|[||feelin' a little...
“Here,” I said.
I held up the DVD case I’d plucked from the shelf. I can’t remember what I’d picked out, but it was something respected, no doubt. Highly reviewed, well-known actors, an action movie or highbrow comedy. Intolerable Cruelty, or Master & Commander, or The Italian Job, maybe.
He nodded, indifferent to my picks as usual, and instead held up the movie he’d chosen himself.
“No,” I said. “Dad, we’re not watching Snow Dogs.”
“Why? What’s wrong with this?” he asked.
“Because it’s dumb.” I walked on, surveying the shelves for a replacement.
My parents rented a lot of movies. In college, when I came home for the weekend, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Friday night. Dinner out somewhere local, often the Pasquales in Morehead. Sometimes a visit to the grocery, where Dad would toss in packages of cookies or sweet cinnamon raised bread in the cart when Mom wasn’t looking. And usually a trip to Movie Warehouse, where Mom and Dad would shuffle past the shelves at a snail’s pace and argue over whether they’d already rented a particular film:
Mom, holding up DVD case: “This one looks good.”
Dad: “We’ve already seen it.”
Mom: “I don’t remember watching this.”
Dad: “Because you fell asleep halfway through it.”
On this particular trip, it was just Dad and me. I’d gone along with him as a chaperone of sorts, with instructions from Mom to not let him come home with anything stupid.
But Dad couldn’t be swayed from his original choice, despite my best arguments. After another 20 minutes or so of searching, we’d come to a stalemate. I could rent my critically acclaimed action or comedy, but he wanted to watch Cuba Gooding, Jr. race some white Siberian huskies.
At the checkout counter, we slid the movies over to the clerk as Dad pulled out his rental card. The clerk checked the case spines and read each aloud as I cringed with embarrassment.
“That’ll be [Intolerable Cruelty] and Snow Dogs for six-thirty-six,” he said.
Dad handed him the rental card and stuck out his left thumb, pointing at me. “Yeah, I know,” he said to the clerk, shaking his head in a you-know-how-ridiculous-kids-are manner. “She really wanted to rent Snow Dogs.”
Dad was funny. I’ve met fathers who are stern and humorless, and others who are overgrown goofballs eager for a cheap laugh. Dad fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. He enjoyed getting a rise out of people and making a snide or clever remark, but he didn’t resort to showiness or vulgarity. Usually.
A friend from high school sent me a sympathy card the week after he passed, with a note inside: “Some of the funniest stories I know involve your dad.” But she wasn’t the only one. Whereas many of my friends were scared of Mom, they all liked Dad and his easygoing manner: Allison’s mother was the no-nonsense teacher who could bust your ass in school if you crossed her the wrong way. Allison’s father was the guy who tried to chase a snake off the driveway with a broom and accidentally glued the lamp to the table when he repaired it.
Dad’s contemporaries liked to tell me their own stories. My freshman science teacher – nicknamed “Muff” – knew my father back in the day, and he let me in on all sorts of sordid tales. Like the time Dad and his buddies attempted to steal the old cannon on display in front of the Owingsville Court House to take it back to Salt Lick (apparently, hauling a loose cannon behind a van presents some logistical problems). The story ended with the cannon rolling down the street by itself and my father and his cronies driving their van in a field to escape the cops.
Once, they took an unexpected road trip. “I was playing basketball at the school one night and your dad drove up and said, ‘Hey, want to go for a drive?’” Muff told me once. “And the next thing I knew, we were in South Carolina, out of gas and out of money. He had to call Hazel to send us cash to get home.”
While he wasn’t quite the same unpredictable wild-n-crazy guy after my sister and I were born, he still kept that mischievous edge. My stories aren’t sordid, but I have my own veritable treasure chest of memories stocked away.
Like the way he handled – or mishandled – fast-food drive-thrus. He couldn’t consolidate multiple requests from the rest of us in the car. He’d bark out orders in random fashion to the hapless cashier on the other end of the speaker, while my sister and I shouted corrections at him from the back seat:
“Give me a double cheeseburger, large fries, an order of small fries, a medium diet coke, wait, make that double cheeseburger a quarter-pounder instead… I need another diet coke, two regular cheeseburgers, another large fry… make that a medium fry instead…” and so forth. On at least on occasion, Dad halted mid-order and turned around to tell the two of us to shut the hell up.
