Well, that last part isn’t exactly true. The year didn’t rush, and the first three months did anything but. I won’t speak for any of my family members, but I was a mess. There was only a little over a week in my time-off bank from work, so I didn’t take enough time to process the thing, and in essence, I accomplished nothing shy of turning my life into a wreck. My days consisted of working, drinking till all hours of the night, and searching for answers and connections in online chat rooms. My room became a federal disaster area. I fell behind in my bills, resulting in some serious credit-card debt, and in the two normal-day scenarios in which I was alone with my thoughts –- in the shower and stopped at traffic lights, I wept.
All of this makes sense in retrospect. I’d never dealt with the death of someone that close, and I have no idea how I’d cope with it if I had to do it over again. It was sad, though, namely because it’s probably always sad when you lose someone dear to you unexpectedly, and it was also sad -- though I understand it better now -- the way I dealt with his death in public, which was to mask the fact from those that did not know that my father was an alcoholic.
His death certificate listed two causes of decease, a primary one called subdural hematoma, medical jargon for bruise on the brain. The secondary cause indicated chronic ethanolism, which kind of makes it sound like he used to sit around and huff gas, but it is what it is.
It’s a weird thing, dealing with alcoholism, and loss associated with it. As kids, the term wasn’t thrown around much, then when it was a few years later, it seemed to have a stigma attached. A little while after, experts and educaters began to tell us that alcoholism is a disease, just like cancer. I’m not sure where we are now as a society, but it sure still feels like that stigma exists, as if we can accept that it’s a disease, but we also partially expect its sufferers to generate self-cure.
Regardless, I knew for some time that my dad was an alcoholic, but it wasn’t like he was Nicolas Cage’s character in “Leaving Las Vegas,” or Shooter from “Hoosiers.” Maybe he was some kind of odd hybrid of the two, but he was never the guy that was drunk every day of his life. Far from it, in fact, but trying to quantify his drinking or qualify his drunk and sober times now seems irrelevant; neither will produce results that matter.
And at any rate, this piece isn’t about some message to alcoholic loved ones, or some promotional gig about awareness. It’s about the fact that, in one moment, he was in the hospital –- where he occasionally wound up in his later years, via some sort of DT-related seizure – in one moment, dead the next. He was one of the best friends I ever had, and I didn’t get to say good-bye to him. In the first months and years after his passing, I went to his grave site with some frequency. They were spiritual visits that created some kind of healing in my soul, typically resembling me talking to him, and in some sort of mysterious way, he would respond in the wind.
I don’t mean that I would hear his voice in the breeze. But I would talk to him, and at the end of my stanzas, huge gusts would appear and seem to last the length of what might’ve been his portion of that part of the conversation.
Nowadays, it’s a good year if I make it out on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death, and I’m almost never out there in the cold months. It’s not that I have learned not to love his memory or miss him any less, but there’s something to that old adage of time healing wounds. I still think about him all the time. Often nights when I’m out on my porch, I look up into the clouds and feel some sort of connection to him, much like I did for many nights after he died. When I head down the curvy part of northbound Ward Parkway and there’s that snippet of trees and Kansas City skyline, I think about him. Every time. And I’m not even sure why. And of course, from time to time, I think I see his red truck flashing past in a couple of lanes of traffic just far enough away to not be able to stare or double-take.
He was an incredible guy, a person that loved people, smiled at random coincidences, and had unmistakable mannerisms that we all still laugh about today.
So I wanted to write a few words about a few of the things he’s missed in the past nine years, and there’s a degree of imagination involved in doing such a thing because we will never know what turns his life would have taken had his time not come on June 15, 2002. Maybe he recovers, and his drinking patterns continue to devolve over the next 20 more years. Perhaps he finally finds the right mix of help and never has another drink. Or maybe he dies of a heart attack or a freak car accident, shortly after June 15. You never know. As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
These few things, then, could be deemed family milestones. Nobody got more than the other because they’re more special than somebody else. Certain summaries are shorter than others because the Forrest Gump in me felt like, “That’s all I have to say about that.” None of the events are supposed to be the ultimate moment of that person’s life. They’re just things I think Dad would have liked to be with us for. They’re not in order of importance, rather simple chronology. Oh, and I’m aware that the cool thing to do would’ve been to wait until next year, and do 10 dates in 10 years, but this thing wanted to be written now, and besides, nobody’s ever accused me of being cool.
9) The 15th of May, 2004
If forced to pick his most absolute-favorite, non-family thing on the planet, I would wager a high dollar that my old man might select The University of Notre Dame. I understand that to some, this might seem a bizarre notion, but for reasons that remain unsure to me, Dad had an affinity for the Fighting Irish like no other.
The story, as per him, can best be summarized as such: My father played football for a local, private high school, and that institution has one of the finest gridiron programs in the Midwest. In fact, they either win state, lose state, or wallow in their unnecessary shame at the conclusion of each season. And if my understanding is correct, you attend and play football at this high school, and the opportunities to be seen by college recruiters is like your Happy Meal toy. Either that or it’s the actual burger, and maybe the getting of an old-fashioned Jesuit education is your toy when you’re old enough to appreciate it.
So you suit up, start, and if you can take your licks, you excel, letter, and maybe get a scholarship offer. Unless you’re my old man, and you’re the punter/punt returner, and you’re a buck-sixty soakin’ wet. The route, though, it would seem, if you did get an offer to nab a roster spot in South Bend. If your on-the-field talents don’t afford you that opportunity, then maybe your academia will. Unless you’re my old man, and your track record of makin’ the good-ol’ grade isn’t so shiny, in which case you probably do not take the route my dad did, which looked something like this:
1) Apply to Notre Dame.
2) Get rejected by Notre Dame.
3) Apply again to Notre Dame.
4) Repeat step two.
5) Have several friends get accepted to Notre Dame.
6) Have one of said friends’ father fly those accepted to South Bend in a private jet.
7) Get asked by said father/pilot if you’d like to come along for the ride.
8) Matriculate your way to the admissions office where you,
9) Literally get on your knees and beg to be accepted to the university.
10) Get told to beat it.
These steps make no guarantees in the self-confidence department, so pursue them at your own risk. This is, nevertheless, what my old man put himself through, and thus he had to further his affinity of the school in a second-hand fashion.
When a few years had passed, my old man wanted me –- me of the even-less-talented-buck-forty-soakin’-wet variety –- to be gettin’ my football on, and it came as no surprise that such a desire was coupled with his dream for me to attend his alma mater, so much so that he scheduled a meeting with a Jesuit priest for me, did all the legwork to get me geared for the entrance exam, and had me stay the night at his house the evening before the test. The morning of, he made me eggs, bacon, and toast. This is the only time in my life in which I can recall Dad preparing a hot breakfast for me.
I took the test, though, and ranked something stupid, like in the 99th percentile, which makes zero sense, given that my standardized-test-taking abilities have been proven to be as successful as the collective efforts to decriminalize marijuana in the United States. I mean, I took the ACT and scored like a two. When I took it a second time, I think my score was one-point-five. If you’re unfamiliar with this test and its scoring system, imagine yourself inserting a ballot at your polling place, and instead of receiving an automated message saying your vote had been cast, a little sticker popped out that read, Damn, you’re dumb.
Now that I think about it, though, when I took that entrance exam, I was an eighth-grader, still lucid and free of the after-effects of intoxicating substances. By the time I took the ACT, many a brain cell had been sacrificed. The point, though, was that I shamed my old man, and decided to go to the high school all of my middle-school friends were attending. This was key for two reasons: 1) I went to six elementary schools, and was not interested in making friends yet again, 2) Girls. There would be girls at my high school of choice.
Perhaps that decision left my father feeling that all hope was lost. There would be no football, no glorious dreams of watching his string-bean son put a golden-domed helmet on on Saturdays. It was gone.
That all changed, though, when Keegs came along. Keegs -- my second-oldest younger sister -- you see, went a route neither of my father’s previous two children had attempted: the route of responsibility and initiative. Keegs was something of a whiz kid in school, and by the time she was a freshman at her all-girls Catholic high school, she already had like 96 college credits, two part-time jobs, and was actually teaching, I think, one of the classes in which she was enrolled.
This, then, meant that post-high school, college-scholarship offers landed in the mailbox every day. And one day, there was an offer from South Bend. Well, I think the chronology involved a submitted application, an acceptance letter that followed, and eventually, a full-ride scholarship offer, which Keegs accepted, certainly via no pressure from our father.
My dad had, as I imagine a number of dads do, an interesting variety of employment sources throughout the years, the last of which was a (roughly) 17-year run as the proprietor of an exterminating business. This was a labor-intensive, but frugal endeavor for him to take on, one that required “a lot of windshield time,” as he used to put it. I always heard over the years that his customers “kept track” of my and my sisters’ whereabouts and accomplishments, but it never really registered with me that he actually spent more time talking to his customers about his kids than he did treating their homes and businesses.
I experienced this first-hand from about April to about August of 2000, and it took no time to get used to the consistent blushing when I’d meet a customer, and hear them rattle off the list of what my sisters and I had been up to and when. It also took little time to realize that, in a sense, they would gloss over the updates regarding myself and two of my sisters, an effort that served the purpose of getting to Keegs. Keegs and Notre Dame. Then it would be his turn to blush, and I’d smile at him, his head tilted slightly down, perhaps a touch embarrassed at how much time he’d spent talking to these people about her acceptance to the university, her bags-packed move to Indiana. I say “a touch embarrassed,” not to deflate his sense of pride regarding her accomplishment, but rather that such gloating seemed somehow, in the moment, to accidentally minimize the lives of the rest of us.
Again I’m unsure of the chronology, but if asked to lay odds, I’d wager that the acquirement of some Notre Dame football tickets was underway before she departed for freshman year. Were it not, I’m certain that Dad had the importance of learning about the process cemented in Keegs’ mind. We did, nevertheless, get a bundle of tickets, and we made our way up to campus, and because of the peculiar geographic layout of the town and the demand for accommodations, we –- my dad, his wife, Keegs’ two sisters, and I –- holed ourselves up in a Michigan hotel room for that frigid late-October weekend, and we watched Bob Davies and the Irish lose a four-point heartbreaker to the Boston College Eagles.
