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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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My Father’s Mixtape

Dad often asked, “Who’s singing this?” I could picture him on the other end of the line holding his phone out toward whatever speaker emitted the unidentified sounds, whether he was at home, in his car, or standing in the middle of a store with his arm jutting toward the ceiling.

He did this even though I usually couldn’t hear the song. Knowing his taste for what I’ll dare to describe as self-indulgent pop/rock, I could usually figure it out through some detective work. (My ability to assist declined in later years when he developed an inexplicable affection for “smooth jazz.”)

Everybody loves music–it’s a cultural cliché–but Dad’s love of music was an ongoing surprise to me. He had nearly zero musical talent and had trouble staying in tune while humming more than three notes in a row. Nevertheless, he constantly tried to make music, as if it were aural exhaust from the engine that drove him. His nasal, high-tenor doo-dee-doot-doos seemed less an expression of the music he admired than a personal soundtrack, the fully orchestrated version of which only he could hear as the protagonist of a very jolly movie.

*****

Dad bought the Flashdance soundtrack, mainly for “Maniac.” He bought Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, mainly for “Mr. Roboto.” But he liked weirder stuff, too, by which I mean pop weird stuff, specifically the pop weird stuff I liked. He of course had to take little jabs at my music before humming along (so dorky!). At least he didn’t mindlessly settle for Lionel Richie’s easy listening vibe or Laura Branigan yelling her face off. And it really did matter to me that to some extent he liked the music I lived for.

He drove me to buy Duran Duran’s monster mix of “Wild Boys” when it was released early at a record store across town. I was 14, and this exciting event occurred at midnight, but although it would have been logical to wait, I had to have that record as soon as possible or else I would surely die. As we waited in line to pay, I had to suffer his mangled pronunciation of “DOO-ran DOO-ran.” I worried the obviously very cool girls in front of us would harshly judge me, but they were busy talking about which band members were the hottest. One of them said, loud enough for the entire store to hear, “I would totally fuck John Taylor’s legs off!” My dad, distracted by his internal soundtrack, didn’t flinch.

One perfect, angst-free afternoon, he was driving us somewhere in the Celica and let me listen to Men Without Hats on cassette, and not just “Safety Dance,” but all of Rhythm of Youth. His favorite album at that time was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). I had bragged to all three of my friends that he’d bought it for himself. He would mutter about Annie Lennox’s orange buzz cut (“I had that hair cut in high school!), but he couldn’t deny the power of that voice or the comforting beauty of analog synths as we rolled down the highway.

*****

For his visitation and memorial service, my sister, brother-in-law, and I agreed there was no damn way we would fill the service with dirges. We’d stir some emotions, perhaps, but the playlist had to consist of his favorites. Each of us selected a few songs we knew he loved. We had to include some live Frampton featuring the talk box. (I mean, duh.) But the first song we decided on was Cher’s “Believe.”

The man was seriously Cher-crazy when that song was released. He recorded her concert on HBO and sent the tape to me. My partner and I couldn’t afford premium channels, and he didn’t think we should have to miss it, assuming we’d love it as much as he did. Ironically, Cher was the first diva I ever worshipped, but by then I’d forsaken her and was all “what-has-Cher-really-done-since-Moonstruck?” I didn’t even watch his tape, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went to his grave not knowing.

Besides, I figured that if he could put up with my school-age fascination with Cher and all those years of my Madonna mania, I could support his adorably giddy version of fandom. It wasn’t as if karaoke was a feasible means of expression for him. He probably could have carried the tune (barely), but would he have risked revealing so much of himself in front of strangers?

I came to feel honored he would let me hear him humming, which underscored so many of our moments together, moments I had thought were pointless. I felt he was letting me know the music he made was really for him, and that making it was the point.

*****

When he died, I didn’t notice it was almost six months to the day after his birthday. Only six months earlier, on January 27, he spent his birthday in the hospital, supposedly for pneumonia, but Mom thinks the doctor who looked at the x-ray could already tell it was something worse than that.

I spent half a year preparing for the aftermath I’ve been experiencing now for the subsequent half-year, unaware of this potentially meaningful bit of numerical trivia, as if I might be able to change everything if I could force the right meaning on it. All I’ve learned is that when I hear a song I think Dad would like, I should abort the phone call before pressing “send.”

A few weeks ago, I heard a voice say, “And don’t expect him to call you, either,” which was slightly yet significantly different than remembering not to call a dead man. It was like watching his casket sink into the ground again, only this time without the benefit of running on an adrenaline high.

It’s really not so bad. I’m functioning, and overall life is good. It’s painful only in the way it leaves me feeling disoriented. There are so many songs and other found inspirations I want to share with him because only he would get why they’re important to me. I consider what he might say. My best guesses feel counterfeit, overproduced. What I need more than anything, just for a while, is silence.

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Dream On

A week ago, a friend wrote to tell me she dreamed of my dog, Sophie, who recently died. She dreamed she was walking Sophie and that dogs from the neighborhood surrounded them. She reported the incident to a local official, concerned that the dogs would somehow be in danger. The official told her to talk to her neighbors and solve the problem together. Back on the street, the dogs had vanished. When she set Sophie down, Sophie ran away across a beach and into a city.

My friend asked me what it meant. If there’s an intended message from The Universe, I don’t know what it is. But I’m jealous that she’s having dreams of Sophie and I’m not. Supposedly we all dream, but I almost never remember mine.

Her dream makes me think of something that actually happened. Shortly after we adopted Sophie, my parents visited. Sophie barked at my father for a day and a half until Dad offered her a Triscuit. That simple gesture won Sophie’s trust. Whether she was easy to win over or had been demanding some kind of payment from him, who knows. Once while Dad had her outside, she ran into the corn field behind our house. We lived about a quarter of a mile from a highway, so I worried not just that she would get lost but that she would get run over.

I’ve forgotten the details, but Doug tells me he was inside and heard me yell her name and saw me run after her. All I remember is feeling relieved that she stopped, that she came back home. I couldn’t have taken the pain of responsibility if she’d gotten hurt or disappeared. Even though Dad was with her, I’d trusted him, so it would have been my fault.

I do have a brief, apparently false memory of my father running after her, disappearing into the stalks of corn. Not only did he not run after her, but the corn would have been harvested by the time they visited, which was around Thanksgiving, so there would have been nothing to block my view. Considering Dad died just before Sophie, I’ve probably rewritten the scene to connect them. They’ve both run off, and this time they haven’t come back. I’m impatiently waiting for something I know isn’t going to happen. I’m feeling responsible for something I didn’t do. I’m feeling abandoned when neither of them would have done anything to hurt me.

Knowing they’re together would comfort me if I could believe it’s true. I’m open to the possibility, and maybe my friend’s dream is a faint sign. But where the hell are my dreams? My dead loved ones never come to me. I’m as open to their visits as I could consciously be, and still there’s no pixie dust sprinkled in my dreams, no irreverent voices from Beyond telling me they can see me peeing. No sublimity, no ridiculousness. Just absence.

I’m assuming their presence in dreams would fill the emptiness I feel when I remember them in waking moments. “They’re always with you” is a nice idea, but in day-to-day life, it’s kind of a bunch of crap. A colleague noticed Sophie’s photo as we ended a meeting in my office. I explained that she recently died. His response? “She has the sweetest face.” His observation happened in the present tense, tempting me to avoid talking about her in the past tense, which I do to acknowledge reality. It’s the same with my father. It’s the same with friends who died on me nearly 20 years ago.

If I love you, I don’t let go. I want to have you around in present tense again. I want to feel some confusion about which moments are happening now or even real. Every now and then, I want to take a staycation from reality without plunging headlong into psychosis, and I want you to be there. I don’t do faith, but I’m faithful. I’m like a dog that way, waiting on the front porch for you.

Subject to Change

I want to say something about Change, if only because Change has had its say (flipping me off, mostly) and deserves one of my sharp retorts. This summer, my father died, our oldest dog died, a tree fell on our house. Those are some major “fuck-yous”–depressingly final.

Even the positive changes have been major and leave me unsure where things are, metaphorically and literally. We had new flooring installed in our family room and office, which required completely clearing those rooms and removing the carpet. At work, my department just moved to a new space, so there’s a lot of unpacking to do amid all the usual prep work for the semester that begins in a week.

What I really want is to leave things where they are for a week or two. I have vacation time left, so it’s possible, but it’s not a good idea. I wouldn’t be able to relax and would return to work feeling even more overwhelmed. Taking leave of reality only works for fictional characters with unlimited resources. “I’ll send for my things,” they say. How much does that cost? I have a feeling if I have to ask, I can’t afford it.

I don’t want to stop and mope, but I know it’s not a good idea to soldier on without time to reflect. As the shock of loss wears off, disbelief lingers. I woke up a few days ago and thought I saw Sophie lying on the bed, but it was light playing off the wadded sheet. I dreamt last night that dog heaven is actually on Earth, somewhere in one of the northern, central states, so in my dream I was planning a road trip to find her. As for Dad, every day I see news about some gadget I want to tell him about, or I think of a question I want to ask him next time we talk. I look at pictures of him and want to hug him so hard that, if he were still alive, I would just end up crushing him to death.