Or his cooking fiascos. Dad cooked very well, but occasionally he’d throw us for a loop. He once cooked grilled chicken sandwiches for dinner, and after we’d finished eating, casually mentioned that it was a shame that the cat had jumped on the counter during the day and eaten a good chunk out of the thawing chicken breasts. “I figured cooking it would kill any germs she left behind,” he added.
He often made chili during the colder months. In recent times I remember it being tasty, but I also recall a particularly vile concoction from my elementary years, one that earned a handwritten label on the container (courtesy of Mom) that said, “BYRD’S BARFY BEANY MESS.” And during a family reunion several years ago, he decided he’d deep-fry an entire turkey for the gathering – while outside, in the 90-degree heat, while 30 hungry people watched and waited. That didn’t go down so well, either.
He could be mouthy, particularly around Mom’s family, and liked to occasionally make a scene. During a family visit to my grandparents’ home in Florida in 2004, where, after a discussion with our rather large group of conservative relatives, Dad pleaded the case for John Kerry and then raised his arms up and shouted, “VOTE DEMOCRAT!” as we walked out the door. He cackled about his grand exit all the way down the elevator and out into the car.
He was stereotypically mystified by computers. I would get periodic calls from Dad about some strange message that popped up on his screen:
“It says something about McAfee virus something-or-other needing updated and says ‘Download update, yes or no.’ What does that mean?” (“It means you need to update the software, click ‘yes.’”)
“I went to my Yahoo mail and it looks different. There used to be a big banner at the top and it’s gone. Why does it look different?” (“Because they just redesigned the page, calm down.”)
He referred to sending things through e-mail as ‘putting them on the internet, as in, “You need to put your birthday list on the internet so I can see it,” or “I want that recipe for the mashed potatoes you made, can you put it on the internet?”
And possibly my favorite comment of all time: “So Phil sent me this e-mail about some virus going around that destroys your C drive. And hell, I don’t know what a C drive is, but I thought that sounded pretty bad.” I laughed until I cried.
A PENNY SAVED.
I can’t say that I save that much, but from time to time I’ll find myself attached to something unnecessary and/or useless for absolutely no reason, and I know I get that from him. I keep shoeboxes, plastic cutlery I’ve accumulated from Wendy’s, Splenda packets from Starbucks, pillows well past their softness, wires and cables from appliances that have long gone obsolete. Things that aren’t really going to negatively affect my life that much by not being around.
Dad refused to throw out anything that could ostensibly be useful at any point in the distant future. Hotel soaps? He had an entire basket overflowing with toiletries taken from hotels across the country. Hankerchiefs? Many were worn with thin spots or holes and others had disgusting, questionable stains. Furniture? He would hide old pieces in the barn, away from my mother’s eyes. There’s a 20-feet-long white church pew in the basement that’s been there as long as I remember, because Dad got it from a church that was being destroyed and was convinced that one day, there would be a use for it around the house.
He often justified his stash with the What If? thought process – sure, it may seem like junk now, but what if I need it in five, 10, 20 years? Better keep it around so I don’t have to buy a new one.
Dad was also obsessed with saving money. Like Scrooge McDuck, he hoarded his nest egg and wanted to hoard mine for me, too. If I received a check from my grandparents or a stock dividend, he would eyeball the slip of paper and say, “Want me to put that in the bank for you?” as if he didn’t trust I’d do it myself. He liked to show me the Excel spreadsheet he’d created to track his various bank accounts (that is, when the spreadsheet was functioning – occasionally he would type a formula wrong and then be confused/angered by the “circular reference” error message that popped up).
He used to collect change in an old mason jar – just leftovers from his pocket at the end of the work day – and when it was full, he’d have me count out the quarters, dimes, and nickels and stuff them into bank rolls. It was frequently more than $200, and he would make comments like, “See? A little bit at a time does add up.”
He attempted to teach me the value of collecting and investing small amounts of money with his foray into recycling cans. See, we drank a lot of soda growing up. My mom preferred Diet Coke, Dad preferred Diet Pepsi, Leslie preferred regular Pepsi, and I would drink whatever I could talk Mom into buying. At some point during my middle school years, Dad discovered that people would actually pay you to bring in your empty soda cans. Bingo! His newest form of income was born.
