Lisa Romeo is a writer, an editor, a creative writing teacher, and the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss, her debut book. One of the founders of Bay Path University’s MFA program, Romeo has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Brevity, and Best American Essays. With her memoir, Romeo joins the ranks of writers willing to expose their deepest emotions as they grapple with the questions central to our humanity.
Starting with Goodbye begins with loss. After her father dies, Romeo willingly accepts the task of crafting a eulogy, something she considers her “favorite part of a funeral.” She writes, “I like to imagine the speaker – a family member or close friend – pen in hand or fingers poised on keyboard, struggling for the right words, holding each one up, turning it round and round in the late evening light, asking if it fits.”
This opening strikes a clarion note. This will not simply be a memoir about losing a parent, but rather an intense examination of a daughter’s relationship with her father. Romeo reflects on her long career of publishing essays about motherhood and family life with scarcely a mention of her dad. As she begins to pen the first eulogy, she admits to doing something she avoided previously – writing about the father she “didn’t know well” when he was alive. Quickly, Romeo reveals that their relationship was a confrontational one, based on “his always needing to be right and my always needing to prove he wasn’t.”
During his working years, Romeo’s father parlayed his talents as an entrepreneur into a successful business that earned him, according to her, “a small fortune.” But Romeo insists that “in typical 1960s fashion,” her father never got involved in the day-to-day discipline of his children. Nor was theirs a family that discussed their feelings. In Romeo’s accounting, her father was a restless presence who saw his job as fixing things. In hindsight, she attempts to explain his behaviors, but never truly does.
The memoir meanders from the distant past, when he paid for family trips around the world to swanky hotels and exotic locales, to the more recent present as he sinks into dementia. As the narrative follows the advancing course of the disease, Romeo describes her frustration with the demands of her parents balanced against the needs of her own husband and children. When her father passes away, the reader accompanies Romeo through the rituals of death and beyond, to the regrets and ruminations that culminate in conversations with her father’s ghostly presence:
We talk, my dead father and I.
I know, even at the moment of our first conversation, that the idea is ridiculous. Surely, I am talking to myself, to some wishful memory. Yet, there he is, at his marble-top desk at 1:15 a.m. in his Las Vegas house.
These conversations allow Romeo to process her grief. And yet, her father’s ghost is rather elusive, never very revelatory, sometimes contradictory. Although Romeo finds comfort in the familiarity of his dialogue, his “visits” occur sporadically and often end without a clear conclusion: “I know that I am casting about, hoping to attach meaning to randomness, and attributing symbolism to the flora that sways green and colorful and vibrant, straight in the strong desert breezes.”
As the narrative wanders through the landscape of her visits to Las Vegas and back to her home in New Jersey, Romeo ponders the complex nature of her relationship with her father. She remembers how he supported her monetarily as she pursued her equestrian dreams, and how she distanced herself from his control. As his illness worsens, she travels again to Las Vegas to support him in his battle, even as she chafes at the constraints of the task:
For a moment, I have an inflated self-congratulatory sense that I’ve accomplished something important that only I could have done, that my coming to Vegas was vital to his peace of mind, and not just so that I could one day say I had visited my father while he could still recognize his youngest daughter.
Memoir requires such brutal honesty, the willingness of an author to bare herself before the unknown reader, to pick the scab from a wound that has failed to heal properly no matter how long ago it occurred. Starting with Goodbye succeeds in this respect. Romeo spares no one, including herself, acknowledging how spoiled she was as a child, how petulant she could be during her father’s last months. As the book winds to a close, Romeo reveals her passionate research into death, perhaps as a way to massage the sorrow that lingers since her father’s passing in 2006. In this searching, she uncovers the theme that binds together the chapters of the memoir:
As my father was dying, and then more vigorously after his death, and finally, passionately, in the first years of his postmortem existence, I begin reading about death, about losing a loved one, and why, in convoluted and inexplicable ways, losing isn’t the worst thing. No, worse is not examining that loss, not holding it up to the light, and not asking, in the reality of that loss, what was the reality that came before? If an unexamined life isn’t worth living, I come to believe an unexamined grief is a bigger loss.
Starting with Goodbye is honest, unsparing, and, for those readers who themselves have a difficult relationship with a parent, challenging to read. For those who find that narratives about death and loss offer a window into their own sorrow, this memoir provides that deeper look. Lisa Romeo has constructed a provocative look at the grieving process, unstinting in self-examination, authentic in its exploration of complex family relationships, and, at its most basic level, a tender eulogy about the father she has lost.