We made all the rounds, visiting the bookstore, seeing Keegs’ dorm room, layering up in our gear for that frosty evening pigskin competition. I remember getting yelled at by one of Keegs’ roommates for using her computer and having the wizard-like intelligence to close out some chat window, thus deleting something of grave importance. I also remember feeling anxious about telling Keegs that I liked to burn the tweeds -– which, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, I’d deemed an important feat that weekend –- and then being drunk and high* when I attempted to tell her so.
*If you’ve tried to explain the importance of something to someone when you’re drunk and high at the same time, imagine trying to petition your local citizens for a vote in your favor just after accidentally rubber cementing your feet to your lips and shaving Chinese symbols into half of your head.
But the game. We had to get our pre-game spot on the sidewalk and follow the marching band up to the stadium because that was the kind of radition-based dork my father was. And then we took our seats. In the nosebleeds. If you’ve never attended a football game in the brisk* evening air, allow me to offer two tips: 1) There is not enough hot chocolate in the entire state of Indiana to keep you warm for four quarters. 2) If your father is a rather stubborn human being who dislikes the cold, and you are unable to convince him that two pairs of socks beneath a plastic bag on each foot is a bad idea, you will spend all four quarters of the contest listening to him complain about how cold his feet are.
*"Brisk," in this scenario, is code for, Holy Fuck it's cold.
It was an epic weekend, though. The five of us smoked enough cigarettes on both legs of the trip to kill a small European nation. We went to a Notre Dame football game. We laughed. One of my sisters still feels certain she saw a dead kangaroo on the side of the road. And most of all, we got a snapshot into what Keegs’ life was like at that particular time. And it was good. It was real good. And Dad was just bursting with this contagious pride for weeks leading up to the trip, and for some time after.
This is all tied to -– you were wondering, weren’t you -– the above-listed date because it was on the 15th of May, some 41 months after making that trek that we, as a group, paid Keegs another visit in South Bend, this time to watch her walk across the stage, his time to watch her move her tassel from one side of her cap to the other, this time to applaud her as she received a diploma, and this time, without Dad.
How, you might ask, is this significant? Why is Keegs different from any other degree-holding daughter of a proud father? And I would answer you that, as one of our father’s four children, we each have our shit together in different ways. Some of us kind of have some of our shit together. Some of us don’t have much shit together at all, and, Keegs…well, she’d tell you otherwise, but she has all of her shit together. Always has.
So, at the end of the day, she could’ve gone to a community college, and thought about what she wanted to study for a while. She could’ve taken some random just-out-of-high-school job and lived at home while saving money to figure out what she wanted to do, and Dad would’ve been fine with any of those, because she’s always had her shit together. So much so, in fact, that she studied herself into a Notre Dame scholarship, and helped our father fulfill, to some degree, the dream he never himself could.
But Keegs was/is the model type of daughter. She was disciplined and organized from an early age, so the studying didn’t necessarily come easy for her, but she was able to pattern it all into some ease-resembling shape, which set the foundation for solid future opportunities. She also had sweet girlfriends and respectable boyfriends while living at home, and if she ever sniffed out any trouble, she managed to keep it under wraps, mastering, if you will, the kind of child-to-parent DL for which we all strive, the kind at which few of us succeed.
This, to me, became a mold of sorts, the persona we all, in varying degrees, envy from time to time, the kind of child every parent wants to have, to admire, and to brag about, even to relative strangers. It's not a mold I'll ever resemble, and I probably won't have many opportunities to tell her story to relative strangers, but you can be sure, that, if Dad could have been there, he would probably have irritated some customers for telling it too often.
8) Dual Dates: The 2nd of November, 2004, and the 4th of November, 2008
I don’t recall the exact date, or the precise location, but I remember feeling as though 12 elephants and a rhinoceros had trampled out my guts and my heart when I learned that my father was a staunch Republican. Yes, I realize the filthiness and shame that comes with the use of such a clichéd phrase, but I can’t bring myself to finger another word pair, for doing so would mean investing energy into a concept that ills me.
I remember we were in his living room one of the first times the subject arose. And I remember dismissing it, as if he did not have his wits about him that day. I also remember bringing it up again some time later. We were in his truck, driving around Kansas City, visiting accounts. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “So, Dad. Let me ask you something.”
Him: “What’s that?”
Me: “This Republican thing. Are you serious?”
I don’t suppose it was unique to him, but my dad had this tendency to do this three-layered combination of exhaling cigarette smoke while faintly laughing. It sounded like he was trying to half-heartedly shush someone three times while trying to keep a straight face, like he was a little surprised by the topic, yet had expected it to arise at some point in time. It was sometimes followed by “Well…” but sounded more like he was saying “whale,” only with two long syllables instead of one.
Him: “Tsshhooo-tsssccchh-ssshhh. Absolutely.”
I'd never heard my dad answer any question with such conviction. He’d always struck me as an open-minded man. And really, he was. But not on this. Not this time. I couldn’t resist anyway. I unleashed everything I had, which was kind of equivalent to two of those little plastic green army men that would always get the tips of their rifles bent from two boys bashing them against one another in that faux combat, the kind with the bad gun sound affects and saliva spraying everywhere. In this battle, no matter how many times I engaged him in it, I didn’t even have those miniature toys. I was armed with nothing more than my relentless ambition to somehow will him to change.
I figured I had some stops, though, and I tried to pull them out.
Me: “Dad, Ronald Reagan was a damn knucklehead that tried to look out for nothing but the wealthy.”
Him: “Ronald Reagan was the best president the United States has ever seen. Period.”
Me: “Really? Ollie North? Iran Contra Hearings? Trucks full of weapons for our enemies? Lying about it?”
Him: “He wasn’t the only one lying. He was put in a unique situation…” blah, blah, blah, my eyes glazed over.
Me: “Look at all of the things Jimmy Carter did for our country, Dad.”
Him: “Our country’s in the mess it’s in because of Jimmy Carter.”
Me: “What’re you talking about? You liked Jimmy Carter.”
Him: “I do like Jimmy Carter. As a man. He’s a fine man. And he was a terrible president. Maybe the worst our country’s ever seen…” blah, blah, blah, more garbage about Saint Reagan, and my eyes glazed over.
Me: “Dad, you can’t be serious. Reagan cared about keeping the rich rich. You, my friend, are not rich.”
Him: “President Reagan established policy to protect businessmen like myself.”
Me: “Dad, you didn’t even have this business until Reagan’s second term was half over.”
Him: “And just think of what great shape the business would be in if I’d had it then…” blah, blah, blah, more blame thrust on Democrats, eye-glaze factor reaching extreme highs.
Me: “What about Bush, dad? It can’t be good to have the same philosophy, hell the same person, basically, only with an increased-knucklehead factor, in office for over a decade.
Him: “President Bush continued where President Reagan…” blah, blibbity-blah-blah, I can no longer see out of my eyeballs because the glaze is so thick.
Me: “You’ve got to be kidding me. What about Clinton? Look what he did for the country’s economic state. And education, and the environment.”
Him: “Bill Clinton should be ashamed of himself for…” blibbity-sclibbity, hoobity, blah-blah, I’m now legally blind.
Me: “Surely, oh father of mine, you cannot be seriously thinking of voting for George Bush’s son.”
Him: “I never discuss who I vote for, but let’s just say that if Bill Clinton hadn’t left this country in such…” I have now inserted rusty nails directly into my corneas, for such a painful, septic mode of self-torture is more pleasing than trying to see the world my father has constructed.
And so it went. We had some version of this conversation half a dozen times or so before he died, and on each of those occasions, it was though Jesus Christ himself had asked the Disciples to merge their powers together and create a voodoo doll in my likeness, so that every time my father opened his mouth about Democrats fouling things up, and Republicans swarming in to fix them, each of them could pierce my spinal cord with a collective stabbing strong enough to kill 10 dinosaurs. This was how painful it was to talk politics with my father, and perhaps because I admired so many of my father’s traits, but hated this about him, I am as politically apathetic* as I am, because I know that for every level-headed-thinking Republican (cough, hack, cough) that’s out there, there’s 13 of my Dad running around, heaping blame onto unidentified piles of problems, exacerbating existing issues, creating new ones.
*I vote. Don't get me wrong. I just depend on others of information gathering.
It is for these reasons, then, that I have selected this trio of historical dates, and although it is impossible to predict how things would’ve gone were my dad still alive, this is what I envision:
The 2nd of November, 2004: George W. Bush re-elected, amidst electoral-vote shenanigans, popular-vote-counting debacle. Legions of people everywhere hire medieval trolls to dash out their eyes with flails while my dad walks around proclaiming things like, “If it weren’t for the foolhardiness of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, we wouldn’t be in this war-like situation…”
Me: “Really, dad? Really?”
Him: “Of course. George W. Bush will, in his second term, gather the remaining threads of greatness laid out by his father and his father’s president, and move the financial state of this country toward…” blah, bluh, blah, you know the drill.
The 4th of November, 2008: Barack H. Obama elected to the presidency of the United States of America. The supposition here is akin with wind-spitting. I got my dad’s wife a copy of The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream as a gift for either her birthday or Christmas. I meant to ask her how she liked it and if I had to stab at it, I’d say she liked it just fine. It is, after all, only a book, but it symbolizes something greater: Every single person close to me –- at least those that spoke/speak openly about voting preferences -– planned on voting for, and did so, President Obama.
Not only that, but folks like my wife, and folks like my friends in Colorado worked tirelessly in support of the campaign. There were booths and flyers and yard signs, phone calls, rallies, watch parties, and stickers. This election was, to me, about getting people to think, and more importantly, to think with their hearts instead of their pocketbooks at the polling places.
To me, the shame of it all is that the election results weren’t really that slanted in favor of Obama. At least not that I remember. And it probably would’ve been even closer, possibly even resulting in another Republican win, had it not been due to the fact that Obama’s opponent was 107 years old. Oh, and, uh, the fact that he chose Spanky McBrainFreeze as his vice-presidential candidate.
