Before you read this, I want to apologize. My original intention for these e-mails was promotional only, and fun, but in time I realize they have progressed into personal territory, like diary entries. I also realize a lot of you may view me with the same level of scrutiny you’d use to study a circus monkey: fun on a Saturday, forgotten by Monday.
So selfishly, I'd like to talk about my Dad's passing. Maybe there will be enough here for you to relate to. Alas, if you like my music, or rather, the music I play, it traces back to my father, as it was he who encouraged me to take my private passion public.
I was vacationing in one of my favorite spots, Isle of Palms in Charleston, SC. Swimming in the ocean there as I've swam many times before, but the current felt different this time. There was a strong undertow and heavy waves were pushing me around 200 yards away from my spot on the shore. I could not swim back, but was trying as hard as I could. Struggling. "Dad's not doing well" I thought to myself.
I was aware that my father had gone to the Veteran's hospital in a Buffalo, NY a day earlier to check on some back pain he'd been having. Up until then, it seemed maybe routine, at least as routine as you can get for an 84 year old man who had smoked cigarettes for 70 years, and consumed alcohol in daily great abundance. I suppose my thought was he'd probably be ok, but you never know, so keep your phone on. He had lived through another such health scare five years earlier.
A few hours later, as I was walking downtown Charleston, my brother John called me from Los Angeles sounding devastated. "How do you feel about Dad?" He asked. "What do you mean"? I said I'm feeling cautiously optimistic, but hadn't heard today's update. Long story short, John said he was upset because the Doctors had told my brother and sister who live in Buffalo that my Dad's fight was over, and to prepare for the worst, even though he'd been up and walking around just a day earlier.
Because I had feared this moment for twenty years or so, (I suppose that is the fate of all children of hard-living parents) I felt sad but not rocked. My dad and I had a lovely relationship, a true friendship, and I honored him every chance I could. I had shots of whiskey with him at dive bars in Buffalo. I went to concerts with him (Buddy Rich was my first). When I worked at a fancy hotel in Boston I booked my parents into the presidential suite once a year. I bought my parents a house when they weren't in a financial position to do so but I was. I intentionally didn't tell him about a two-page photo spread my old band got in Rolling Stone magazine so he would stumble on it. (My mom told me he had subscribed in case I ever got a blurb). I visited as often as I could, and I wrote about him in songs where I described him as my hero.
He was. He worked to support six kids on a salary that left no room for leisure. He showed unbelievable loyalty to my mother. He never judged his kids no matter how deep into trouble they got, and he was open to every bizarre or frivolous phase we ever went through.
My mom had passed three years earlier, so my dad had stuck it out another three. I don't think he ever adapted to living alone, though he found much joy in the sitcom-like revolving door that his house could be, with so many children and grandchildren that loved to pop in to see him.
He didn't say much, but when he spoke, it was usually somewhat profound: he would tell me to "keep it simple" after I would play him a new song idea, and "be a good boy" whenever I would leave him to head back out on the rock and roll highway. He told me other stuff too when I was a much younger man. "You think with your d#ck" he proclaimed when I asked him to drive me thirty miles away to meet a new girlfriend in downtown Buffalo at midnight. He drove me regardless.... he was gentle and generous to his core.
So I drove from Charleston to Buffalo and arrived at the hospital to my sad but stoic family. As I've come to realize is often the case, the hospital wasn't giving much information, while at the same time we were lost in a cloud of anxiety and sadness. So getting a full picture is not easy. I went in to see my Dad. "He just wants to hold everyone's hand” my niece told me. He seemed glad to see me and loved seeing my two little boys. His eyes lit up. His smile widened.
Although at this point, I lose all track of time and everything becomes a blur. My brother from LA flew in, and my other brother drove in from Kentucky. My brother Scott, a nurse in Buffalo, and my dad's main caretaker for the last few years, explained to me that it's "different when it's your own family" explaining why he seemed shell shocked. My sisters were both sitting at my dad's side. All the grandkids got to see him, and it was strangely beautiful. Everyone was sad to see him go, but wanting to be sure to wave goodbye so he knows how much he was loved while he was here.
At one point, with my dad's condition getting rapidly worse, my sister's ex-husband showed up out of the blue. Though he hadn't been around our family for 25 years and his relationship with my sister ended bluntly, I was glad to see him. He always had a knack for funny one-liners thrown out at inappropriate moments, and time hadn't changed him one bit. He visited with my dad, (although my dad was barely responsive by then) said a few forced niceties and then left the hospital room. He stopped, turned back, and yelled in from the hallway "the doctor said he found a cure and you're going home"! You would have to have seen my dad at that moment to get the joke. He was going nowhere.
My brother John and I camped out at the hospital overnight for two nights, John wanted to bring my dad home so he could die in his own space, but we had no idea how bad things had gotten. There were three different cancers, and they discovered my father had endured two heart attacks at home, without ever seeing a doctor. John and I insisted on taking the overnight shift at the hospital because that's when my mom died, and my other brother Scott was with her alone, so it was our turn.
Just a side note about my siblings. We are incredibly lucky in that we all really love each other, talk often, understand one another's weaknesses, and try to help each other through the hard journey. We also use humor to heal, so even in the dark hours, we were making each other laugh. I think this was my parent's greatest work.
John and I shared bunk beds when we were kids, and confided in each other every night growing into our teens. We talked about dreams, goals, fears, family dysfunction.... It was fitting we were together for this moment. By the second night, John had gotten no sleep and was talking incessantly. I asked him if I could have a private moment with our dad. He obliged.
At that point I told my dad he was the greatest man I had ever known, among other things, and I started to cry. Although he could no longer speak, my dad started rubbing and patting my hand with his, trying to comfort me. I was amazed at that. Still a father ‘til the very end. I noticed how much his hands and mine looked alike.
I think it was around 9am the next morning when a team of doctors paraded into my father's room. They took a quick look at him like mechanics might look at a flat tire. John said "we were hoping we could take him home and set up hospice there" and the head doctor said, "That won't be necessary, it looks like he has already started passing". A part of me was glad the waiting was over.
Enjoy Each Other
Just like that, the white coats left the room, and we were just there with no idea how to make the most of the moment. My brother John literally jumped into my father's bed and snuggled him. I grabbed my iPad and found my Mom and Dad's wedding song (Tony Bennett's "Because of You") and played it as loud as it would go. It broke the sterile silence of the hospital, and I thought, in case there's any truth that one might reunite with their greatest love in death, my parents would have something to dance to.
We sat in the same room with my dad's body, post mortem, for three hours ‘til the veterans hospital was ready to give him a proper ceremony and exit off the floor of the living. They draped a flag over a temporary casket and then the whole staff of the hospital gathered around for a quick prayer, feeling not dissimilar to when the staff of TGIFridays gathers around your table to sing "happy birthday to you" when you least want it.
As my brothers and I walked out of the hospital, it was cloudy, and we were all thinking "so what now"? But the beauty in it was that we had each other, and that we had spent so much time with a wonderful guy.
Life is like a rental car. No matter how much you love driving it someday it will have to be returned. I guess the point is to enjoy the ride, and enjoy each other.
In other news, I am delaying the release of my new album probably ‘til late August so I can deal with some of the things I need to, but I am one song away from being done.
Plenty of good news to come. :)
Thanks for bearing with me and letting me release a little of my story in this letter.