Rarely, if ever, does someone voluntarily set out to perform a personal accounting, of faults, of foibles, of general things that, yeah, it might be helpful to change in some way. Too long have I defined myself as much or more in terms of the many, many, MANY things I love than through the people I love. If the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the various hardships and restrictions it has heaped by the double-handful upon modern life – which have amounted to an unqualified hard stop for me on so many of those “things” in question – has had any silver lining (and it would be unseemly to linger on them, if so), it would be just the one: I talk to my parents much more frequently now than I did a mere four months ago. Nothing else really changed, in terms of scheduling. My priorities just reset, more or less spontaneously, in accordance with the current world order. Mom, long retired from the pharmaceutical game, still lives alone with her menagerie of farm and farm-adjacent animals in the East Tennessee house in which I spent the majority of my teens. Dad and his wife still live in a house in West North Carolina ski country I’ve never visited – he always came to me – taking his extended morning walks and reaching out to counseling clients from his home office over Zoom. Mom isn’t in unimpeachable health, but she tries to keep me from worrying; Dad isn’t quite as upbeat as he ever was, either, but I recognize/commend his continued effort.
These regular calls – which range from small talk about dinner, the weather, and local gossip, to impromptu symposiums on what I’ve been watching or listening to lately*, to civil, productive, if often biting, two-headed political commentary, to occasional deep digressions seemingly pulled out of a lost Bergman film – help keep their spirits up. Of this I would be convinced, even if they didn’t often confirm my theory without prompting. What I get out of the arrangement is similar, if precisely a little more self-serving, something I’ve tried to articulate to Mom a few times before becoming ensnared in the limits of my Communications degree. As a childless bachelor, I’ve spent almost every minute of the last three months in my apartment, working from home, depending on groceries delivered by awesome kids not financially able to mimic either my comparatively plush daily routine or unfortunate, however inadvertent, sense of applied self-importance. I’m not afraid of the Coronavirus per se, though I am cautious, and I certainly afford it the respect it deserves. I don’t deny its existence; I don’t downplay its potential; I don’t even assert that we’ve definitively survived its “first wave” yet. This is how I’ve lived my life and continue to, even as I tentatively venture out of doors like a bear from hibernation for sporadic, socially distanced happy hours, masked drive-thru assignations (for I do love food), and mad dashes into and out of my local CVS. Yesterday, receiving my first haircut since January, was far and away the longest extended indoor period I’ve spent anywhere in months.
*If you’re itching to assign blame for my propensity to hold forth on nerdy topics to no end, look no further than my father, who, bless him, encouraged it as an avenue toward connection in the years following the divorce and, even as our relationship grew and matured, never seemed to second-guess that tactic, backed off, or looked back.
What I get out of these regular talks, for I’m not yet in any position to responsibly do more, is the feeling of being plugged into a distant but uninterrupted circuit – or maybe “current” is a better word – of thankfully unconditional love. For an inveterate introvert intimately familiar with loneliness, these conversations make me momentarily whole, in addition to feeling connected to the two most important people in the world. Your mileage, and choices, will surely vary – though you could do far worse. My apologies too, for coming across like a pop-up ad for the power of sustained, audible, conversational speech in the pulsing digital heart of the meme and soundbite age, but here we are. I own the anachronism. Inevitably, because he is both a keen student of human nature and a superb cheerleader, one who never sweats top billing, our discussions turn to me and my latest diversions, but it’s always cool to hear Dad talk about his own ongoing COVID projects, viewing habits, and his runaway “healthy addiction” to morning walks, for which he drives to appealing nearby greenspace on pretty days or to an indoor mall when skies seem less cooperative. I’ve felt a twinge or more of envy lately as he talked about the intangible benefits his daily walks afford him and encouraged me to do something similar. The pandemic has taken so much away from us in the short term, as well as altering most everything going forward, perhaps irrevocably. It’s always important to take stock of, and part in, those things that are both pleasurable and possible.
Against all odds and bucking most measurable recent trends, Father’s Day 2020 dawned sunny, calm, and beautiful. I was ready for it. I bounded out of bed at 7:30 and got dressed. I gathered my accumulated recycling into two big bags and took it out to the bin in a nearby parking lot to gauge the day. Finding it more than mild enough for my liking, I fairly bounded back to my apartment to snag my mp3 player so I could begin my own long overdue walk in earnest. My apartment complex is a not-quite labyrinth of neighboring buildings and the oft-adjoining parking lots that service them, blanketed in many spots by patches and thickets of solid, overhanging greenery. I spent the early part of Spring 2019 charting a dependable path that would allow me, as the spirit so moved, to walk from my apartment to either the mailbox kiosk located at the front of the property and back, avoiding the main thoroughfare, or in a giant loop around the alternately bright and shaded backs of several buildings through a continuous lot that constituted about a 18-minute “lap”, or if I was ever feeling saucy, both. This morning found me plenty inspired, and I checked my mail then immediately did two laps before returning to write this post. I encountered an older neighbor wearing a “Steelers football” shirt, which I am contractually obligated to compliment. We chatted about the upcoming season’s uncertain footing – not the Steelers’ season, mind you, but ANY NFL season at all – and I told him I was glad we were currently slated to play in the Hall of Fame game** that traditionally kicks off the preseason. I have a sinking feeling that that might be the only professional football we see before the bottom falls out of the league’s tentative, so-far uninspiring Coronavirus strategy. I hope I’m wrong, obviously. I’m also DVRing that game and will not even consider erasing it until I witness the regular season physically kicking off.
**Also well overdue are personal congratulations to the Steelers’ 2020 Hall of Fame class, which is impressive by ours or, frankly, any standard: Super Bowl-winning coach and irrepressible chin Bill Cowher; all-pro strong safety and four-time Super Bowl winner Donnie Shell; and all-world strong safety and two-time Super Bowl winner Troy Polamalu, who, with his preternatural football instincts and singular playing style – kinetic and recklessly physical yet strangely graceful and occasionally acrobatic – remains, for my money, the quintessential “must-watch” player in modern NFL history. Wish I could be in Canton to properly toast you this summer. More to the point, I wish you could be. Cheers, all.
The soundtrack for my walk, randomly chosen but somehow still well-selected, was Omens, the new album from Boston stoner prog-metallers Elder. A mid-paced but driving offering of ten and twelve-minute songs, Omens enhanced my time outside without competing for attention, and would have been just as welcome and appropriate accompanying a journey through Middle Earth as through Columbus, Ohio. It was a gorgeous morning in general. Light filtered gently through the trees when I was able to walk in shade, falling up and away into a bright sunburst vanishing point imprinted like stray punctuation on the otherwise unbroken foliage, and never beat down too oppressively whenever I entered the comparative straightaways. At one point on my second lap I encountered some charming chalk graffiti located just off the sidewalk and into the lot. I couldn’t make sense out of it any more than I imagine some disgruntled readers can properly decode my prose, but I picked out the words “MOSES” and “DAD”, stacked in a conspicuously meaningful pairing, as well an accompanying stray greeting I initially misread as “HI MOM”, so it ticked some boxes. On and on I walked, enjoying myself as the day began to heat up and, especially, appreciably brighten, which, for a change, wasn’t notable as a purely physical characteristic. Mostly, I thought of my Dad, of all we’d been through and all he’d meant to me, both pre-COVID and now, on what has basically become an “every other day” calling schedule, and this post began to formulate.
I hoped he was having the latest in his ongoing series of great walks at that exact moment. The thought made me smile. I rather think he was. I found myself looking forward to the next time we’d be able to walk and talk together – for it is always a lovely and welcome feature of our periodic visits throughout the (normal) calendar year – without knowing exactly when that might be. I would’ve gladly taken another lap alone when the time came round to choose, just to squeeze the maximum out of the moment, but suddenly I needed to get inside. I needed a drink of water. I had a few things to say.
It’s impossible to overstate how big a deal getting my haircut was yesterday. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Or perhaps we’ve all been through something sneakily poignant lately, or at least remarkably similar, and I’m just late to the socially distanced party. It’s good to see you, by the way. Regardless, I left the salon almost transformed, and now that I felt confident walking around in public without a hat for the first time since winter – now that my hair, which is wavy and unruly a month from its best day, did not also look as if a bomb had exploded inside my head, blowing said mane outward in a chaotic blast pattern of curly-q tendrils – I was unreasonably invested in the moment in doing exactly that. I texted a friend of mine to get the go-ahead, and then drove across town to indulge in a few craft brews at his house and shaded quality time on his back deck. I stopped at a drive-thru before leaving that side of town – which had still been my side of town a scant fifteen months earlier – to partake in some in-demand fried chicken that’s frustratingly harder to come by as you move north. It was a pretty great day. When I returned home, arriving a few minutes before I was to call Mom, the message I’d expected – the one I’d been almost dreading, since leaving my apartment for the afternoon and early evening would almost certainly squash any chance I had to talk to Dad that day – sat unassumingly on my phone’s digital display. I pressed play, and listened to the following (paraphrased) message:
“Hey Eric, it’s your Dad. It’s about 6:00 on Saturday. Since you’re not home right now, I’m going to assume that you are out enjoying the day, maybe with one of your friends. Sure hope so. If I don’t hear from you today, we’ll catch up tomorrow. Love you, buddy.”
Yes, you definitely will. Love you, Dad – for everything you’ve done for and meant to me; for everything you’ve taught me, whether explicitly or by example; for providing the template for what a loving father might, can, and should be, one I’m thrilled to see being played out by so many of the young dads I’m privileged to know; for never encouraging me to be anything but myself, and for embracing the result enthusiastically. Talk to you soon. Happy Father’s Day.