Saturday morning, I headed to Chattanooga. From Nashville, it’s about a two hour drive through some beautiful country side and over Monteagle, a respectable mountain. It’s a trip I’ve made several times, back when Sheryl and I dated, and on various trips to Atlanta and through Georgia to Florida. The immediately previous trip had been with friends to see U2 at the Georgia Dome, which was one of the best experiences of my life.
This trip wasn’t.
All through that two hour trip, I thought about Dad. I thought about the fact that he was now lying in a hospital bed, I didn’t have any idea as to what his condition was or what life was going to hold next. I just knew I had to be there because I felt like I was all he had.
This wasn’t true, of course. He had friends and he’d been staying with his sister when he had the attack. But as his oldest son, I felt a lot of... maybe not responsibility, necessarily, but let’s call it a loving obligation.
Dad and I had always been pretty close. As the eldest child in a divorced family, I’d always been fiercely loyal to Dad. When Mom remarried, it took me quite a while to call her husband “Dad,” because in my teenaged mind, he wasn’t. Dad was my dad and I was going to be damned if I gave in like my brother and sister had and call someone else by that name. However, I eventually started calling him Dad as well, sometimes referring to John as “Bio-Dad” and Greg as “Bellevue Dad.”
Even later, after graduating college, I got my first (and only) teaching job at Martin Luther King Magnet High School. And there, Dad was basically a permanent sub, prior to my arrival. And in my first year, when some of my students saw “Mr. Wilson” on their schedules, they assumed it was Dad who was going to be teaching them. Dad did become the In-School Suspension Co-ordinator (Lackey of the Administration, as I jokingly referred to him) and so we began a different kind of relationship: co-workers. We never stopped being father and son, but I got a very different experience of him that I ever had before in my life, even living with him for a couple of years in college, and very different from my younger sister and brother. We basically saw each other every day. He helped me get accepted in the MLK community. He told me some areas where I shouldn’t try to rock the boat and who to rock the boat against if I needed to. We had breakfast together on a regular basis with other teachers and administrators. We’d have lunch, sit at basketball games. We became friends on some level.
However, that changed a lot when I quit teaching. Dad always disagreed with that decision. He thought I should have gone back to school to get my Master’s or Ph.D. in English and become a college professor. I left teaching because Sheryl and I wanted to start a family and we wanted her to be able to stay home with the kids. And you can’t do that very well on a single teacher’s salary. After that, we saw Dad on a much more irregular basis. After the kids were born, we’d see him about 4 times a year. Christmas, birthdays, odd times when he’d show up at the house or at church, usually unannounced.
I sometimes wondered if seeing us reminded him of his failed marriage to Mom, and then the fact that he didn’t see us that much reminded him of how he didn’t see us that much. I never asked him about it. It’s just as possible that he got busy with his life and didn’t make time to do it. Almost similar to how we did the same thing in our lives. We didn’t go out of our way to see him on a regular basis either. Honestly, it was inconvenient. And as our lives became busy with soccer and dance and preschool and piano and church, it became easy for us to not see him. He was there, but almost more as an idea rather than a person.
All of that and more was going through my head as I made that drive to Chattanooga that Saturday. What I didn’t know was how long and short the next 5 months were going to be.