I don’t mean to bash John McCain, or insult those that did not vote for Obama. Rather, I’m interested in pondering what it would’ve been like around my immediate family, with Dad as the only Republican, diehard or otherwise. Would he have felt pressure to consider voting for Obama? Would he have become even stubborner in the face of adversity? The latter, I imagine, would’ve been the case. It’s fascinating to think about, though. My aim is not to shroud President Obama in a veil of holiness, but in the thick of it all, the two men -- Dad and Obama -- had a lot in common. They both were kind-hearted, well-spoken family men, fathers of daughters, and believers in the things that make the United States a pretty darn good place to live, work, and raise offspring.
I think about the conversations we might’ve had during the primaries, and around the Super Tuesdays, and especially in the months leading up to the election. Would we have fought? Would Dad have given in to vote for this man? Would things have been awkward at family functions? Would I have had to sneak into his house and put pictures and quotes of Sarah Palin everywhere? Not-so-subtle reminders of the idiocies that would run our country following the failing of one aged aorta? If he did give in, I imagine that I would’ve insisted on invading his constitutional privacy. I would’ve insisted on accompanying him into the voting booth to watch him punch his card.
I would’ve waved the proverbial (index) finger in his face when the public jumped down Obama’s throat nine months into his term. I would’ve had discussions with him. I maybe would’ve learned a thing or two about what really made the man politically tick. Or maybe I would’ve found myself deep into a conversation about how he came to be the right-wing-thinking guy that he was. Maybe he would’ve had an impact on the way I see issues. Maybe he would’ve inspired me to get active, to get my grassroots vest dry-cleaned, and get out there with my make-a-difference bumper stickers in my hemp backpack.
It’s all speculation, fun stuff to think about, and the only certainty therein is that he missed out on two of the most stimulating (for facepalm or for fistbump) presidencies in my life, and likely his as well.
7) The 18th of April, 2006
For as long as I’ve remembered, I’ve hated the word “stepmom.” As a kid, I hated it because my family trudged through divorce and two re-marriages. So, before I could figure out why my folks decided that they couldn’t be together anymore, they’d each married another. If you think about it, I should’ve hated the word “stepdad,” too, but I didn’t. My stepdad was a nice guy, at least to me and my sister. He was not even visible in the same looking glass as my dad, but a nice guy, nonetheless. What I think I couldn’t figure out about him, though, was why he would want to marry my mother.
She was, as my mind unreasonably decided back then, to blame for the familial split. I mean, when we were young, she never –- and for good reason –- offered us a legitimate reason for why they parted ways, and Dad would all but say that the division was her decision. And hell, he was my dad. A guy. My guy. He was not equipped to do wrong. At least that’s what I thought. What really happened was that my mom could not, and would not tolerate my dad’s drinking. It was never really clear to me whether or not his drinking was problematic, and the impact it had on their marriage was not illustrated to specifics, but the gist of it, as I recall my mom telling us over the years, was that I think she felt alone.
My folks moved, via a promotion my dad took, from their native Kansas City to Columbia, South Carolina not long after they were married. That’s where I was born, and a few years later, as I was told, they returned to the Midwest to attempt to alleviate the homesickness from which my mother suffered. In my estimation, again cobbled by memory of being told, Dad never outgrew the party lifestyle he developed and embraced in both high school and college. It’s possible that this was why my mom was homesick in Columbia; they had no friends or family down there, and Dad probably worked regular hours, and was then out late afterwards.
Back in Kansas City, I think that patter continued to develop, the token second-baby-to-save-the-marriage didn’t work -– as it seldom, I imagine, does -- and Mom felt enough was enough.
So Dad moved out, and in a short span, met Elaine. I believe he, at one point, told her he would never marry again, that he wanted and needed a friend. To say that Dad was jaded and heartbroken would understate, and, for a time, I think she knew that. By my estimation, she was quick to reach a point in their relationship where she let him know that she was interested in marrying, that, being in love with him, he was the guy she wanted to marry, and that if he wasn’t going to get on board with that, she would move on. And wed they did.
Dad had some opinions about this ordeal, in that it was of his mother’s belief (and probably his, too) that he should marry at St. Peter’s, the parish to which both families had belonged for years. To do so, however, the church would require him to pay for an annulment, which he did not want to do. It would also, by definition, mean that his first marriage never existed, which, in his mind, indicated that his two children did also not exist.
They married then, not far from St. Peter’s, in a formal-but-small ceremony, and drove to Colorado for their honeymoon. I am unsure about how Dad felt regarding all of these developments, but one certainty remains: marrying Elaine was the best thing he did in his entire life. This is not said to diminish his previous marriage, any of his children, or any of his personal and professional deeds and accomplishments. It’s a simple truth, evident in the many, many positives that occurred in his life beginning on the spring day in 1981 and ending in mid-June, 2002.
It would, to a degree, be fruitless to catalog the reasons why this is truth. If you know Elaine, you already agree, and if you don’t, it can be simplified by saying this: My dad admitted to me that he was a control freak. Well, he admitted that a therapist encouraged him to identify such a notion. I don’t think he wanted to acknowledge that because there’s some sort of problem label associated with that, and also because Dad liked to consider himself a free spirit of sorts. It’s true that he was a free spirit, if only in his head, but regiment bound him, and sometimes, people need that, and sometimes, though they know they need it, it becomes a mental struggle that often subsides, and at other times, overwhelms.
His marriage to Elaine, though, gave Dad what we all, admit it or not, need and seek: happiness. He had dozens and dozens of reasons for potential happiness in the 34 years he was alive prior to meeting her, but they were all, in some fashion or other, stunted and squashed.
I have little ability to compare his parents to others of their generation, but I have an idea of what bad parenting, quality parenting, and good parenting look like. Their rating fell somewhere in between the first and second categories there and it’s important to qualify that by saying that they were not bad people at all. My grandfather was a World War II fighter pilot, and in a sense he accomplished more during his service time than many do in an entire life. He was a hero to some, and at the top of that list would be my dad and his mom.
When Grandpa Bill returned home, he was about 20 years old. He and Marggie eloped in La Junta, Colorado. She was 15. They came back and started a life together in Kansas City, and, like many of my historical theories, they were probably in love, and probably got married because that was a prerequisite for romantic consummation. What was also a trend was that Catholics were not to use birth control. That hasn’t changed regarding church rules, but nowadays we acknowledge them first, choose whether or not we’ll follow them second. So they started a family.
Bill’s wartime heroics would forever embody Marggie’s worship of her spouse, and she would later be quoted as saying both, “Children are meant to be seen, not heard,” which I understand was a commonality in those times, and, “I never loved you kids; you just got in the way of your father and I’s life” to my dad. This second comment was made in a late-in-life effort on Dad’s behalf to understand the cold, unloving feeling his memory associated with childhood and youth. Bill himself was never a man of many words, and Dad often told the story of trying to engage his father on one evening after dinner.
The Cliff’s Notes version looks like this: Bill sat in his living-room chair reading the paper, and Dad had decided he was going to tell his father that he loved him. He did so, and perhaps repeated his words, the only reception coming in the form of Bill folding down the top corner of the paper with a squinted eye and a raised brow. The following morning, when Dad was halfway down the driveway to walk to school, a robed Bill opened the front door and beckoned his second-born back to the porch with a, “Hey.”
The words that followed were, “You know that talk we had last night? I-I really liked that.”
So Dad didn’t really start off in life armed with any significant weapons of affection, and by the time he was dating my mom in high school, I understand that he was a constant presence at the home of his girlfriend’s family. Constant as in, always over, on many evenings for dinner and beyond. As in, “We treated your Dad as if he was one of our own because he kind of was,” Nana told me as a kid.
I always thought it was so weird, growing up, that my two sets of grandparents knew each other when my parents were dating. This is an example of how large the world can seem to a child, in that, this would be far from a stretch today, let alone Kansas City of the 1960s. But I’ve heard that my Dad frequently did not want to go home, and it was often supposed that it was because he felt so loved in my mom’s family home. Now, in hindsight, it makes perfect sense why.
The last thing I want to do is be If-I-had-a-nickel guy, but if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that my dad was so handsome and so smart and so destined-for-greatness in high school, I’d could probably fill a toilet full of five-cent pieces. (Side note: If our currency system evolves into one in which the only coins are dollars, or quarters and dollars, what will become of the sayings, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and “Don’t nickel and dime me.”? Just curious.)
And here were, in my estimation, the keys for glory for my dad in high school: 1) Play football, 2) Be real good at football, 3) Chase girls, 4) Drink beer, and 5) You always look cooler doing 1-4 when smoking cigarettes. He was successful at all but number two, and I only say that because I’m not sure how “real good” he was at punting and returning punts. I know that those positions are key in the NFL today, and that there are only a handful of guys that are real good at them, but I have a feeling that had he been, it wouldn’t have been quite so difficult for him to get in to Notre Dame.
Dad, then, could not reach the peak of popularity via sports, and when he was drafted to enlist in Vietnam, I imagine that he was eager to match the feats of greatness his father had performed as a pilot. I believe his stay in the army lasted 16 hours; he was allegedly rejected due to his flat feet. This has always been so mysterious to me, that my dad was excited to go to war, that they eliminated one’s inclusion in the operation if your feet were flat, and that somebody looked at my dad’s feet and said they were flat. They never seemed flat to me, but no one’s ever accused me of being a foot-curve expert, either. So Dad went to college.
When my dad’s younger brother (a year or two behind Dad) finished high school, his parents packed up camp and moved to San Diego. Immediately. Like, the day after graduation. They’d seen their kids through high school, and I don’t know if they were tired of the weather, or if my grandpa was retiring or what, but they peaced out, leaving my dad’s head spinning, and his need to find a new place to sleep as a sophomore. At some point, he married my mom, and the institution of marriage had convinced my father that “’til death do us part” was a literal order, one made without exception.
By the time he met Elaine then, Dad had been raised in a less-than-warm home, fell short of gridiron greatness, tailspinned away from an opportunity to match his father’s feats, and been abandoned by his high school sweetheart, the mother of his two children, and in essence, the family that treated him as one of its own. I have no way of knowing whether or not he was a happy man in 1981, but I do know this: I almost never saw my father without a smile on his face, and that smile grew and glowed when Elaine came into his life.
This, in my estimation is because of two reasons: She loved him for who he was, and because she, in every day of her life, models the kind of human being we should all strive to be. I could put together thousands and thousands of words that demonstrate how, but for the sake of at least remembering brevity, I will keep it to three examples. They may not be ground-swelling moments, but as they say, it’s the little things.
