How should one grieve? For Lisa Romeo, mourning the loss of her father, Anthony "Tony" Chipolone, was a long and complex process that came with an unexpected twist. Romeo, an author who has published essays and worked as an editor, chronicles these events in her vivid memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss.
Tony, a fascinating person with whom Romeo had a unique relationship, started out as a "junk man," having collected scrap metal as a boy with a horse and wagon in the 1930s. In the 1960s and 1970s, he had a breakthrough, foreseeing a huge business opportunity in polyester threads and then fabrics.
Tony's business success provided Romeo with a comfortable upbringing and enabled her to pursue her passion for horses. As a young woman, Romeo traveled the hunter/jumper horse show circuit, competing on her own horses. Eventually, she began writing for equestrian magazines. Romeo wouldn't have been able to follow her love for horses and writing without her father's support.
But Romeo's relationship with her father was complicated. "We liked to spar verbally and found it hard to relax in one another's company," Romeo says. "I so wanted to stay in the good graces of my mother—who was intimidated by intellectual conversation and quick to anger—that I often shrank from engaging with him." With his "inflexibility, traditional ideas about gender roles, and withdrawal from family situations he couldn't control," Tony frequently frustrated Romeo. "Sadly," she says, "as he aged, I lost patience with him, until the very end, when I finally softened."
In August 2006, when she was 46, Romeo received the call that Tony had had a stroke. She flew from New Jersey to Las Vegas to be with him. She spent time with him in the hospital. Seven weeks later, he died.
Shortly after his death, something startling happened. Romeo started talking to her father as naturally as if he were still alive. Their conversations constitute the most memorable and poignant moments in Starting with Goodbye.
The first occurs when Romeo sees Tony in his Las Vegas home at 1:15 a.m. "We talk. Not about anything important. Not yet. Chitchat. Small talk," Romeo writes in the memoir. Her father asks her what she's doing up so late. Romeo tells him that it's just how she is. "I ask him why he's here—at all," Romeo writes. "He says he's just checking in on me." Another unforgettable encounter happens at a coffee shop where a barista calls out "Tony—short coffee regular." Romeo's father ordered coffee in exactly this manner—"regular."
"These ‘conversations,' were elemental," Romeo says. "Everything that got in the way in life seemed stripped away. We were communicating without artifice, without baggage. He was hanging around because there was something about our relationship, about him, that I needed to better understand."
Tony's visits from the afterlife coincided with a momentous insight for Romeo: she realized one of the reasons she and her father were so often at odds was that they were so similar. "Dad loved people but in small doses," Romeo says. "He was content sitting on his patio reading the Wall Street Journal while the world ticked by. His reclusiveness upset me. Then I realized that I'm the same way. We're both hyperinterested in the world outside our own lives and frustrated when others aren't. We're both advance planners who focus on details. We each always wanted to be right, to get the last word."
Romeo's experience of writing Starting with Goodbye changed her understanding of her relationship with her father. She hopes that readers will take a new view of their loved ones and be open to how relationships can continue even after death.
" ‘Don't speak ill of the dead' too often translates into not speaking of the dead at all," Romeo says. "I dislike the shroud of silence around death, postdeath rituals, and grief, and I wish we could all be more open. If the book spurs anyone to look at bonds that last beyond death, that would be wonderful.