How 3 NJ Congressmembers Helped me Lay my Dad to Rest

My father Bob Lassiter passed away in January. It’s been seven months, but it still feels like a bright light went out and my eyes are still getting used to a sad new reality.

Since there’s a backlog at Arlington National Cemetery, his final service was a couple of weeks ago, on July 31st. That was a distinct honor befitting an American patriot, retired Marine, and Vietnam War veteran.

“Beautiful and sad,” was a common refrain afterwards. It’s amazing how much emotion, ritual, and history they pack into just 35 minutes. That’s all part of Arlington’s magic.

One of my first tasks post-Arlington was hacking into my father’s password-protected iPad. Dad loved his gadgets, so his iPad had all the bells and whistles. Dad’s iPad was part of my modest inheritance provided I somehow managed to bypass his passcode.

Cracking that iPad was easier than I thought: just a few service calls plus a trip to the Apple store with dad’s death certificate. It’s a good example of  death’s bureaucracy, which honestly took me by surprise. There’s a will to probate plus utilities to wind down. There’s the car note and the mortgage. And don’t get me started about the torrent of Department of Defense paperwork required for any burial at Arlington. At the height of my grief it was almost too much to bear. Luckily, thanks to a certain NJ congressman, I wouldn’t walk alone. More on that later.

First, let’s go back in time to the passing of my mom.

2010.

My mother Dorian’s death in 2010 at age 59, was sudden and unexpected. I was bereft. We were close and her passing left a gaping hole in my heart and in my life. I got my ferocity from her. And my sense of humor. She’s why I stick up for underdogs. She taught me that. And to this day, people say how much I look and act like her. I hated those comparisons when I was little. Now it’s the ultimate complement.

Mom and I worked hard on our relationship since my rehab for crystal meth in 2003. The result, a rare closeness which made her death almost unbearable for me. And in her absence, my Dad stepped up, doing double duty as a parent and also as a grandparent. Dad and I spoke on the phone nearly every day until the day he died. I still wonder how Mom would feel about how close Dad and I became after she died. She’d probably be a little jealous and extremely happy about it.

My parents, while technically married since 1972 spent most of that time separated, either by Dad’s various foreign posting or their own irreconcilable differences. My father drank a lot and my mother was a teetotaler, for example. But when it came to their kids and to their county, it was always a united front. Always. They’d show up at my soccer games and sit together. Most of my friends had no idea my they didn’t share a house.

Flags and stuff.

My parents were proud of the little niche I carved out in NJ politics. Mom would take immense delight that, upon her passing, her son (me) was presented with with two gigantic American flags, both flown over the US capitol in her honor at the request of the late South Jersey Congressman John Adler. One flag for myself, another for my brother Adam.

Adler remains the only democrat to notch a victory in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional district in the past 150 years. This, after his long stint in the NJ Senate. Swept into Congress on Barack Obama’s coattails in 2008, Adler was swept back out by the tea party wave in 2010 after only one term.

He died in 2011 at the age of 51.

I did communications on Adler’s winning Congressional campaign in ’08, so this gesture was especially meaningful. I distinctly recall how those flags made me feel. I felt important. Or at least important enough to be on the receiving end of such thoughtfulness.

My Mom would have been really proud of that. What mom wouldn’t be?

“He’s trying to distract you from his vote against Obamacare,” my partner Greg said when I showed him the flags, the most unsentimental hot take ever. He was right to be skeptical. I’d badly fallen out with the Camden machine and I was furious about Alder’s Obamacare vote.

But to this day, Adler brandishing a pair of 9 foot flags over the United States Capitol to honor my late mother remains one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me. Even if Greg wasn’t so sure.

“That flag is so massive, it’s gonna cost a fortune to frame,” he added, smothering me in a hug. “So what are you gonna to with it?”

It took 8 1/2 years to figure that out.

 

2018.

It was a cold, nor’easter’y Saturday in January when I dialed Dad for some early morning chit-chat. He had minor knee surgery a few days earlier and was excited to be pain-free for the first time in ages. The call went to voice mail and I headed to the gym. Dad lived in the part of Georgia that’s more like Tennessee, about 90 miles north of my brother and his family in suburban Atlanta. Dad was probably headed to breakfast then off too see his grandkids. It was a routine I knew well.

When I called back around dusk and still no answer, it didn’t feel especially ominous. I texted my brother Adam anyway.

“Have you heard from dad today?”

He hadn’t. He was also worried. So he drove up to check.

