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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.

David Died and All We Got Was This Lousy Quilt Panel

I honor my friend David’s life by thinking about him daily, but I refuse to let the story of his death go untold. The worst part of his decline was watching him change from one of my role models of out-and-proudness to someone so vulnerable he seemed to believe he’d brought his suffering on himself. He had been a fighter, but for years before he developed full-blown AIDS, the stigma of having HIV had kept him from talking about it and, I assume, kept him in denial. By the time he couldn’t deny it anymore, there wasn’t much that could be done. In the sixteen years since he died, the stigma hasn’t faded much. We’ve got to keep shining light into that darkness.

When the time came, David went home to die because the city hospitals didn’t want him. He went to a regional hospital near the no-stoplight town where he grew up. All of his sisters had worked there as nurses, so they made sure he got admitted.

I had the unfortunate honor of keeping watch with his family for his last days. We cheered on his speedy death, which didn’t seem odd at the time, as he’d suffered a long time. One of his sisters suggested that we make a souvenir, something like, “David died, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” We agreed the only reason he would have disapproved was because he didn’t think of it first.

Sometime during those last days, a nurse asked how long I’d been with David. I wasn’t his partner, but I remember feeling relieved that the way I cared for him could be interpreted as that kind of love. I did love him like a brother, maybe. It’s the closest comparison I know. We had selected each other as family and shared a kind of intimacy that only family can allow.

David's Names Project Quilt Panel

Here's David's panel in the Names Project quilt. He's downstage-center, of course.

We had the window open a little so his soul could find a way out, but his healthy, 32-year-old heart just wouldn’t stop. Well into the third day of our vigil, his sister Julie touched my arm and said, “You know you’re welcome to stay, but please go.” As I walked to my car, the sunlight seemed too bright, the humid air too intoxicating. I didn’t deserve these gifts. I had to get home before I thought too much. I drove away as if I were trying to beat a storm, westward over two-lane roads, a single-lane bridge, where I waited at a red light, wondering as I sat there if David’s soul had found its way out of the hospital room window. I busied myself with the radio until the light turned green.

When I reached the interstate, I let it take me south toward home, but there was David, right there in my head, right there with me. Continue reading

The Day We Destroyed the City

On some sweet Saturday in April that convinced us it was June, David called me and said he had to get out of the house. By he, he meant we. The rose garden at Loose Park was a known cure for cabin fever, we agreed. Although the roses weren’t blooming yet, we could imagine what they would look like, and the stone work was lovely year-round.

We were both far too pale to deal with laying out or walking around without shirts, though. I felt no shame wearing shorts and, after some adamant convincing, got him to agree to put some on. To my great surprise, he was actually wearing them when he picked me up. The first thing I did was make fun of his pasty white legs. He then complimented me on my knobby knees. Throwing inhibitions to the wind, but grasping tight to our egos, we took off for a day of citified nature.

Loose Park spread out for we-didn’t-know-how-many square city blocks right in the middle of Kansas City. It was my ideal fantasy of what the country was like (only because I had conveniently forgotten the weekends my family spent visiting friends who lived on a farm). I preferred a little nature with my city, not the other way around.

All of the parking spots by the rose garden were full, so we drove around until we found a spot along the street at the other end of the park. We took the walkway that hugged the circumference of the park all the way around, through trees, across a little bridge that stretched across a pond, then by the playground. David wanted to stop  to play on the swings. I think he needed to stop. Within a year, he wouldn’t be able to walk very far without resting. He’d have to quit his job, go on disability, spend even more time alone. My job that day was to help him forget what was coming. If I hadn’t already known, everything about him that day might have left me blissfully ignorant. Continue reading

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