Dad was nestled in the corner of the soft white couch in the soft white room filled with wicker and bamboo furniture and heavy glass tables, framed pictures of shells and mermaids in light pastels hung sparingly on the walls, white and stretching to the sky, white fans in the center of each room, the wall of glass open to the dark sky with the sea just a few steps away.
He was resting his aching legs on that glass table, too tired to eat, too tired to do much of anything but he wanted to be surrounded by us and had stayed up late to enjoy the chaotic play of the grandchildren. Huck would sneak up to him and a string of babbling nonsense would play off his lips and Dad’s eyes would dance with joy. “Pop” we thought we heard him say. We hoped.
Someone began to create a playlist. The “Deep Creek Mix”, a callback to the cabin in the woods from long, long ago with the stone fireplace and the maple leaf trail walks, the forests and the lake: our childhood. We all began to call out songs:
“Song Sung Blue”
Dad would nod, “Both” he’d say. Then he’d raise his pointer finger to the ceiling. “Anne Murray,” he’d say and we’d add “Snowbird” to the list and play it. All of us, arms around each other, singing along to these songs, knowing only a quarter of the words to some, and then surprising ourselves with how many of the words to others we knew.
“Ring Of Fire”. “Precious Lord” sung by Elvis. “We Didn’t See A Thing” by Ray Charles from that album of country duets (“Hey Ray, by the way, do have that hundred bucks you owe me?” and Dad would perk up saying that phrase with a smirk, pointing his finger at me to join in, erupting into an eye-glistening howl of joy).
Take It Easy by the Eagles. Most of the words.
The Devil Went Down To Georgia. All the words. At least, Adam and Matt.
The Gambler, Kenny Rogers. Dad knew all of them. I told them of the time last year I paid $2 to go to The Five Spot at 6pm to hear the writer of that song, Don Schlitz, sit on a stool and sing his songbook and when he got to The Gambler, every body in that bar sang along. I wished my Dad could have been there.
And then we chose a few that we just needed to hear. “Lovely” sung by Frank Sinatra (the real title is “Just The Way You Look Tonight” and “Just” may or may not be part of the title, but it certainly isn’t “Lovely” because it took us a while to find that song on Spotify. Regardless, it’s “Lovely” to us and we found it). Lee and Dad danced to this at her wedding over 20 years ago. He got up from the couch, Lee held out her hand to steady him and we cleared some space and watched them dance, cheek to cheek as they did so long ago. He’d twirl her around and I’d catch a glimpse of the tears running down her face while she held a smile as if it was her duty to all of us to hold joy above the grief.
Next would be “The Shadow Of Your Smile” because that was the song Mom and Dad danced to at their wedding, 52 years ago, but Mom started to cry and shook her head. She couldn’t get through that one. So, we chose another and Mom joined Dad on the dance floor and they held each other tightly, Dad leading, small steps, a tight swing beat. Dad was always an amazing dancer. Graceful but not showy. Small movements with little kicks of the beat in his step or the movement of his partner from her shoulders, gliding and kicking, like a high hat. Gene Krupa of the ballroom step.
Everyone called out for my wedding song. Three years ago I married Jamey along the Tennessee River and Dad and I danced in the gravel to “What A Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong, but I couldn’t dance this night. I just let the song play and stared into my father’s eyes, singing along. His welled up, his blue eyes now slightly yellowing, the loss of weight, the loss of future, shading the glint. Tears started to fall and mine stayed put in my eyes, refusing to fall. I started to fall backwards a bit into my consciousness, a beautiful detachment that happens when I get overwhelmed. I go numb and paint a smile in order to pretend I’m still in the present moment, that I’m not letting go, which is a lie because I’ve let go of the now and I’ve fallen backward into a place I can’t feel much. I step out of being in the play and instead I hover, writing the script. I observe from a vantage point away from my physical body. I have been doing this all my life. I try to make sure I don’t go so far that my father feels I have let go of our connection while we sing this song to each other.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…
“I love that song” he says, smiling, when it is over.
I wonder if this is the last night all of us will gather with my father singing along. I think to myself, yes. This is it. It has to be it. If I were writing this movie, my father would begin failing quickly once he came home from this vacation, knowing that you can’t top a scene like having every single one of your children and grandchildren and their spouses in one room singing all the favorite songs everyone knows and loves from childhood, arms around each other in celebration filled with laughter and joy and grief and fear all held in one rented beach house in the same little village we’d all been coming to for many many years, the same sand and ocean that my mother grew up kicking her feet through, the same night time air that held crabs and Old Bay spice and laughter and Yahtzee calls and arguments and storms and sunrises and proposals. If I were writing this movie, the next time the family would gather as a whole would be my father’s funeral.
I have a photo on my desk in front of me as I write this. My father is in his suede cap, a blue wool peacoat and a red and black checked scarf around his neck. His smile is wide under the mustache. He has a nametag clipped to the breast of his jacket, my college’s insignia. He’s holding a ¾ full plastic cup full of amber liquid, most likely bourbon. I’m wrapped in his one arm to his side, an oversized grey sweatshirt, a brightly colored scarf around my neck, short henna-gold hair. A squinch nose gummy full teeth smile. Behind us, a football field, smaller than my high school stadium, small like a preppy New England college of only 2500 students where the athletics of the game is secondary to the gorgeous Massachussetts Fall afternoon of a Parent’s Weekend tailgate. My father is probably my age now then. We are both so happy. I am with my Dad and I am clearly ecstatic to have him here, at Amherst. He is full of pride, his chest is full. His daughter will graduate later that year. He has paid for most of it with his own success. None of this would have been possible from the vantage point of my 11 year old father, burying his own father then burying his teddy bear, growing up in a house without electricity or plumbing, joining the football team to have access to the school showers, having to wrangle spiderwebs in the outhouse in the middle of the night. My father who bought himself a Schwinn bicycle in his 40’s because he never had a bike as a kid.
I am his age then and I wrap my arms around my 15 month old son as we sing “Song Sung Blue” and “I Am, I Said” and I keep repeating “Pop” to my son, hoping that amongst his new babble that word will stick and he will look at my own father one day very soon, in time, and call my Dad by name.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I wrote this a few weeks ago. On October 1, my father died of pancreatic cancer surrounded by family. He was 82 years old. I was holding his hand. A playlist was playing. Right after he passed, I realized Willie Nelson had been singing “Pancho and Lefty” and the next song on that playlist? “What A Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong.