On June 8, 2015, my brother and I sat in a hospital room with our dad. Dad was in palative (a.k.a. hospice) care, and though he couldn't communicate, his doctors told us he could likely hear what was happening around him. For long stretches of time, the TV in his room played nothing but sports, and if the team he had been cheering on before he fell ill won, we took it as a good omen. Eventually, the games all ended and my brother and I were left to flip the channels. I landed on Grumpier Old Men, a film that had been a mainstay of our childhoods but one that, as far as I'd seen, rarely popped up on TV anymore. We'd found something to watch. I'd forgotten how funny the movie was, with Walter Matthau bellowing "naaaaaaaaaag" at the gorgeous Sophia Loren, and Burgess Meredith making hilariously inappropriate sexual references. For the first time in days, my brother and I laughed out loud. Under different circumstances, it was just the sort of film we'd be watching with Dad. I don't know if he actually heard the film that night, but I like to think that my own grumpy old man might have cracked a smile. A few hours later, I woke up to an alarm. I unfolded myself out of the chair I'd been pretzeled into and saw that Dad had passed away in the night. The hours that passed were surreal. With nothing left to do in Santa Fe, where my father lived and died, my brother and I packed up the truck with his belongings and drove 12 hours to Austin. The silence was broken by sports radio, and when the reception crackled, we switched to satellite radio. Big mistake. Steve Winwood's "Valerie" sent me heaving, my throat closed and tears streaming down my face. I tried to hide my reaction by focusing on the side mirror, and quickly changed the station. Any time something remotely sad or emotional came on, I'd yelp "nope" and turn it off. This meant listening to things that would definitely not make me sad, like Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok," quite possibly the weirdest song to come out of the 1980s. Despite the grief pressing down on us, my brother and I looked at each other and started reciting lines like, "I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine." I can't explain it. Grief is weird that way.
When my editor asked me about my pop culture obsessions for the year, I could only think of the things I'd been avoiding, either because they're unbearably sad or because they remind me of my dad, which is unbearably sad.
Six months later, I'm still steering clear of anything that might elicit a few tears. When my editor asked me about my pop culture obsessions for the year, I could only think of the things I'd been avoiding, either because they're unbearably sad or because they remind me of my dad, which is unbearably sad. Melancholy songs. Lyle Lovett. The Paul Newman films he loved. Any movie or show in which someone might tragically die. Bruce Willis. The Bruce Willis thing is a strange one. As far as I know, Dad had no particular affinity for the actor, but he looked remarkably like him, despite having a beard and full head of dark hair. Their facial expressions and smart-ass tone were exactly alike, so much so that a friend who'd met my father once commented on it during a screening of Die Hard. It's one of the reasons I love Die Hard so much. It's also why I couldn't bear to even look at the DVD case in my living room. A recent visit from my mother changed that. My parents had been divorced nearly 30 years, so when my mom came over and suggested watching the action film, I paused, but didn't want to make a thing out of it. I watched the movie while working on my laptop, not paying much attention but still thinking about Dad. I felt sad, but I didn't snot-cry the way I had a few weeks earlier, when "The Highwayman" cued up at a memorial for my father. A week after my mom left, I found myself home alone, wrapping Christmas presents. I popped in Die Hard. The next week, I did the same thing. I'm finding it oddly comforting, I suppose because thinking about my dad doesn't have to be heartbreaking anymore. There are good memories worth reflecting upon, right down to my dad's Bruce-like eye rolls and wisecracks. I've also picked up his love of airport thrillers by Michael Connelly and David Baldacci. I'm reading the Ty Cobb biography he'd packed for the trip to Cape Cod we'd planned, but never got to take. My Netflix playlist includes classics my dad would have liked, like The Magnificent Seven and The French Connection. I'm sad I can't talk about them with him, but I can still imagine the conversations we might have had. Six months on, I'm getting there. But if you see me wince because I was not expecting that scene in Trainwreck, or if I leave the room as a Johnny Cash or Steve Earle tune cues up, just bear with me.