The Last Gift I Gave My Father

dad and me

Shortly before he passed away, my father came to see me play the part of Schroeder in a community theatre production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

It’s a night (and a lesson) I’ll never forget.

My Father Laughed at Me (and I loved it)

I can still see him sitting there beside my mother in the front row. His skin was pale. His frame was lean. He looked so tired and weak. Just months before, he’d been diagnosed with Leukemia, a thing that seemed intent on doing what it came to do in a quick and merciless manner.

But what I remember most about that night was the sound of his laughter. From the stage and all through the performance, I could hear him chuckling and giggling in a way I hadn’t heard him do in quite some time. It was the laugh I’d always loved, and on that night, it was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.

It was, however, a fluke that I was even in the play. I hadn’t pursued the role, or any other role, or much of anything else I cared about since high school. Long ago, I’d put such things away in order to become practical.

Who I Used to Be

Yes, when I was a small boy, I made my first trip to a movie theatre, saw Tom Thumb, and insisted on reenacting it for a string of hapless babysitters.

Yes, after receiving a cassette recorder for my eighth Christmas, I used it to produce a series of little radio plays I wrote.

Yes, when I was in the fifth grade, I saw my first live play, went home, and immediately wrote my own, one my classmates and I performed for our Home and School Christmas program.

Yes, I went on to write dozens of sketches, stories, poems, and plays; become a member of my high school drama club; and even win a few awards.

But that was all just grade school and high school stuff. Life’s a ball and then you grow up. You get a degree. You get a job. You get real.

Who I Tried to Become

You see, I was going to be the first in my family to attend college and I took that pretty seriously. I wanted to make everyone proud. Especially my father.

I thought I couldn’t afford to waste my time on things I loved. They seemed so silly, trivial, and impractical. Sure, the university offered degrees in things like English and Theatre, but come on. I had to earn a living.

No one I knew made their living writing stories or poems or plays, and the town in which I was raised contained no actors or artists, at least not any that I knew of or that anyone paid attention to. So I took stock of my more practical skills, like math. I’d heard somewhere (Okay, more like everywhere) that engineers made good money and were in high demand, and I headed in that direction.

I boxed up all the silly stuff, writing and acting and goofing about, and threw it in an attic somewhere. I shut the door. I moved on.

Getting Down, Down, Down to Business

And almost immediately, the sadness set in. The sadness became listlessness. The listlessness became depression. The depression became constant.

Unhappy with engineering, I tried computer science, another respectable and profitable career path. Same results. I tried accounting, did really well in my classes, and even received an additional scholarship. More sadness. Every day, as I walked across campus, I’d glance sideways at the English building, but I’d already completed the required writing and literature courses, courses I loved but considered a mere distraction.

In those courses and all the others in which I was given writing assignments, I’d hear the same thing. “You’re a very good writer, you know,” my professors would say, and they’d often point to my work as an example for my classmates.

But I wouldn’t listen. I was out to make my father proud, and to me that had nothing to do with the things I loved.

Moving On and Further Downward

I eventually settled on a marketing major in order to settle on something, anything, get the hell out of there, and get a job. Maybe then, I thought, I could find a way to prove I had something on the ball. But the job world wasn’t much different. I worked hard, received a lot of praise and a few awards and promotions, but never felt at home. The depression only grew larger and darker, and just as I’d done in college, I drifted from one thing to another while feeling lost.

The Me My Family Never Knew

Somehow, in the midst of all that, I got married and had kids. I had a great family, but I still couldn’t shake the blues. I knew I was not the person I once was, and it struck me that the people in my home, the ones I loved the most, had no idea that such a person had ever even existed.

In fact, when a friend of mine paid a visit and showed some old video tapes of me acting and performing in skits and plays and amateur movies my friends and I had made, my wife at the time looked at me as if she had no idea who she married.
“I’ve never seen that side of you,” she said, “I love it.”

But I was still busy struggling and straining to be practical and failing miserably at it. The only practical thing I was succeeding at was feeling practically dead inside and exhausting those who cared about me.

Saying Yes for a Change

Then came my father’s Leukemia. My attempts to make him proud, in the way I thought I should, weren’t really panning out, and the time to do so was slipping away. Life had not gone as planned.

I think that’s why I agreed to do the play. It reminded me of better days, days when my friends and I had fun, and it had been a long, long time since I’d allowed myself to do anything that sounded like fun.

My friend Jennifer had called to see if I’d be interested. The theatre group was shy one actor.

