The first few years, Aug. 14 snuck up on me.
That’s the day my dad died, in 2000. As any of you who have lost a parent know, those first milestones – Christmas, birthdays, Father’s Day – carry an unmistakable void. They came and went, and I wondered how dad must have felt on New Year’s Eve of the year before.
That day – early evening, as people finalized New Year’s Eve plans – doctors told dad he had leukemia.
He waited days to tell my sister and me. I lived in Tallahassee, Fla., eight hours of mostly of Georgia highway away from his brick house in Belmont, N.C. My numbness thawed when I told my friends at work that day, the tears rushing out before my words could.
It’s this time of year, summer on the wane, NFL training camps in full pads, hopes for cooler days, that nature reminds me of what time of year means.
I wanted to write about NFL training camp – days my sister and I rode bikes to the University of Northern Colorado for two-a-day workouts, our only shot at seeing the Denver Broncos up close, close enough to get autographs and pictures and memories.
This is the week I feel most
Instead, I’ll share a story about a year after dad died. I mean to the day. To the minute, even. I want to tell you about it this week, not next, because this is the week I feel most. Not the week we had to tell dad goodbye.
The week before, there was that transition from hope to resignation, when my prayers became less selfish. My prayers matured from “don’t take my dad from me, God,” to “please God, if it’s time to take my dad, do it now.”
The scene for most memories is in my car, driving under overcast skies on Interstate 85 between my home in Greensboro, N.C., and dad’s bed at Duke University Hospital in nearby Durham.
I moved to Greensboro to be closer to dad. My former newspaper understood my desire to come home, and even helped me as I looked for a new job. The staff at the Greensboro News & Record covered my shifts on days my dad needed me most.
I often didn’t listen to the radio as I drove to Durham. Or, if it was on, I hardly noticed. On an early-August drive, my sister called me.
“Are you close?” she asked.
“Yeah, maybe 30 minutes. Why?”
“Just … hurry. Be careful.”
The odds had been against us
Those percentages you talk about with doctors? They weren’t going my dad’s way. They hadn’t, for a while. He’d contracted spinal meningitis, and in his weakened state after a bone-marrow transplant, it was a bit of a mismatch.
I wondered if I’d make it there in time.
I turned on the radio. The first song, “Stay,” by Jackson Browne, made me think of a vacation in New Mexico, the one time the kids’ pleas to stay just another day were granted.
The second song, “Slip Sliding Away,” by Simon and Garfunkel, rang a bit more solemnly.
And I know a father who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he’d done
He came a long way just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and headed home again
All those questions I never asked my dad, I wanted to, now. I wanted the sun to shine on his face one more time. I looked up at the grey sky and sped up my pace a little.
Was dad sending me a message?
The third song really struck a chord – “Follow You, Follow Me,” by Genesis.
It gets me, to this day. It felt as if dad was sending me a message.
With the dark,
Oh I see so very clearly now
All my fears are drifting by me so slowly now
I can say
The night is long but you are here
Close at hand, oh I’m better for the smile you give
And while I live
I will follow you will you follow me?
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me?
Just one single tear in each passing year there will b e
The words weaved into the very fabric of my spirit I hoped would hold together.
Dad died at 12:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, the night after his Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers in a preseason game. The last Broncos game dad saw was John Elway’s last before retirement, a blowout of the Atlanta Falcons for consecutive Super Bowl wins.
The milestones followed.
Then, Marie was born
I got sick. My doctor sat with me in an examination room with an open medical book to try and solve the mystery of my pained joints. Two months after dad died, my second daughter, Marie, came into this world, after my wife’s difficult pregnancy.
She and Grace never met my dad. Aside from Marie’s birth, the year was painful. Up to and including the anniversary of his death.
As Aug. 14 approached, I felt nauseated every morning. It sounds funny, but until then, I hardly ever threw up. I remember getting sick at age 12, after eating at a Big Boy in Texas. Then, at age 24, as a new reporter in Morganton, N.C., victim of a bad quarter pounder.
(It’s a miracle I love burgers).
I wasn’t 36 yet, but my body knew what my mind wasn’t grasping: Aug. 14 approached.
I forgot to ask off from my part-time job as a server at Logan’s Roadhouse. Instead of a visit to dad’s grave or day of play with the kids or cleansing sulk in a dark room, I’d have to refill tea and sling peanuts and serve grilled chicken sandwiches to the lunch crowd.
What the day meant
I must have worn the sorrow like a barbecue stain on my uniform.
“Hey, you OK?” asked a fellow server. I explained what the day meant. She listened. The lunch crowd arrived late, and at 12:20, we sat on wooden benches and waited. I didn’t get my first table until … just before 12:30.
“Want me to get this one for you?” she asked. I declined.
I looked at the clock above the drink station: 12:30. As I walked back on the floor, I heard the unmistakable tune. Holy.crap. No way. Did my fellow server – I remember her face and kindness, not her name – cue up “Follow You, Follow Me” on the jukebox?
Right now, really? At 12:30, exactly one year after dad died?
Thing is, I never told her about the song. So, it wasn’t her.
Stay with me,
My love I hope you’ll always be
Right here by my side if ever I need you
It’s not a popular Genesis song
As sure as anything I’ve ever received – a reprimand or gift, a warning or forgiveness, criticism or a compliment – I received dad’s message loud and clear that day. He was still with me.
It’s not one of Genesis’ most popular songs.
This is good. I don’t own the song in any form, and, until this post, I’d never sought it out. That all reinforces the theory that it’s his message, and let’s face it, “Sussudio” wouldn’t have the same impact.
I’ve heard “Follow You, Follow Me” a few times since, and when I do, it fills a need. It sometimes brings sorrow, other times, peace. Often a little of both.
I have hopes of what lays beyond this life.Are any of right? Whatever awaits us, I’ll always believe my dad could see me from there. And sent a message I’ll carry with me always.