I spent the day with my son.  Now, granted I spend almost every day with my son.  But some days are different.  Some days, you take a step back and remind yourself to remember this. This moment right here.  This is why it is OK that I am always tired.  This is why I don’t work anymore.  This.

Benjamin and I had that kind of day recently.  It was nothing big and special, nothing monumental.  Nothing that was even Facebook status worthy.  But some days you can’t imagine how you are not incredibly grateful every day that you get to hang out and raise your child.

But not every day is like that.

Some days, you are vomited on in quick succession about five times (let’s call that Monday).  Some days your child wakes up at 4:45 in the morning declaring it is light out and time to get up (Tuesday and then also Thursday).  But some days, like Wednesday, you head down to The California Science Center and The Space Museum just next door and you shoot rockets and look at satellites and watch all of the older kids in their matching T-shirts in their camp groups and you can’t imagine how some day you won’t be the one to take him to do all the cool things he likes to do.  And you’re glad he is only three and clings to you and loves you in that exhausting 24-hour kind of way.  And you briefly get sad and protective thinking of him older in one of those T-shirts roaming through the world or at least this museum without you, but then you think of him giggling in the corner with his friends and sitting in The Space Museum’s helicopter with a girl he likes and you get excited for him.  Soon, in your mind, he is married with kids, a doctor, perhaps in a small practice, who does a lot of charity work.

But none of that is why the day was so special for me, though all of that was nice.  It was one simple little moment.  We got lunch at The McDonald’s at the museum (no lectures please, probably only his second visit to McDonald’s) and we got a Happy Meal and I watched him eat French fries.  And it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

 

He ate them with pure joy.  We sat together in this big hall full of loud strangers, my child and I, and enjoyed the quiet connection between us.  The fries weren’t even that good actually.  I ate one and thought I remembered those being better, but for him, they were a delight, a treat.  And for me, sitting there with him, together, as he ate a meal I ate as a child as well, was lovely.

Eating those fries with him reminded me of my father.  My father died when I was four and my own memories of him are few, if any.  My mother tells a story about how he ate French fries.  He would take a very long thin one and bite in the middle and then stack the two pieces on top of each other and then bite in the middle again, repeating the whole process until there was no more fry.  When he did this it made my mother laugh.  When she told me this story, it made me laugh.  I don’t know why.  It’s not particularly funny or clever.  But the visual of it, for me as a child, was something I could physically do to try to imitate who he was, how he was.  And I ate fries like that for years.

I sat there with my child eating French fries, knowing I never really got to eat French fries with my dad and I was surprisingly not sad.  I was filled with love for my son and for me and for us and felt lucky that we had each other.

He will not remember that day.  He is just three.  Childhood memories before the age of four are limited.  I know.  But hopefully these moments of being together will provide him with a quiet confidence.  I know they have for me.

Sometimes it is just a flash, just a moment, like that one, that reminds me to take stock, to look around, to adjust what needs fixing and to accept and feel proud for what I may have done right.  I am not perfect.  I do not always enjoy the day to day of being a stay-at-home mom. I admit that even on that day at the science center I may have hurried him along from activity to activity because I was bored.  But he and I have created a bond and every now and then, like at a museum’s McDonald’s surrounded by a sea of campers, it announces itself grandly and quite simply knocks my socks off.

A year ago at this time my father played, what I believe to be one of the funniest April Fool’s Day jokes ever, on my mother while at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville.

Three weeks before on March 13, 2009 my father was diagnosed with a rare and extremely aggressive type of cancer, Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). Approximately one month and three weeks later, complications from this cancer, a bacterial superbug to be more precise, claimed his life on May 21, 2009, while at Duke University in Durham, the hospital he had been transferred to after leaving UVa.

He was 59.

I received a phone call that morning at 1:30 AM while in Charlottesville. Arising from bed, feet hitting the floor, I slammed my upper leg into the footboard by accident, dropping me to my knees in pain, forming a bruise that wouldn’t completely go away until over a month later, a constant reminder of what had transpired that morning.

My fiancee at the time–now wife–Allison and I had just put this bed up, having taken down our previous bed. This bed was a queen and roomier so that she and I and our dog, Motzie, could sleep comfortably altogether at night piled on the bed. I wasn’t yet used to its bulkiness, its shape in the night.

When the phone rang, I knew what it meant. Because of the time of morning, I knew it wasn’t a phone call I wanted to answer. I did nevertheless. My sister’s voice came across the phone, sad and serious, the voice of an older sister, my only sister, telling me our father was dying and for me to come as quickly to Durham as I could get my shoes on.

I packed my clothes quickly and for a brief second, pulled out a pair of khaki pants and a dress shirt and tossed them on top of my travel bag. I knew this weekend I would be going to my father’s funeral.

But instead of packing them, I placed my pants and shirt back on their rack, my loafers back in the closet, and refused to pack them. I couldn’t give up hope though I knew at this point I should. I wasn’t going to pack clothes for my dad’s funeral.

