Wednesday, June 07, 2006

It's alright you can sleep tonight... knowing you'll always live on, in a song

Well, it’s been over a month. I suppose it’s time.

My father died on April 27, 2006, finally succumbing to a years-long battle with early onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed when I was just out of law school, though he’d been deteriorating substantially for two years before that. For years after that it took his wit, his memories and his speech until he was just a shell in a chair. After having finished taking his mental faculties, the disease moved on to take his kidney functions and, once that happened, it was over quite quickly.

To quote Hemingway, my Dad died “gradually… and then suddenly.”

My Dad was – and remains – the smartest man I have ever known (sorry, Chuck). He had a lightning wit and photographic memory that not only made him a formidable Trivial Pursuit opponent, but also a fantastic journalist. The latter was a dream he did not get to realize until his thirties, when he risked everything he had to go after what he always wanted: The ability to write for an audience.

I was on the way when he went back to school to become a journalist and was only an infant when he graduated, so I never knew a father that wasn’t a newsman. And let me tell you, it was everything he was. There was nothing he loved more than chasing a story – be it a grisly murder or human interest piece – and I was a teenager before I realized that not all families had police scanners on their dining room tables. More than the chase, though, for him it was about the writing. He was never more pleased than to tease whatever facts he gathered into an arc, an outline, a story.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As my Dad’s best friend and first editor reminded me at his memorial service, the one thing that my father loved more than anything was us. His wife, his son and his daughter. His eyes sparkled to talk about us, watch us grow and photograph the process. And though he ran out many a night in search of tomorrow’s headline, I know in my heart that he always loved to come home.

My Dad told me a story once about his own father, a tough-as-nails man who died tragically when my father was only twelve. My grandfather, Albert, was an honest to God cowboy – meaning he actually wrangled cattle all day – who’d leave home early every morning and come home late every night. Each night, my father would wait for him on the front stoop, watching him ride up to the house and swagger toward the porch. When he came home each night, Albert never said a word to my Dad, he just scruffed him on top of the head and walked into the house, expecting my father to follow. And this was their routine every night of every workday.

When he told me this story, my Dad said that Albert was a cold man who didn’t express his emotions. In all of the twelve short years they had together, Albert never told his son he loved him, never said the words. And my Dad said he was angry about that for a long, long time. “And then when I was older, when I had you two, I realized,” my Dad told me, “that of course he loved me. You just love your children. You just do.” My Dad realized that, though Albert never physically said he loved my father, he actually said it every day. Every day he walked by him and scruffed his hair. That was Albert’s way.

When my Dad told me that story, he said that, though he knew, ultimately, that he was loved, he still wasted a lot of years being angry and doubting that love. And that he never wanted Jeremy or I to ever, ever doubt his love. So he said it to us every chance he could. You couldn’t leave a room in our house without being told you were loved, you couldn’t eat a meal or spend an evening without being hugged. My Dad’s love for us ran deep and wide and he wore it like a banner on his chest. Most often to the point of embarrassment for his typically melodramatic children. Some of my most vivid memories of my Dad involve a profound mortification at seeing my Dad stand by the curb in front of the school, arms outstretched, knowing that he would remain that way in front of God and everybody until I went over and let myself be enveloped in one last bear hug before going about my day. Of course, now, I wouldn’t trade that memory – or that hug – for all the gold in California.

My Dad taught my brother and me many things. How to take pictures, how to write, how to sing three part harmony, how to dance like nobody’s watching, and how to drive like somebody’s chasing you. But most of all he – and my mother – taught us how to love.

I see my Dad a lot in my brother - the photographer, the songwriter, the poet, the father.

And I guess I see a lot of him in me, too. The budding writer, the master of the argument, the adventurer.

I think my Dad would be proud to see some of the things that I’ve written – here, professionally and in the countless scribbled journals that will one day make up my Frey-esque memoir. I also know that they’d be covered in red markings and editorial suggestions. But he never got to see me take to writing, as with so many things he never got to see. He never saw me graduate from law school, never saw me pass the bar. He never saw the woman that I became while he deteriorated and never got to be witness to the great feat of strength and courage that it took to go halfway across the world in search of something better.

No, while my brother and I grew into ourselves, we watched him wither as the horrible disease stole first his career and then his memory and then his mind. We saw ourselves vanish from his sight, as we ceased to exist in the vast tangle of his neural pathways. We saw the ever-present gleam in his eyes disappear and be replaced by the vacant look of a person who knows he supposed to be somewhere, but doesn’t quite know where; who knows he’s supposed to be someone, but doesn’t quite know who.

The worst thing about losing my Dad was losing him twice: Years ago, when he lost us, and then a month ago, when we finally lost him. No matter how long you wait for something to happen, know that it will happen, you are never quite prepared for the moment when it does. And today, I know why he told us every chance that he got that he loved us. Because I can sit here and know that I probably told him a million times that I loved him. And it still doesn’t feel like it was enough.

But I take comfort in the thought that there’s a payoff now, a release. That not only is my Dad finally free from the pain and seizures that accompanied his disease, but also that he finally has his mind back. That, wherever he is, he’s looking down (or across) at Jeremy and me and has been given back the memories of who we were while he watches where we’re going. That his soul or spirit was set free with the photographic memory and quick wit that made him such a smart, remarkable man. And that right now he’s trying to break through the fourth dimension just to correct my bad grammar.

It’s stylistic, Dad. That’s how the kids do it these days.

At the height of his journalism career, my Dad went on a trip to Bosnia to cover the conflict there and he and several journalists were treated to ride along on an air mission and a landing on an aircraft carrier. As the plane carrying them began its descent to the carrier, there was some malfunction with the landing gear and the plane came in hard, seemingly unable to brake, and skidded all the way to the edge of the carrier as everyone involved prayed the plane would not fall off the end. When the plane stopped, My Dad said that everyone got off and started kissing the ground and vomiting and generally praising their good fortune at having cheated death. My Dad said he did none of those things. He just pulled back his shoulders, settled into his strut and walked away because he’d never felt more alive in his life.

There was some debate over what the “copy” should be on his tombstone, what words could possibly sum up the man that we all knew would probably have preferred to have written it himself. Ultimately, his first editor did him justice.

Luther Clyde Johnson
March 30, 1945 – April 27, 2006
Lover of family, lover of life.