Saturday, June 17, 2006
Dad, Clay, and...Krispy Kremes
My dad always said he wanted me to be a writer. And as I approach my second Father's Day without him, I'm thinking that maybe he wouldn't mind if I used this medium to tell you just a bit about him. His curiosity, openness, energy, and love of new adventures made him pretty unique among all the fathers I knew. I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that everybody he met fell under his spell.
When I first brought up my experiences with the Clay fandom with him, he was fascinated and characterically wanted to know all about it. He reminded me that my mom had been a bobby-soxer, screaming over Sinatra. And he asked me, in usual teacher-like fashion, how I thought this was different. Well, considering she was in her teens at the time and I'm nearly 50, plus there was no internet then, yes -- I'd say it's about as different as it can be!
I should say here that my dad was a huge music lover -- he had a massive and eclectic CD collection. I made him a Clay mix CD, which he listened to with a discerning ear and enjoyed -- he thought Clay had a great and unique voice. (No surprise, he was my jazz trio's biggest supporter. It's been hard to look out into the audience during a performance, knowing I'll never again see him sitting out there with that big grin on his face.)
As a retired teacher, he was particularly intrigued by Clay’s work with kids, concerns about inclusion, and ideas about the mainstreaming of people with disabilities. I gave him some of Clay’s relevant interviews to read, and my dad came away very impressed. I noticed shortly after that he had added the BAF to his list of annual charities. Then I took him and my non-Clay fan sister to a preconcert dinner (Fort Wayne, NAT) where he had a great time and met some “terrific and fun people” (his words) who were kind enough to keep him entertained while I was off singing for Jerome. He wasn't up to attending the concert, but my sister went and enjoyed it. I’ve told this story before, but on his way out of town the next day, he slipped his dinner nametag (with Clay’s picture on it) to a starstruck clerk at a gas station, telling her, with a wink, that he was a member of “Clay’s secret exclusive fan club.” BWAH!
A few months after that, shortly before he succumbed to the leukemia he had been valiantly battling for over five years, he commented to me that this had been “the best year of his life.” I was astonished -- he had gone through chemo, radiation, and every bizarre and painful infection imaginable. How could he possibly feel that way? “I appreciate everything and everyone so much more,” he said, adding that he had even started looking forward to chemo. I must have looked skeptical. “The hospital just put in an espresso bar,” he informed me with a twinkle in his eye.
My dad was a great favorite with the nurses -- he was an excellent artist, and to amuse them he would draw caricatures of himself on the announcement board in his room. And debonair to the last, he never checked into the hospital (and he was there often that last year) without bringing along his beloved bottle of Aramis. Towards the end, he agreed to let the doctors try a radical and very extreme form of chemo. Did he or they think it would save him? “No,” he said, “but someone might learn something.” Once a teacher, always a teacher...
He was very ill in the hospital by the time Clay arrived in Chicago for his booksigning. I had decided not to go -- as much because of his condition as by the daunting challenge of camping out downtown in subzero temperatures -- but he asked, “Have you ever done anything like that before?” When I admitted I hadn’t, he insisted, “Then you'd better do it. Otherwise you’ll always wonder.”
That was the last time we talked -- he died three days later, right before Christmas. That same day, each of his children found a twenty-dollar bill -- mine was fluttering on the snowy sidewalk in front of me, my brother's was crumpled in an old coat pocket, my sister's was in her phone bill, an unexplained refund. We're all convinced he sent them.
His memorial service was unlike any I had ever attended -- my trio sang an Inkspots song, and so many people spoke; there was a lot of laughter. One youngish guy came up and introduced himself as someone who had met my father in the produce section at the grocery store a few months back -- they had gotten into a conversation about the cavalry bars my dad always wore on his hat, and had swapped army stories. None of us knew this guy -- he must've read the obituary in the newspaper -- but clearly he thought enough of my dad not only to be there but to get up in front of a roomful of strangers and talk about him. See what I mean about people falling under his spell?
Last year on Father's Day, my sister, brother, his wife and I got up at the crack of dawn, and after a stop at Krispy Kreme (my dad’s favorite guilty pleasure) drove to a spot in the forest preserve on the banks of the Des Plaines River to scatter his ashes. We were familiar with this spot because it was the same place my dad had come alone, early one morning six years earlier, to perform a similar duty for our mom.
The air was heavy and humid, there was no wind at all, and the river was like glass. We waded in (thank goodness for Crocs!), keeping out a watchful eye for the forest ranger, opened the Krispy Kreme box, and launched a few donuts on the water. Then, after a humorous speech by my brother on TV dads in history (trust me, my dad would’ve loved it), we each reached into the container. As we tossed handfuls into the river, the ashes (which were lighter and much more powdery than I was expecting) hit the water and then rose from the surface like a fine mist, and just floated there, suspended. It was really stunning -- the four of us just stood ankle-deep in the water, awestruck, and the cloud didn't move -- just hung in the air, seemingly waiting.
We backed away, watching, got into our cars and...as we drove away, it was still there. Maybe it still is.
One last thing...
During his teaching career, my dad had made it his special mission to encourage the “C” students in his charge. He always maintained that there were some kids who were “late bloomers” and just needed somebody to engage them and get them interested in learning. Remembering that, my siblings and I started a scholarship fund in his name. The school thought we were crazy when we asked them, a year ago, to award it to a student who had applied but wasn’t eligible for any other awards. That student is now in college, making straight As.
I think my dad would’ve liked that.
Posted by Pink Armchair at 11:45 AM