I’ve shared this story on many occasions, and I will never forget it, and it really touches on two moments in one early-‘80s summer morning, and was maybe the cornerstone to my personal acceptance of Elaine in my life. It should be noted that I fought, tooth and nail, to despise this “stepmom” of mine, and for years now, it’s a battle I’m happy to say that I lost. Elaine made massive efforts, early in her presence in our lives, to show us that, whether she loved my sister and I directly or not, she was going to love us because our father loved us, and we him.
That resonated early, but was partially thwarted when she made it clear that she would both a) give my sister and I chores, and b) influence, or actually help make, child-rearing decisions Dad had on his plate. Related or not, she had this small embroidery mounted on a living-room wall that read, “A man’s work is from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” I hated that. Mostly because it inferred female superiority, but also because my dad worked two, sometimes three jobs, even though she did, in fact, handle most every domestic responsibility.
But on this one morning in particular, Dad had risen early, made himself some toast, and headed to the office. He would then, after a full day's work (Editor's Note: Yeah, yeah, the sun was still out.), go directly to his evening place of employment, returning home long after everyone else had retired. This was a difficult pattern, because my sister Roon and I were living with our mom and stepdad in Atlanta, but returning home for Christmas-holiday visits, and summer months with Dad, who spent most of his waking hours at one job or another, leaving us to spend most of our time with Elaine and the two girls she and Dad had had. Before leaving, though, he had left behind a gesture he knew would start his bride’s day off with good energy. We made our way down to the kitchen, and Elaine, responsible for providing breakfast to me, Roon, Keegs, and the baby Chels’, let out a gasp.
“Your father,” she said to me, and paused.
“What?” I said, curious, eyes scanning countertops in search of the new toy he’d left behind as a surprise.
“Is a wonderful husband,” she said, her response trailing. For the record, she did this arms-extended, pre-Claire Huxtable head shake, that made her look like a total dork, but that's not important right now.
But, if “Duh” had been a trend then, I would’ve offered it. Tell me why, though, I remember thinking, and she did; she told me that he had washed, dried, and put away all of the dishes from the previous evening’s meal. This most disappointing response resulted in me checking out of the conversation, as I now had it in my head that I was owed a toy. Thirty years later, though, I still remember that moment, and I still remember her giving him the biggest kiss the following morning, an “Mmmmmmmmmm-uah” that left me semi-grossed out, confused as to what the big deal was.
The big deal, I would later discover, was that he took some time out of the early portion of his long day to show her that he cared, that he knew her day would be long, too, that he loved her, and she, in return, passed that love, via six small words, on to us kids. And now, as a first-time parent, still green as the spring grass, I know that children recognize that they are loved when they can sense that their parents, or providers, love each other.
That moment happened in home two of four for them, the first being a condo, where they lived when Keegs was born, the fourth being the house Elaine still lives in now. That second house was intended to be where they would retire, spacious, suburban, and, in a way, splendid. But things change, jobs come and go, finances get shuffled, and they moved to home three, where Dad’s elderly aunt still lived, the deal being that they could pay Dad’s cousin some rent and care for Aunt Lil’, and in exchange, have a home for the four of them.
I was in second grade for that first moment. For the following one, I’m in eighth.
My best friend Mike and I used to have sleepovers all the time. At Mike’s we could play basketball, ride bikes, watch movies, and even cable. We could also have all of the snack food and Coke we could consume. At my house, we could also play basketball and ride bikes. We could play ping-pong, too, in the basement. There was almost never anything to snack on, though, given that Mom somehow managed to keep grocery spending to $50 a week for the three of us. At Mike’s there was always a 12-pack of Coke in the fridge. At my house, a 2-liter –- or as Mike referred to it, “The Reprocessed” –- had to last seven days. We almost always stayed at Mike’s.
As Roon and I got older, going to Dad’s for the weekend meant cutting short friend time, and that grew more difficult with every week that passed. We began refusing, which, as I alluded to, was like a knife in the gut for Dad. This one weekend, I was going to try and get out of going to Dad’s, and spend the night at Mike’s. Dad pleaded with me to not bail on coming over, offering to have Mike over, too. I obliged.
I’m not sure how many minutes elapsed before Mike began taking inventory of Elaine’s kitchen, but he was quick to assess, offer his displeasure. There are two things to know about Elaine’s kitchen: 1) Dad and I used to joke that things were so organized in there, that if you wanted to find some potato chips, you should go to the cupboard, which was labeled ‘C’ for cupboard, find the row of plastic containers, and move your way down the alphabet until you came to the one marked ‘P’ for potato chips. 2) Elaine’s kitchen almost never had any snacks in it. It was as though she did not believe the concept existed. Snacks were the proverbial ruin-your-dinner tag phrase, and when they were truly warranted, it was carrots and celery, or, my least-favorite, most-frequent suggestion of hers, “a piece of fruit.”
These, lady, are not snacks. Snacks are...like...Doritos. They come in a bag, a bag they should still be in when you’re shoveling handful after handful into your mouth, even if it’s 10 minutes before dinnertime.
For the record, there were almost never any potato chips in the potato-chip container, and when there were, they were always like an off-brand of plain Ruffles. Who regularly gets plain Ruffles? Also for the record, I use the term “regularly” in a loose fashion there. I think for about seven or eight years, the same 12 handfuls of plain, off-brand Ruffles were dumped into a bowl for an annual summer family picnic, the leftovers of which went back into the container and back home to their C-for-cupboard spot in the kitchen. The point being that, by the time I was in high school, there were about 487 crumbs, and two still-intact fake Ruffles in the container, but that's not important right now.
Mike comes from a family of snackers, and it’s quite possible that he’s the snackinest of his whole clan. To this day, he could eat two dinners, snack in between them, and afterwards, bang his fork on the table demanding dessert. By habit, then, upon arrival and my Dad’s, Mike wanted a snack. I then, was charged with the responsibility of finding my bottomless pit of a best friend a snack that would quench his insatiable hunger. I knew, of course, that there would be very little from which to choose, and if I wanted to find something, I had to act fast, before she came back into the room.
That mission was unsuccessful, as Elaine returned to the kitchen to catch me red-handed, rooting through her snackless cupboard for any tasty bite I might uncover for the two of us. It was as though an organizational alert had gone off in her system sending her hastening for the kitchen to find out why the G-for-granola container had been moved four inches.
“What’s goin’ on?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said, blushing, wishing for a place to hide. “We’re just looking for a snack.”
“A snack? Honey, dinner’s in 15 minutes,” she said. “But if you can’t wait, I think there’s a cookie in the cookie jar.”
You might not think that this means anything, but in Mike and I’s adolescence, this uttering became kind of like an ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you moment for us. We still joke about it to this day.
Now having dissed Elaine’s kitchen, the honorable thing to do is give it some props. Aside from being organized and a place from which many a healthy, tasty meal have come, she has always, for as long as I can remember, had a cookie jar with cookies –- oftentimes homemade -– in it.
If I think about it, I knew that then. It never occurred to me as anything special, partially because I’ve never been a sweets snacker; salt has always been my craving. Cookies, though, are a fascinating thing to me. Along with pondering the origins of getting culinary with chickens and eggs, I’ve given some recent thought to the origin of the cookie. A quick look on the Internets tells you that the cookie has been around for roughly 1400 years. So, for about 511,000 days, people have been baking treats that have flour, eggs, sugar, and usually some form of fat, like butter, in them. And just what is a treat? Well, it’s like a reward for being something or doing something special, I think.
If you’re a good kid, and you get a gold star on your math worksheet, or you finish all of your Brussels sprouts, you get a cookie. If you’re a dog, and you sit when told, you get a different kind of cookie, or, as it’s referred to most commonly iin non-North American English-speaking countries, a biscuit. Cookies, then, are reserved for special occasions. Like, when the Girl Scouts come around once a year, and you are duped into supporting them because they’re going to bring you boxes of cookies, or when a friend feels like cheering you up and bakes you some cookies, or when you’re caught, as the saying goes, with your hand in the cookie jar. The point being that, unless your name is Cookie Monster, you don’t just go around eating cookies.
Somewhere in that mess is a piece-mealed version of why Elaine has always made it a priority to have cookies on hand, probably because you never know when a special occasion will arise.
But in this moment, I was mortified. Not only was I unsuccessful in procuring a snack for my friend Mike in his first visit to my dad’s house, I was embarrassed by the familiar announcement that a snack would spoil dinner, but that if it were an emergency, there was one lone cookie in the jar, and we were welcome to it. It seemed, at the time, the equivalent to offering a starving-and-on-his-death-bed man one little, dry, stale nugget of porridge. And later, after dinner, when Mike and I were outside making fun of the girls’ every move –- somehow we were capable of ridiculing Keegs for the harmless act of blowing bubbles in the yard on a summer evening –- we must’ve repeated the old cookie-in-the-cookie-jar line a dozen times.
Looking back, though, it was really not such a convoluted ordeal. In fact, it wasn’t even an ordeal at all. What it was was Elaine recognizing that Mike was hungry, and that, although she didn’t really want us to get out a size-worthy snack, she had zero qualms, and not an instant of hesitation, about offering up the last remaining cookie in the house to a virtual stranger. A single, genuine, thoughtful gesture of suggesting that someone else’s child take her last home-baked sugary treat is exactly the kind of act she demonstrates all the time. And we, cruel kids that we were, made fun of her behind her back for it.
The final moment did not take place in home one, or home four. In fact, it didn’t even take place in Kansas City. It took place in May of 1998 when my entire immediate family –- Dad, Mom, Roon, Keegs, Chels’, and Elaine –- all made the trek out to southwest Colorado to see me graduate from college.
This was a ridiculously stressful weekend for me, in that I had to tie together all of the semester’s loose ends, take final exams, work, deal with the ceremony and all of the family members in town, then turn around on Monday and drive to California for an internship. Since that time, on a personal level, I’ve made significant strides in terms of dealing with events and situations in which both my mom and Elaine are in attendance. Dad dying facilitated a lot of that growth since, as the common denominator between the two women, there’s no longer any real reason for adverse feelings or bickering. Now, I don’t think that the two ever really bickered directly, but there have been a few occasions over the years for them to, how shall we say, have an opinion of one another. And it’s likely that about 98 percent of those occasions concerned finances, or lack thereof.
