I look at this picture and think, here are three babies. All of us look apprehensive. A month later, we are marginally more confident, but still, this? is the face of a man who doesn't much know what the hell he is doing.
Though, also, maybe he's just woken up.
* * * * *
As far back as I can remember, the common thread between me and my father was music. When I was still in footy pajamas, he'd play his guitar and sing me to me, mostly Johnny Cash. Not necessarily the best toddler lullabies, those prison laments and hard-drinking tales, but the one I remember specifically is "Ballad of a Teenage Queen."
There's a story in our town,
'bout the prettiest girl around,
Hair of gold and eyes of blue,
and what those eyes could do to you.
He worked my name into the lyrics, coupled it somewhere with a rhyme for Kimberly. Even at three, I was aware that I was neither blonde nor blue-eyed, and was a little bothered by it. At any rate, I didn't remember anything past this verse. When, 30 years later, I bought a giant CD compendium of early Johnny Cash, I played that one with dread. Didn't all his songs end up with someone on the wrong end of a gun barrel or a blade? But no! After a spin through the Hollywood machine, the Teenage Queen shrugs off the trappings of fame and goes home. She marries the boy next door! From the candy store! "It has a happy ending!" I laughed to my dad over the phone, in goofy disbelief.
I can still be made a fool of, by a good-looking man with an acoustic guitar. When we were very little, riding around in Dad's truck, he'd sing doo-wop and make me and Sis sing backup. Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel. I remember him telling me about discovering Buddy Holly, that early, gritchy rock-and-roll rhythm seeping out of the radio and into his rural Snohomish childhood, the thrill and the shock of tuning that in. The year he got the Compleat Beatles Songbook for Christmas, all the tablature, we spent two days poring over it and singing ourselves hoarse, while Sis rolled her eyes in the background and probably secretly longed to drown us out with her Madonna albums.
In the last decade, Dad developed a consuming obsession with folk and bluegrass music. He went to festivals, he played at community events and little local bars, jammed with strangers and with a regular group. He sent me a variety of banjo-player jokes he found on the Internet, and made me several mix CDs of the roots music he most loved. Here is a confession: I sang along with some of these in the car, the high harmonies, training myself for that hillbilly wailing. My dumb secret fantasy was that, at some point, I'd join him and his band, somewhere public, sing on stage with my father, surprise and impress him with how I could belt it out. House of Gold. Angel Band. Oh, bear me away on your snow white wings.
The last time he came to stay with me, when I bought my house, he brought his guitar...but he wouldn't play a full song for me, just bits and snatches, fiddling around, faltering. He seemed embarrassed, suddenly, to perform for just me, adult me. He sang me part of one he'd written, trailing off after the chorus, and I couldn't prod him into continuing. Sis says that on his most recent visit with her, he brought the guitar, too, but it made the dog howl.
He didn't have a will, of course, or any kind of plan at all for this eventuality. Goddamn it, Dad, I have said, more than once, this week. "I know you get the guitar," my stepmother said, apropos of nothing, Wednesday. He'd alluded to this, for years, but of course neither of us actually expected it to happen. When I was very little, actually, a toddler, I wasn't allowed to touch the guitar--though I did, when he wasn't home to see it. I don't remember ever getting caught. I am longing for it now, I am desperate to have it, and I am frankly terrified to go down there and actually have to take it into my own hands.
* * * * *
Dad and my stepmom left Seattle for La Center in 1982, trying to recapture something of his rural childhood, I think, in that then-tiny podunk farm town. From what I know, that childhood was rather shitty, so I don't know what he might have been looking for. At any rate, he tore down and rebuilt their rotting farmhouse one wall at a time, though he was never quite satisfied over the years, always tinkering: nah, I don't like the deck over here, and he'd rip it off and add a skylight, extend the porch instead, move the bathtub to a different wall.
This might be as good an opportunity as any to admit that I find Jason Lee's incarnation on My Name is Earl weirdly compelling and even attractive, in a way that I am really NOT entirely comfortable with. Go figure.
