It’s the early 1970s, in Germany, in this grainy, soundless home movie that I’m watching. Young members of the Army band march by, on streets and on stadium fields, performing elaborate formations and marching with far more precision than any band I’ve ever seen. Every once in a while, a blur of trombones will pass by and I lean in, trying to somehow make this faded, too-far-away footage become clearer.
Somewhere in that lineup is my dad.
We fast forward past more marching until we see scenes at a swimming pool, skiing, and sledding. There’s no way I can tell who is who—everyone is far away, moving too fast, and so incredibly young. My kid lolls on my office floor remarking how terribly boring this is. He thought we were going to see grandpa. My husband patiently sits through the admittedly boring footage, too. We’d been looking at old pictures the other day and Callum had shown Matthew one of Grandpa Jim he was going to keep out. Matthew started to tear up. “Are you crying?” asked Callum. “I loved Jim,” my husband says. “He was a good guy.” He pauses a moment. “He was also a terrifying guy.”
I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of high school students who had my dad as a principal over the years would say the same thing.
Later that same day, I’m in the kitchen listening to Terrible, Thanks for Asking. “How come every podcast host sounds the exact same?” Callum asks. He asks this about once a month. “Everyone sounds like Hillary Frank,” he says. That’s one of the first podcasts he remembers listening to (The Longest Shortest Time)—and the only one he’s ever been on—so she’s always his go-to host. He listens a little more. “This is really sad. All of the episodes are sad, aren’t they?” They are. “I heard you listening to one about a dead dad. How can you listen to that?” he asks, concerned. “Doesn’t it make you cry? Doesn’t it make you think of grandpa?” I do cry, I tell him. But whether it’s grief or parenting or mental illness (hello, The Hilarious World of Depression), there is comfort in hearing stories like your own. In the shared horrors of loss or parenting or our brains.
There were other chapters to watch on that home movie—things recorded at various Army band reunions over the years. I didn’t watch them. I can’t yet. It’s been nearly four and a half years since my dad was killed. One of his buddies from the Army band days sent me these DVDs not long after he died. I didn’t even take them out of the bubble wrap until the day I watched them this past week.
Some days my brain still refuses to actually believe it. I see a red Jeep driving and think, for a second, that it’s him. Even though I know he’s dead. Even though I know that Jeep was obliterated by a semi-truck. It is not him. But for a second, my brain goes, maybe. It’s the same way I sometimes see someone out of the corner of my eye and turn quickly, thinking I’ll catch him. My brain says, let’s be irrational. Maybe he’s still alive. And he’s following you. Just checking in.
Brains are annoyingly bad at filtering out irrational thoughts. Especially my brain.
My dad and I had a less than wonderful relationship, to put it mildly. The years since his death have been complicated for me. My grief feels equals parts for having lost him and for having lost the ability to ever have anything other than a relatively distant relationship with him. But I think about him all the time. Some days those thoughts are really cruddy and difficult—they’re thoughts full of stupid crap I’ve hung onto for too long or an endless loop of thoughts about how he died. That’s when I’m thankful for therapy and medication. Most of the time when I think about my dad, though, it’s in relation to Callum. My dad adored Callum. My dad would have loved to be able to listen to Callum play his trumpet—and, as a former band director with a master’s in music performance, would have had some thoughts about Callum’s lazy way of practicing while practically lying on the floor. He would get a kick out of Callum’s verbosity. He would probably be able to deliver a damn fine lecture to Callum about homework and school behavior (and probably scare the hell out of him, which would be so useful).
“I barely understood what it meant to die,” Callum says, as we sift through old family pictures. “You were so sad and I don’t think I cried much because I didn’t really get it.” He was only six. No one expected him to have to understand death yet—certainly not death in this horribly unexpected and gruesome way. “I was sad because I knew we’d never see him again.”
But there are so many things that remind us of my dad. Pictures, sure, and memories, but also things like Callum’s natural music talent, or the sly grin of both Callum and my brother, a grin that indicates mischief (and is the same grin my dad and my uncle, who died by suicide when I was just a kid, shared), or certain words we use that trace back to the large vocabulary of made-up words my dad and his siblings used.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to watch any of those other home movies. Maybe never. The 1970’s Germany footage was just crummy enough that I couldn’t tell which tall, thin, white dude in the band was my dad—and that was okay. That made it easier for me to watch. But I knew he was in there—young and alive. It was maybe one of the first times I felt able to be reminded of his life without also being shoved into a meltdown about his death. Slow progress, but I’ll take it.