But anyway, this was the big stage. I’m getting my diploma. I should be happy, excited, relieved, and attending all-night parties in celebratory fashion. Instead, though, I was really worked up about having everyone in town, and having to dole out graduation tickets where everyone would have to sit together, and going downtown to breakfasts and dinners together, hoping, praying that the peace would be kept. Most of this was built up in my head, of course. My family have never had blowouts or shouting matches in public, or anything of that nature, but I was nervous, nonetheless, that something would go down, even if it was an argument between my mom and dad –- which, in years past were frequent –- that may start between the two of them, then trickle down the line and involve everyone else.
There was only one thing that could make the stress level higher in that situation, and that was if Dad had been drinking, which he had been.
Now, understanding what “Dad drinking” looked like is a complicated animal that evolved over the years. When he was young, it was, as I mentioned, a party kind of attitude. From there, he moved on to the not-outgrowing-the-party-attitude attitude, and the phase after that –- roughly the entire duration of home number three for him, Elaine, and the girls –- he would pass out, drink in hand, most nights in the family room. At some point, around the time house number four was inhabited, it was deemed that Dad had a problem, and should refrain from drinking, which he did for a minute. What developed out of that, though, was that Dad was guaranteed to be sober every day of the week and every week of the month until he would slip. At first, it seemed to me from a distance, that you never knew when he would slip. He could keep it together for six weeks, or six months, sometimes even longer, and then, as if with the click of a button, he would slip and drink for a few days straight, or even a week. Sometimes longer. In the end, he was definitely going longer.
And when he would drink, he would pass out, wake up feeling like garbage, and drink again until he passed out until, as if with the wave of a wand, he would sober up, and return to his normal life of spousery, fatherhood, and being a businessman. Between the click and the snap, though, all bets were off. He would not work, vanish in the middle of the afternoon, return home having been who-knows-where and having spent who-knows-what-money. But when the snap happened, there was always a buffer period in which his body had to recover and his mind had to clear the cobwebs. He would always be real red in the skin, antsy, smoke around 83 cigarettes in a day, and have next to no appetite.
What changed in the final stage was that his bouts would last longer, when they would happen became more predictable –- eventually rather scientific –- and his body struggled harder and harder to recover, eventually resulting in the occasional seizure. But there was always the recovery period, and leading up to the weekend of my graduation, he’d been drinking for a bit, maybe the better part of a week, until a day or so prior to having to travel, and he got it together, likely via some stern lecturing from Elaine.
But they all made it out, and that Friday night that everybody was in town was real awkward because everyone knew he was in the recovery bubble. He was fidgety, his face looked like he’d just been shoved through a food processor, and he was real quiet. Like, he-knew-that-everyone-knew-he-was-struggling-and-why quiet. I’ll never forget: We went out to eat at Francisco’s on Main Street, which is, by and large, a restaurant that has been around forever, surviving solely on tourism, and their ability to come in right around the not-terrible grade mark on the eatery report card. I think my Dad picked the spot, and probably did so because they could walk there from their hotel room.
Had I done any legwork on getting us a dinner reservation, I probably could have found a table for seven at someplace decent on the Friday night before graduation, but it didn’t really matter. I remember the silence around the table, and I remember looking at the Angel Hair Pasta dish, and thinking, for some strange reason, how terribly bland it sounded. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have surprised me at all, but I remember feeling shocked when the server was taking our orders, and Dad was the last to go, handing the guy his menu with a half-baked look of interest as he said, “I’m gonna go with this Angel Hair Pasta.”
I think he had three bites.
Anyway, we all met the next morning up on the hill, and Dad had a little more pep in his step, and you could tell he was giddy as hell about watching a college diploma be dropped into the hands of his first-born. This was always an odd feeling, though, watching Dad’s spryness come back to him, listening to him want to talk and yuck it up, and you always feeling like, Hey, uh, what remember that time this week when you decided to stay drunk for nine days? What was up with that? But you don’t go into those things most of the time, and graduation weekend was certainly not the place to form new habits, so I kind of just dealt with Dad and his dorkiness the best I could, even though I felt a little letdown inside, and a lot afraid of this sort of thing being a thing that would one day prematurely end his life.
But we went into the gymnasium, and listened to Joel Jones deliver one of the best speeches –- Dad would later gush for 15 straight minutes in agreement -- I’ve ever heard. I’m not certain, but I think it was titled, “Technology, Living, Learning, and Trust.” Or maybe there was a colon after “Technology.” I can’t remember. But it was damn good. And we went outside and took pictures, and back down the hill, and probably to lunch, and at one point, after all of the expected hugs were exchanged and the not-so-candid photos were snapped, Elaine came up to me and kind of caught me off guard.
She didn’t really have an opportunity to get me by herself, since everyone wants to chat with you and take your picture on your big day, etc. But she said something like, “C’mere, you,” and gave me this massive hug, and as she was departing from the embrace, she clutched both of my arms in her hands and gave me one of those single, half-motion kind of shakes that you give a little kid who’s just disobeyed you twice, and this time, you mean it: Listen, or else.
She didn’t really have anything profound to say, but it was the way she said it that made it stick.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said. I probably heard that sentence no fewer than 10 times that day, and probably shrugged most, if not all, of them off with a yeah-only-knuckleheads-don’t-graduate kind of feeling. But she went on.
“And you know how proud of you your father is, don’t you?”
I think I sort of nodded with some kind of odd questioning look on my mouth.
“Honey, I don’t think there’s been a prouder moment in his life and I want you to always remember that we both love you so much,” she said, giving me another squeeze. And as she did, she uttered this kind of “Mmmm-mmm” sound that coincided with a two-parted hug. The kind where the first part is brief, but longer than the second part, but the second part is a bit tighter than the first.
It was one of those odd moments where, for a second afterwards, you feel really good about yourself, and I did feel really good about myself, like, in the moment she was hugging me, all of my stresses about the weekend and concerns for Dad’s life lifted off, as if they’d been perched on a branch, waiting for the right wind to come along. And that second was a fleeting one, but I felt so much better after it, and it occurred to me, for maybe the first time ever, that Elaine was the perfect mix of her parents. I wouldn’t want to attempt to do Jim and Ginny Beck service in one little paragraph or page, but the long and the short of it is that Grandpa always had the best hugs and always told you how much he loved you, even if you were some raggedy stepgrandkid he was one day asked to treat like his own. And Ginny always had a way with words that let you know that she was concerned for your well-being, looking out for you every time you try to run through your life with a figurative pair of scissors in your hand.
And that was it. The whole exchange probably lasted 15 seconds, and it wasn’t that anything anybody else said to me that day or that weekend was any less genuine, or that anybody’s hugs or congratulatory gestures were fake. It was just that, with hers, in that moment, you knew that she really meant it. Had it been possible, I would’ve done the dinner dishes for her for a month afterwards, and given her my last cookie for dessert.
The point of sharing those stories, though, is to cast a snapshot of the kind of person Elaine is, and that, having those kinds of moments with her, as a punk kid that was forced upon her, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the relationship my Dad and her had. And had he been around on April 18th, 2006, he would’ve been able to celebrate 25 years of marriage to this wonderful woman, a person that has, for 60 years, been making sure that people know she cares, that she’s thinking of them on their saddest of evenings, their most joyous afternoons.
6) The 6th of May, 2006
My dad gave this speech once, and it wasn’t anything Joel Jonesish. It wasn’t at a podium on a stage in front of 15,000 people, and it didn’t have anything to do with technology. Actually, nothing about my dad’s life had anything to do with technology, save that he figured out how to use a cell phone, but the speech didn’t last 30 minutes. It might not’ve even been five minutes long, but it did have a lot to do with living, loving, and trust.
I can’t remember if it was Father’s Day or his birthday, but I do remember that the five of us were gathered in his living room, watching him open gifts. Memory, on this occasion, was served well because the video camera was rolling. I can’t imagine that it occurred to one of us to bust it out; that was always his gig. My inventive side imagines that he actually wanted one of us to film this celebration evening because he had clearly prepared –- at least mentally –- this speech. I think he had had one of those life-reflective epiphanies where he’d been thinking about his disease –- whether he referred to it as such, I’m unsure –- and his struggles, and he wanted to make a point so share with us all what we each meant to him.
For me, he talked about the moment he watched me walk across that stage that day in Colorado, and how he had never experienced a prouder moment in his life. I of course, thought back to that hug with Elaine, and felt silly and foolish for not having done more at that point in my life to give him more of which to be proud. But I also felt my face turn red in embarrassment, my eyes well up with tears of love and respect for him. Next he addressed Roon’. He described her as this rocket ship propelling across the sky, blasting along in this sense of accomplishment, astonishing everyone with all that she does, affecting her two younger sisters, and many more, along the way.
He talked about Keegs and how proud of her he was to have had so many successes already in life, and I think the over/under for Notre Dame references in each of those sentences was around a five. We all took the over. When he was done with his mini toast for all of us -- it was such a fitting moment -- Pepper, his little shepherd of a best friend came into the room, as if on cue, and licked his hand, prompting Dad to say, “And of course you, too. Can’t forget about my little Peepster.”
But he gave us this little morsel of advice, admitting that whenever he felt lost, he would look to the set of three small stained-glass windows above the altar at St. Peter’s. One of them had, for as long as I could remember, had this pebble-sized hole in it, like a Dennis the Menace slingshot had pierced it with perfection years ago. I was astonished because I, in my imminent foolishness, thought I was the only one that had ever noticed it. Thinking back, the only people that probably never did were either non-parishioners or blind. Either way, he said that he used to ask his dad in heaven for help and guidance when he felt lost, and that he always imagined that Grandpa Bill, a St. Peter’s man in his day, could radiate some form of encouragement and inspiration from up above, down through that tiny hole, and as a laser of sunlight, warm the chilled and troubled soul of my old man.
It really was an impressive moment, and if you go back and watch the footage, you can hear nothing but sniffles and Kleenex being extracted from a box.
