Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

The Death of a Cat

Note: Last week, my brother had to say goodbye to his dog. My sister has already finely eulogized him.  The pain was especially sharp since the dog was our father’s dog.  After our father passed away, Remy was a symbol of our grief and a daily reminder of the basic visceral nature of loss: he awaited our father’s return every day and never seemed quite to adjust to his absence.

I can’t claim by any measure that my response has been empathetic or emphatic enough. Our family has a long history with pets–our lives have in large part been defined and periodized by our animals. Animals, paradoxically, teach us how to be more human. They teach us how to feel fully, to love selfishly and selflessly, and how, finally, to die. For Remy, the case was even more tortured: he died from complications of a lung ailment three years after our father died of pneumonia. know that this is coincidence, but we cannot help but see some twisted meaning, some correlation in the living of lives and the coming of death.

And this too teaches us about the differences between animal and man. We create meanings for the world rather than just inhabit it. We memorialize pain and loss and by doing so cherish it and the passing of time. But I was estranged from this animal and this passing by space and time. But my story too is bound up like my siblings’ and parents’ in the joy and loss of cats and dogs. So, here it is:

Two years ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.

This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.

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Growing Up and Growing Old With Tom Brady, Part 1

Note: In honor of the return of NFL football and in hopes of continued health for Tom Brady’s knee, I am re-posting the following hymn of praise…

Even they might be giants love Bobby Orr

People who aren’t from New England often don’t understand the peculiar madness and fierce loyalty that infects us—even those of us in exile—when it comes not just to our sports teams but to our sports figures. We live and breathe the Celtics, Bruins, Sox and Patriots (and hey, some people even pay attention to the Revolution); and we fall desperately in love with their leading figures and the unlikely heroes that sports seasons create. (Mark Bellhorn, anyone?)

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Another Year (without Our Father)

This picture will make sense.

This picture will make sense.

Last year, during this week, we launched a series of posts to honor the passing of our father. My sister, brother and I each talked about our memories of him and related them (sometimes weakly) to music. While the creation of this blog was planned before our father’s sudden death, that loss was a catalyst for us in different ways.

It made me want even more to decrease the distance between the man I am and the one I want to be; it made my brother get serious about playing music and writing; and, whether or not we want to admit it, it accelerated other plans too: my son was born 10 months after his grandfather’s passing; my niece joined the world 6 months later.

We’re not going to bring out another series of memories this year—last year’s posts wait to be read and re-experienced, if and when the need arises. Yet, we do not want to let another year’s rotation go by unnoticed. Our father’s life and death helped to make us who we are today.

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Growing Up and Growing Old With Tom Brady, Part 1

Note: We take a break this weekend from political posts, apocalyptic visions, earthquakes, and Marriage Equality, to consider another personal passion (sports). Part 2 will be posted on Sunday.

Even they might be giants love Bobby Orr

People who aren’t from New England often don’t understand the peculiar madness and fierce loyalty that infects us—even those of us in exile—when it comes not just to our sports teams but to our sports figures. We live and breathe the Celtics, Bruins, Sox and Patriots (and hey, some people even pay attention to the Revolution); and we fall desperately in love with their leading figures and the unlikely heroes that sports seasons create. (Mark Bellhorn, anyone?)

Continue reading

The Death of a Cat

Not too long ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.

This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.

Continue reading

Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

Remembering Whitney

“Everybody searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone to fulfill my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me”

Last night as my wife and I enjoyed our first night out since well before the birth of our son, I looked to my phone to check the time  and sneaked a peak at the latest news. When a group of youngish college kids who were seated across from us began discussing the same news, I was dismayed. One of them said, “Who is Whitney Houston?” Another one responded, “I guess she’s a singer or something.” A third, “Never heard of her.”

I almost entered their conversation as I waited for my wife to return from the bathroom. “Who is Whitney Houston?,” I imagined myself saying, “only the best and most memorable voice from the end of the 20th century.” I wanted to tell them there was a time when she stood as large as Michael Jackson and Madonna, when the only thing as recognizable as her voice was her smile. But I didn’t. These kids were, well, kids who had ‘sir’ed’ me and ‘ma’am’ed’ my wife. (They also confirmed that we should start frequenting different establishments. Too old.)

How would they know who Whitney was, unless they watched TMZ all the time and followed the tabloid-perfect fall from grace? Maybe it is better that these 18 year-olds didn’t know who she was, or should have been. The best pop singer of two generations. The other songs they don’t know: “I want to dance with somebody”; “How Will I know”; “Saving all my love for you”. The list goes on.

A few years ago, when my wife and I were driving to a distant airport in the middle of the night, she prevailed upon me to cede all control of music to her. I can’t remember the exact details, but I lost some kind of bet or proposition and my fate was to listen to a “Best of…” Mariah Carey album. This listening turned into an hour-long debate about the best diva. We weighed the relative merits of Celine Dion (too Canadian, too creepy) and Christina Aguilera (amazing voice, no signature song) before settling on a verbal cage match between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey (I was not arguing for Mariah Carey).

