I woke up on September 3rd to the news of Walter Becker’s death. Steely Dan had been a huge part of my childhood, and of my father’s identity. As a kid, riding in the car with my dad, I was ordered to listen to the lyrics to Steely Dan songs as though they were important lectures or sermons.I can identify the single note in “Do It Again” during which Donald Fagen became visible, entering the stage, the first time we saw Steely Dan live, and can remember my dad whooping with admiration.
It had been a strange coincidence when Leon Russell died so shortly after my dad did, but that death was also instrumental in processing my father’s death. Leon’s death had guided me through the actual sadness and loss of grieving that my father’s death had not provided. I didn’t need Walter Becker’s death for anything; it was an unacceptable loss.
It took me a few hours to realize we had, intentionally, decided NOT to go to the last concert Steely Dan had had here (which was with Elvis Costello. I really can’t believe we missed this.) That was it; I had blown it; I had made a Steely Dan fan out of Tucker and we were never going to see them live. Tucker said that having missed that concert was pretty much the first thing he had thought of when he heard about Becker’s death. I felt awful.
The death of Grant Hart was a sucker punch and the loss of the voice that I had clung to almost exclusively in 1990, the year that my parents had separated. I was able to spend that day with musichead friends, to whom I did not have to explain my disbelief and sense of loss, but September 2017 was turning into a really long month. And we were well into it before I remembered that the actual first anniversary of my dad’s death was also on the calendar.
Last year, we had had our pet rat, Pocket, put to sleep on September 13th, because we were sure he was going to die soon and we were afraid he would do it on Béla’s birthday. But I had not equated the anniversary of my dad’s death with being “a week after Béla’s birthday”, because on Béla’s birthday last year, we still had no idea my father was so close to death. Once I recognized that the date was coming, I started to feel it. In the economical euphemism used by Tuck’s twin years ago, I picked up a “speed wobble”, my coping mechanisms steadily breaking away.
And somehow, Béla’s birthday on Friday was probably one of the most enjoyable kid birthdays I have experienced between the two of my children. The pressure I’d felt to be “okay” for his birthday was completely removed the night before by a friend who reassured me that no matter what I did or didn’t feel up to, the kid would get over it and I still needed to take care of myself. This was enormously helpful. We got up late (we often get up pretty late on homeschool days), and decided that even though Tuck and Ben were out to work and school, Béla would open his “big” gift right then: it was a red Yamaha keytar, and he loved it. We played with a new-to-us modelling compound called Sugru. We listened to a lot of amateur keytar-playing. Ben picked up Claudia so she could follow through on a midday shopping trip for her brother, coming home with something with which he was delighted, and none of us would have known to get him. Ben took the kids plus one good friend to Dave and Buster’s for about three hours in the early evening — something that would have been misery for Tucker and for me, and we weren’t missed. We had ice cream cake at home that night, no candles, no singing — Béla-style. (And exactly like my dad.) It was a good day.
We have, very slowly, since the beginning of the summer, been making changes to the house. Two bedrooms are switching owners, two multipurpose rooms are switching purposes. New beds, hopefully good enough to make it to the teen years, have been ordered, and in Claudia’s case, assembled. I have been able to fund much of this with the money from the sale of my father’s home in Bucks County. Doing brain transplants in the rooms of your own house can be harder than moving into a new house altogether. There are no empty rooms. It’s like a sliding-tile puzzle. And it has been this way for months, with various kids sleeping on various floors waiting for the paint fumes to subside, insisting on having the soundtrack to Hamilton playing all night long. Everyone and everything has felt a little displaced.
But in the last month, I’ve been socializing more than I have in a year — since my dad died, since we began homeschooling — and for that I am really grateful. I am still far from up to speed on self-care but I’m working on it, and not punishing myself too much for not doing the best job. The kids are doing great educationally and having a lot of fun, and have made really nice new friends. Grad school for Tucker has been a huge transition and I miss him being at main campus, and miss his faculty and advisors. He says that the med school has a “Drexel vibe” and is happy.
On September 3rd, the day that Walter Becker died, Ben and I had driven the kids to Germantown for what is, this fall, a Sunday full of homeschool activities. Because I felt such a seismic shift due to Becker’s death, I took two direct actions towards life changes for myself that day. One is likely to be the most significant long-term change for our family since Tucker became a part of our household. It continues to unfold with the same sense of slightly-out-of-control Fate that Tuck’s arrival did, and I’m just riding it. The other one, I have to get to work on myself. It is the first anniversary of my father’s death, and that means it is basically Halloween season, which means it’s also pre-Every Favorite Holiday season, and Parade season, and that gives me a lot to look forward to.