On his way down the list of kids, though, he arrived at Chels’, and he called her his little sparkplug. I didn’t know at the time, and I’m still unsure now whether or not this was a nickname he’d used for her prior, but if the family was an engine, it, like all motors, needed a sparkplug, and not just any old sparkplug. It had to be just the right sparkplug. One that would spring life into an engine on both days hot and cold. And that’s exactly what Chels’ had always done for the family, and even continues to do so now, nine years since his departure.
Chels’ had her work cut out for her from day one. She was a beautiful baby and child, with faculties equal to those of her big sister, and like every set of siblings, blessed with some even better than all of ours. She was, however, the younger sister, the second born, a perhaps-inherent notion instilled in her from early on, that she was in perpetual competition with Keegs, be it in terms of accomplishment, attention, or affection.
They were both awesome kids, really, a pleasure for their parents, and they played well together and got along like best friends for years. Then one day, the old screeching halt paid that chemistry a visit, and they turned, overnight, into championship bickerers. I don’t know if Chels’ felt pressure put on her to follow in Keegs’ footsteps and make the grade and stay out of trouble, or if it was a more natural difference of opinion. But it was there, and Chels’ was bound to uncover her own interests, blaze her own path, and I think, for the most part, that that was appreciated and respected about her.
I say "for the most part," because Chels’ certainly had her teenage moments, but I think that, more often than not, kids just do.
Everything in this piece is, to some degree, about hindsight, but it somehow seems impossible to not use the in-hindsight phrase.
So, in hindsight, I think that the young lady that Chels’ became really caught Dad off guard. Dad was a very social guy. He knew everybody’s parents, what they did, where they lived, and where they went to school. He was very proud about that piece of himself. With Keegs, Dad was able to keep up with her social pace. He knew her friends and her friends’ parents, the boys she was talking to, and their folks as well. They had, if you will, a similar stride.
His little sparkplug chugged along at a rate that seemed to outrace his mind’s idle speed, and if he was asked to kick it into fifth gear to keep up, it was a challenge to him, one he probably struggled with since it was coming from one of his children and parents, after all, are supposed to call the shots. This didn’t mean he loved her any less. It meant he had to work a little harder, uncover a few more details, even if that meant he was always a step behind.
I’ll never forget when Chels’ joined drill team in high school. Dad was so proud of her. He used to talk about it all the time. Now, I have exactly one year of Catholic-school experience under my belt, and that was in first grade, so I’m a touch under-qualified to guess how things looked for Keegs and Chels’ in high school. At my high school, it appeared to have a different structure. What it looked like to me, in my high school, was that the popular girls were the cheerleaders, and some other girls that fell into varying other cliquey categories, were on drill team. I went to my share of high school basketball and football games, and I had an idea of what the cheerleaders’ performances looked like, and that looked pretty much exactly how it looked when we had cheerleaders for basketball games in middle school. The only difference that stands out was that, in high school, there were yell leaders, and they could hoist girls into the air, and spin them around and catch them.
I’m not sure that I ever paid that much attention to the drill team at my high school. It’s entirely possible that the drill team at my high school worked really hard and dished out top-notch performances, and that I was either too unconcerned to notice or too stoned, or both. But I seem to remember feeling less than impressed about them. It’s also entirely possible that I was turned off by their performances because the sound quality of the music always seemed so poor. I don’t know if that was because the recordings were bad, or the speakers in the gym were crummy, or if it was just my highness distorting some crisp cuts. It also could’ve been because I had that portion of my parents in me that said that you were supposed to date a cheerleader/popular girl, so I never placed as much potential value on the drill team.
It’s also entirely possible that the performances at my sister’s high school were placed on a pedestal because my sister was part of the team, but I remember finally agreeing –- heavy in the eye-roll department -- to go watch one of Chels’s performances with Dad, and being blown away at how good it was. I imagined that Dad had been some combination of impressed with Chels’s talents regarding drill team, and biased since she was his daughter, but leading up to the first time I watched them, I’d already lost track of the number of comments he’d made, discussing how much time and energy she put into practices, how happy and gifted she seemed when rehearsing and out on the floor, how ripped her calves were –- something he noticed following her up the stairs at home.
And he was right. She was damn good. Hands down the best among her peers. Regarding her progression with the squad throughout high school, my memory’s a little hazy, but I’m pretty certain she became captain, and was in charge of a considerable portion of each routine, which only pleased him all the more.
But drill team was one of many things Dad loved about Chels’. He used to call me in Colorado and tell me about the comments she’d gotten on her papers at school, and one time, he even sent me a copy of one so I could see firsthand the hard work she’d put in on it, the impressive feedback her teacher’d provided. Dad’s pride regarding her work ethic was immense, too. This was no slight on the work ethics of his wife or any of his three other kids, but for some reason, he always had something to say about the great job his baby girl did at work, and he wanted everyone to know about it.
When she first became his little sparkplug, I suppose, came around the time she began to drive or perhaps a touch before, when some of her peers did. This was one of many instances when Chels’ was ahead of Dad’s game, or maybe it was that he was just a few steps behind hers. Either way, she seemed to transition, like the passing of a storm cloud, from dependent on her parents for transportation to a rather immediate sense of non-need. This, I suppose was bound by the notion that she always had a cluster of friends a little older than her, the heartache level this caused I can only pretend to measure. It’s probably a common theme for parents of teenagers, to go that quickly from needing rides to having unfamiliar cars and never-before-seen faces in the driveway, Chels’ leaving a trail of smoke out the front door, a curious pain in Dad's chest.
As I’ve said, much of this is speculation, but I can hear his voice, nonetheless.
“Now, wait a minute,” he might’ve said. “Who is this?
“Dad, it’s Troy. From work. You’ve met him before.”
“Mm-kay. Now, do Troy’s parents know he’s here, that he’s picking you up?”
“Yes, Dad. We’re gonna be late.”
“Hold on a minute, Miss Jessica. Where are you going, and what time will you be home?”
These hasty discussions, I envision, abundant in the living room, or on the front porch, triggered many an eye roll from both parties. I’m told that later there would be demands of phone numbers of kids’ parents, which were never to be taken for granted: Those calls were made with considerable regularity.
And it wasn’t long after that, that the speedy porch chats reached a level of annoyance. Questions about homework, furrowed brows and pursed lips aimed in the direction of a certain young lady’s wardrobe, confusion regarding the bass-heavy sounds emitted from the alternating fleet of vehicles that idled, awaiting Dad’s baby. It would be foolish to pretend that speedy chats didn’t transform again, this time into periodic hollering, the blame and equal dispersement to one party’s irritation of interrogation, the other’s frustration at always fumbling for details.
There, too, was the room. The infamous arrangement of things, one might say. If the other side was asked, the description might resemble the aftermath of a tornado that uprooted a flea market, its once-arranged contents scattered about the walls and floors. I think at one point Dad ceased to enter on a permanent basis, save to peek in and verify that his youngest was still, as he liked to say, “face deep in her pillow.” But they would argue, and Keegs and Chels’ would argue, causing more arguments with Dad, the occasional accusations of side-taking fluttering in and out of the rooms of the house.
It was all nothing more than a rooted power struggle, though, one young daughter attempting with every ounce of her essence to take flight. Dad, on his end, recruiting every force he knew possible to prevent it from happening. His love for his little sparkplug, though, was never a secret, and on the day that we gathered to watch her graduate from high school, there he stood, beaming brighter than ever.
When Chels’ chose The University of Missouri as her college, something about that institution seemed, in Dad’s mind, the perfect final slice in the secondary-education pie. Like many of his statements, I have forgotten how many times he said, “We’ve had one in Colorado, we’ve got one at Notre Dame, one at KU, and now one at good ol’ Mizzou.”
I know that he would’ve been pleased no matter where his kids went to school, but on my end, he loved Colorado. Something about the element of beauty in nature, the dwarfing feeling one has taking in the mountains, the irony in that my school was a little over two hours in one direction from a memorable honeymoon destination for he and Elaine, and an hour’s drive from in another from a place they chose as an annual vacation spot. We have, of course, discussed his affinity for the Fighting Irish, and then Rooney in Lawrence, Chels’ in Columbia, to me, symbolized a lot of what he loved about Kansas City, a metropolis whose heart is split by a state line.
Fewer things are as guaranteed in my mind as to how Dad would’ve felt, had he been able to join us on the lawn on May 6, 2006, when the youngest of his four offspring donned cap and gown to deem her college graduation official. I think about the level of happiness and pride a parent must feel in watching their child complete high school, perhaps college. It’s got to be this overwhelming sensation that says so many things, among them any number of clichés, true and genuine even if they are:
1) It seems like only yesterday I was feeding her a bottle and changing her diaper.
2) The world is her oyster.
3) In some sense, this means I was not a total failure as a parent.
There are plenty more of those typical types of things a parent probably feels, and many others more distinct and specific, unique to each parent-child relationship. With Dad and Chels’, though, I’ll bet it was a pretty overwhelming sensation, the thought of his fourth being his biggest challenge, the idea of being an empty-nester, the reality of aging burning your eyes like the morning sun.
“My little sparkplug is all grown up now,” he might’ve said behind the lens of his video camera, blaming the moisture in his eye on the wind as we walked across the grass for a sandwich.
5) The 12th of May, 2007
The events of my wedding week, as I’m sure is the case with many brides and grooms, meld in my mind into one chunk memory that include a lot of things from our rehearsal dinner, and a good portion of our ceremony. Everything else resembles the crumbs and spills on the floor, post-reception. This is not to say that every bit of being engaged and planning, and having bachelor parties, and hanging with my siblings, and coordinating with out-of-town guests fall short of the memorable criteria.
For reasons I can still not fathom, I had the luxury of having two bachelor parties thrown for me, we had a packed church on our big day, and many guests have said they had a blast at our reception. And I got to play hockey the morning of my wedding with many of my best friends. Funny, though, the one thing that stands out more than anything was the moments before the ceremony began. My in-laws had hired a trumpeter for the entrance of the bride, and his services are in high demand. We knew that he was booked for a gig before ours, that timing would be close, that he is a large man, that speed wasn’t necessarily back-pocket accessible.
