My dad was not a good listener when I was young. Hilarious, quick, smart, a big talker and impatient, he was always a presence. He became a father when he was 18, and the responsibility of it never quite set right. Much later, after he quit drinking and joined AA, he got better at slowing down enough to listen to his wife and kids. After he was diagnosed with lung cancer when in his sixties, he grew quieter and seemed to absorb the world around him in a simultaneously startled and patient way.
He loved stories and country music, which explains his endearingly maudlin side and why he liked long conversations with strangers in small town bars, the juke box blaring Hank Williams or Charlie Pride. When I was in fourth grade I wrote an O’Henry-ish story about a girl who doesn’t like her little sister. The younger sister has a mental disability and the older girl is ashamed of her. When the little sister dies suddenly, she leaves a sign—a special leaf—meant to show she still loved her big sister. One day I came home from school to find my dad with those three wide-ruled notebook pages in his hands. He had deciphered my barely discernable pencil scratches.
“Did you write this?” he asked me.
“This is good. I liked it.”
The way to my father’s heart was through a song or story, I realized quickly enough, and the sadder the better. After that I wrote poems and more stories and kept a slew of uneven journals. There was a lot of sadness in those pages, and some of it caused by him. Most of these writings I did not share with my dad. A few he read, never critically, which was at variance with the rest of the time I saw him, tense encounters as he struggled with alcoholism, the loss of his own father to cancer, his own sense of failure and dissatisfaction, the stress of raising three kids born by the time he was 21. He was often so far into his head that he could be in a room full of people and not hear a word they said to him. I remember tapping his arm to be heard, the way he could turn away while I was mid-sentence. I learned to keep a safe distance.
When I was in college and taking writing classes, he handed me two stories he wrote himself. One was about his Dutch grandfather, historical and detailed, and the other about a woman around my mother’s age. One day, while her teenage daughter is at school,the woman puts on her daughter’s clothes and sets out on an afternoon of adventure and mishap. The story was quirky and smart. I think he sent the story out to a magazine and got a rejection. I don’t know what happened to either of those stories. I’d love to have them now. Somewhere in his things is also a notebook with country songs he penned, his guitar on his lap.
I have few memories of conversations with my dad in which he listened to me. During those rare exchanges, I rushed through explanations while I still had his attention. He did like telling me things. All of my boyfriends were recipients of his theories on politics, hunting, developments in science, and occasionally women. He was funny, though, which offset his sadly sentimental and remote sides and left us with a lot of silly memories. We have oft-used one-liners in the family that he crafted on camping trips and were sure to send us howling with laughter in our tent. He also entertained us by making animals out of mashed potatoes at dinner, but that would take an elaborate series of photos to explain.
When I read aloud my fiction for the first time I was graduating with my master’s degree in creative writing and defending my thesis. I stood in front of sixty people (okay, maybe more like twenty) in a campus classroom. My friends coached me to slow down—I had and still have a tendency to talk fast when the spotlight is on me. I had decided upon a short story I wrote about a daughter who leaves her father. When I look at it now, I can see all the parts I would revise or cut, a few sentimental lines that embarrass me. My parents were in the audience that day and sitting modestly toward the back for the room. The father in the story was nothing like my dad, and the daughter nothing like me—this I had been sure about when while I wrote the piece–and yet as I read it aloud I had the choking revelation that I had been trying to forgive my father and myself for what could not be fixed between us. The awareness my dad was hearing me share this story with him and a room of people made my hands shake. I struggled to maintain my voice. When I finished, I looked up to see he was crying. Big, sappy tears of pride, sadness and happiness rolled down his face.
I snapped that photo of my dad last summer. He was leaning into the minivan to say goodbye to my daughters and me. We’d come from Oregon to Michigan to see him and my mom. A few months later he would not be able to walk any more without assistance and pain and morphine would take the clarity from his eyes. His ability to listen attentively, to be completely there with us in a room would never be back. A few minutes after I took that shot, I drove away. He stood there in the yard for as long as he could still see me and my girls, his arm up in the air, staring hard at us. Sentimental and beautiful as hell.
One of my dad’s favorite songs.
Willie Nelson’s Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground