This morning I opened Twitter and saw that John le Carré had died.
I don’t know how to talk about this.
He wasn’t John in our house, but David—his given name. I grew up alongside his grandchildren in California, fellow offspring of English parents who had come to LA to work in film and stayed to raise families. Those eight children formed a counterpoint to my existence as an only child; a reassurance that I’m not the only person who pronounces certain words with a different vowel emphasis, or who feels like she needs to have a foot in two countries at once to make any kind of sense.
They’ve also become external sources against which I can confirm my experience of my parents. As dementia alters the way my father moves through the world, I’m more and more attached to the people who knew him as he was before. I don’t believe I’m capable of fully expressing the kind of remarkable and loving man he is and was. I need witnesses.
At 81, the majority of updates my father receives from friends and family are about death.
He and David were eight years apart in age, two patrician Englishmen dual-wielding charm and intellect. They delighted in each other’s company whenever they crossed paths at parties and family gatherings. We’d receive Christmas cards from David’s house in Cornwall and my father would send cheeky handmade bookmarks in return (although, to be fair, he was exceptionally generous with his bookmark-gifting. This week alone I’ve talked to three people who have them sitting visibly on shelves in their homes or offices).
I’ve always had a hard time bridging the generational and international gap between my parents’ worlds and mine. So often, when I go to try and explain my family to my peers, they don’t know the first thing about the people I’m referencing. It feels alienating and strange. Whenever a friend or relative in the UK passes, it feels like losing a fragment of an impossible world I got to be part of as a child.
I remember David taking us to a Chinese restaurant in London where I ate crispy duck with plum sauce for the first time. There was a fountain running down an indoor staircase and everything felt glamorous and grown-up. I’ve never had duck that good since.
I feel strained and strange because the public grief sits at odds with my own experience of this man. It’s not the intimacy of family, nor is it the distanced attraction of fandom. It’s something tangled around the fact that David and my father were of a type, and his death points at something looming in the mist of my future.
The loss of creative people is complex. If we have nothing to do with a creator in person, then our grief is often more to do with the loss of potential future output—the books unwritten and songs unsung. But we are not our work. It is a part of us, but not the whole of us. Certainly no substitute for the love we give—or are unable to give—to our children. No shortcut to understanding our innermost selves, or what we meant to the people who loved us.
The one cult hit my father played a hand in writing is so far from what I want him to be remembered for—but sometimes it’s the only thing I can point to that might help a stranger understand what he means to me.
There is so much about his life that is improbable, delightful, complex. I can’t recount his escapades without feeling like I’m trying to brag. He came of age in the midst of Britain’s satire boom, bucked familial expectation to travel halfway around the world, and ended up touring America as a stage actor and writing movies in Hollywood. Each time I think I know every celebrity anecdote in his arsenal, he surprises me with another.
I can’t tell so many of the jokes he told because my Yorkshire accent is abominable.
How am I going to tell anyone about who he was if I can’t tell his jokes?
The news of David’s passing shakes me because I realize there will be no pageantry of this scale when my father goes, but there will still be some kind of reckoning between what he represented to other people and who he was to me. I’m grieving for my friends, who have lost a father and grandfather, but I’m also grieving this dwindling thread to a place that made me; to something I cannot hold.