“Umm, a musical?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

There were reasons to say no. I was in my thirties and it had been fifteen years or more since I’d done any acting. I’d never been in a musical. Whatever singing voice I might have once had (I actually sang in a few weddings when I was younger) had been ground down by the cigarettes I smoked to escape my restlessness.

And it was community theatre, something many people regarded as the K-mart of the performing arts and the last bastion of ridiculous, wannabe actors. We would be a bunch of goofy people having a goofy time doing a goofy thing.

“Okay,” I said.

It was a blast. The people involved in the production were smart, warm, supportive, and fun. The practices were an escape from my troubles and depression. I felt alive. I felt happy. I felt a lot like the person I used to be.

We did three performances. Friends came, my wife and the kids came, and on a Saturday night, my parents came. They all laughed, but no one laughed as hard as my father did.

My Father’s Delight

Oh, how he laughed, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Back stage, the others grinned and remarked how much he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Afterward, when it came time to go out and greet the audience, a few of the other cast members and I made our way to the front row. My dad was there, smiling like a big kid, working to rise from his seat. When he stood, he embraced me.
He shook his head, looked at us through watery eyes, and said, “I just want you to know you sure made an old man happy tonight. I haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time, and I really needed something to laugh about.”

My new friends and I had made an old man, my old man, happy, and we’d done it by doing something that made us happy.

What a Little Joy Can Do

I wondered how much happier I could have made him through the years if I had simply followed my heart and pursued the things I loved. I wondered how much joy I could bring to everyone I love, if I just did things that brought me joy too.

I don’t know if I always made my father proud, or if that even mattered. What I do know for certain, however, is that one night, a night when he and I both needed it most, I made him laugh, and that makes me proud.

In a few short months after that night, my father passed away. The last gift I ever gave to him, it turns out, was a gift I gave by simply using my own.

That’s why you absolutely, positively have to share your gifts. And I’m not talking about the the respectable, admirable, or sensible ones. I’m talking about the ones that make you giddy, the ones that make you feel like you might be floating.

You have a gift like that, something you love, something you enjoy, something that lights you up inside. Those are the gifts you have to share because you have a need to share them, and because there’s someone out there who has a need to receive them. And that’s really the only thing this trip called life is all about.

The Immortal Bach

a beginning…

A soft voice on the radio informed me I was listening to the immortal Bach. Then she played some Mozart like what she’d just said wasn’t at all fantastic.

My sense of time has never been keen. Hours go by like seconds, a minute can seem like a week, but I could have sworn Bach died hundreds of years ago. To find out the man was immortal? I was completely blown away.

Where was he? What was he doing with his life that never ends? What would anyone do with all that time?

I’m no expert, but I have listened to a lot of classical music. That and film scores are always in the background when I’m working, so I think I would have heard if he’d written anything new in the last three centuries.

Half the Beatles were gone. Freddy Mercury, Billy Holliday, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and many more of my favorite musical legends had passed on. Bill Withers had died just that year. But Bach, by the report, still remained.

Spin never talked about it. Rolling Stone never did a piece. The guy had never been honored with a lifetime achievement ceremony on any of the award shows.

Was I, I wondered, the only person who wasn’t aware one of the greatest composers in the history of music was still among us but apparently living underground like a musical Salman Rushdie? Was I the only one who cared?

It was irrelevant, I decided. Even if I was the last to learn and the only one interested, I was going to find some answers. No. Scratch that. I was going to find Bach, the Immortal Bach, and I was going to convince him to make music again…

What She Did Was

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What she did was is she would look around and make sure no one was watching, then she’d take off running. At full speed she’d pump everything, her knees and elbows, her hands loose like mittens on a string threaded through coat sleeves she never bothered to slip over her fingers. It was all flop, flail, fly.

She made pebbles and birds fly, too. She made the sun chase after her and search for her beneath the tree leaves.

One day she attacked a hill head on, and, in her heart, she won.

So what she did then was she danced right there on the peak. She twirled her arms and hopped on one foot and then the other. On that day at that moment, if anyone was watching, she just didn’t care, so what she did was she called out to all the birds and told them to come on back. And hurry.

Farm Boy Goes to Hollywood

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My father let me drive the truck. It was orange and white and rusted, and the son of a bitch was big, which is how I felt behind the wheel half the time. The other half I felt small.

The cattle fields were rough and the thing bounced so hard across the hoof prints I thought my head was going to  pop through the roof.