Don’t get me wrong: I was nervous as I’ve ever been in my life, and by the time we had made it down the aisle, I'd almost fainted, which I’ve never done. Ever. But, like Tom Petty said, “the waiting is the hardest part,” and it didn’t make my stress level go down, rather the contrary. I’m not sure what I was nervous about. It’s not like if you stumble over your words, or can’t get the ring on they call the thing off. I think it was probably the typical this-is-forever kind of jitters that just blew up in my guts and in my brain. The way that it all panned out though, amazes me still, in terms of how beautiful and fun it was to have such a monster of a day with a little over 400 good friends and relatives, all basking in your honor. Okay, maybe they just like some good chow and free drinks, but whatever. I enjoyed myself.
It was weird, though, thinking about Dad the hundreds of times I did throughout our 17-month engagement, and during the ceremony, because when it came down to go time, and I was standing there on the altar, I wasn’t overcome with the idea of him not being there. I was focused on trying to pay attention, trying not to pass out, and sure, I wished more than once that he could’ve been there for it, but, you see, that trickster time does funny things to a noggin.
It never ceases to amaze me how two people can examine a specific passage of time, and one can say it seems like yesterday, while the other feels it to be so long ago. Heck, I even do it alone sometimes, deeming a past event to feel both recent and many pages ago. If you cut away all the layers, though, five years is a long time, and my father’s wake and funeral fell four years and 11 months prior to the day of my wedding, many days and many tears behind me. So, I wasn’t sad, per se, on the big evening, and since my capability of casting clichés like a fisherman is so ever-ready, I don’t think he would’ve wanted me to be sad.
Granted, if there was one thing I could’ve changed about it, it would, without hesitation, have been to have him present in both body and spirit. There are infinite reasons why the old man could’ve made that special occasion even bigger. Once again, though, it’s the little things. Like our rehearsal dinner, for example. He knew a significant number of my co-workers there, as a regular, and it would have been fun to hear them talk about his excitement after the fact. And I’m certain he would’ve had one heck of a toast. Or getting him to lace up some skates and play hockey with us that morning has some serious best-moment-ever potential in it. I never even got to take in an NHL game with him, let alone take the ice with him for a wedding-day skate.
Seeing him on the reception dance floor with my sisters, my wife, his wife, and probably my mom’s sisters, too, would have been fantastic. And I know for certain he would have cherished the portion of our ceremony where the priest talked about the 60-plus-year history of the kneeler, on which his sister, and probably his parents were married, the same one on which we prayed during our Mass.
Once all of the glamour of such a monster day fades, however, it really does come down to the little things. I know he would have taken me out to lunch probably a dozen times in the weeks leading up to May 12. He would have had advice, would have wanted to know if I was nervous, would have been excited to hear all about our trip to Costa Rica, and above all, knowing that I was dating, engaged to, and eventually married to the daughter of a family in our parish, a family he knew, would’ve have been a 10-pin shot down the nerdy bowling alley of his inner workings. That’s what I truly miss.
I missed and still miss not having had the opportunity to have a girlfriend that he, to some degree, saw grow up in the same school as his daughters join him at his dinner table, and swap stories with her about her dad and her younger sister. I miss the possibility of him wanting to take her to lunch every now and again, to talk about her adventures in graduate school, or her challenges at work. And most of all, I miss that my wife only knew my dad from a distance, that she knows who he was and what he looked like, but that, as an adult she did not know him, thereby making it seem strange and distant when I talk to her about him today. Had his health been stronger, I’m certain that he would have been a fantastic father-in-law, much in the same way that my wife’s father is to me.
4) The 11th of October, 2007
I don’t guess that many of us wish for our parents to live forever, and at the same time, I guess that few wish their parents were not around. As we move through this list of dates, though, I’ve now touched on five moments in my family’s life that would have been special to have Dad be a part of, and while they are important dates in each person’s lives, I don’t mean to isolate them from the rest of the great moments in any of the lives of my family members. They are times, though that we spend with our loved ones and when a loved one isn’t present, they are missed. So here we are at number four on the list, and I am of the opinion that the lost opportunity of this one registers on a potential-for-power level different than perhaps all others included. That doesn’t mean it’s better or greater, just different.
Each of my father’s four children had a unique relationship with my dad, as I assume most children do with their parents. I was the first born and the only son, which doesn’t make me better or more of a favorite than any of my siblings, but I know that there is something to be said for a person’s first experience in parenthood, and I know that a difference in relationships exists between parents and children of the same gender versus moms and sons, fathers and daughters. I know that my dad loved all of us, and I know, because he told me dozens of times through the years, that when I first learned to stand, he took a knee so that we could be eye-to-eye, and he told me that, above all, he wanted to be a friend to me.
When he used to tell me this as a kid, I didn’t forget it, but it didn’t really mean anything to me. In fact, it was probably confusing, to the tune of something like, Dad, you’re my dad, not my friend. As I got older, and heard this story more often, I began to learn that parents can, in fact, be your friend, and the good ones are. When I think about the end of his life, it’s tough for me to come up with something more remarkable than precisely that notion, and this, I imagine, is associated with the fact that, through good and bad, my dad was not only a friend to me, but he was one of my best.
We, in all of its varying stages, got to have this relationship, and for that opportunity I feel blessed. I think that Keegs and Chels’ got to have that opportunity, too, but it was, of course, different than my experience. With them, they got 18 years of direct parent-child/friend-friend contact, although I’m sure there exists some fine-tuning to that number if you want to whittle out the collection of low-functioning moments. Either way, they grew up under the same four roofs he lived under, and for Keegs, there was some college-years interaction as well. With his little sparkplug, he didn’t even get to move her to campus. I only had three years of roof-sharing with the old man, and I don’t really remember much of it at all, but it was there, and there were plenty of other moments that continued to forge our relationship as both family members and friends.
Rooney, Dad’s second-born, was destined to navigate a sea of friendship all her own when it came to her father, and the waters were, at times, choppy at best. Over a chunk of years, my mom went to great lengths to illustrate all of the friendship deposits my dad made in his account with me, and did so as a basis for comparison to point out the fact that with Roon’, there wasn’t even an initial investment. In my youth this used to infuriate me, as it was counter-productive to my ongoing assumption that Dad could do no wrong, and any blame was Mom’s for the taking. It’s important to note, too, that for some time, I resented my sister, probably akin to the feelings of most first-borns, attributable to having to share attention, and maybe even in some dark cave of the mind I haven’t even found yet, assigning her some blame for the divorce. Just a theory.
Roon’, though, was my best playmate and friend for a long time, even if a slab of the foundation to our relationship was control-oriented. In essence, I could hurt my sister; nobody else was allowed to. And it’s not as though, hearing my mom bring this up time and again, I could sense a pain or sorrow that such an illustration elicited in her, rather I could, even in my childhood, detect a vulnerability in my sister that tons of kids probably have when receiving information from their parents. What I would try to do, then, is deflate some of the energy that felt channeled with consistency toward this particular fault in that relationship.
It’s not that I did the you-say-black-I-say-white thing, or that I wished to convince of non-existence, rather make it seem like less of a deal than portrayed. This, of course, would infuriate my mom, as it resembled standing up for my dad, which I was, but it was also a dangerous seed to plant, in that my sister would then allow the growth of such a sapling to flourish with each ensuing disappointment. Fast forward into adolescence, and no longer had we a need for an emotional claims adjustor, even the untrained eye could identify the near-total damage done.
I was gone for the majority of my Roon’s high-school years, and I hesitate to invent details of relationship development, and I know that some lingering strain continued into college, but it was after the fact, perhaps that Dad began to make actual trips to the teller where he had receipts to show for his transactions. It’s important, here to identify that he loved her from day one, the same way in which he loved his other three children, but an immeasurable misfortune left fate’s fingerprints all over the circumstantial check registers of the relationship.
At some point, over holidays and birthdays, and lunches and workout sessions together at the gym, a father and his first-born daughter covered some ground. They hashed out differences, they agreed on a few things, they hugged, and they made a few deposits. This ship that set sail, however, was bound to cover a limited distance, and the ripening vines were never given the true chance to bear fruit, which is why, when I examine my list of dates, I feel the winds in my own sails diminish.
It brings me to another five-year segment, wherein I feel the pain Rooney suffered by not having that time, the open book of possibilities, the cut-short growth of what had potential for beauty. If the creator had meant for Dad to be around five more years, I like to think that many stowed injuries and shortcomings could’ve been cast overboard, a captain of a father and his first-mate daughter on a voyage unique to the two of them, one that might have uncovered a few treasures along its chartered path. I like to think of the possibility of our father joining us at the Brooksider on the evening of October 11, 2007, when rocket-ship Rooney and a basementful of her friends and family celebrated the 30th year of her life on this planet.
I envision Dad making a speech to all in attendance about the journey he’d had with his “special package,” as he once called her when warning her boyfriend at the time of the dangers in the world. I like to imagine the corny toast he might have made to everyone that illustrated why she can be such an incredible people person, or perhaps the ice cream they might have shared on a more-private birthday celebration. And most of all, I like to think about the confidence he might have helped her to instill in herself by demonstrating a continued interest in building the relationship closer to the spot for which it once had potential, by showing her unique examples of trust that she could have in him, and in others.
3) The 8th-11th of July, 2010
At some point, via the remarkable thing we all know, love, and hate called Facebook, Chels’ decided that we should have a family reunion. I call it that here, because that's the common term for such a gathering, but for some of us, it was a family union, because for some of us, it was the first time we ever met. It was a weird deal going in, but a positive one coming out, and I’m glad we did it. This is the breakdown:
Dad’s parents, as I mentioned earlier, moved to San Diego some years ago, and honestly, it wasn’t too long after that that they retired from travel of significant distance. And even less long after that, Grandpa Bill died. Marggie has managed to kick odds, fighting and screaming, to the curb, and she still plugs along. Bill and Marggie, though, had two other children, the one of which I’ve also already mentioned, also died of alcoholism. Their first born has seen two husbands die, but still lives on in good and happy health down in Florida. The deceased sibling of my father had three kids, and his ex-wife has since remarried. My aunt has, between her first two marriages, five kids. The two she gave birth to came along with her to San Diego, one of which with husband and two children in tow.
