My father’s 86th year, which would prove to be his last, began at the Washington Square Hotel in Greenwich Village. Dad and I sidled up to the reception counter, a conspiratorial air between us, checking in. We’d secreted my 21-year-old son, Evan, off to wait in Washington Square Park so the hotel staff wouldn’t pick up on the fact that we were sneaking three grown men into a room with two twin beds.
After stealthily reconvening in the little room, we set off on our adventures. Dad, a retired engineer, had a list. A beer (two, actually) at McSorley’s Old Ale House. Spaghetti in Little Italy. Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At every restaurant and bar, I strategically mentioned that it was my dad’s 85th birthday, even though this was technically true for only one of the four days we spent in the city. I did this not so much to celebrate my father as to try to score free drinks. All it got us was a single limoncello, for him, at his birthday dinner.
My primary destination that week, in the spring of last year, was the office of my publisher, more for my father’s sake than my own. My dad and I had just completed an unusual project back home in Ohio. We’d built my coffin together—not imminently necessary, it should be noted—and I’d written a book about it. The coffin, I’ll grant you, was an unusual father-son project. But its spirit was not. My dad was most at home in his workshop, a big dusty room in a barn where he’d built furniture and birdhouses and repaired just about everything for almost everyone in his orbit, and I was most at home with him there. All my life, that workshop was the place I understood my father best, a room seasoned with the vinegary smell of sawdust and sweet machine oil and the mystery of the man. My proposal to build a casket was mainly an excuse to be in his dust, to learn from him, to spend time together.