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Time with Dad

Sorting through memories on my first Father’s Day without my father.
June 21, 2020
Time with Dad
OAKMONT, PA - JUNE 19: A leaderboard displays a Father's Day message prior to the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club on June 19, 2016 in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

I am not quite at middle age—I’ll be 39 this fall—but I don’t remember much of Father’s Day when I was a kid. My father was a pastor and so other responsibilities took precedence on any given Sunday. There were presents and dessert and maybe Dad put some steaks on the grill for lunch. It was a good day but by today’s standards—the refrain of “Happy Father’s Day” from casual friends at lunch, the lengthy social media threads detailing funny or touching paternal stories—it was very low-key. And over the last several years, there have been just phone calls and maybe a card if I remembered.

This year I won’t make any phone calls.

Late last summer my father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Three months later he was dead.

He had felt bad for weeks. He was always a little fussy in a way that we all recognized—ministry was a stressful vocation and he had a slight edge, a holdover from a set of strong Sicilian genes.

My kids spent the weekend at my parents’ place in Prattville—just outside Montgomery—in late June last year. When my wife and I met the kids and my parents to bring our crew home to our Birmingham suburb, he was in a sort of strange mood. I thought maybe one of my kids had said or done something and it’s possible they had, but I knew he was bothered by something and he knew I knew and so I did my best to step back and avoid unnecessarily pushing any buttons. There was a repeat episode a few weeks later when he took me and my boys to a deer-hunting expo but he rushed himself and my brother back out of town before lunch. No one was expecting a white-table-cloth bistro—barbecue would have been fine—but skipping lunch altogether was weird.

He finally scheduled an appointment with a doctor, and on a preview visit a few days before the appointment, his nurses noticed something and his doctor ordered him admitted.

A week later he was out of the hospital with a cancer diagnosis. Two chemotherapy treatments were all he managed before he took a turn from which he never recovered.

He died on a bright, mild November day surrounded by my mother and siblings while the grandchildren played blissfully in the front yard. I don’t remember exactly what I felt in that moment but it lasted forever, and in replaying it I like to think it may have been something like the sound of voices rising in song, the sort of thing that Wendell Berry imagined Jayber Crow hearing when he sat on a bench in the old church once occupied by his dead forebears.

Practically everything I love is something I picked up from my father. My tendency was to take what he gave and amplify it to a much greater degree.

He liked jazz, mostly easily approachable artists like Harry Connick Jr. I came home with a stack of Charlie Parker recordings and the entirety of the Gershwin songbook.

He had a collection of Harvard Classics on the shelf. I devoured Aristotle and Luther, Burke and Madison, and it has shaped every part of my life and career.

He dressed well—most of the time—and taught me to do likewise, but where he was largely satisfied with a department store, I’ve spent nearly a decade scouring the internet and thrift stores for vintage Harris Tweed and Brooks Brothers oxford.

He loved Italian food, and was willing to push some culinary boundaries, but my risotto milanese was too much.

Just about every avenue I pursued in life originated from under his wing. I probably overplayed my hand from time to time, and maybe he could have walked further down some rabbit holes with me. We were both imperfect in that regard, but without him, I wouldn’t have found most of the things that have brought me such profound joy in life.

In the end, maybe our imperfections are the most lasting gifts we leave behind for those who love us.

Not long after Dad’s diagnosis, David Berman died. Berman was the driving creative force behind the band Silver Jews. Silver Jews were, along with Berman’s friends in Pavement, the epitome of 1990s, lo-fi indie rock. For those of us who knew, he was perhaps the best songwriter of his time and place. Berman’s music was replete with the theme of loss; how we grieve and make sense of our memories. It was music that would have grated on my father’s nerves, and lyrics he would have found nonsensical, but it was on my stereo every afternoon as we exchanged texts while he sat in his hospital bed and I waited to pick my kids up from school.

One of Berman’s most poignant lines has been in my head for months.

“Half hours on Earth, what are they worth?”

What was the value of a phone call, or a quick ride with him into town, to pick up God-knows-what from Wal-Mart while we talked and grabbed cheap Mexican food for lunch?

When I was a boy, we lived for several years in north Alabama along the many branches of the Tennessee River, in an area powered by the Tennessee Valley Authority and its mighty dams. There was water everywhere—and catfish. Practically every grown man I knew liked to fish. I joined him a few times but I usually missed out on it, at first because I was too young but later because I was indifferent. Then he moved on to something else—deer hunting, mostly—and I managed to join often enough to feel like we built something meaningful on cold afternoons among the dark pines of Mississippi and Alabama. Where I supposed we connected most was in running errands and driving around town and grabbing lunch, talking about everything and nothing, as I tried to flex my own intellectual muscles when I probably should have been asking more questions about his summers in New Orleans as a boy and watching Alabama football in the early ’70s, back when the team still played in Birmingham.

What did that New Orleans accent sound like? Who made the best French bread? What was it like to see Coach Bryant walk out of the tunnel and lumber under the goal post during warmups? What was it like in those downtown department stores, the windows frosted at Christmastime and Mitch Miller blaring on the loudspeakers?

These are the things I would like to know—and maybe I once did but now I can’t fully remember.

He was a repository of memory. Almost everything I know about Birmingham I know from him—he moved here after the marches but knew the city before it was gentrified into the New South, when half the men in town were union employees at the steel mills and furnaces, when the restaurants were almost entirely run by Greeks and Italians, long before anyone knew or cared about a James Beard Award. I still have an endless stream of questions about all sorts of things, but the answers cannot come from him. I am still, as Camus said, “losing the faint hues of life that memory may give”

Tomorrow I’m going fishing in a crappie lake—the sort of fishing he once did.

When I walk out on the pier, I’ll take with me his rods and reels, and hopefully teach my boys and my little girl how to cast and when to reel in the line and maybe we’ll catch a small crappie, and we’ll notch one more memory that lasts longer than the fading sunset of June.

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Alabama Daily News, the University Bookman, and the Gospel Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @yellingstopal.