I tossed on a pair of basketball shoes, an oversized black t-shirt, and jogging pants. My wife was ready as was my dog. My wife and I have no family in Charlottesville and had to make a pit stop in our hometown which was on the way, two hours south of Charlottesville, two hours north of Durham, in Charlotte County, Virginia.

It was a long drive from Charlottesville to Durham, the longest drive I have ever taken though having traveled physically longer distances before and since.

I arrived at Duke and my dad’s sister, my aunt Gloria, met me just outside the lobby at the front door.

“It’s bad,” she said. “You need to prepare yourself.”

I knew it was bad but I didn’t know what she knew. My mom had called me a number of times while on my way to ask how far along we were.

“His blood pressure is going down,” my mom said to me, crying. “The doctors don’t know how much longer he can hold on.”

And though I knew it was bad and though I thought I had prepared myself as best mentally as I could, I couldn’t prepare myself for what I was about to see.

My stomach was extremely upset and I told my aunt that I had to go to the bathroom first, there was no way I could hold it any longer. I did so.

Then Allison and I walked toward my dad’s room in ICU, which if I am correct, was on the 9th floor. I can’t remember anymore.

My mom and sister were inside, as was my uncle Rodney, my dad’s brother, his wife Kim, and Gloria.

The machines were beeping steadily and there was a musty smell, the smell of chemotherapy that I now identified with my father’s odor.

My mom looked at me and broke down crying as did my sister.

“Talk to him,” my mom said. “He can hear you.”

His bright blue eyes were yellowed and rolled back in his head. His mouth was wide open and there was a tube going down his throat if I remember correctly. His arms were scabbed and peeling. His chest was slamming violently up and down, up and down, from the ventilator which was pumping oxygen into his chest.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

If you count those numbers as fast as you can over and over again, that’s how fast my dad’s chest was moving up and down. I couldn’t get that image out of my head for over six months and am still haunted by it from time to time.

My dad wasn’t on life support. They weren’t keeping him alive on life support just so that I could see him before he died. I heard someone say that once. I wanted to punch their teeth into the back of their throat it made me so mad.

My dad was still living on his own. Yes, with help. But on his own.

“I love you Daddy,” I said to him. “I want you to know that we will be okay.”

For the past three weeks leading up to this day, I had drafted a letter to my father.

I want you to know that you are a great father. I don’t know if I ever told you that. But you are. I want you to know that you and Mama raised two responsible, hard working kids who love you. I know you got on me when I was younger. I’m just as hard headed as you I guess. And I did some real dumb shit at times. But I want to thank you for being the stern father you always were. It made me who I am today. And just to let you know, I plan to be exactly like you when I have a kid one day and I hope he’s a boy, Daddy. I hope he’s a boy because I’m going to name him after you. I’m going to name him Wayne.

But I never did give my dad that letter. I kept writing it and rewriting it and tearing it up. If I gave my dad that letter, I thought to myself, I would be giving up hope that he would be okay, that he would outlast this cancer just like he outlasted the Stage IV Colon Cancer he had been diagnosed with ten years earlier.

I didn’t want to give up hope.

I didn’t want to abandon that human emotional response to his diagnosis even though I had a gut feeling from the moment I heard his diagnosis that this was a whole different ballgame, that it would take his life unlike the last time.

As I held my dad’s hand, I reached for his forearm and stroked it, those strong forearms that once lifted me above his head on his shoulders when I was a kid. I rubbed my thumb against his hand and then the machines started beeping, his vital signs began plummeting.

The nurses came in. The machines grew louder and louder and the beeps coming faster and faster. His chest up and up, up and down.

He didn’t want to be resuscitated.

And then he died.



You may be wondering, what was the funniest April Fool’s joke my dad played on my mom. In keeping with my mom’s wishes, I won’t say.

I called her a few days ago and asked if she would write in detail that April 1st morning last year.

But she wrote me back and asked I not tell the story.

“Mama,” I said. “It’s the funniest joke ever. I want to post it on The Nervous Breakdown first thing April 1st morning so everyone can see how funny he was. 50,000 unique readers from around the world visit this site and read what us zany writers say each month.”

“It might embarrass your father,” she responded. And I understood that because I know what the joke was.

So if you’re wondering what it was, I can’t tell you. All I can say is I alluded to it once in a response to a post by Brad Listi not long ago. And I’ll leave it at that.

As I played numerous jokes on my co-workers today, I thought of this day last year and I laughed thinking of what my dad had done.

After posting a sign on the elevators leading to my company’s office building that said, “Out of Order – Please use stairs” and then posting another sign on the doors to the stairs that read, “Stairwell Closed – Please use elevator,” I hightailed it out of work and am writing this now. I hope I have a job tomorrow.

I could have been more descriptive, yes. But that wasn’t the point of this memoir entry. It was from the heart and it’s in memory of the funniest man I’ve ever met, my own dad.

Here’s to my dad’s favorite holiday and mine.

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.

-R