I remember him taking me out into the garage the first time and showing me a massive trash bag of empty cans. He wanted to really pack the cans in tightly, so he could maximize the space vs. weight, so the cans needed to be crushed. And he was particular about the way they had to be crushed – not in the middle, the way people in movies crush cans in their hands when they’re pissed about something – he wanted it smashed from the top down, so that all that was left was a small circle, like a coaster. This required me to set the can up on the garage floor and stomp them with my shoes one by one. I used to line them up in rows and then go to town, stomping down the line of cans like a little pre-teen Godzilla.
Because of all the effort on my part, he promised me that I could have the money earned from the recycled cans. For six months, I went out on a biweekly basis and spent an hour or so stomping the shit out of those cans, dreaming of my forthcoming payday – would I buy a new CD, or a Sega video game, or a new paperback at the Book Haven in the mini mall?
The day he came home from the recycling plant, Dad was eager to show me what I’d earned. “I have your money from the cans!”
I ran into the kitchen, grabbing it from his hands. “How much?”
How much does six months’ worth of can-stomping get you? At that time, about $10.61. Even at that age, I knew it was bullshit. So much for my lofty dreams.
Dad, however, wasn’t fazed by my clear disappointment. I remember this vividly. “You could get a savings bond with that!” he exclaimed. “And in seven years, it’ll be worth twenty dollars!”
When I was little, I learned to swim from my parents, who had two very different methods of teaching me to navigate the water. I remember Mom, who gave some swimming lessons to kids around the area, teaching me proper freestyle technique – one arm over the area, turn the head to breath. And I remember Dad simply picking me up and chucking me into the deep end and telling me to swim back to him. Trial by fire.
Mom taught me most life lessons – in the proper way – but I learned a thing or two from Dad. Like simple carpentry, how to put something together with a hammer & nail. We built two shelves together when I was in college. One, a tall, thin creation with shelves only at the very top, created to fit over the mini-fridge and 20-inch TV I had in my dorm room. I painted it royal blue with white UK block letters on the side. We stacked our electronics on it – VCR, DVD player, stereo. When I moved into an apartment and gained more room and an actual entertainment center, it became the shelf that fit over the toilet and I piled it up with towels. I eventually threw it away, heaving it into the dumpster outside the complex one summer evening after I’d gotten a replacement shelf. The next day, I saw it on my neighbor’s porch, so I guess it lives on elsewhere in another UK fan’s bathroom.
The other shelf was made for books. He helped me cut the side boards in a round half-circle at the top and sand them down. I stained it, per his instructions, but never got around to glossing it, per my laziness. It’s in my bedroom now, next to the window, piled edge to edge with paperbacks and a single copy of his own vinyl record.
He liked to pretend he knew everything, even when it was regarding something obscure or absurd. Like if I asked why recycled paper has a brownish tint to it, or why lightning strikes tall objects, or why the chlorine in the pool turned my hair green. If he didn’t know, he would make up a half-assed answer and attempt to present it as fact, prompting Mom to say more than once, “Byrd, if you don’t know the answer, then just say so!”
But Dad explained a lot of legitimate things to me over the years, stuff that comes in handy from time to time. Things like how to file deductions for tax returns, the difference between an IRA and a 401(K), the best way to cook country ribs. Sometimes when it was just the two of us hanging out, we’d sit in comfortable silence, and other times I’d prompt him with a question, just to be able to sit and listen to him talk. He liked to teach, and I liked to learn.
ONCE A KID, ALWAYS A KID.
I didn’t really start hugging my parents until college. I guess most teenagers go through that phase, the era of avoiding parental conversation and touch at all costs. Attempting to cut the cord, so to speak.
I remember the first real hug I gave him as an adult. It was the day my parents dropped me off at college. We were at orientation and seated, antsy freshmen and several nervous parents, all together in a lecture hall. After some introductions and the like, the person running the orientation announced that it was time for all parents to head on out and let the little ones fly free. Slowly, the Moms and Dads in the audience got up and shuffled out. Terrified of being left alone to fend for myself on a campus of 27,000, I cried, hugging Mom and latching on to Dad’s waist as he scooted past my chair.