On the album was the track “When You Believe”, a duet between the two singers (I know, what a convenient piece of evidence). Their voices are different; Mariah may be the better technical singer, she may have a better range (maybe), but there is something about the basic quality of Whitney’s voice that cannot be taught. Mariah’s voice was made and trained for pop. Whitney’s voice was made for something else, for something bigger. It is golden, sweeter, pure. Its tone is so round and beautiful. Other singers work to hit notes that just flow from her mouth. Other people sound like Mariah; nobody sounds like Whitney.

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The Sister Speaks (for Dad)

I am not a writer or a blogger and I really have nothing to do with this aside from reading my brothers’ entries with the hope that every day NKOTB will be mentioned. However, the first anniversary of our father’s unexpected passing is about to fall upon us, so my brothers invited me to join them in discussing some songs for our father. I was not part of the original conversation about “funeral songs”, etc., but there are definitely songs that come to mind whenever I think of my father.

For a man who was almost 100% deaf, our father loved music. He attended countless musicals, high school band and chorus concerts, dance recitals and performances of my older brother’s rock/alternative/not-sure-how-to-describe-it band. Before it was me performing, and we’d go to see my older brother’s shows, my dad would frequently ask me questions about what was going on. One particular incident that comes to mind is a concert we attended where my brother’s woman du jour was playing the flute, and he asked me, “what the hell is that girl doing?” He couldn’t hear the high-pitched sounds of the woodwind instrument and thought she was just dancing around holding a metal stick to her face.

Another memory that reminds me of his love of music is when he asked me to get him some classical music for Christmas. He didn’t specify a composer or concerto, he just said “classical music.” Since he was difficult to buy gifts for, I was happy for the inspiration and bought him a CD of a random compilation of music from a variety of composers.

Even though he couldn’t hear most music, whenever my father would drive into the driveway, no matter where I was standing, whether it was indoors or outdoors, I could almost always hear his car before I could see it—he would turn up the Oldies station incredibly loudly so that he could try to hear or at the very least feel the music while he was driving. When he got an iPod a few years ago, he asked my brothers and me to fill it with music, and we gave him everything from the Beatles to Bob Marley.

One Beatles song that he wanted to ensure was on his iPod was “Hey Jude.” The Younger specified that song as one that he remembers when thinking about my dad, but I will note at this point that the song plays a big role in my thoughts of my father—though these days, I can’t seem to listen to the whole song without crying. But I digress—onto my songs.

“Silent Night”

This is obviously an old and traditional Christmas carol, one that my father sang as a child, with his father singing it before him  and so on and so forth.  At the church where he walked me down the aisle the day I got married, (the same church where we celebrated his life with a packed service of family, friends and distant acquaintances) they saing “Silent Night” as the second-to-last hymn every Christmas Eve. While the song plays, the members of the congregation all hold small candles to light each other’s candles, until everyone in the church is holding a lit candle.

When we attended Christmas Eve service at this church, my father always sang along for at least part of “Silent Night” and it’s the one Christmas carol that really got me this year. My husband and I attended a service at a local Lutheran church in our small western Colorado town this year; and this congregation also shared candlelight during “Silent Night.” It was difficult to handle emotionally, but I felt as if somehow, during that song, on that evening, my father was with me.

“Cotton Fields”

No idea who originally sang it, but it was covered by greats such as Johnny Cash, Creeence Clearwater Revival, the Beach Boys, and Elton John.  The first time I ever heard it was on a cold Christmas morning in the back woods of Maine. That year I had received the African-American American Girl doll named Addy, and upon unwrapping the gift, my father immediately grabbed her away from me and began bouncing her on his knee, singing “When I was a little bitty baby my momma rocked me in the cradle…” (My father didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body; but he was far from politically correct.) I was confused, mortified and probably launched into one of my famous fits from that era. However, his actions that morning set the stage for a world of giggles for myself, my family and a childhood friend, Brittany, who I still consider to be a family member.

“Summer in the City”—The Lovin’ Spoonful

When I was a young child, my family spent a lot more time together as a family than we did as my brothers and I slowly grew older. We would travel by car to places like Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, or Boston. Sometimes we would not spend the extra night in a hotel and we’d drive home with the Oldies station playing on the car radio. I remember hearing “Summer in the City” several times on the radio on those car trips, especially during the night and I remember a specific instance of it playing while we rolled through a toll booth. Hearing the song reminds me of the “good times”, before my brothers and I really knew that there was stress and negativity in life, before we realized that our family wouldn’t always be together as one unit.