When my dad wasn’t looking, I’d stop following directions and floor it through the turns. I wasn’t old enough to take it to the gravel or the blacktop, but there, in the cattle field, anything went. You could be a man; you could go for broke.

The cattle were afraid. I, on the other hand, was a stunt man or maybe even the star of the show, a thirteen year old Burt Reynolds on the verge of turning twenty or thirty or whatever age he was, and a hundred angry smokeys were perpetually in hot pursuit.

An Angry Letter from Your Big Idea

big-idea

Dear Creative One,

This may surprise you, but I have a complaint. You see, I think you’ve been toying with me, and to be quite honest, I’m tired of it.

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. I really do appreciate the effort you put forth in finding me, the hours and hours of thinking and digging and exploring you had to endure just to catch a glimpse of me.

And I’d be lying if I told you I’m not flattered by all the time you’ve spent daydreaming about me ever since we met.

Yes, I know all about that.

But having said that, I need to tell you it’s no longer enough. I’m no longer satisfied with being your plaything. I’m ready for a commitment.

For one thing, I find it confusing that you talk about me all the time to a handful of people and keep me a secret from everyone else. And every day, I grow more and more frustrated with the way you summon me, look at me, fawn over me, then send me away. I’m not just a pretty thing to look at.

You told me I was your dream. You told me how wonderful it would be if you and I could be together for all the world to see. Now, I want proof that it wasn’t all talk.

If you can’t provide that, then set me free. If you’re not serious about us, you could at least introduce me to someone who will appreciate me, someone who will give me the support I need to fully develop, someone who will put in the time and effort too make this thing real.

The sad thing is I’m not even asking for all that much. All I want is a little bit of your time each day. I’d even settle for each week. You, however, treat me as if I’m asking you to sacrifice everything.

That’s crazy. What good would I be to you or you to me if I asked you to burn yourself out for me? No good at all, that’s what.

But, nevertheless, you have to give me something. I can’t go on this way. It’s killing me, and I thought you should know.

Sincerely, Your Big Idea

Lament of an Unknown Poet

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My words will never know the feel of a hesitant dissection
or the ink from the trembling pen of a first-year English major
who is asking herself how she wound up in a place so very strange
and far away from home.

They will never know the thrill of being scanned and combed
and underscored
by her damp green eyes 
as she thinks about the friends she left behind,
the boy whose heart she broke,
or the Irish Setter who is probably lying by the sofa,
whimpering and wondering when
she’s going to return and toss the rubber ball again.

They will never be her reading assignment,
the academic equivalent
of an arranged marriage,
one in which she might learn to love my work
despite her initial preferences for Chaucer.

They won’t even have the chance
for an accidental meeting
on the third floor of the library
as she’s making her way
through an anthology for a paper due
on Wednesday by 10 AM.

Her thumb will never brush carelessly against them
as she turns the page and lifts,
sending every stanza floating
for a moment
in an arc
before they softly land
on a chewing gum wrapper
she’s been using as a bookmark.

No, the beautiful girl from Kentucky
will never even know my words exist.
They’ll live out their lives in chests of drawers and envelopes,
in shoe boxes on closet shelves,
and occasionally in a frame
hung in a hallway
among some photos of the dogs or grandchildren,
and the women who hold them
will be relatives and friends
and perhaps an old lover or two
who may not even appreciate them
but care an awful lot for me.

Sister Dorothea

She was a ghost of a woman with a pale white paper face wrapped in a black habit, cold blue eyes framed by horn rimmed glasses, and she was always watching even when she wasn’t looking. There was no escaping her between the hours from 8 am to 3 in the afternoon. From the first bell to the last, every kid at St Ignatius Elementary was hers.

But her reach extended further than that. She would notice if you weren’t at Mass on Sunday. She knew your family history. She had the power to discover all your sins, even ones you committed on the walk home from school, even ones you committed only in your mind.

She wasn’t all convent grade blue steel. She’d been known to cry, but only when telling gruesome and fantastic tales of the suffering of Capital S Saints of the canonized variety.

I witnessed this once when she read aloud a brief biography of Sainte Germaine who was treated cruelly and banished from her home by her stepmother. Sainte Germaine devoted her life to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, then died on a bed of vine twigs at the age of 22. Such is the life of saints. Occasionally they get to play with animals or write books, but they frequently meet a sad and/or grisly death.

Perhaps this is why Sister Dorothea had little affection for the well fed farm children of Lambert. They’re suffering was far too minuscule, but her devotion to rectifying these deficiencies was legendary in the hallway and on the playground of St Ignatius.