My dad’s brother’s kids have three total kids of their own, so all told, there were about 22 of us. Not a huge mess of people, but a considerable gathering considering the semi-perfect-stranger aspect. There were a few other stragglers that popped in here and there, but for the sake of eliminating confusion, we’ll leave them out of the mix. It was quite the ordeal. Some arrived Wednesday or earlier, the rest of us trickled in on Thursday. We stayed in this hotel, and by “stayed in this hotel,” I mean we sat around boozing by the pool for three days, occasionally retiring to our rooms to fall in bed. Except, of course, for my wife, who was pregnant at the time.
She got to just sit there and soak in the glory of it all and pretend that we weren’t all buffoons. Thursday evening, we all remained stationary in our chairs, pounding our suds of choice and catching up on the who’s who of the whole ordeal. Friday we went to the zoo, which lived up to all for which it’s advertised. A long day of walking and picture-taking, but fun. Friday evening we went out dinner, which, in the end was a perfectly normal dining experience that threatened, in every instant of its existence, to pile up the fragments of every train collision in locomotive history and drive a steam engine head-first into the wreckage. I’ve never seen so many facepalms in one gathering in my life, but we survived. I’m told that 75 percent of the front-of-the-house staff quit on the spot after we left, but we were fine.
Saturday was the big day. We all met at Grandma’s favorite lunch joint, some of us cramming ourselves through the front doors before the place was open, and I think there were a few servers at that restaurant that had received texts from some of the staff from the previous evening’s restaurant, warning their industry counterparts of our presence in the city. Someone retrieved Grandma from her assisted-living place, and she was pleasant enough to show some excitement and compassion regarding the surprise. We then brought her back to our hotel-pool tables where she insisted on being unhooked from her oxygen so she could crush a few butts while having a few Scotches. It was quite the marvel.
That was around 1 p.m. Several of us were still gathered around the pool past dark, and several of us were magnificent in our overservedness. It’s not important to mention any names but some of us engaged in hollering contests as if there were a pile of cash on the line. Some of us engaged in a back-smacking contest as if auditioning for the role of awkward, drunk-for-the-first-time teenager in an upcoming low-budget play, and to top it off, there was a handle of something brown that was opened and emptied, and had we recycled our aluminum, we could’ve fed half of East Village’s homeless. And to add to that high-functioning-and-healthiness clinic we put on, enough tobacco was consumed that I saw an article in the next day’s San Diego Union-Tribune saying that 10 dozen farming families from the Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem communities had retired overnight.
And on Sunday, we left, our phone numbers and addresses and e-mails all archived and embossed by Cruise Director Keegs. It was quite an experience, one not soon forgotten, an important experience in terms of getting to know one’s extended family. It’s been somewhat simple in most of these scenarios to envision Dad being a part of these dates and being sober on them. Were that the case, this, ostensibly, could have been the biggest challenge of them all, given that his mother’s side of the family hosts the roots of the disease. A breakdown by generation looks like: Marggie’s grandparents (I think) were both fall-down, pass-out-on-your-face-inside-the-front-door sufferers. If memory serves, I think her parents were pretty low-key. She, according to my dad, has always been the president of the Scotch fan club, but it didn’t appear to have affected her day-to-day functioning, save that she was cold, heartless, and told her kids she didn't love them. Her children, however, did not fare so well, given that she outlived two out of three.
Those children’s children, perhaps armed with knowledge and a more-resilient sequence of DNA, have managed to keep, with occasional exception, alcohol consumption to a social habit, which is a scale imposed with considerable flexibility, i.e. this reunion, wherein the heirs to such gene pools chose, in varying degrees, to let it all hang out.
The union, as it were, though, is exactly the kind of thing over which our father would have gotten himself uber-geeked. He would’ve orchestrated history swappings, assisted/overruled the act of tending to his mother, and, as was the case regardless of locale or company, expressed his oft-inspired pride regarding the members of his family. Instead, we attended in both his honor (quietly celebrating what would’ve been his 63rd birthday) and in the honor of his brother, father, and brothers-in-law no longer with us. For one long weekend, there was some serious, positive family networking, even though the most-uttered phrase of the event was, “Alcoholics go to meetings; drunks go to bars.” Good times.
2) The 23rd of December, 2010
It feels a bit selfish to include two personal events in such a collection, but a part of me feels it silly to do otherwise. Two days before this past Christmas, my wife gave birth to our first child, a beautiful six-pound, eight-ounce girl we call Pumpkin Pie. I don’t, for two seconds, want to pretend that our experience(s) are any greater or better than those shared by other moms and dads, but we have been graced with a wonderful baby, and her entry into this world christened grandparents on both sides of the marriage. My mom, Elaine, and my in-laws continue their smittenness today, and the forecast doesn’t call for any severe changes anytime soon.
Watching her come into the world, as I have heard many parents say, was the greatest day of my life, and unlike the day of our wedding, most of the details remain vivid, namely the labor and delivery, and the waiting-room announcement. I took great pride in jotting down the details of her arrival, knowing that I would pass them to her mother’s father so that he could address the family. These kinds of experiences go, for the most part, unrivaled in life, and we were teeming with luck and benevolence that our two out-of-town sisters were present for the addition. I had zero idea how each member of our clan would react, but to be honest, I hadn’t given it any thought. Either way, I will live the rest of my days grateful for the opportunity to share that day with them, to hug them all, and to see each of their faces.
Her actual birthday, then, delivered joy to our people, and continues to today as she grows, and learns to do new things, like eat small doses of solid food and roll over. She has learned to smile, she has been baptized, and she even, from time to time, will giggle. In no way do I wish for these precious early months to pass, for every day and evening in her presence puts a smile on my face and reminds of that for which I give thanks. As the weeks and months pass, though, and she continues to recognize the faces of those who love her, I think about the time that lies not too far ahead, wherein she will begin to speak, and say the names of her grandparents.
It’s not an issue I dwell on, but I do feel, on occasion, a certain sorrow associated with the fact that she will never know her paternal grandfather. I look forward to showing her pictures, and already sense intimidation with the challenge of explaining to her where he is, but I also look forward to sharing stories with her about the massive heart he had, the great parenting abilities he possessed, and the guardianship with which he would have cared for her. I anticipate my siblings and the wives of my father doing the same, and one day, when the time is right, we will take her to the cemetery to show her where her grandpa rests.
In the global scheme, we are lucky. Some children never know any of their grandparents, and some children don’t even know both of their parents. Some children never get introduced to either of their biological life-givers, and even still, many children face countless hardships much greater than what some first-time dad at a computer deems problems. I’m grateful for having known my father for as long and as well as I did, and whether I can help it or not, I feel a big part of him operating through me every time I give her belly a zerbert, and each time I launch her upwards in my extended arms and slowly lower her face to mine for a kiss on the cheek.
Like my buddy Old No. 7 said when Dad, passed away: “Just know that Jeff made a good man.” I take solace in those words, and as I hack my way through the thick bush of parenthood, I try to remember the gift of love my dad showed me while making a good man, and that I can channel his efforts as, together, my wife and I try to make a good woman.
1) The 15th of May, 2011
The irony in the final date of this selection falling one month prior to its publication comes as no surprise, just as I will be equally unsurprised in three months when the next big family to-do occurs. It’s impossible for any of us to gauge what lies ahead, and futile would be the exercise in trying to guess what the emotional level will be like when Dad’s daughter Keegs makes her way down the altar next fall.
Just as I have in several other selections, I have a vision for what I think would take place if Dad were still around. First and foremost, he would have already spent abundant energy sussing out whether or not my sister’s fiancé is a good dude, which he would've ruled affirmative. After making an analysis, Dad would have gotten to know this young man, and probably without wasting too much time, attempted to schedule a golf outing with him. I’d place a hearty wager on my father giving him significant grief for being a Michigan guy, and knowing Dad, he probably would have already gone the rounds by now, telling everyone about the alleged insanity surrounding a Fighting Irish alum becoming betrothed to a Wolverine.
From there, the interrogations regarding his daughter’s husband to be would commence: What do your folks do? Tell me about your home town. Back, in 1990 I worked with a guy from Petoskey, and on down the line. My guess is that Dad would’ve enjoyed living vicariously through Keegs and her man as their time in Chicago went through the transitions of being post-grads and beginning to date, to a little more serious and living with roommates (in several locations) to nabbing a place together, Dad never failing to throw in his two cents about the windy city.
I’m certain Dad would have loved to visit them there, see the sites, take in some Cubs games, and report back to all of his customers back home about where they sat at Wrigley, where they had lunch the previous day, all the way down to the details of Keeg’s boyfriend’s job, and how long he’d had it. I’m also positive that he would have loved the opportunity to meet the family Keegs works for, to learn about their families’ histories, and how they came to meet. He would have been thrilled to learn about all of the wonderful experiences his daughter had living in Chicago with so many friends, and traveling with her work family. Perhaps bigger than all would have been his excitement over the offer the family gave Keegs when they made the decision to move to the nation’s capitol, and all but insisted she and her boyfriend join.
And as the years passed, and a certain someone married to Dad perhaps began to develop a sense of anxiety-tinged curiosity regarding whether or not the big question would ever arise, I like to think that Dad would’ve tried to help calm that someone’s nerves, attempt to assure her that it would happen if and when the time was right.
But perhaps nothing would have excited him more than the fantastic news that the two friends from college days that had spent several years together in Chicago before moving halfway across the country did in fact decide to tie the knot. The irony in that is that the shift in anxiety would have gone from Keegs’ mom to her Dad as concerns and worries related to helping plan resemble something Elaine can take in stride, while Dad might have had a lower threshold for such a thing, being so close to a possible ceremony site, yet so far from his daughter.
The ultimate joy he felt from learning that Keegs is getting married would have been, and maybe still is, intense. I wish he could be here to see her, in all her beauty and emotion, as she prepares to take this next step in life.
So there they are. Nine dates in nine years. Okay, technically it's 10 dates, but work with me here. If you've made it to the end, you should be congratulated, and you should know that none of this is in vain. Really, it's not. I know that many folks out there aren't lucky enough to have a parent live to 54, and sometimes, those that do maybe aren't A-plus parents. I dunno. What I do know, is that these are a few events my father would have liked to seen, had his life not ended nine years ago today. If heaven exists, then he probably has witnessed them, and is waiting to tell us all about what we already know.
Thanks, Dad, for giving us the time, the love, and the compassion that you did. We miss you.