By LaRue Cook
On December 10, 2000, my father quit breathing. I was 15. He was 74. You did read that right, and I was his biological son, born to a mother 30 years his junior — his second wife, and we were his second life. I was an uncle the minute I entered the world, with a brother and a sister more than twice my age. The Cook family patriarch died on a Sunday, sometime in the morning. The sun was up, but it was overcast and cold, at least cold for Kingston, Tennessee.
My father died at home in the spare room where we’d set up his bed for hospice care. He’d been living on a ventilator at the hospital for a week, ever since he stumbled off a sidewalk and smacked his head on the concrete after leaving my high school basketball game in a nearby town. His brain had hemorrhaged profusely because of the blood thinner he took to keep a clot from hitting his mechanical valve. With your ear up to his chest, you could hear his heart click … click ... click. But my family eventually agreed to pull the plug, and the valve marked time for two more nights.
I grew up in a modest house, one story, about 1,300 square feet. It was smaller when my father bought the two-bedroom in the 1950s, back before I was even a thought, back when what would one day become my bedroom was a one-car garage. The spare room where he died was also where we kept our first and only computer, a makeshift office for my father, who was retired but still worked as a local radio personality and as a PR man for a nearby school district, writing human interest stories that appeared in the county newspaper. He’d actually been the sports editor and an advertising salesman — before becoming managing editor and part-owner — of that paper the same decade he’d purchased the house, back when a man without a college degree and no formal training could do such a thing.
That was the only house I’d known, red brick with white vinyl siding trim, atop a steep hill that had a weeping willow tree in the middle of it. The tree was magical to me, like something out of a children’s book, enormous and neon green, its branches drooping from the mossy weight. My father would rock with me in our white front porch swing and sing an old folk song, “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” We couldn’t see them beneath the soil, but the willow’s roots were as vast as its branches and had begun to wrap around the town’s water lines. So the city cut the willow down when I was a little boy, and I cried. That was the first time I experienced what it is to lose a part of yourself — no consolation, no regeneration, just a gaping hole in your universe.
* * *
I’m writing this at 31 years old, the night before the 16th anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve been on this earth now longer without my father than with him. I’ve written several thousand words, trying to recount the final days of his life through my 15-year-old eyes, but I’ve deleted most of them. I will write them someday, but I might need 16 more years before I can do my 15-year-old self justice. I can’t explain the chasm that opens after a loss like that, a chasm between who I might’ve been and who I became. I can’t make sense for you how I was able to start stitching up my heart the minute it’d been broken, to be so stoic, to not miss a day of school or a basketball practice while my mother helped bathe my father with a sponge and slept in a recliner next to him in the ICU.
I can’t fathom how on the same day I watched my father be lowered into the ground I also took a chemistry final in a classroom by myself, just me and the teacher, who’d allowed me to finish it during lunch. I made an A, by a point. I don’t have it in me, not in the wee hours of this morning, to describe the antiseptic ER room, or the slack-jawed expression on my father’s blank face as I stood over him prior to his brain surgery. I could comprehend, even at that age, that his spirit was already lifted, that the angels had already taken their share.
I felt the need to write this simply as proof of the thing occurring. I felt the need to own the walling off I’ve done, the cliché coping mechanism I’ve created, the digging of a hole without knowing the shovel was in my hands. I miss my father. I do. But he exists, for now, in a place I can’t exorcise, any more than I can replicate the carefree smile of that blond-headed 15-year-old, the light in his blue eyes.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I picked up a Catholic priest on a Sunday night, his clergy collar still neat and tight. He was taking an Uber to downtown Knoxville for a beer with friends after giving his sermons and making his rounds. I told him I’d been raised Lutheran in a town run by Baptists. He smiled at that. I said I’d rarely missed a Sunday until I went to college, but that I can count on two hands the times I’ve been back in the pew since. “The Lord and I are still on speaking terms, though,” I said. He gently laughed at that, and then shifted to the subject of my day job.
“I write fiction,” I said. “I write a lot about characters who struggle with free will and blind faith, why it is people do the awful things that they do, and then spend their lives searching for an answer.”
The priest was quiet for a while, considering my insinuation that free will and blind faith are mutually exclusive. “Free will is God’s greatest gift,” he said. “Because without it, there is really no true love of God.” The priest told me of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot who wrote a book that dissects the stages of human love for the Christian God. The priest said I should read it, if for nothing more than fodder for stories. But I figure a priest doesn’t ever stop being a fisher of men, does he?
Never one to dismiss honest advice, I read passages from Clairvaux and the stages begin out of selfish love, out of love equated to the literal hunger for a mother’s milk, a love for the one who assuages hunger. Then comes the love of an earthly father, a love of free will, a love of a person that is a choice. I hadn’t considered it, but my father was my friend, a man I didn’t need to survive, but one I wanted to be a part of my survival. My brother and sister had grown old enough to have a relationship with our father as adults, and while I don’t talk to them much about his death, I’d say they have regrets, things they would’ve said had they known a Friday night in December would suddenly be the last time they’d hear his voice. I do not feel regret because I was with him right up until the end, nothing left unsaid, no apologies necessary because I had yet to accumulate the mistakes that would later come.
Regret, I believe, is an adult emotion, one that you can only experience once you’ve put enough life behind you to appreciate never being able to live it over. If there is any regret or sadness to be found in my father’s death, it is in the fact that I let his death teach me to shut out the world. And that has caused more regret and more sadness than any death, because I’ve spent my adult life avoiding the potential pain that comes with loving someone more than yourself.
In the scheme of existence, human life is fleeting. That is an unequivocal fact. But when you are faced with life’s tangibleness at such an early yet formative age, as I was, you reexamine your own shelf life. You reexamine the human need for love, which can bring pain. You reexamine the need to breed new life, which can bring pain. You reexamine your very existence, which is only an earthly endeavor, one that you’ve now seen come and you’ve seen go, one that you have seen be relatively erased with the passage of time. You begin to seriously believe that love isn’t worth the return on investment.
That’s why this is an apology, not a tribute — an apology to my mother, first and foremost, for distancing myself from the woman who raised me, the only woman who has loved me unconditionally. But an apology also to the women who’ve had to suffer through, hoping they would see that carefree smile or the light in my eyes again, only to be disappointed. I’ve hurt them in ways that I will explain. I just don’t have the space or context to do those women justice here, other than to say that I was unfairly asking them to carry a cross that wasn’t theirs to bear. On each anniversary of my father’s death, since leaving that redbrick house on that steep hill in Kingston, Tennessee, I’ve considered the collateral damage I’ve created, and I can finally acknowledge that the war has never been between anyone other than myself and God, the only one I can blame for taking my father, my only true love.
In January 2016, at the age of 30, LaRue Cook walked out on his job as a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He sold his Connecticut condo and moved back to his native East Tennessee. “I started writing, and to help pay the bills, I was an Uber driver in Knoxville,” Cook said. Today, he remains an Uber driver in metro Atlanta while pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at Georgia State University. Woodhall Press will publish his collection of essays, “Man in the (Rearview) Mirror,” on March 1. Pre-orders will be available here.