September 15, 2009
The first memory I have of my father is my earliest image of anything, a thunderous voice demanding I finish some long-forgotten meal. I was still in a high chair then, and the world was binary, black and white, yes or no. Mostly no. If you were uncertain about whether a particular action was permissible, you didn’t have to wait long to find out. The loud voice made the world exceedingly simple.
But while I often feared the consequences of my questionable behavior, I was never afraid of my father. To be honest I don’t know how he pulled that off. Maybe the secret is I’ve always known where I stood with him. I knew generally what was right and what was wrong, and I knew I would always be treated fairly. I also knew my father loved me.
Like if I was sick to my stomach at three in the morning, crouched over a toilet on the other side of the house, somehow he was there with a cool washcloth on my forehead. Or when I wrecked my bike and cut myself so badly I still have the scars, there he was washing my wounds, so proud of me for not crying. Or the way he constantly reminded me how he never earned the grades in school I brought home with ease. I wasn’t so sure about that, since I believed my father to be the smartest man in the world, but I appreciated him saying it anyway.
He was raised on the red, desolate plains of north Texas. In small towns like his, there was nothing to do and everything to do. He grew up hunting and fishing and working. He spent several summers on a harvest, twelve hours a day of backbreaking labor under a sweltering sun. After high school he made a stab at college but not a very serious one. He knew his own strengths and where he might find success, and it wasn’t between the covers of a textbook.
So he married my mother, took a job for a treating company, and began a nearly forty-year, zig-zag journey through the oilfields of the central United States. He drove a treating truck, sold oilfield chemicals, took jobs in places other sales reps wanted no part of. Together with my mother he saved our family from repeating the modest upbringing of their rural youth.
To my brother, sister, and me, the stories of my parents’ gritty childhoods were mythological, something you might read in a Larry McMurtry novel. In fact McMurtry himself grew up less than fifteen miles from my mother’s house…and yet I had no idea there was a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist nearby until almost ten years after he won the award.
Why? Because though my father instilled core values that will always be part of me, and though he taught me many important things, he reads sparingly. If he read any novels at all during my nineteen years at home, I never saw them. I, on the other hand, was an insatiable reader. In my teens I burned through books like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451.
Considering the amount of hours my father put in at work, that his wife and three children were waiting to pounce when he walked through the front door every evening, he probably had little time to read. More importantly, literature has never been part of his world. He spent his youth outdoors, on his feet, and can barely sit still long enough to watch a film, let alone read a novel.
But even though literature wasn’t necessarily important to him, he never tried to separate me from it. I suppose he might have been frustrated to see me sprawled across my bed on sunny summer days, engrossed in a book when I could have been outdoors, but that didn’t stop him from purchasing me a typewriter for Christmas when I was 18. I think he first asked if I wanted a shotgun, and I would have been happy with one for sure, but he knew what I really wanted. And though he never asked what sort of projects I was working on, the Christmas gift was an unspoken message of support I’ve never forgotten.
In 1984 my mother was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. The course of her disease changed the course of my father’s life. He intentionally altered his upward-moving career path to make things easier on her. We lived closer to family, we moved to climates kinder to the disease. Eventually he arranged to work from home so he could he spend more time with her.
Retired now, my father is very nearly a scratch golfer, as well as an accomplished hunter and fisherman, but he’s never left my mother’s side. The two of them have changed their diets (based on a book, no less) as a possible way to slow the progression of her MS. And believe it when I say that watching my conservative, hard-nosed father wander through the aisles of a whole foods store looking for gluten-free products was one of the most surreal and impressive experiences of my life.
Though he never recommended a novel to me, or had any idea how to land a literary agent, my father was as instrumental as anyone in my quest to become a published novelist. Maybe he would have preferred for me to study petroleum engineering or even medicine, but the most important lesson the elder Richard Cox ever taught me is this: Don’t give up. As many times as I was rejected as a young novelist, as inept and uneducated as I felt trying to break into the world of publishing, I never once considered quitting. Fully aware of my modest storytelling and compositional skills, I worked hard to improve them, and though I’ve now published two novels, I still have a long way to go.
But I would never had made it this far without him.
So Dad, I thank you. And on behalf of my brother and sister, we thank you. For making sacrifices on our behalf, for standing beside our mother while she has fought a terrifying disease, for adapting your own strongly-held views to our divergent cultural and political beliefs, we all thank you. If I ever have a child, I will pass along your lessons to him or her with pride.
However…if my son requires assistance on how to knock down a mourning dove with his .410 shotgun, I might have to ask you to lend a hand. I’ve never been as good a shot as you.
But I could use another lesson.