book excerpt

Watching the Internet React to the Worst Night of My Life

Erin Lee Carr on her father’s death.

Erin, David, and Meagan Carr. Photo: courtesy of Erin Lee Carr
Erin, David, and Meagan Carr. Photo: courtesy of Erin Lee Carr
Erin, David, and Meagan Carr. Photo: courtesy of Erin Lee Carr

Sitting in the back of the cab, I was frantic. He had emailed me reminding me not to be late, and of course here I was, ten minutes behind schedule. The cab pulled up to the curb, and as I jumped out I felt the slap of cold air hit my face. The wind had been relentless that winter, and this night was no different. Inside, my dad was mediating a discussion with filmmaker Laura Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and former government contractor Edward Snowden (by way of Skype). They talked about making Citizenfour, a smart, intense documentary about the National Security Agency leaking scandal that unfolded in 2013, a call to arms regarding privacy in the United States. The panelists were thrilling to watch. I took notes; I always took notes at my dad’s talks, as he expected a full report.

Afterward, we walked outside into the cold, and I waited for him to light a Camel. I noticed when he didn’t, and he told me he’d been off cigarettes for four days, a herculean task for someone who’d been smoking one or two packs a day for some forty-odd years. Recently, he’d had a tough go of it — two bouts of pneumonia had left him running on empty. He’d decided cigarettes were the reason and quit once and for all. I considered asking him to dinner, but he said he was tired. He pulled my boyfriend Jasper in for a bear hug (we don’t do handshakes in my family), and I hugged and kissed him goodbye before he headed back to his desk at the Times for his backpack. I felt the wool from his scarf scratching my neck as I leaned in to hold him close.

I walked with Jasper from the theater to a local dumpling shack, where we took refuge from the weather. Jasper was tall and angular with a quick and easy smile, and I realized I liked him, a lot. We chatted about conspiracy theories over scallion pancakes. We’d been dating for a little over a year. He’d been to many of my father’s talks and enjoyed them.

“Did my dad seem okay?” I asked. “Yeah, of course,” said Jasper. “He was just tired.” It was Thursday night, and I had work to do at my office in Brooklyn the next day, so I kissed Jasper goodbye and headed into the subway. When I got out, I had two missed calls from my stepmother Jill. I called her back.

“Listen to me carefully, and do not panic,” she said. “Someone called me from the Times saying that Dad has collapsed. I need for you to get to St. Luke’s Hospital. I’m in New Jersey and heading into the city right now, but you’re closer and can get there first. I called Monie and she will be there to meet you. Do not call your sisters. I want to know what the situation is before I call them.”

She hung up and I looked at the subway, calculating how long it would take to get to the hospital, before realizing that was insane and quickly hailing a cab. After I closed the car door, I sat and obsessed over the lack of descriptors in Jill’s call. What did “collapsed” mean? Was he conscious? Alive? I called my best friend, Yunna. My voice cracked. She sounded startled by the news but told me everything was going to be okay.

“What if it isn’t?” I whispered. “It has to be,” she said. I listened to an audiobook on my iPad (his iPad that he gave me), anticipating that I’d need to be in a semi-stable state of mind for whatever came next. I played Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and tried to stop sobbing. When I paid the fare, my cab driver mumbled, “I’m sorry.” I nodded but had no words.

Monie, a close family friend, was there waiting. As I ran to her, she said loudly to the security officer in the triage area: “This is David Carr’s daughter!” Just hours before, I had heard those words as I tried to find my seat at his event. My whole life it had been my introduction; I hoped to God that I would hear it again.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, walked over to me in the ER reception area. There was nothing to say except the truth: “He’s gone. I’m so, so sorry.” I heard shrieking; Monie was screaming loudly. I was mute. I noticed that Dean was wearing a purple scarf. Jill had not yet arrived.

They led Monie and me into a small waiting room where a young bearded guy was seated. Apparently he was the one who’d found my dad’s unconscious body on the floor of the Times newsroom. He had tried to do CPR but was unsuccessful. He looked down. None of us had a single thing to say. Boxes of tissues littered the top of the generic wooden coffee tables. I reached for one.

I excused myself and went to the bathroom to call Jasper.

“Is he okay?”

I didn’t yell or scream the worst words I have ever said out loud. Instead, I whispered them, willing them back into my head, but there they were.

“He died.”

I threw up immediately.

“Oh my God, babe, oh my God,” Jasper said over and over. His words rang in my ears.

I sat on the floor in the hospital bathroom trying to compose myself. An impossible task. I started a mental Rolodex, automatically flipping through all of the things my dad would not be around for.

