I remember feeling just as lost, Wuck, pacing the roof of my Berkeley apartment with a cordless phone in my hand, trying to catch anyone back home I could. I was approaching a threshold, I realize now. Oh, buddy. So much of this is “of note.”
The Vegas Breakfast Tragedy, of course, happened at a threshold too. It was a moment of departure from our shared childhood: Wuck leaving for college on the opposite side of the country. It’s easier to glimpse the subtexts twenty years later, especially because I wasn’t there and haven’t heard this story till now: when we’re letting go of something—losing something?—seldom can we properly tend to the different experiences of loss going on around us. Wuck’s buddies can’t see the Webbers’ parental grief; Mom and Dad can’t see their son’s friends’ sadness and their need to say goodbye. It’s only normal that these competing caravans—out of the Inland Valley, over the desert rim, and into the first major watering hole in the wilderness—were not united in their pacing or execution. Nobody got what they wanted, really. <quote-01>I relate to teen Wuck in the back seat, torn between his parents’ needs and his friends’ needs, unable to even tend to, or identify, his own<quote-01>. Who am I leaving? My friends? My family? Who are the primary stewards of my youth?
What really struck me in that co-remembering was your comment bubble, Wuck, where you invited us as married men, now, to consider what Father Webber was most likely negotiating at the driver’s wheel—<quote-02>as a husband<quote-02>. You have new eyes to see others’ struggles in that caravan now because you’ve crossed another threshold: your own marriage. You reminded us husbands that our primary allegiance isn’t to our friends, or our son’s friends, or sometimes even to our own kid’s emotional needs that day. <quote-03>It’s to our wives<quote-03>. As we grow up, the responsibilities and roles change. I felt your kindness and new understanding toward your dad.
I felt this even more, Murph, in your livid retelling of being trumped by your friend’s parents: how, perfectly, the saga resolved with your return to the house in which you still live, the eventual site of your own family, a home for your son (my godchild!) whom you and Kristen will eventually accompany through this same step—college or world travel or whatever—when he one day grows up and leaves you both.
I can imagine how you, Murph, might labor to orchestrate a fitting Sendoff Breakfast for Grammar’s future pals, in a parallel scenario. That’s a gift you have.
It’s what you did for Koontz’s wedding—another departure, after all: our eldest friend’s delayed transition from extended childhood into marriage. Only this I-15 sendoff came together on the other side of Vegas, as if we were picking up where the breakfast tragedy dissolved thirteen years earlier.
I know we’ve mentioned this musical ensemble two or three times in our letters already. Yet each time I find myself swimming inside a feeling that could rise to fill my eyes and wet my cheeks.
For all of your harsh fun at Koontz’s expense, Murph, you were the one thinking months before his wedding of <quote-04>what kind of musical surprise would most move the guy<quote-04>. None of us even recognized that Oingo Boingo tune when you sent us the YouTube link via email weeks ahead of time. You alone knew “We Close Our Eyes,” the song that was close to Koontz’s teenage, wandering heart. I remember stopping at a musical instrument rental shop in a residential stripmall outside of Vegas. It was planned, but it was playful, too. We grabbed instrument ideas off the walls the way gal pals toss and try on dresses in rom-com montages. “Bongos?” “Hell yeah.” “A Kazoo!” “Wait, no, check this out: a fucking melodica! Give that to Wuck. Wuck, you know what to do.” You were both child and teacher in this fray, Murph, giddy, laughing, and directing the other boys toward a vision only you could see at this point. Pat grabbed a triangle, I think, and you nodded that it fit his musical abilities. I don’t remember how I was given the coup de gras: a full glockenspiel velvet-enthroned in an unwieldy road case. A three-foot rack of chimes! I felt nervous but honored. “Hoke knows piano, Wuck,” you decided, Murph. “You play the melodica, but you can help Hoke with the metal keys just fine.” You and I looked at each other, Wuck.
