Tomorrow marks twelve years since an event that changed my life, and the lives of many others: the sudden death of my father, Cecil. This is us, on the last day we spent together. He was gone less than three months later.
In the years since his death, I’ve written pages about him. Diary entries. Poems. Tributes. Facebook statuses. Long, rambling emails to family and friends. All flowing from a wound that was inflicted the moment I found out that he was gone. Sometimes, the words are inspiring or even funny, if the wound has formed a thick enough scab. Sometimes, they are soggy with a grief that lingers even after all these years – or even angry, if the scab’s been ripped off by some trigger or other. At times, the words come easy – tripping over each other, sounding just right together. This is not one of those times. Rather than wrestle with words, as I often do, I’ve decided to turn to music. Dad loved music. He loved it loud. He loved it to the point of rattling cars and pictures popping off walls and blown speakers. I’ve put together a few songs he liked, and a few songs that remind me of him. I’ve included links, so you can listen along if you’ve got the time. (Sorry about all the advertisements at the start of the videos – I tried to avoid them, but they’re everywhere.)
He liked country music alot. In fact, he liked all things country. Cowboy hats and boots, broken-in jeans, big belt buckles. He had a whole collection of a big belt buckles; I wear them now. He liked wide-open skies, and the romance of the road. Every summer, he led a caravan of his siblings on six-week road trips from Newfoundland to Florida to California to the Yukon (and all points in-between). Some of my most enduring (and endearing) memories of him are from those trips, perhaps because, even as a child, you sense when your parents are truly happy – and you soak it in. “Big Wheels in the Moonlight”, by Dan Seals, a song he had on a well-played mix tape, captures it well. As does “City of New Orleans”, by Arlo Guthrie – a song he could sometimes be heard singing on those road trips. Badly, since the man could not carry a tune – yet, he sang all the time. This is something I still love about him.
The summer I was thirteen, we drove to Alaska. All the way there and back, a Johnny Horton tape made the rounds between the vans of families. “North to Alaska” by Johnny Horton was broadcast daily over the CB radio. Yes, every van had a CB in it. It was used for everything from announcing pit stops to tracing a van that had gotten lost to telling jokes. Sometimes, us kids would play with it – “breaker, breaker, any takers”, and you just might get one. Other kids, lonely truckers, concerned police officers and God knows who else.
Dad did everything fast – he ate fast, fell asleep and woke up fast, worked fast, drove fast. He loved Alabama’s “I’m In A Hurry” – that song was him. Everyone who knew him was always telling him to slow down. Now that he’s gone, I’m glad he never listened to any of us. He was only forty-four years old, and what killed him was a massive heart attack caused by an undetected birth defect. According to the autopsy results, had he been treated for his heart condition, he might have lived another year. In other words, he was never meant to last long. I believe that he sensed that, on some level, somewhere – that there was a voice inside him urging “go, go, go – you don’t have much time, do it all now”.
Maybe it was this same sense of urgency, of the preciousness of time, that helped him truly live. Because he didn’t just work hard, he played hard. He had an I-dare-you grin and a loud laugh. He held onto the wonder and joy that many people lose soon after childhood. A rainy night, to him, meant a clean car in the morning. He loved it, like Eddie Rabbitt’s song. He could often be heard singing “Centerfield” by John Fogerty – he was always ready to play. Baseball, yes, but his best game was hockey. He drove his snowmobile like the wind. He loved roller coasters and water slides. Sometimes, he was the biggest kid on the swings at the playground. As a teacher, escorting his students on field trips, he entertained busloads of teenagers by singing, over and over, Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day”. He knew they weren’t laughing with him, but at him, and he didn’t care. He was getting a day away from the classroom! Being talked about or laughed at never bothered him. Whenever I hear Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party”, I think of him and what he used to say. “People talking about you says more about them than you. Imagine what a sad life they have, with nothing to think about but what you’re doing!” And I try to live my life without worrying about what anyone else thinks of it …. There is such freedom in that.
Another song that comes to mind when I remember my father is “Oh Very Young” by Cat Stevens. Forty-four years really is “a short while”. This feels more and more true, the closer I come to it. There is a part of everyone that thinks their parents will last forever …. I never realized that I thought so, until I had to say goodbye to Dad – the shock of it was like a solid object, something I could touch and hold. And then there’s “Forever Young” by Rod Stewart. Beautiful words from a parent to a child, plans and hopes and dreams for a life of integrity and joy and love. But it wasn’t me who flew away – in the end, it was Dad. No matter. He gave me enough in his twenty-one years with me to last my whole life. Walk in like you own the place. Shake hands like a man. You’re as good as anyone else, and better than some. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Never give up. Sing from your guts. I love you. Like the Cooper Brothers sang, “The Dream Never Dies” – just the dreamer. The dream, like the song, is what lasts forever. I don’t run as fast as he did, but I don’t hesitate much. I know now how dear my life really is, and the people in it. When I want something, I’m not content to say “someday” – because I know that not everyone has a someday. Losing Dad was a hard, heart-twisting way to discover this truth, but I’m grateful that I did. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that I’ll have no regrets, and nothing left unsaid or undone. Thanks, Dad.
The song I’ll end this post with is a country song – “Daddy’s Hands” by Holly Dunn. The video is filled with cowboys and cheese but the words could easily have been written about my Dad. I’ve never forgotten the love in those hard-working, hard-playing, calloused, filthy, part-time-mechanic hands – or the pride and happiness in his face, that deep sense of contentment from a life lived well.