When they were gone, my roommate (the first of many), gave me a sympathetic look and said, “Don’t feel bad. I cried when my parents left, too.” Side note: She only made it two months before leaving UK and transferring back to a college in her hometown.
With that, I entered a new phase: the appreciation of my parents. I gave Dad a big hug every time we parted company. He was surprised at my newfound affection at first. But I think he liked it. Leaving my parents’ house after a visit was always a 30-minute process. I’d collect my stuff, say goodbye, and Dad would remember something he needed to show me on the computer. So I’d look, say goodbye again, and he’d ask if perhaps I’d want to pack up and take some of the steaks or pork tenderloins he’d just purchased on sale from Kroger. We’d wrap up some cuts, load the car, say goodbye again, and then he would talk for another 15 minutes about something that just occurred to him – vacation plans, or a question about work, or when he might come up to Lexington to return a shirt to Kohl’s. We’d say goodbye again, and I’d finally drive off, waving at my parents as they stood together in the driveway.
IT’S ALWAYS TOO SOON.
My father died on Good Friday, April 22, 2011. Mid to late evening, around the time I was at Dick’s Sporting Goods shopping for my sister’s birthday present. He and my mother went to the basement that evening to seek shelter from possible tornados. My mother ran upstairs to get her phone and shepherd the dog into the basement; when she walked back down, Dad was gone. It happened that quickly. He was 65 years old.
I knew his time was coming, but I’d only seen it off in the far distance. I’d had thoughts here and there over the past few years; random bits of information including the age of dad’s own father when he died (45) and the age and health of his brother Tommy when he passed unexpectedly (67, and seemingly fine). Perry males, it seemed, were doomed to exit early.
I knew Dad was skirting the edges. But he was active, fairly health-conscious, and alert. He never struck me as someone who was ill or had any particular health problems to worry about. To my biased eyes, he seemed every bit the strong, hardworking father I’d known my entire life. He didn’t take sick days. He worked the farm, worked for a variety of committees, and worked out at the gym. He was unstoppable.
I didn’t think his death would come this soon. I thought I would be older, wiser, more prepared. Well into my thirties, at least. Married. Adult. But I’m none of these, and I’m realizing that it wouldn’t matter if it had happened later. It would still hurt this much. I received a sympathy card in the mail from one of my bosses that summed it up perfectly: “It’s always too soon…”
When Lauren died, I thought that nothing could be worse than losing one of your best friends; I thought that nothing in the world could hurt as much as watching her be buried in the ground under those inches of freshly falling snow.
But I was wrong. Losing him hurts, deeply. It’s a physical pain, a feeling of hard emptiness in the chest, like having the wind knocked out of you over and over again throughout the day. Some days I feel almost normal. And some days it takes every last ounce of energy to put on a smile and go about my normal business. I follow the routine to and from work, I answer questions when I’m asked, I lead my classes in their workout. But the whole time, I’m thinking, He’s gone, and he’s not coming back.
GONE. NOT FORGOTTEN.
There are things I have to come to terms with. He won’t be there to celebrate my 30th birthday. He’ll never see me teach. He’ll never see me publish a book. He’ll never show me how to do little tasks around the house again, like sharpening the mower blades or changing out an outlet or checking the dipstick. He won’t take me to another UK basketball game, or call me up on his way to Lexington for shopping and lunch. And he won’t be there to walk me down the aisle when I get married.
But – at least I had him for 29 years. He was there to watch me perform at every gymnastics meet and every cheerleading competition. He helped me get my first jobs in college. He spoiled me, my sister, and my mother on Christmas and every birthday. He took pictures of me at prom, and he got to see me graduate from high school as a valedictorian and from college summa cum laude. He saw me through the process of buying my first house; and spent countless hours with my accountant fighting the IRS so I could rightfully receive my $8,000 homebuyer’s tax credit.
And in some ways, he’s still here. The other day, I was chopping vegetables for supper and telling Jimmy a story about work. And at the end, I sighed, tossing the veggies into the pan.
And Jimmy said, “You know, you sounded just like your dad just then. That little sigh? He used to do that same thing.”
While I have many of my mother’s characteristics, people have always told me that I’m more like my Dad. And now, I’ve never been prouder to hear it.