10 Years Later

My father was always taller than me. Even when I was an adult, and we were only within a few inches of height, he still seemed to tower above me, like when I was a child.

In a picture I have of him when he was young, he had a soft face and intense brown eyes. But the dad I knew had a long face and slight gullet like a rooster. He was bald, and used to tell me that almost anything I wanted to do with my hair — grow it long, wear a hat on it too often — was why his fell out. The brown eyes were one of my mom’s favorite features of his.

When dad was alone, left with his thoughts, was when storms of varying degrees would come behind the eyes, shadowed by his deep brow. He was engaged with the storms, not passive about them.

I get my ability to brood from him, though I’m thankful that I, up to this point, have not seen some of the storms he had seemed to. He never described them, but carried the signs of having been out in the weather. Those storms were probably caused mostly by brain chemicals and genetics, but they grew to their size seeded by the worries of a man haunted by the things he didn’t seem to have power over and seeking desperately to know how to do best with what things he did.

From what I know now, he worried he wasn’t providing for us emotionally the way we needed. He thought about the state of the world, and how he didn’t know if he was preparing us for it in the right ways. He thought about his mother, and how her smoking habit was slowly taking her life, and how her love for her children and grandchildren wasn’t enough to get her to quit. He thought about his own father, and how their views over things like Vietnam, politics, and discipline fractured their relationship, and how my grandfather’s unexpected death meant they could never fully heal it. The night before his father’s heart attack, dad was planning on calling him, but didn’t. It was one of his biggest regrets. This happened slightly before I was born. I was given his father’s name in honor.

Cancer, they told my dad, was the hardest for people like himself — cause he had very little control over it. It was his perfect enemy.

They put him on anti-depressants, and after he experienced them, he said he should have been on them for years.

My father not just loved, but was in love with my mother till the day he died, after 35 years of marriage. I could tell. He’d lean over mom’s spot on the couch and whisper to her. I never heard him speak a single unloving word about her in his life. He’d pay attention to her in a way I would come to recognize as the way great partnered improvisation dancers pay attention to their partners. Even as he moved in his own ways, some part of him was always connected to her, always facing towards her, always close enough to suddenly turn all attention to supporting her if he felt she needed it.

One time, at the Thanksgiving table, when given advice that he and mom should get a television in their bedroom, he let it slip: “There are more important things to do in the bedroom.” Mom, though blushing, was also smiling. I suddenly realized that I was an adult.

When I was ten my father was overweight. Around this time he started running and using a stationary bike, he started eating differently and less, and lost 65 pounds which he more or less keep off the rest of his life, taking up the hobby of running half-marathons. He also started holding “the family meetings.”

I would not learn until I was older that dad was called “Dr. Detail” at his job at the Georgia state archives. At these “family meetings,” held every few months, we’d come to the dining room table to find a quarter-tall stack of spreadsheet at our place mats. Dad called this the “Spreadsheet of Life,” with no hint of humor. He made that very clear whenever we chuckled at the name.

It showed every single dollar to the family name, where it was, where it was spent, and where its future lay. He would show, if the family kept spending its money this way, where we’d be in twenty years, in fifty years. The meeting would be him explaining the spreadsheet to us.

In hindsight, it was such a sign of honesty, trust, and an urge to impart on us the importance of planning. At the time, I was a teenage boy with ADD who spent the time making jokes so that I could alleviate the boredom. I see now how this could have frustrated him so much.

If I think of my dad as a force of nature — and I often do, as a small boy staring up at this great tower of emotion and thought — then I occasionally remember I was a force of nature to him. Dr. Detail fathered a daydreaming, ADD boy who naturally bucked at authority.

Parenting me was a puzzle he would never stop trying to solve.

Some things, though, came so naturally and perfectly, and they will be passed down to any child my sister and I ever have: He fully supported every endeavor we attempted to make in arts, education, and sports, throughout our entire lives. He demonstrated through everything he did that women were without a doubt equal in every aspect to men, that people of any other race were equal to ours. The highest compliment reserved for a girlfriend of mine was “I like her, she’s *smart.* ”

Seeing dad around friends was seeing him happy — he told jokes, during which he got into many different postures of delight and excitement, and his laugh was loud and a little wild, like a bark from a feral canine. Occasionally he would do it so much he would have to grasp for air. It was probably startling if you didn’t expect it, but I had grown to enjoy its abandoned joy.