Contemplating what Adam discovered when he arrived still breaks my heart. Dad had passed in his sleep the night before. Adam spent some quite time with our father before calling whoever you call when someone dies. The cops I guess. Or the coroner.  One of the first responders was a Marine. Adam took comfort there, and in this man’s reverence for our late father’s body.

It was late by then. I’d dozed off back in NJ and Adam was left to play that entire scene all by himself.

Adam choose to let me sleep. He knew I’d be up at 5am and there was nothing I could do at 10pm besides stay up all night with a broken heart.

It still amazes me how, in that moment, Adam was mindful of how to break this news to me. Not even in life’s darkest moments (this qualifies right? ) does Adam puts himself first. That’s the kind of man my brother is. That’s the sort of man my parents raised. And as I type these words on my dead father’s iPad with tears streaming down my face, it’s important to me that who ever reads this knows how lucky I’ve always felt to be Adam Lassiter’s big brother.

2 Days Later.

When I went public about Dad’s death, the outouring of loving condolences left me breathless. Say what you will about Facebook’s myriad ills, but in my grief, the immense support via social media was a godsend.

One of the first to reach out was Frank Luna from Congressman Tom MacArthur’s office. TMac and I don’t share the same politics by any stretch of the imagination, but that didn’t stop his district chief from checking in.

“Let us know if you need any help with Arlington,” Frank added.

It was a nice offer that warmed my heart. The love felt good, it really did. But naively, I didn’t think I needed the help. I got this under control. Or so I brazenly thought.

But anyone who thinks they can play a scene like this alone is a fool. It took several months to figure that out for myself. Dad’s house wasn’t selling, I was getting nowhere fast with Arlington and I did need help. I was overwhelmed.

So I called to see if TMac’s offer still was still good.

The offer stood.

Long story short, Melissa Roughgarden from MacArthur’s office handled everything Arlington-related for my father’s service. All I did was sign a consent form and wait for Arlington to call with some options. We choose July 31 so the grandkids wouldn’t miss school. Once Melissa got involved, things happened quickly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly giving his reaction to Adam and the flags, my partner Greg was circumspect when I told him about TMac’s intervention on Dad’s behalf.

“Is this guy up for re-election this year? Is he scared of you?” Greg mused.

He’s not scared of me. The truth is, notwithstanding our immense political differences, Congressman MacArthur and I have always had a warm if  schizophrenic thing going on. It’s like a Tayor Swift song: I love him, I hate him, I meet him in New Hampshire and we make up, we fall out again over Obamacare and I cuss him out in Twitter, then he tells me I’m fabulous and proceeds to honor my father in such a kind and loving way.

Tom MacArthur is facing a ferocious battle against democrat Andy Kim to retain his seat in Congress. That race is dead heat. It’s more than delicious political theater; control of the US Congress may come down to this race in NJ’s 3rd congressional district. I hope Andy Kim wins and that democrats regain Congress and reign in Donald Trump’s anti-Jersey impulses. I’d be all in with Kim if that was my district.

But how could I possibly campaign against a man who was there for my whole family in such an intimate and meaningful way?

There’s something distinctly awful about losing your second parent. There’s a dark, intractable loneliness knowing that no one will ever ever love me that way for the rest of my life.

It hurts just to type those words.

And Tom MacArthur was there to make all that a bit less awful. It’s heavy stuff. And certainly not the kind of thing I can cast aside for a partisan battle, no matter how righteous. And let’s be honest there’s a lot at stake, possibly even Control of Congress. I’ll dabble this campaign season, possibly even in Burlington County, which makes up half of TMac’s district. But I’ll lay low on the congressional battle.

Some other liberal will have to take my place.

 

June 2018.

 

I was technically in Washington DC to scope out restaurants for dad’s funeral luncheon. But  DC takes out-of-state medical cannabis IDs so I don’t need an excuse. So there I was, poolside with my friend Max reviewing luncheon options. Alcohol was definitely involved in the decision making process. Vodka & soda because who needs extra calories when you’re in a swimsuit? And also, vaping because recreational cannabis is legal here too.

Suddenly, inspiration strikes.

“Remember those giant flags for Mom’s funeral I got from Congress?” I queried Max. “I wonder if they still do that!”

Tipsily, I reached out to Kari Osmond, district director for Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman’s office.

The actual text, puncutation woes and all: “Getting flags thru congress members is that still a thing? I need two. For my dads funeral at Arlington. They literally make you bring your own (redacted) flag for the folding ceremony! who in the office is a good person to chat with about those

Unbeknownst to me, Kari was in Greece where it was midnight. Internet was spotty. Nevertheless, Kari kicked off the process so I’d have two more flags in time for dad’s funeral.

