin Christian theory employed in art to remind viewers of the transient nature of life – the skull in the corner of the painting, the specter of death lurking underneath each stroke. I need to know I write and read for something beyond fear over my father’s mortality. If I accept those limitations on art, then I must acknowledge it all seems fruitless: nothing I create, nothing I write or read, will ever be able to make my father healthy. With that acknowledgment, the façade falls away; the factors tethering me to my Sick Parent Society membership (fate? fortune? luck?), as opposed to the Dead Parents Society membership, are obliterated, and I must examine the thin red line separating the two memberships for what is truly is: affected control. All members want to believe we somehow have a better grasp on the trajectory of events than we really do.

My work on Dead Parents Society helped me understand the multi-faceted nature of my apprehension. At some point over the course of my father’s illness, I learned the comfort in avoidance: I stopped responding to his texts; I declined his phone calls; I created excuses for why I couldn’t take the 45-minute train ride home. Bogged down by an overwhelming sense of guilt, I found little ways to show my appreciation and then spent hours convincing myself they compensated for my behavior. I made a photo of us the background image on my laptop and phone, but I would also go days without talking to him at all. I spent hours researching about renal cell carcinoma online but also deleted his voicemails without listening to any of them. I went to all the doctor’s appointments I could but also avoided seeing my parents if they were in town and wanted to take me out to dinner. If you asked me why I did this, why I spent so long screwing things up, I would have told you I was young and that I was terrified of saying goodbye — I would have told you this was the absurdity of proactive mourning: I loved him so much he terrified me.

The conversations I have been a part of in Dead Parents Society helped reconcile the gaps between the sanitization of grieving and the absurdity of the grieving process. What Dead Parents Society seeks to do is to pave the way for honest discourse about the gradations of parental loss, not just the pain, but also the guilt, the uncertainty, and the doubt that accompanies loss. In the same way that death offers no clean consolation, Dead Parents Society does not attempt to sterilize the complexity of mourning — it is not a how-to guide but rather, a smart, complex conversation about death, mourning, and the ways in which writing helps elucidate (and, perhaps, sometimes) obscure the complicated emotions of loss and learning.

Our guests have ranged from professors to songwriters, and each one brings a unique perspective to the question underlying Dead Parents Society: why do we write while we mourn? And then the natural follow-up: can writing be therapy? Some episodes explore the process of writing about trauma while others consider the uncertainty of grieving for a largely absent parent. My relationship with my father was not always easy, and neither was I. His deteriorating health did not fix those aspects, and neither did writing about the complicated emotions surrounding that. However, At Dead Parents Society, I found a sense of solidarity among the guests as we waded deeper into the discussions, a quiet agreement that there was no right (or easy) answers — all we had were our words and what we could create with them, including a bond with both those in the recording studio with us, as well as those theoretically someday listening to us.

My father eventually underwent a partial nephrectomy, an operation that ushered him into a remission. In an email I sent to my father’s surgeon afterward, I wrote: “My father’s diagnosis and whirlwind disease progression was devastating for our family; his diagnosis felt like a giant crater that opened up suddenly when I had no idea that earth was even shifting.” I think that’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to writing in our grief — it feels like solid land in the shifting tectonic plates of loss. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the provost of loss, Joan Didion, described this as, “Life chang[ing] in an instant. The ordinary instant.” I think that’s what Dead Parents Society, and art, is really about: cataloging, examining, and sharing the ordinary instants that buoy the unspeakable ones into harbor.

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