He would always listen carefully to what people said. His southern accent would come out more when he was talking to people with one; He knew what jokes to tell a politician and which ones to tell a mechanic. For his own taste, I never saw him so consistently laugh himself breathless as much as he did at the fart scene in Blazing Saddles.

“How ’bout some more beans, Mr. Taggart?” He’d say, grasping for air between laughs. Then he’d say the line again, as if to ring every last drop of joy from the moment.

Just like the jokes, he also repeated the advice he gave to me and my sister. In my memory, the moments he gave them all seemed to take place in car seats, where dad liked to think, or talk about our lives, or belt only partly right lyrics to songs.

I think he felt giving us advice was the most important thing he could do in his life. When he did so, a storm was always there a little behind his eyes, and his voice became intense, laconic. Though there were many pieces over the years, these were the lines our family will still say today, then repeating them, just like he did, with pause and even more intensity on each word.

“All it takes to be successful in a job is to show up. On time. Ready to work.”

“Brakes don’t stop the car, tires stop the car.” (He loved cars and often spent a weekend in college taking apart a car engine and putting it back together. They had a box for the leftover pieces.)

Spoken as the philosophical financial planner he was: “Those that don’t plan for a financial future don’t have one.” And “Always remember that time is your greatest wealth.” He knew that, and I’m so thankful for that.

When we were turning 14 or 15 and looking forward to our driver’s license, he would ask us “Know how to spell ‘car’? J – O – B.”

Dad, never wanting to waste a space, wanted his advice put on his tombstone, a thought which always made me really happy. When the cancer was getting worse and he started thinking about such things, he chose instead to be cremated.

After both of his children were done with college, he bought himself the car of his dreams, a corvette. I was surprised at how happy I was about this, and only now realize fully why I was so. Since I was young, I couldn’t remember when my dad had spent any money, let alone such a significant amount, on something simply for the joy of it. Though he loved clothes and spent money on nice suits and shoes, he always had the professional reason of dressing well for his job to allow him to do it. I think he spent a couple decades doing a sort of financial penance.

His obituary, written by himself, included a sole joke, about how my cousin liked Mustangs. “Where did we go wrong?” it said. I had never seen him happier than when he had two kids out of college and a corvette in the garage.

When my dad cared for something, his maintenance of that relationship could reach obsessive heights. He kept the engine of the corvette as clean as the dinner plates. And dad cared for my sister and me much more than his corvette. I have no doubt that, had he survived, that trait of his would have led us to have many long talks, arguments, and reconciliations as we grew older together.

Though I have a lot further to go to understanding him, and me, and us, I have never doubted for a moment that he loved me, intensely.

My dad had an incredible album collection: classical, R&B, soul, pop, even some swing. Mostly though, it rocked, from Abba to Zappa. Every album of the Beatles, even the complete original numbered White album, with all of the original inserts, pictures, and posters still neatly folded inside. Anytime I heard of a rock band from the 60s through the 80s, he seemed to have at least one album of theirs in his collection. Me discovering music, one of the most fulfilling joys of my life, simply required me walking down to the rec room and flipping through the long rows of records.

Strangely, though, over the years his collection grew smaller, rather than bigger. And he never mentioned a word.

His favorite to belt was Springsteen. Specifically, the album “Born to Run.” Specifically, the song “Thunder Road.” These lyrics he always got right.

Like the title song, “Born to Run,” it tells the classic story: Small town boy knows small town girl / Boy offers to take girl away to escape a future of burned-out hopes and broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

He loved the part about the screen door slamming, and the girl dancing across the porch. He loved that because that was mom coming out of her parents’ house in Barnesville, Georgia, when they were young, starting their life together.

He loved the line “My car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk / from the front porch to my front seat.” He loved that because a car to him wasn’t just a thing he could drive dangerously fast playing music dangerously loud — it was freedom, it was power, it was the ability to go somewhere in life, and get away from the things that hold you back.

Most of all, though, I think he loved The Boss’s driving, swelling, urgent sound, the sound of saxophones, drums, pianos, glockensphiels, and Fender telecasters lifting that car seat to the center of the universe.

It was the sound of hope. It was the sound of passion. It was the sound of battling storms.

 

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