Time is all that will help me at this point. And timing. I’m going to keep grieving deaths and dealing with life on my schedule. Sometimes it will help to talk, and other times I’ll need to sit by myself. As needed, I’ll speak up, close my office door, force a laugh, write contemplative blog posts, go offline.

More Than Our Share

Doug made it sound as if we were going window shopping. “Let’s just see what dogs they have,” he said. I fell for it, and of course when he locked eyes with a little red-brown dog shivering on a dirty blue blanket, there was no way we would leave without her. The attendant clipped a leash on the little dog’s collar so we could take her for a “test drive.” The shivering, pitiful creature transformed, suddenly energetic, full of hope, barking loudly what in English would have been “Get me the fuck out of here!” Neither of us had cash or our checkbooks, so I drove to the nearest ATM to get the $40 adoption fee.

As we paid the fee and finished the paperwork, a woman left crying. The attendant explained that the woman’s dog was very ill and had to be euthanized. The woman sat in her car, next to ours, sobbing and inconsolable. I felt guilty as we left with our new, loud bundle of joy, but I wanted to get away from her and the warning she was giving us.

Me & Sophie enjoying babytime.

Taken shortly after we adopted Sophie in 2000.

So we can’t claim we didn’t know from the beginning that our time with Sophie would end, sooner or later. It’s easy to get lost in imagining that a loved one is immortal, and we did, but we also took her to the vet at the slightest indication of trouble. We’ve been dreading her death for the past eleven years. On Tuesday, the day came. Sophie had been limping for a month and had been tested and treated for various ailments, but her problems didn’t go away, and her pain increased.

As it turned out, I wasn’t with her. Two weeks ago, my father died after months of suffering from lung cancer. Doug and I both attended the funeral, but Doug sensed he needed to get back even though our dogsitter reported no problems while we were gone, and we hoped Sophie was on the mend. Doug had to go it alone, taking her back to the vet (she’d been so many times in the past month) and then to a specialist who identified a perplexing spot on her x-ray as bone cancer. There was no miracle cure, just painkillers that probably wouldn’t make things even temporarily better for her.

For the past few days, I’ve been sobbing off and on like that woman I saw on Sophie’s adoption day. I haven’t cried like this in years, since the summer of 1994, when two of my friends died within two weeks of each other (but that’s a story for another time). Even after Dad died, I had a hard cry once or twice, but it just didn’t hurt like this hurts. He loved his cats like Doug and I love Sophie, so I know he would understand. There was so much happiness in our eleven years with her. More than our share. We were lucky, and now we’re greedy for more. Continue reading

Postmortem

I feel a little guilty for cheering on my father’s death. It’s what you do when someone lingers on after months of suffering with no hope for improvement. When more time only promises further deterioration, it’s time to go. As of a few hours ago, he’s gone.

Over the past few days, as his death has been clearly imminent, the ubiquitous question has been “Are you okay?” I appreciate the concern but I’m sick of the question. What answer is acceptable? If I say I’m okay, I’ll get accused of denial. If I say I’m not okay, people will keep attempting to make me okay when what I want is to just feel this experience as honestly as I can.

Losing someone I love and like as much as I do my father is not okay, not in the least. But months ago, when he was diagnosed, I accepted it would happen, and I accept now that it’s done. Besides a little bit of shoulda-ing and coulda-ing, I’ll move on, and I’ll miss him. Not a fucking bit of it is okay, but I’ll do it.

At the moment, the best thing anyone can do is not try to touch my pain, not tell me how to feel, and not compare my experience to theirs, at least not right now. I’ve been through this kind of thing before. I know the drill enough to know what I need. I’ve cried and will cry again. I’ll ask for help when I need it. I’ll remember some silly thing Dad said, and instead of just chuckling to myself, I will probably tear up, but I’ll still laugh. And if somehow I got the chance for a couple more decades of taking him for granted, I’d damn well grab that deal.

Meanwhile, no casseroles, please.

Keep on Truckin’

Mom stomps off from the salesman. I’m already out in the lot looking at cars. She rushes past me with the salesman gaining ground.

“I guess she doesn’t want to talk to me,” he says, chuckling and letting her go on. I wait until she’s out of earshot and apologize. Mom thinks this is effective strategy in the car-buying game, but rudeness won’t get any of us very far.