My twenty-seventh birthday
My first film premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in two months
Walking me down the aisle
The career we’d cleverly plotted together

One by one these thoughts crushed me and my vision of the future.
But then I realized my mental Rolodex was missing something important. What about him? His dreams, his goals? So much grander than my own.

Growing old together with the love of his life, Jill
Seeing my baby sister, Madeline, graduate from college
Seeing my twin, Meagan, graduate from her PhD program
Publishing his next book
Teaching another class at Boston University
Achieving his private, long sought-after goal — a Pulitzer

What happens to all of these dreams when someone dies?

I asked Jasper to come to the hospital before he could even offer. I needed his body next to mine. Everyone was silent when I walked back into the waiting room, looking for Jill. When she appeared, our faces gave it away. She immediately looked down. She reached for no one as there was no solace to be had.

A doctor asked if we wanted last rites performed. We did.

Dad’s editor Bill Brink was there to say the Times would be putting out a statement.

“But I have to call Meagan and Madeline and David’s family,” Jill said quickly.

“Can you do it now?”

I glanced down at my phone and found a text message from a former co- worker: “Hey, heard some scary news about your dad. I hope it isn’t true.” How did he know? Why is he texting me? I barely know him.

Apparently during the franticness of the moments between my dad’s collapse and the medics arriving, a reporter at the Times tweeted that my dad had been found unconscious; she’d assumed the news was already public. Twitter had been notified.

And there it was. My first feeling that shattered the shock. Anger. Raw, seething, all-encompassing anger. What the fuck. I haven’t even seen my dad’s body and already people are sending me texts like this. I considered smashing my phone on the ground.

But there was no time for acting out; I had to go in and see my dad. Jill and I followed the doctor into the room where his body lay. His mouth and eyes were open, as if he were in mid-thought, about to say something. It was horrifying. Jill broke the silence: “Oh, sweeto, what happened?” She wrapped her arms around him and sobbed and then backed away, unable to hold on. I lay my head on his chest, but it didn’t feel like him. His body was stiff and foreign. Jill and I held hands and said a prayer.

A hospital worker came in and informed us that the priest was running late and they would have to move “him” to free up the emergency trauma room.

Meanwhile, we needed to let our family know, and fast, before the Times released their announcement. The raw anger returned. Couldn’t I have at least thirty seconds to comprehend what had happened before the internet chimed in?

Helplessness is a savage feeling on a night like this. There were so many “jobs” to do, and yet I could barely summon the strength to call my twin. She picked up on the third ring. I was at a loss for words, so I opened with the cliché that the movies have ingrained in me: “I need for you to sit down.”

“No,” she answered. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“I am at the hospital and there was an accident. Dad passed away.”

Her shrieks pounded against my ears. I didn’t know what else to call it other than an accident because to me, it felt like one, a terrible accident. No one just drops dead.

The New York Times sent out an alert; NPR did the same. His death trended on Twitter. The floodgates opened. I was split down my center by hundreds of texts, emails, and voicemails. It was beyond intrusive, and forced me to dissociate. Every minute my phone buzzed, and I would look down to see if it was a call I needed to take. All of the people finding out my dad was dead from a notification on their phone.

Some of my close friends showed up at the hospital and helped us back to Monie’s house. Wine was uncorked, and slowly the shock became grief. Two months before I had secretly started drinking again after a nine-month stint of abstinence. I felt an unabashed need to drink my way through both what I’d just witnessed, and whatever came next. No one noticed. Or at least they didn’t say anything. It was not the time for reprimands.

My stepmom, one of the strongest, most stoic women I know, began to cry out over and over again for my dad, her partner of more than two decades. We sat with her. There was nothing else we could do. We talked about the day that had just transpired, hoping that retracing every single one of his steps could provide clues, but we found nothing solid.

Jasper and I spent the night at Monie’s. He held me as I cried myself to sleep. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to take off my clothes. They were what I was wearing when I hugged my dad for the last time.

I woke up the next morning certain that I was dying, too. The words “My dad is dead” beat like an awful drum inside my head. Suddenly, a memory flashed. Christmas Eve, a few weeks before. We were all sitting around the living room. My dad had made a point to celebrate how life had worked out nearly perfectly for everyone in our family. Relationships, jobs, money, happiness. I remember thinking how right he was. “Everything has broken our way,” he’d concluded.

Now everything was just broken.

All That You Leave Behind is a memoir about family, addiction, and fierce love by the documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr.

Excerpted from ALL THAT YOU LEAVE BEHIND by Erin Lee Carr. Copyright © 2019 by Erin Lee Carr. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Watching the Internet React to the Worst Night of My Life