Preface: For those of who you don't know, my dad died about a year ago. I think he was a pretty rad dude, and if you knew him, you would probably agree. His defining characteristic was his bike shop, and I encourage you to follow some of the links in this post to learn more about him.
A couple months after he died, I returned to college for my senior year and took the creative writing class I had always wanted to. Most of the pieces I wrote were about my dad in some way, but the following essay was my favorite. There was no prompt for the essay, only a length requirement. I chose to write about how a litany of musicians have helped me recover and cope with dad's death.
As is it Fathers Day in the US, and nearly a year since he died, I figured now would be a good time to share my essay. Over the past year, it has had many drafts, shapes and sections. It's not perfect and I don't think it will ever be finished. The following is only the most recent version.
If you can, give your dad an extra big hug today.
It takes a village
Wesley Schultz addressed an audience larger than he ever had addressed before. “This song,” He paused, “Is about my dad.” Shultz’s song was surprisingly personal. “I thought this song would just be one that would live on the album, you know? I never thought I would play it live.”
The lights dimmed, Shultz was now the only visible part of the large stage he was standing on. “I was running late one day and needed socks. So I ran into his room and opened his sock drawer to find a gun I never knew he had. This is a song about that day.” The crowd’s energy shifted from its previous enthusiasm to a moribund curiosity as Schultz strummed the first chord.
The lights went up and Schultz brought the rest of the band members back on stage. Someone in the audience shouted, “play something happy next, or I might cry!”
I closed the door behind me and carried the stack of CDs from my father’s car into the house. I was angry at him for even having CDs, but I at least it was easy to tell which music he actually cared about. The CDs are still in my room, but they have since been transferred and condensed into a playlist 2 hours 14 minutes long. It’s mostly indie-folk albums from bands like Frightened Rabbit, The Lumineers, The Mountain Goats and Death Cab for Cutie. With a couple recent pop albums scattered throughout.
Marcus Mumford comes from a religious family. The kind of religious family that starts their own church. After visiting a prominent American religious thinker, Mumford’s parents returned to their home country, England, and started the English branch of the Vineyard Church. Their branch now boasts more than 100 locations in the UK and Ireland.
Mumford’s music has been called its own form of church. The euphoric playing style and way his crowds fawn and worship elicit connections with his mother and father’s work. The lyrics, about sin, grief, forgiveness and redemption, resemble the message and universality of a good sermon.
My own father’s religious habits were best seen on Sundays. Head down and hands placed together, pulling a stubborn network of roots from the dirt. His notion of church was going to the state park with his two sons, cutting bike trails into the hills. There was often a congregation of characters helping on those Sundays, each one more honest and loving than any I had met in a church lobby.
I wasn’t there they night he was hit. I didn’t watch it happen like my brother did. I couldn’t even point to the spot where my father drew his last breath. I did stop there though. One night. After meeting a friend. I pulled into the empty spot where my Grandpa parks his green ‘57 Chevy at the car show each week. I got out, went to the edge of the road, and held up my phone, pointing it toward where I thought it had happened.
I recorded a video in New York that strangely means more to me than the video I took by the side of the road. In the cab on the way to the airport, I held up my phone and recorded nothing. Cars ambling by, horns honking, people coming from the bars. The night I received my call, I recorded a video of nothing, but it was of New York, so for some reason, it means more to me.
Mark Evans and Penny Adkins, both from London, started dating in 1987. Their romance advanced quickly as they moved in together to a flat in the city. They had their first child, Adele, but Penny wouldn’t marry Mark because she thought they were still too young. He moved out.
Evan’s alcoholism wouldn’t set in until after his own father’s death, his breakup with his at-the-time girlfriend and the death of his best friend, Nigel. The alcoholism would strain his relationship with his daughter. And would prove nearly impossible to summit if it weren’t for the bowel cancer that appeared in a routine screening.
The same cancer that took his father and drove Evan away would make him reach out to Adele. They are still working on repairing the relationship, and have been since she turned 25.