“Spirit in the Sky”—Norman Greenbaum

This is one song I wish had been played during the church service on the day we gathered to remember my father’s life.  Not only does it “fit” a funeral situation, but it reminds me a lot of my father. Particularly, it reminds me of my trips back and forth from Maine to Vermont during my college years, but I also remember him listening to the song when I was young. A college friend made me a mixed CD during the winter of 2003, back when mixed CDs were really something special, and “Spirit in the Sky” was one of the songs on that CD. My father and I listened to that particular CD and the song Spirit in the Sky several times during our travels. Because my father enjoyed church and read daily scriptures, he especially enjoyed the line from the song, “Gotta have a friend in Jesus” and always managed to sing that line with an extra decibel of volume.  Whether he could hear the music or hear himself sing, my father always enjoyed that particular song.

Funeral Songs for the Deaf

The following entry was composed soon after the Eldest J passed away. Time has made it possible to revisit it now. The Younger J posted on the same subject yesterday

“There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meaning, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)—they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue…Nothing is absolutely dead.” –M. M. Bakhtin


When the Younger J and I were first discussing this blog during my commute, one of the first topics was “Funeral Music for Our Father”. Now, this wasn’t a morbid or a vindictive conversation—we had both recently read Shit my Father Says and had for years discussed the insanity, humor and uniqueness of our own father. We tell stories about his antics; his impulsive and bizarre behavior is the subject of jokes and anecdotes shared by our friends and extended family.

Since we both believe that the music we listen to (in actuality) and the music we tell people we listen to helps to define who we are for ourselves and others, it only made sense to try to characterize our father by listing the songs that most remind us of him and the songs that he claims as his own. The catch in this is that our dad became nearly completely deaf soon after he was born (almost three months premature in 1949). He spent all of his life reading lips, hearing mostly bass-lines of pop-songs, blasting out the speakers in every car we ever owned, and disappointed by every new attempt to match his disability with a ‘new’ hearing aid.

Dad was seriously deaf—as a ‘parlor’ trick when I was in high school, I used to walk up behind him and call him an asshole at the top of my lungs. To the laughter of my visiting friends, he didn’t even flinch. Before I was a teenager, he told me the only regret he had was that he never heard the sound of birds. When my daughter was first born, he confided to my mother that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to hear her cry.

So, the Younger J and I decided that, since our father was morbid and straightforward about life (and also a sheer ox in terms of health despite many decades of smoking), he’d find it hysterical if we wrote essays talking about the music that defined the life of a deaf man. We knew he’d appreciate the gallows humor and the political incorrectness.  I remember laughing as I merged onto the highway that meant I was only 35 minutes from home and thinking about what a lark it would be for family and friends to play along.

The next day my brother called me and told me my father was in the hospital with pneumonia. We were assured that he would be all right after a couple of days. At 4 AM when my cell phone went off, I didn’t need to answer to know what happened. My brother and I didn’t choose any of the music at the funeral. We spoke to honor him, but even that was insufficient. It was all so sudden, shocking, and final. I would call it a tragedy if it weren’t so disarmingly common.

My brother and I are each are our father’s sons, but in very different ways. We spent different parts of his life with him—he had more time for me when I was very young and he was doing everything ‘right’; he was a best friend and confidant to my brother when both of them were older. Though deaf, my father made sure I had saxophone, piano and guitar lessons. He tolerated a full band rehearsal (drums, bass, PA, the whole thing) every Sunday and Thursday night for much of high school. He attended every choral, band, and theatrical performance you could imagine—and never once complained. Occasionally, he would ask me to describe what songs were like; often he would get confused when one person sang from a chorus or when there were solos for high-pitched instruments like the flute. Despite the fact that his life was defined by silence, he never once questioned the centrality of music in ours.

In fact, my father even took me to see my first concert—the Jerry Garcia Band in its final tour (on a weeknight!). Only after arriving did I realize that we were there for the ‘scene’ and not the music, but I enjoyed it all the same. I convinced him to buy me an overpriced t-shirt which I wore proudly to school the next day like a rube.  He also bought me at least three guitars, financed a sound system, watched too many crappy performances of a bad garage band, and didn’t say a thing when I sold all my music equipment to move to NYC.

Although it has been a year since my father died, the surprise and sting of his absence still seems new. I don’t know when I rested easy or slept through a full Saturday night again. I watched the Arab Spring unfold with regret, because it would have fascinated him. I wept when my son was born because now my father had two grandchildren who would never know him and a father scarred by the loss of his own. I have tried to be friend, father and brother to my brother; a good son and protector to my mother; a father to my children and husband to my wife. All without him here to guide me.

In no small part, we followed through with creating this blog to honor him. Not because he would give two shits if we did it, but because our relationship with and dedication to each other would have made him happy. Of all the things he taught his three children, one of the greatest lessons was to trust in and depend on one another. Our father wasn’t always wise, but he was when it mattered. He wasn’t always attentive, but he was there whenever I called. He couldn’t give his children everything we wanted, but he certainly gave us everything we needed. For him and for us, I started this list.


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