Mom test drives an SUV. The saleman attempts to make conversation, and she undercuts him. He patiently continues to tell her about the vehicle’s features, and I jump in to keep the conversation going. Back at the dealership, she relents a little as we do a lot of waiting, but her tone sharpens again when he tells us they’re going to offer us $3500 less than we’re expecting for the truck she’s trading in. My father’s truck. It’s an insult, Mom says. The salesman rationalizes that their customers don’t want trucks, that there’s a much smaller profit margin on their new vehicles than at other dealers, blah, blah. My sister and her husband, who know more about these things than either Mom or me, said to hold our ground and not take a penny less.

So we go to a different dealer. The salesman there seems young and like he might be learning on the job. But he’s just the right amount of chatty for Mom. She goes easy on him, laughing with him a little and giving him advice as if he were her grandson. But the trade-in offer is even lower. If anything we’ve expected this offer to be higher because it’s definitely a truck dealer. Getting the minimum amount is crucial so Mom can afford to make the payments. But the truck is also worth it. It’s in good shape. The only reason my sister and I want Mom to trade it in is because it’s for work, with dual rear tires and an enormous tool box. Dad loves his truck, but he won’t be able to use it anymore. And while Mom has no problem driving it, the warranty expired a few years ago. Dad’s not able to work part-time anymore, and now they have his medical bills on top of everything else. If the truck breaks down, she might not be able to afford to repair it, and it’s their only car.

Mom understands, but she’s held off to spare my father’s feelings. It’s taken her many months to get up the nerve to go car shopping. Having little patience for car dealer manipulations, she lets her displeasure rip. The salesman wants to know how much we want and where we’re getting our numbers. I can’t tell if he’s confused, concerned, or both, but he seems to sincerely want to understand our position. Just as we’re getting somewhere, my sister calls, so I rush out and tell her what’s been going on, feeling a little bit bad about leaving the guy with my angry mother. My sister wonders if the estimator doesn’t realize the truck has a diesel engine, which adds to the value. I rush back in to pass along what she’s told me. Continue reading

Late Stages

It’s the little moments that matter.

One day, when I was about five years old, I heard the door bell ring. My father had taken his motorcycle around the block to road test a repair. He’d told me to stay in the house, keep the doors locked, and not let anyone in. He’d be right back. I’d heard him drive off only a few minutes before. But I was five. I couldn’t see outside, and I wanted to know who was there, the insistence of the rapidly ringing doorbell undermining my father’s command.

I turned the knob and struggled to open the door, as a butler must feel opening the front door of a grand estate. On the front stoop, my father stood, breathing hard and shivering slightly. One sleeve of his grimy, weekend t-shirt was ripped apart, and his jeans were torn away in various places up and down his legs. The holes revealed bloody wounds, and drying blood trailed from his scalp down his face, down to his neck in some places. Red seeped through cotton and denim. Life seemed to be oozing out of him. Even though he was standing there, eyes open, I assumed he must have been dead.

As he opened the screen door, I backed out of the way, afraid to make a sound as he stomped past. I can’t remember what happened immediately after that. He probably went to the bathroom to tend to his wounds. I’ve lost the part of the story between feeling frightened and then, later that day, learning that he’d lost control when his motorcycle skidded on cinders. When I started riding a bike around the neighborhood a few years later, I had the same problem, only I knew to anticipate dangers like that. I had much to learn from, and even more to learn about, my father, who’d come back to life.

*****

Dad had survived death at least once before. When he was 13, while staying with his grandparents, he was filling a lawnmower with gasoline and, somehow, the gasoline ignited. The left leg of his jeans caught fire. His grandmother ran to him and smothered the fire with her apron, but not before he’d suffered third-degree burns on his leg, and resulting in second-degree burns for her. If she hadn’t been nearby and moved so quickly, Dad might have burned to death, and I might not exist.

His recovery involved the healing of his wounds, of course, but he also had to learn to walk again. He was not a patient patient. He snapped at people who tried to help him. His grandfather had to give him a talking-to. Dad got the message. He cooperated, healed, walked. The episode became a powerful memory that stayed with him.

*****

I’m not, as some people might assume, thinking about all of this because of Dad’s recent diagnosis: lung cancer, stage four. Sure, he’s on my mind more lately, but the past weaves itself into every moment. The present serves as a filter.

Some people would, and perhaps will, use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. He’s strong; he’s always been a fighter; etc. And while all of that’s true, I’m much more interested in my father as a person, who experiences joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments.

*****

For my first 20 years, I thought Dad must have been ashamed of me. He stayed busy with work and volunteer activities. During the time we spent together, he explained things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting. And I was a huge sissy. Continue reading

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