Everybody tells me it's 'bout time that I moved on
And I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young
But my heart is a valley, it's so shallow and man-made
I'm scared to death if I let you in that you'll see I'm just a fake
The only memory I associate with both Dad and The Lumineers is the one where we are driving past the bread factory south of Charleston, West Virginia. I ask him if he’s heard their new album as I put it on the radio. The first song ends and he tells me he likes the first album better, but this new stuff isn’t all that bad. Later, that first song would be the the soundtrack to a relationship he would never get to hear about.
Dad would never see end up seeing the Lumineers in concert. I’m not sure he would have, even if given the chance. I love the band. Until seeing them in concert, I didn’t know several of the songs are about Schultz’s own dad. It wasn’t until the water piled up in the corner of my eye in an Ohio State basketball stadium-turned concert venue that I would learn that. Schultz didn’t hear me, but I asked him to lighten things up after playing a particularly heavy song.
The first time I would condense my father’s life through the written word, it would be his obituary. It would the first, as an aspiring journalist, I would write. Born in Ohio. Computer science degree abandoned for bikes. Cub Scout Master, community leader, bike trail builder. Entrepreneur. Father.
The second time I put his life on paper, I packed it into 42 pages. I stole pictures from the internet and words from articles about the legacy he left. I printed pages of condolences and maps of his hometown. In the end, it cost $52 to order a copy of his 42-page life. No tears were shed in the making of, only when I handed one of those copies to his father, and watched how he put it to the side, the only one in the room to not be able to open it at Christmas.
John Darnielle was beaten by his father. Stepfather actually. He relied on girls, drugs and alcohol to close the wounds brought by his childhood. Eventually, as an adult, his sister would call him at three in the morning to let him know his father was dead.
Years before that call, Darnielle would often sit above the train tracks for hours ready to jump. Later, he said he was thankful a train hadn’t come. After surviving withdrawal from the heroin and crystal methamphetamine, he attended nursing school because he wanted to know the world contained someone who worse off than him. It was in the hospital where he was first studying that he would start writing lyrics. The lyrics slowly became more important than the nursing, and Darnielle switched professions to accommodate their importance.
Months after that call from his sister, Darnielle would write his first autobiographical album. It was a turning point for him. Just as music would provide hints of solace from his father as a child, it would provide him a similar therapy for his father's death.
I'm going to get myself in fighting trim,
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I'm going to bribe the officials.
I'm going to kill all the judges.
It's going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.
The album was rated a 7.2 on Pitchfork.
Luckily, the district attorney is handling the case. No dime spent by my family. I find it hard to blame the driver for what happened. He was high on meth. Darnielle was an addict, and his music was my therapy. Dad never hit me, but his loss did. One addict took my father when I was 21. Another gave him back slowly through their music.
My professor announced that he would have to cancel class later that week, citing family troubles. I didn’t notice any red, puffy eyes when he returned Monday. His voice didn’t seem to have that familiar fist gripped around it I had come to know as a side effect of telling people what had happened.
My professor’s father died only a couple months after mine. I know from experience that telling him sorry wouldn’t help. The canned “thank you, that means a lot” would be his only response. He would think only those that had felt a loss like his own were capable of being sorry, and he’d be right. In a one-on-one meeting, I told him sorry, that I actually knew what that was like. His face softened with recognition, and for a moment, he got to feel sorry for someone else. A welcome reprieve.
It’s not a universal truth though. My not-so-close friend didn’t take it as well. By the time Big Jim, her father, had passed, everyone had forgotten about my loss. I reached out to my friend as she traveled back to Cincinnati to attend his funeral, saying I knew how she felt, that I was there if she wanted to talk. She responded, “Thank you, that means a lot."
At a party, later that night, I told her best friend to be there for her. “In a day, week, month, she will need you. She won’t ask for help, she might just want to talk, release a small memory to you so it stops swimming in her head. That’s where you can be there for her.” He nodded and took off the next morning for Cincinnati.
Nearly a year later, I still think about dad in weird moments. Like when I'm in the middle of a crosswalk. Even now, I cross roads with reckless abandon. Every time, I look both ways and every time, I think about what my brother would do to comfort mom if I were hit.
If he would be able to.