Five years ago today, my father died of a heart attack. I heard the news as I was getting my taxes done, and within a day or two I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with my brother and my mother, numb with shock and visiting a small business in the town of Irwin where I politely talked to my father’s friends and relatives, viewed the flowers, and examined the premature end of a man I have spent much of my life trying to understand. In between those times spent with friends and family in the act of public grieving, the hotel where we stayed played a particular song that I felt deeply during those cold winter days.
The song was “Cab,” by Train, a melancholy song about love lost and the grieving process, an excellent song from an excellent band . It was one of those experiences where the mood and the moment met. My father, of course, was not a cab driver (though I was a cab driver during college at the University of Southern California, driving drunk people home from frat or sorority parties, and driving around graduate students in computer science from East or South Asia). My father was a bus driver though, as well as a tractor driving farmer, so we can both relate to jobs where we have to drive around people who are strangers to us, acting friendly but retaining a sense of professional distance. It was a distance both my father and I seemed to appreciate, as neither of us has ever been very comfortable with intimacy or very interested in letting people inside, behind the fortress walls.
When I lived in Southern California, a friend of mine (and frequent conversation partner for Saturday night dinners after church) named Hector Roybal asked me what song I thought of when I thought about my father. I gave a somewhat flippant answer, heard him give a very moving sermonette about Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” but when my father died I realized there were a few songs that really reflected the sense of lose and recognition between my father and I. The song “Cab” was the right song at the right time, but as I reflected later on there were other songs that hit the right notes in those desolate days as I mourned the death of my father and sought to comprehend the reasons for his premature death and its dangers to me, given the dark personal history we both shared, and our common (and dangerous) response to it. These songs included Sting’s “Why Should I Cry For You?” and U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.”
“Cab,” though, provided a particularly poignant reminder of the sense of loss and loneliness my father felt himself as he coped through hiding his emotions behind an impassable wall and putting on a brave face and soldiering on. After his own death, though, I realized that my life would not be long if I did the same thing. My own heart, physically, would be destroyed by the burden of holding in a lifetime of wrongs and injuries. They would have to instead be dealt with at the worst possible times in the harsh light of day if I was to know any kind of life other than enduring joylessly from day to day. That said, in the months and years that have followed his death I have became a far sadder and a far more serious young man than I was before.
My father was a man like myself in many ways. He was a loud and sociable person who nonetheless had few close friends because he kept such a gulf of emotional distance between himself and others, protecting himself from the dangers of intimacy and protecting his heart from potential hurts like a Vauban designing fortresses. Perhaps our mutual fascination with fortifications (one of our favorite shared activities was visiting battlefields and fortresses ), sprang from a common habit of building fortresses around our hearts. He was a man who married somewhat late in life–at 34 years of age, but woefully unprepared to do it well. I hope, if my time comes, that I will do a better job. My family has endured enough generations of suffering.
At any rate, this particular day brings back my own thoughts, feelings, and memories of the death of my father as I continue to make sense of his life and my own, and the common threads that bind us together. I suppose as long as I live I will be trying to make sense of it. But five years later, I still feel it very deeply. Who knows how long I will? Sometimes I still think I’m the only cab on the road.