We grew a lot further apart, with the physical distance and my own adolescence. For years he coached girls' softball there; we'd play with some of those kids on our summer visits. He quit abruptly when Sis turned 18, and I asked him why. He said something like, "Oh, I only did it to know what girls your age were thinking and doing, you know? To be tuned in to what you guys thought was cool." I heard this and thought awwww, he was doing it to be closer to us! How sweet! It was a couple of years--YEARS--before I realized, hey--if you wanted to know what we were thinking, you could have picked up THE PHONE, maybe.
I find this next picture devastating and hilarious both: the visible disconnect. We're at a figure skating competition--so I guess, technically, he was attempting to pay attention to what I was interested in. But I am fifteen, and I am trying so hard to be Fancy, and he is so, so...not.
And oh my GOD, people could SEE him, in PUBLIC. I was mortified, then. I am sorry, now. I am angry, still, a little.
* * * * *
We had a very bitter and cathartic fight, once, on a terrible visit that included a trip to Reno, The Saddest Little City In the World. (Oh my God, he loved the slots, loved the blinky lights and pretty girls, loved to stand over my shoulder and say oh, so close, two lemons and a cherry! just think, if only it had been THREE lemons! wouldn't that be amazing! and I could never convince him that THIS IS THE WAY THIS WHOLE TOWN WORKS, IT IS NEVER NEVER THREE FUCKING LEMONS.) He accused me of not respecting him, of not taking his advice, financial and otherwise; I maintained that he'd moved away, neglected us as kids, that he had his wife waiting on him hand and foot, that no one else was entitled to so much as the fucking remote, let alone an opinion.
"When you're an adult, you'll understand some things," he shouted.
"Well, I'm 27 years old, Dad; when do you think that'll be?" I snapped. I left in a fury, drove home at speeds surely not legal in any state, hurled the ridiculous, immense takeout cinnamon roll he'd pressed on me into the dumpster behind my apartment building. I fantasized about his funeral. I knew what song I would play, bitter, snotty, triumphant. Buddy Holly. You say you're gonna leave me, you know that's a lie. Wait. Which one of us was speaking, through that song?
And for a long time, we didn't speak. But when we did, at last, things were different. I don't know how to explain it except that we saw each other clearly, in complete. I was an adult, and he'd finally noticed; I, too, had realized that he was who he was. Often, that person was a 6'2" ten-year-old...but he was entirely himself, always had been. And in figuring that out, we achieved a kind of peace with each other.
* * * * *
He was, truly, an enormous kid. He owned an electronic Fart Machine, which he would tote to bluegrass festivals and deploy around the campfire. He laughed so hard at the pie-eating contest/vomit scene in Stand By Me that he gave himself a nosebleed and we had to stop the tape. He built marvelous Lincoln-Log fortresses on the living room floor, and then would stand across the room lobbing the smaller logs into them like shells, making the long whistle, the explosion noises, destroying his creations while we hollered at him to stop knocking them back down. The Fourth of July was his favorite holiday; he loved nothing more than blowing shit up all over the driveway, and somehow he left this earth with all ten fingers still. When his diabetes could no longer be controlled by diet and he had to start taking insulin, the first time he gave himself an injection in my presence he retreated to the bathroom to do so...but then he ran back out into the den, shirt hiked up to show the needle still buried in his belly, syringe dangling from his flesh, yelling GAAAAHHHH! Going for the gross-out. Here he is, sporting the Dr. Bucks fake snaggleteeth he happily wore to the weekend farmers' and artists' market. I love how hard Sis is laughing, trying not to wet her pants.
* * * * *
When we were really little, he'd do this one thing, all the damn time: he loved hide and seek. We'd be goofing around on some construction site he was working, the skeleton of a new house--safe, Dad! Nice!--or walking idly through enormous, woody Lincoln Park, in West Seattle...and Dad would edge behind us, and then just...step off the trail. Slink into the bushes and see how long it would take for us to notice. Suddenly, he'd just be...gone. There Sis and I would be, two dummies, Hansel and Gretel, clutching at each other and looking around, increasingly nervous, jumping at every twig snap and bird tweet. He'd lob tiny pebbles at us from his hiding place, bink! on the shoulder or head. Or, eventually, he'd get to laughing, and that would finally give him away.