It is a capricious and vengeful god, demanding that I bow to it regardless of whether I have 50 freshman essays to grade and a lengthy list of Christmas shopping yet to do. Unless I want to give out freshman essays as gifts to friends and family, I don’t have any other good ideas for how to get all of this done in time.
Then I remember. Fourteen years ago — almost exactly 14 years ago — I was sitting in my office just like I am today, only on that day the semester had just ended and the sky was a brilliant blue, unspotted by a single cloud, and I was thinking about my Christmas list, just like I am today, when the phone rang. It was my mother, who clearly had no good way to tell me what she had to tell me, so she just said this: “Hey Chris, your dad is gone.”
Just like that. Ten days after he turned 62 years old. Ten days before Christmas.
I made a couple of phone calls, packed up, and left the office. I didn’t have to think any more about my plans for the weekend. I had to think of a future without my dad, and how different that would be, how different Christmas would be. So many of my memories of him are at Christmas, when he would finally take some time off the truck and spend time with us, watching the holiday college bowl games or taking us all out to eat at the Sparta Restaurant.
I ask the students in my writing classes to use sensory details — the small, specific, unique details of their lives — to make the past alive again, to make it a place where readers can go and experience what that moment looked like, and what it sounded like, and what it felt like. What was it like to be them, in that place and at that time? What puts them there? Was it the taste of cider, spiced in just that certain way, or of Chex mix, nuts and pretzels baked in Worcestershire sauce? Was it that little pine tree down by the clothesline, adorned in giant colored lights, and how each year the tree got just a little bigger and the colored lights just a little smaller?
For me, it was just the sound of a key sliding into a locked door, very late at night, the house completely dark except for the mouse-sized nightlight in the hallway, everyone else long asleep but me, up reading a paperback with a flashlight, or listening to Casey Kasem counting down the top 40 on my clock radio, or just curled up in the dark watching the little theater of clashing shadows on my bedroom window. And waiting. Waiting for my dad to get home from playing cards, or from running errands, or from doing “dad things” that I neither questioned nor understood. So I waited. Then, all the way on the other side of the house, I would hear the metallic sound of the key sliding into the lock, the turning of the knob, the opening of the door, the way the frame squeaked just a little when it was pushed open. I knew then that my dad was home and that everything was going to be all right.
It is hard to believe that it has been 14 years since I’ve seen him. I have an entirely new life now, a family of my own. Even though he never got to meet them, I can see traces of him in all three of them — my wife’s love of driving long distances alone, my daughter’s kind heart and healthy skepticism, my son’s relentless sense of mischief.
I will make it until Friday. The back pain will pass, and I’ll get the papers graded, and I’ll get the Christmas shopping done. Just like my dad, I will be home for Christmas.