We went to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain as the November sky slowly turned red wine red. One more shot of beauty for the road. I suddenly felt ready to head back to Pennsylvania and see what was waiting for me there. The news back home was so bad that I didn’t know if I’d have a chance to see my dad again, let alone wish him a happy sixty-fourth birthday.
Among the chaos, I found my goal. I focused my intentions on bringing music to him. Bringing back to the guy who brought it to me in the first place.
In the meantime, I sent a link to the recordings of our 1960s family jam sessions, as recorded by my teenaged dad. I was happy to fill the room with the sounds of his parents talking and playing music from a thousand miles away.
I got a text from my cousin about how excited my dad was about the prospect of having me play guitar for him.
The first time I visited, he wasn’t talking, but he’d occasionally lock eyes with me. I knew he was in there. I was expecting him to be in a rough shape, and he was. I just tried to stay calm and take it in slowly. I unpacked my mahogany Martin guitar and sang him songs for about an hour. Whichever songs crossed my mind - Willie Nelson, Beatles, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams. My sister came by and we did a nearly-competent version of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It was the first time I ever sang to my dad, one-on-one.
When I walked back to my car in the hospital parking lot, I could feel that I’d gotten to the other side of the crippling anxiety I’d felt back in the swamp. I was feeling heavy, but not too heavy to put one foot in front of the other and move through my life.
The second time I visited, he was talking a little, though largely indecipherably. I left much sooner than I had the day before, itching to start setting up my stage in Bristol. As I kissed his head on my way out, he gripped my hand very tightly and started crying, hard. I’d never seen him cry before.
I played the first set of my gig and then went upstairs to eat dinner. I wondered if I’d finally seen something so traumatizing that I wouldn’t be able to process it. But within seconds, I was crying, too. Those extra-painful, special-reserve tears. Yet I saw them as an indication that I would be OK. Righteous noticed I was upset and came over to comfort me.
As I made my way back downstairs, some ladies let me know that the ass of my pants was ripped wide open. I let them know, “it’s gonna be that kind of a show!” I wrapped my dress shirt around my waist ‘90s style and proceeded to have a great night of music with my friends.
Next day was Thanksgiving. I promised my dad I would film some of our gig, so I showed him a video I took of Righteous, Brian Dillon, and I singing The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York.” He let me know he liked it and asked that I come back the next day. I found out later that he was even more tired than usual because he now had pneumonia.
I came back the next day and, as I approached his room, I realized that I flew home expecting to face my own pain about my dad’s failing health, but it turned out that I was facing his pain, too. A poker-faced kinda dad in his healthier days, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might have such a glimpse into his sadness, his fear. The pain is real, but I know the love is as strong as ever.
Before I left that night, he said, “JJ played guitar for me last night.” My grandpa, Nelson “JJ” McGarvey, has been gone ten years, but it still struck me as a beautiful thing to say.
I’m not sure if he said “I love you more than you know,” but I know he could have - and does. His eyes - so bright and blue - looked beautiful to me. I’d never noticed that before. This guy has been my main man for a very, very long time.
He’s lost a lot in this new setback, having already already lost most of his independence following his 2016 stroke. The doctors, though, have performed amazing work.
On his birthday, Cousin Patti and Aunt Gail brought balloons, Pam brought a funny stuffed toy that plays a snippet of The Beatles’ “Get Back,” my mom and our friend Linda, both early loves of my dad’s, each brought a card. I brought 8x10 prints of four photos. His friend Mike FaceTimed from his house in Honolulu, playing snippets of The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Birthday” on piano. I played along on my Martin, a multi-time zone jam session.
Between the April 2000 family portrait and the images of his grandkids, I was able to bring both the missing older generation and the new generation to him. Too old and too young, respectively, to join him in that hospital room. The photo of the New Orleans sunset from the previous week represents the life I’m living, a life in which I happen to be indulging in many of his biggest passions. Feeling like I am enjoying much of it on his behalf.
In the hill photo, we’re all healthy and happy and I’ve got my hands up in the air as if to say, “WE’RE FREE!”