“Happy birthday, Dad. Wherever you are.”

Guest Post: Erich Miller

This year’s theme is “Connect,” and I am honored to share this story by my college friend, Erich Miller. If you’d like to write a guest post, see details above.

The awareness that it would have been my dad’s 84th birthday bobbed in and out of my consciousness last Tuesday as I woke, as I debated Yerba Mate or coffee, as I arrived at work and began composing diplomatic e-mails in my mind to co-workers who seem challenged to accomplish the most rudimentary elements of their jobs. But it wasn’t until about 1 p.m. when I drove my work vehicle to the Food Bank for a weekly pick up of cereals, pastry and endless varieties of granola bars that had under-performed at market that I had to stop, bow my head and utter a quiet “Hi, Dad.”

It was the massive crates packed with onions—row after row of them—neatly stacked on the Food Bank’s loading dock that landed me firmly in the realm of Dad Consciousness. Their sweet, soily scent promptly had me sitting shotgun in my dad’s small blue truck with the white campershell, some iteration of family Labrador happily trying to gain its footing in the truck’s rear as we drove through one or another allium-rich California valley. Depending on the time of year, we might have been heading east across the San Joaquin toward the Sierras or south toward the Tehachapis. Often it was through the southernmost Santa Clara to a ranch out near Gustine where he hunted ducks in the Fall.

These jaunts aren’t evocative to me today because they were peppered with nurturing moments where I confided my hopes and fears and where my dad responded warmly with his own experience—indeed, those kinds of parent-child conversations may be the exception rather than the rule. Rather, the memories of these times in my dad’s blue truck are evocative to me because they were the times my dad and I were least prone to being at cross-purposes. On these trips he didn’t have to contend with the specter of how unrelateable I was to him, from the shallow (my love for 70’s rock musicals as a little boy, to my habit of repurposing his old military uniforms into adolescent haute couture) to the less shallow (my need for an adult who was secure enough in himself to help me face a not-so-embracing world). I, in turn, didn’t have to contend with him glaring with exasperated frustration at one of my report cards.

True, the terms of these car trips were his—the destination, the radio station we listened to (AM news and sports)—and I was sometimes ambivalent about our destination. But the further we drove from home, the more that the Bay Area subdivisions gave way to oaks and orchards and pungent soils—the mellower we both grew, our assigned roles at home fading into a wide camera shot of two guys inside a small blue truck, bathed by the soft oniony air. If my mind didn’t stray too far into the past or the future, those moments were enough to live in.

As I grew into young adulthood, those car rides dwindled and then stopped altogether. Luckily for both of us, I eventually found communities that spackled in some of the nicks and dents my dad wasn’t able to address when I was younger and it became easier for me to see him as an intelligent, engaged and goofy guy who was mostly trying to spackle himself together. We became as close as our two particular constellations could be, which is to say, not very. But I happily showed up to my dad’s house for Christmases, the menu having been planned weeks in advance, where beneath his crusty exterior lay a secret joy in having prepared us goose rather than the standard turkey or ham. I happily showed up for spring lunches where we enjoyed fresh asparagus and he delighted in showing off the daffodils that crowded his small orchard.  In later years, he often traveled to Europe at the end of the summer, but before he’d go he’d have us over and unload on us as much of his summer garden as we’d take—stone fruit, those cool looking beans with the white and cranberry-colored stripes, August tomatoes.

In his last year of life, his health rapidly heading south, I got to drive him to doctor’s appointments, then visit him in the various facilities where he’d land after a fall. I’m sure he was scared of what was happening to him and, as a result, he defaulted to one of his more primal operating systems—Grumpy and Demanding Guy. Once, after visiting a very pleasant assisted living home where he repeatedly badgered the admissions lady about whether they’d let him drink his beloved wine, he ordered me to drive him back to his house instead of the skilled nursing facility where he was still recuperating from his most recent collection of ailments. I tried for several minutes to kindly explain that he wasn’t quite ready yet to return to his house, that we needed to go back to Pilgrim Haven instead (some of these places get intricately euphemistic in their branding). He wasn’t having any of it, and as we drove out of the assisted living home’s parking lot, red-faced and sputtering, he demanded, again, that I take him home. With a migraine looming on the horizon and running only on fumes of objective detachment, I lost it and told him, essentially, to shut the fuck up. I then promptly drove my rented minivan into one of the brick pillars at the parking lot exit. Things got very quiet in the car as I gently edged the minivan away from the pillar and out onto the street, hoping the home’s admissions lady hadn’t witness us plowing into their pillar. As we slowly crept away, my dad looked over at me wide-eyed and said softly, “Uh oh…”

My dad died a few short months after that, in the assisted living home I wasn’t sure would accept him. Despite the amazingly rich life he led, because I know beneath my dad’s gruffness lay a well of fear and because I don’t think the journey ends with this incarnation, my dad is still on the list of people I pray for every night. The list is broken into several categories—family, friends, co-workers, people who are ill, people whom I dislike and hope are removed from positions of power ASAP. My dad falls into a miscellaneous category that appears to be largely populated with dead people and those on whom I have unrequited crushes. Regardless of category, everyone receives the same prayer, and it is this:

“May these many people find all of the warmth, nurturing and loving kindness that you (Jesus, Great Spirit, Universe) see that they need in their bodies, minds and spirits.”

This prayer certainly comforts me. I hope it’s comforting my dad.

A Bay Area native, Erich studied English literature at Westmont College and creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California.  He has lived in San Francisco for the last 26 years, working primarily in social services. He currently manages a food program for HIV-positive 18-24 year-olds at Larkin Street Youth Services. In his spare time, Erich practices (and occasionally teaches) yoga, swims at his neighborhood pool, nurtures a budding coffee habit, bakes “hippie desserts” and spends as much time as he can with family, friends and nature.

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