When my brother died, my grief was volcanic. Returning from his memorial in Indiana, I found myself enraged at the world going about its business as if nothing had happened. People seemed unaware that the very rules of existence had changed. My brother was dead, dammit! For at least a year I regularly experienced what I called emotional landmines; I’d be chugging along reasonably well, functioning with something resembling equanimity when BOOM! Something would remind me of James, and his death. I was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a mess.
So far, my grief at the death of my father has been much quieter. I suppose this makes sense. He died at age eighty-two, after a rich and fulfilling life. He’d had satisfying work, a loving family, great friendships, many adventures and achievements. He’d also had at least four years of declining health that weighed heavily on him, and wasn't any fun to watch. He lost the ability to walk, to read, to write, even, I fear, to enjoy food. So much of what made him, him was slowly stripped away. He’d been ready to die for a while. Maybe my worst grief occurred in his final years, as he faded away.
But while I haven’t (yet) experienced any emotional landmines, this is not to say Dad hasn’t popped up now and then. Most of the visits have been triggered by music. I hear "The Hucklebuck," and suddenly Dad’s voice is singing the lyrics (I remember them effortlessly), while he shows me how to Charleston and do that move where you appear to switch your kneecaps. I hear a nineties pop anthem to girl power, and I remember a story Mary told me. Dad was visiting a married couple with a young daughter. As was his habit with kids, Dad wanted to include her in the conversation, so, he asked her what kind of music she liked. Immediately she launched into a passionate speech praising the Spice Girls.
“Paul doesn’t want to hear about the Spice Girls!” her (perhaps projecting) parents said.
Without missing a beat, Dad said, “I’ll tell you want I want, what I really, really want!”
I bet he made sure the young lady said her piece. I bet he had follow-up questions. He might even have sung with her.
The strongest memory, though, was a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across Stevie Wonder singing "Sir Duke." This song has made me think of my dad since the first hearing. It was in regular rotation on the radio when I was ten, and we were living in London for Dad’s sabbatical. On our spring break, we rented a car and drove through the Scottish Highlands, usually with the radio playing top forty. "Sir Duke" quickly became a family favorite. Every time it came on, we cheered, no one louder than Dad. We’d sing along vigorously, Dad always kicking things off with the joyous ‘OW’ at the beginning. To this day that song puts me in the back seat of a rental car, blue-grey mountains, silver lochs, and
God’s own plenty of sheep streaming by the windows, Dad wearing white driving gloves due to a case of sun poisoning on his hands, bouncing in his seat, yelping ‘OW' along with Stevie. That song is one bright thread in a wonderful week.
While I hadn’t predicted it, it’s not that surprising that songs are triggering visits from Dad. He and Mom naturally formed the first and deepest roots of my musical tastes, introducing me to the Beatles, Bach, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, Duke Ellington, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, the Chieftains, Handel, and Bartok, just to name a few. Dad taught us Sibelius’ "Karelia Suite" is best played loud, he sang about a girl in Kalamazoo ('K.A.L.A.M.A.Z.O.ooh what a gal/a real pipparoo'), he and Mom taught us rounds and folk songs that shortened many a car trip. We learned to love a wide range of musical genres, never allowing snobbery to dampen our joy in a song, whether silly or grand. And it wasn't just music; they did the same thing for us with books, film, food and art.
It's reasonable to say that Dad was a great man in the way the world measures these things. It’s good and right that people are celebrating those aspects of him right now. I’m proud of the things he accomplished, and the causes he supported. But there's a comforting intimacy in the fact that so far, his surprise visits have all reminded me of his goofiness, his exuberance, his unabashed joy.
There’s another song tied to that Scotland trip, and Dad: Bernard Cribbins’ "Right Said Fred." I don’t know if the song ever made it to this side of the pond. It’s more of a novelty song like "The Hucklebuck," or "Kalamazoo," not a work of genius like "Sir Duke." It's from the nineteen sixties too, so its connection to that week in Scotland is a complete fluke, triggered perhaps by some DJ's nostalgia. I hear it play, mountains, lochs and sheep streaming by, and I delight in Dad’s roar of laughter at the surprising turn taken in the closing line. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth a listen.