W  H  A  T  S  U  I  T  S  H  I  M
launched 1 january 2016
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A collection of the project's best essays + podcasts.

"...I'll write a song for you."

You used to wear this all-black outfit that I absolutely hated.

Mostly because whenever you wore it, I knew I was in trouble. Never failed.

It was this leather jacket and hat combo that you - without fail - wore with nothing but other black clothes. The moment I saw it, I'd be terrified, because I was well-aware of what was next.

On this one particular instance, I couldn't have been more than 7. You were picking me up from latchkey on a random Wednesday instead of your typical Friday, so I would've assumed something was up even had I not seen you stand in the classroom's doorway in your Attire from Hell.

You had this extremely gentle way of easing into your anger. Hated that too. One moment, we'd be having a fairly normal conversation; the next, you'd be issuing some fairly serious "promises," because, in your words, you didn't make threats.

I really wish I could remember what I'd done, because that would make this story so much better. I'll never forget how angry you were, though. Sheesh. I was too afraid to answer you, but you promised to beat me if I didn't and - in what was a new move for you - pulled over the car just to hammer home the point. I really thought you might punish me right there on Grand River.

You didn't. You only beat me once, and even then you felt compelled to apologize to me. I remember thinking how crazy that moment was. My mom would give me whippings and laugh about them later. You came and told me you were afraid at what you might do to me. I was amazed. You, grown adult man 44 years my senior who I'd been taught to respect and not question, willingly apologized to your child, a child who probably deserved what he got.

I don't know, man. You were just different. My master motivator, you knew what buttons to push and how to straighten me up when you saw me straying. You'd drive me through Brightmoor and ask if that's what I wanted my future to be. I visited one weekend and entered my bedroom to find all my toys confiscated; the only items left were my bed and a bookshelf, and until further notice, I was to read a book a day and write a report for you and Mrs. Sanders that I'd have to read aloud before you returned me to my mother's. It might've lasted two weekends, but God I couldn't wait for it to end.

"Use that thing for something other than a hat rack!"

"Okay, dad." I'd laugh. And so it went.

I always dreamt about living with you. It started young. Spending two or three days with you at a time wasn't cutting it anymore. Once you weren't fighting fires full-time anymore, we started discussing it. I wasn't really getting along with my mom, and I really enjoyed your company. You'd started picking me up for school each morning, and those car rides were the highlight of my morning. I don't even remember what we talked about half-the-time, but I appreciated that you talked to me. You were still very much my parent - and I was extremely cognizant of that - but you were the cool parent. My mom was always trying to protect me, which I can appreciate now, but in my pre-teens, I needed you. No words can aptly express just how badly I needed you then.

Once I lost my scholarship to Cranbrook, a clear opportunity opened. You and Brenda swore up and down I lost that scholarship just so I could move in with you two - for the record, completely untrue, but I won't deny I was looking forward to finally moving in full-time.

That was such a great year. Oh, that was an amazing year. I thought it would be impossible to replicate my weekend visits on a larger scale, but that's all it was. Sure, I had to dump the trash more often and vacuum the stairs twice a week instead of on whatever Saturday I came to the house, but whatever. For the most part, you and the Mrs. left me to do whatever I wanted within reason. I couldn't truly be mad about the housework or the two of you calling my name every twenty minutes. Compared to the alternative, I was where I wanted to be.

When I broached the prospect of going back to Cranbrook my senior year, you weren't exactly enthusiastic. But once you saw their willingness to take me back alongside my ridiculous desire to have a Cranbrook diploma, you went all-in. You made me write the check and everything, just to make sure I understood the type of investment you were making. I didn't know it then, but you doing that for me changed my life, and immeasurably for the better. Without Cranbrook, there's likely no Howard. Crazy to think about.

I have no idea why I had a free afternoon in the middle of a February high-school day, but I did and you called and asked if I wanted lunch. You promised me I wasn't in trouble, just that you wanted to discuss some things. We placed our order at Fuddrucker's, and you immediately jumped into where I'd be going to college.

I'd set my mind and heart on Columbia. I really really wanted to be in New York City, and the prospect of being both there and at an Ivy were too good to pass up, if they'd let me in, of course.

You on the other hand - and somewhat to my surprise - asked why I wasn't giving Howard a chance. I thought you were moreso focused on the financial aspect of the situation, and rightfully so. You'd spent a decent chunk of change on me through the first 17 years I'd been your son, and you were going to have to spend money on me while I was in college regardless. You were settling into your retirement, and not having to worry about my college tuition was a right you'd earned.

But that's not what seemed to concern you. At that point, I wanted to be a politician, and you and I had strategically planned out the next few years of my life: go to college, go to law school, run for office. The glamour of four years in NYC appealed to me, but the practicality of building a network in DC made the most sense to you. I wasn't entirely sold, but you'd never steered me wrong yet, so I once again banked on your wisdom, and once again I saw how far I'd get without you.

You did a damned good job making sure I didn't know how sick you were at first. 65-years-old, a picture of perfect health up to that point as far as I knew, if anybody'd ever intimated you had cancer, I would've laughed straight in their face.

You told me you had a polyp. You did your best to assure me that it wasn't cancerous, even though your wife would give you side-eyes whenever you'd say it. But you were my daddy, invincible and impervious to pain, and I believed you. I'll never forget the time you picked me up from my mom's with an extremely pronounced limp, a limp you said was from a chandelier falling on your leg during a fire you were putting out. I thought that made you so cool, and I already thought you were the coolest. Going into your procedure to remove that polyp, I reverted to that little kid, thinking my dad would get through whatever this hiccup was, a hiccup we'd be laughing about when you were 75 and I was old enough and successful enough to afford weekend golf vacations. If a chandelier can't stop my dad, a non-cancerous polyp for sure can't.

But the polyp was cancerous. And it spread. And I found out, and I freaked out. I lost it in that hospital, but your wife - and my stepmother, my wonderful, amazing, loving stepmother who has held us both together throughout all of this - calmed me down as best she could. She said I have to pull from your strength. That's been her constant refrain. "Pull from his strength, Justin. Pull from his strength."

You were home two days after that initial procedure, at which point I was 6 hours away studying abroad in London. We Skyped, you looked normal, you promised again you were fine, and that was that. I'd check in and you'd tell me about your golf rounds and the stuff around the house needing fixing. Once I got home, we made our drive to DC and you helped move me into my dorm. You were getting injections and blood transfusions, but I dismissed them as solutions instead of Band-Aids. Once you told me you'd found a bone marrow donor, I was over-the-moon. The hospital couldn't locate whoever it was, and I immediately asked if I could help. You flatly told me no. "Children of the patient don't typically work well for these types of things."

But then the hospital told you of some plasma treatment they wanted to try, and I could help with that. I felt so proud at that moment, knowing I could play a part in saving my daddy's life. I never told you this, but at my physical, one of your doctors said to me, "You are aware this operation could kill your father. If it does, it's not your fault." My pride - in you, in me, in the strength of our family - made me want to laugh in his face. But a seed was planted, and for the first time maybe ever, I began to consider your mortality.

The first operation didn't work. Brenda called me home to try it again. The moment she picked me up from the airport, she cautioned me about your appearance. I didn't care. I wanted to see my daddy. I wanted to hug my daddy. I wanted to try to bring some happiness into a situation you assumed you'd be nearly done with.

You stayed in that hospital nearly eight months. You missed my college graduation, me buying my first car, helping me move into my first apartment. And that bugged you. I know you would've postponed that transplant five months had you known it would've cost you seeing me cross that stage. You helped load the moving truck the day I moved out the house, but you couldn't really help me move. You did all this work laying a foundation for me, and couldn't even see the fruits of your labor.

On December 31, I ate dinner with you and my stepmother - our seafood feast, just like old times. You picked at your lobster tail, saying you couldn't eat the rest. Brenda and I ate in the dining room with Siobahn. Quietly, we worried about your breathing. Brenda mentioned your breathing had been especially labored all week. You barked that you didn't have pneumonia, just a cough and a sore shoulder. I mostly downplayed it. I was ending my year with my favorite people, and 2016 would bring to you good health and a full head of hair.

At 12:01am January 1, I called the house. Brenda answered. I heard you yelling in the background. "Happy New Year, my son!" I laughed with the biggest smile I could muster, saying I love you guys and I'll call you in the morning.

Brenda called me first. Said you weren't breathing. I didn't know exactly what to think. She was crying, so there was clearly more to the story, but you were my dad, so you'd be fine. I flew down to the hospital, and by the time I saw you, you were fairly alert. But you were in so much pain. "It hurts to breathe!" You kept yelling that. "It hurts to breathe!" In my eternal naïveté - especially as it pertains to you - I figured it wasn't something medicine and 10 days in the hospital couldn't fix. Much ado about nothing.

Until the next day when I got to the hospital and you were heavily sedated. At that point, I knew the odds weren't in my favor. I tried to hold onto hope, but I knew. We got some good news about your condition on Sunday, and I took that good news and tried milking it for everything I could. But you weren't you anymore. And I know better than anyone that you weren't willing to live if you couldn't truly live.

I'm currently dealing with a nagging headache, a headache I've really had since Monday, the day the mortality of yours I've always denied came and smacked me square in the face. And I know it's because I'm confused and am struggling to make any sense of this.

Three weeks ago, I asked you for $500. I was already $500 in the hole, so coming to you again was a risky proposition, I know. But I knew I could count on you to help me whenever I really needed it. You loaned me that money - plus a free lecture on various topics - and I promised I would pay you back on January 4. I paid you back on December 31. Clearly surprised, you laughed, and I was shocked you didn't make some joke about the check bouncing. I could see the pride in your eyes that night, though. I'd finally made good on a debt I owed you. Even you seemed impressed.

I have never been more helpless than I feel in this moment and have felt for almost a week. I'm at the scariest crossroads of my life, I have so many different things and places and jobs to navigate, and the only person I've ever truly trusted in these moments isn't here anymore. I was laying in bed three weeks ago just considering this shift into true adulthood, dealing with problems that only I can truly fix. But I felt comfortable knowing you'd always be around for advice.

You were the perfect father for me. I lived in constant fear of letting you down. I still live in that fear, and I doubt it'll ever subside. It motivated me. It'll continue to motivate me, because you've set the absolute highest standards for me to reach. I've never sought accolades or the spotlight for me. Everything I've accomplished has been for you. I'm in awe of the man you were, and I know I've got some big shoes to fill as your only son.

Thank you, Dad. For everything.

I love you.