The Sunday my teenaged brother accidentally slammed the car door shut on my hand is more vivid in my mind then my forever altered fingerprint. It wasn’t that I had never witnessed my father’s rage before. His impatience with the repetitive noises children naturally make was no secret in our family. Neither were Dad’s scathing outbursts of cursing when he reached the height of frustration. But his silence that day terrified me. No yelling, no swearing, just the rhythmic crunching of boots crossing gravel.
To appease my father, my brother uselessly repeated,”It was an accident. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“Stop it! Get in the car! We have to go to the emergency room!” My mother shrilled through the tension as she wrapped a towel from the clothesline around my hand.
With a bewildered expression, my father backed toward the car. My bloody nosed brother stared at us as we pulled out of the driveway but he did not return my wave at him through the rear window. It’s okay, I whispered. At seven years old, I already knew that Dad calmed as quickly as he riled himself up.
Child rearing was not my father’s area of expertise. Country music was and, competing in several talent shows, Dad rivaled artists who later achieved international fame. In one event he had hoped to place third and win a new stereo. Instead, he was awarded the first place trophy and a chance to advance in the industry. But a growing family demanded a steady pay check and Dad abandoned his musical dreams.
A machinist by trade, his skilled hands eventually only played the guitar at home on weekends. No more band rehearsals or overnight jam sessions. With guitar in hand, he left when I was thirteen. All I knew was that he was deserting us.
Some of us are still licking wounds from the ensuing sense of rejection and abandonment. Mine manifested as an inability to release possessions and relationships long past the expiry date of their goodness. A greeting card hoarder, I held onto people and things that were no longer life-giving. I now know that I was clinging to a self-worth that hinged on how much others valued me, including my father. I considered death among one of his many human short-comings because when he died, so did the love he gave me.
Dad lived simply with a fondness for good food, rye whisky, Sunday drives, nature and practical jokes. A charismatic character with a strong sense of right and wrong that is vivid in my mind, he would hate it if I painted a posthumous image of perfection. “That’s not right,” he would say. “Tell it right or don’t tell it at all.”
A man ill-equipped to deal with the curve balls life tossed him, my father was completely freed when performing. He often encouraged us children to take turns pressing an ear against his battered acoustic guitar while he strummed. The only stress visible in him then was his taut neck cords straining to hit the high notes. And he did.
Recently, I realized that my father’s gift was far greater than the gift of music alone. Observing the passion of a man lost in the rapture of creativity was a magical experience. Through him, I not only heard but saw and felt the music. I still do.
When I was still a teenager and my father was 41, he left this earthly world for what I have always hoped is a better place. Over time, I feel I have come to know him better than I did when he was alive. Youthful preoccupation blinded me to the light of love on his face in the photos I now cherish and pore over while listening to his music. His songs speak directly of the heartache he endured and , more poignantly, to the suffering he knew he caused. Every time I hear the lyrics I recall my brother’s words the day my fingerprint was altered and I can almost hear Dad saying,”It was an accident. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
Reverence on my part, perhaps, because my father lived simply but he was not a simple man. The most glorified memory I have of him is one I, regrettably, was not present for. It is of a man who, weeks before his cancer riddled body fought the final fight, created a haunting legacy of words and music that tell me who he was and, in turn, who I am.
Now 40, I have learned a couple of things myself. I have realized that the greater part of being loved is loving yourself, being at peace with yourself. I know that people must follow their hearts or it can make them sick, possibly even kill them with an insidious, joy corroding cancer of the spirit.
Thanks to my father, I strive to “make my own music” by writing full-time. I left a mainstream career track for humble part-time work that supports my learning and basic needs. I no longer feel stretched forty ways but there is no steady pay check for following the call of the soul and being true to your creativity. There is usually no check at all. But I can’t let that stop me.
In discouraging moments I think of my father’s creative life cut short by obligations, then by cancer at age 41 and I continue writing because I have no choice. I know Dad would completely understand this and, wherever he is, I hope he knows that being in his life was one of the highest notes in mine.
(c) 1999 Published in Anthology of Winning Literature
~ all rights reserved by author ~