“Wait a minute,” Max chimed in. “Do you still have your Mom’s flag? Why don’t you use that for your dad’s ceremony?”

I needed a minute to think. First to consider how Mom might feel about that. Then to reflect, albeit drunkenly, about the enormity of all this.

It felt overwhelming.

But thanks to my BFF and the vodka, I got really decisive for a minute. In that moment I knew we’d use Mom’s flag for Dad’s ceremony. This, despite my parents not being the best love match.  But as previously mentioned, when it came to their kids or their county, Dorian and Bob Lassiter always met the challenge.

“Mom’s flag is still in the box,” I told Max, pausing on the symbolism of binding them together in such a timeless ritual as a flag-folding at Arlington.

“We’ll use Mom’s flag for Dad’s funeral,” settling the matter.

Arlington.

The day we laid my dad to rest, I was surrounded by the people he loved most including my father’s sister Pat, and his best friend Melvin. They knew dad longest. Everyone should have a sister like my Aunt Pat and a best friend like Melvin. And I have no doubt their heartbreak matched my own.

And thanks to Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Pat & Melvin also got a flag. I’ll never forger their faces when I presented those perfectly folded triangles to Dad’s sister and his best friend.

Dad was wise to cultivate meaningful relationships with exceptional people. And I felt blessed to honor those relationships in such a profound way.

When my editor Max Pizarro suggested I write about Dad’s passing, he said don’t worry that it’s not InsiderNJ’s usual fare. But how could Max know that the final journey of a certain Marine from Georgia might be the nicest Jersey political story I ever write?

Like all good NJ political stories, there’s a #BridgeGate connection.

The night before the service I got a text from former state Senator Bill Baroni, Bridgegate fall guy. Bill was in DC and wanted to pay his respects and did I mind.

“See you there,” I shot back.

We go way back. At one time, it was easy to imagine Bill Baroni as NJ governor. Instead he’s shadowed by Chris Christie’s most epic screw up. Life is very fickle. One day you’re up, one day you’re down. One day you’re tossing your grandkids around and the very next day you’re dead.

Everyone deserves the grace to amend their life. I learned that from my dad who was big on second chances. And frankly, my life is an example of that: one day you’re turning tricks for meth. Fifteen years later, you’ve got half of Congress on speed dial.

Dad didn’t know Bill Baroni from Bridgegate. To Dad, Bill was the guy who sent my Uncle David a weight-loss book that helped my uncle shed over 100 pounds.

That’s my Mom’s gay brother who Dad adored. Dad was especially fond of Uncle David’s late partner Don. He visited them in Palm Springs whenever he was at Camp Pendleton for Marine Corps business. Dad loved being the hot straight Marine at gay brunch. And he especially loved playing golf at all those fancy clubs.

“I don’t care if they’re all running around in Speedos,” he told my slightly prudish Mom afterwards. “It’s the nicest golf course I’ve every played on!”

Dad didn’t hit many golf balls towards the end of his life. I’d hoped my uncle’s tremendous weight-loss example might inspire my Dad. It didn’t happen. And by the time he passed in January he was in poor heath. But that never stoped Bob Lassiter from calling me every single day. He was exceedingly generous with “I love you’s” sometime repeating it 2 or three times during a quick chat. I miss our chats the most, especially those in the wee hours of dawn.

One call stands out.

The morning after Donald Trump’s shocking Election Day victory, Dad rang me early. Bless his heart, he suffered badly from Hillary Derangement Syndrome, and was no doubt elated that Trump pulled off the upset. But Dad was in no mood for spiking the football.

“How you holding up this morning son?” Dad asked, employing the tone all parents use when one of their children is in pain.

I was ready to throw myself into traffic but I kept that to myself. I was probably still in shock.

“Do me a favor son and try not to lose your shit. A lot of people listen to what you say and take it seriously. You have a powerful voice, son. So do me a favor and don’t lose your shit,” he said, underscoring the part about not losing my shit. My Dad was a Marine who knew about leadership and discipline and articulated the importance of showing both traits in this moment.

Whether I have a powerful voice worth listening to is debatable. The point is, my father thought I did. And he went to his grave feeling that way.

And that’s good enough for me.

John Robert “Jay” Lassiter Jr is a writer, lobbyist, and government watchdog. Once marijuana is legalized, you should send him a thank you card.

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  • Creed Pogue

    So sorry for your loss. Glad that everything finally worked out for Arlington.

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