by Alisa Richie Childress
My dad was terrified for months before turning seventy years old. His birthday is in mid-October, amidst back to school and Halloween and just before the other, bigger holidays. Because of this, I was never consistent about celebrating him. Some years, I would fix dinner for him and my stepmom. Some years, I would buy him something that he probably did not really want anyway. Many years, it was simply a phone call after I got off work.
He wanted to ignore this birthday; to let it slip by unnoticed and unmarked. He said that this milestone bothered him so much because of a poor family history with this age. His sister did not make it to seventy, dying of ALS just months before the landmark day. His mother died at 74 from a brain tumor. His father died at 72 after suffering a stroke many years prior. My dad was healthy and knew that this was an unrealistic fear, but this knowledge did not help him to worry less.
However, any number ending in a zero is cause for celebration; and even more so, because it worried him so. I wanted to give him a present that would be special to mark this monumental occasion, and that would make him feel better about turning seventy. I even joked that, if it made him feel better, we would just call it sixty-ten.
I wanted his gift to be something that he could not buy for himself—a part of me. He was an accomplished artist, with an appreciation of all things creative, so I decided on a drawing. I was starting to explore art later in life and was new to sketching. I knew that I could not tackle his portrait, as much as I wanted to. He was drawing portraits as an adolescent, but at age 45, I was just learning simple shapes. I landed on a guitar because this was something easy, that I thought I could manage.
I began to carefully sketch his present. Whenever I worked on a painting or drawing, he was the first person I would show. I was always very excited to text him pictures of whatever project I was working on and get his advice. But since the was a present for him, I texted pictures of it to an artist friend who is a string musician and asked for her feedback. She very patiently encouraged me and offered suggestions of things that I needed to change. She told me that the head stock needed to be a little longer. I did not know what a head stock was. I learned about the guitar from her as I sketched. After several days, I declared it complete and carefully selected a mat and frame that I thought he would like and that complimented the work.
Of course, I did not select a guitar simply because it was easy. He is not just a visual artist, but also a talented musician. He began playing the guitar when I was a toddler. When I was three years old, he would sit with me on the sofa. He would play and I would sing. We would not sing things such as You are My Sunshine or Itsy Bitsy Spider. Instead, he taught me folk and country.
While most preschoolers were singing their ABC’s, I had memorized the first verse of Subterranean Homesick Blues; singing it as fast as Dylan while accompanied by favorite musician, my daddy. He also taught me much of Kenny Rogers’ catalogue. I knew the chorus of the Gambler and all of Lucille and Coward of the Country. I wish I had actual memories of this, but I was too young. I only know this from stories my dad shared with me so many times that they became part of me and my memory. Even though I have never found pictures to document this, I can see my young, pigtailed, bell bottomed, self. Crooning about Lucille picking a fine time to leave me with four hungry children and crops in the field.
Even though he was a serial hobbyist, shifting from guitar to bonsai trees to painting; finally having time for all three in his brief retirement; music was always a connection between us. I spent every Sunday riding in his van through Louisville, listening to Steely Dan, James Taylor, the Eagles, Eric Clapton. We would talk about anything and everything.
I would ask him questions about life that I could never ask anyone else. And tell him things that I was afraid to express to anyone. As an agnostic teenager in parochial school, many of our conversations focused on god. As I started to question, my catholic upbringing, he was the only person I could talk to. These talks often happened while driving through Cherokee Park, to a soundtrack of what people now refer to as yacht rock.
We did not always talk about such deep topics as the life, death and creation. We also discussed seemingly innocuous, lighter topics, often the lyrics we were listening to. We talked about James Taylor’s time in a mental institution, and my dad would tell me stories about his own time there. He taught me what Taylor meant by “Flying Machines in pieces on the ground”. Most people think that this is about an airplane crash that occurred when he was writing it. Actually, Taylor had a band called James Taylor and the Flying Machines that failed just before his hospitalization. We would discuss Clapton’s unimaginable grief when writing Tears in Heaven and that he wrote Layla about his friend, George Harrison’s wife.
His favorite philosopher was Jimmy Buffett. I was not a Jimmy Buffett fan as a teen, but my dad, would educate me in his music anyway, pointing out his favorite lyrics. He appreciated the lyrical stylings of Jimmy, using his first name, as though they were friends. He especially identified with “Pirate Looks at Forty”. He told me that, like Jimmy, he felt like he was born at the wrong time. He thought he should have lived in the old west. He loved cowboys and horses. He had seen every John Wayne movie and could recite True Grit along with the actors.
A particular evening from my adolescence sticks in my head. My dad was driving me home from our regular Sunday dinner at my nan’s house. We always took the long way because he did not want to take me home, ending our time together for another week. We were listening to “He Went to Paris” about an old man who lost his family in a war. A line stuck in my head, appealing to my sense of retrospection. I identified with the old man looking back at his life. Aa a preteen, I was often doing this, but since I was limited to twelve or so brief years, I would look back at my life from what I imagined my future to be. I understood how five or six years could slip away, but twenty? How could twenty years go by unnoticed? I remarked on this to my dad. He said that he easily understood it and told me that I would as well one day.
With all this history in mind, I presented this sketch, in its mat and frame to dad for his birthday. He was proud. He examined it and commented on the shape and the sketching. He told me that he had the perfect place to hang it. His walls were full of his art, but he had found an empty space for this. He called me a few days later to tell me that he could not hang it. It was not signed, and all good art needed to be signed. He said he would give me a few days to play around and decide what I wanted my signature to be. This needed to be done carefully as he predicted that I would need it for many projects to come.
Tragically, my dad was right about his fate. This picture would be the last birthday present I gave to him. A few days after his 70th birthday, he went to an urgent care clinic for heartburn. A month later, just before Thanksgiving, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He wanted to tell me in person, but as I was always too busy this time of year, he told me over the phone. He later said that this conversation was the most difficult thing he ever did.
I attended his cardiologist appointments; my dad, my stepmom and me. His cardiologist told us it was Stage 4, but promised two to three years, with treatment. My dad told me that this was good enough. It was long enough to see my son graduate high school. It was long enough to paint a few more paintings, learn a few more songs. As is the way in our family, this did not happen. He passed away six months later, in late May. That picture is still hanging in, what is now, just my stepmother’s living room. Where he hung it’ over the chair he always sat in to play guitar.
As I gathered photos for his memorial, I realized that the playlist for his visitation was more important to me than the photo montage. I spent several hours gathering and scanning old photos. But I spent the bulk of the weekend carefully curating a playlist of Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and many of his favorite guitarists. While I thought this was my way of honoring his memory, now I know that it was actually a gift to me. Whenever I want to feel his presence, I can listen to it and picture myself riding in his van through Cherokee Park or sitting in his living room while he strummed out songs on his guitar.
Alisa Richie Childress works as a social services case manager for persons with developmental disabilities. She lives in Louisville, KY. with her husband, newly adult son (at least until he leaves for college in a few months), and a menagerie of pets and board games.