An hour later, speeding through late-afternoon desert in Pat’s mom’s air conditioned Dodge Durango, you directed us from your position at shotgun. I remember sitting on the driver’s side with the chimes in my lap, two small mallets in my hands, and you, Wuck, sitting in the middle, smushed against my right hip, so patiently helping me arpeggiate and isolate patterns of the song’s chords. <quote-05>It was probably<quote-05> the most difficult instrument to learn and add to this melee, and I felt self-conscious with how much time I required between each take. This is often the standard opportunity for teasing in our group, mocking the guy holding up the show. <quote-06>But I felt protected by the two of you<quote-06>. Murph, you held the band’s attention on other things as you, Wuck, quickly, apologetically, set the glockenspiel on your own lap to model what you had in mind before returning it to my lap, so hospitably, so careful not to talk down to me or step on my learning toes—or hands, here—with your musical ability. As my two-mallet harmonies started to ring out and fill the car with the sound you’d composed, Wuck, I heard Murph’s signature joy-sound of “Yeeeaaah,” and your, <quote-07>“That’s it, Hoke!”<quote-07>
What is the power I still feel in this memory? Yes, such care and instruction were rare for our group’s usually clumsy and adolescent way of jumping on each other. But I also felt your love of music, Wuck, and your love for me, converging in this little exercise. I got a taste of what you will instinctively be as a father. Your care for precision and rightness was not bossy, but rather—coupled with a desire to host a learner inside the joy of those chords, to demonstrate how they could dazzle within a beautiful pop song— a delight. <quote-08>You wanted the learner to share that quiet joy with you. And so I did.<quote-08>
You give your child this, and you have years of shared affection ahead of you.
I wanted to give you this, I suppose, in return, at this moment you feel most lost. If I could take the mechanics of your life onto my lap, close beside you, and help you find the notes, the harmonies in your story and your song, I would. As we grow, the roles can change.
I’m now curious, Murph, about your own method of love. I think of how you’re now having to tend to your aging mother. And your asthmatic wife. And your child indefinitely home from preschool. All with discordant needs you’ve had to tune and tend and gather inside that house locked down, crammed like an SUV speeding through the desert. It strikes me you’ve been the head of that house for a very long time: 1868 N 1st Street Upland CA 91784, <quote-10>the address all of us call home<quote-10>.
I suppose I’m melting down to the core feeling of how you both have loved me. Taken care of me.
Like in that immense grassy field at New Harmony Ranch where we played softball one afternoon in the days leading up to Koontz’s wedding. I grew up pretty formidable in my chosen sports of soccer and roller hockey. But baseball was never my domain. So when we gather for some softball as a crew, I know I’m a total liability. But whenever we play, Murph, I sense you withholding your sharp tongue—and also hiding your kindness just enough so that no one accuses you of double standards—as you coach me from left field or from behind the backstop. This was one of my father’s love languages: his was always the loudest voice on the sidelines, booming affirmations at every player on our travel teams. I’m glad he was <quote-14>the only dad in our crew to join us for Kwanzaa Softball<quote-14> those Decembers when everyone was home from college. My dad could be harsh and critical in other areas—politics, theology—but on the sports field he was all happiness and encouragement.
But he wasn’t there for our Utah game. So on that makeshift diamond we fashioned in the shorn alfalfa field beneath red rocks, when I swung through like eight straight pitches, you, Murph, paused the game to come out and translate this suddenly foreign motion to something I’d understand. <quote-11>“Chopping a tree, Hoke,”<quote-11> you modeled to me. A sharp, straight line down to the ball would actually drive it upwards. I didn’t need to swing up for the sky, you counseled. You knew I’d spent a semester in the Oregon hills, where chopping wood was one of my duties. I heard your pleasure in this metaphor meeting my mind, locating a memory inside my muscles that could take a confident slice at the next pitch. It worked, too. I immediately laced an RBI triple.
Yesterday we walked to the park near our house, and Abram and I found ourselves standing for the first time as father and son on a real diamond: myself at home plate and Abram—in the Dodger hat and jersey you gave him, Murph—out on the real pitching rubber. Just the day before I’d set up our backyard with plastic cones for bases. I sent you both a video of what are becoming his first pitches with a hollow, white plastic ball, his first understanding of this game we can play together. The first magnolia blossoms of this perfect spring week were already falling on the lush grass around our feet. It’s a short window of time to enjoy.
The diamond at the park was less idyllic: the infield dirt mossy-green and moldy with disuse far older than the current pandemic. Rachel looked up on her phone why the field had been out of commission; turns out the field had been taken over by ground-nesting bees. We looked at the grimy sand. Sure enough, there were tiny holes everywhere but luckily no bees in sight. Why not chemically treat the ground and get on with our pastime, I wondered aloud. She kept reading: these nearly endangered bees help pollinate our agricultural valley, our Skagit boom industry of tulips and cold weather crops. Not to mention the magnolia in our backyard.
We are always negotiating whom we care for first.
<quote-13>So Abram and I stood facing each other for a moment on that diamond<quote-13>. We hadn’t brought baseball stuff, but Abram nonetheless took to the pitcher’s rubber. <quote-12>“I’m Maeda. Daddy’s Kershaw,”<quote-12> he shouted in his little voice. So I took a pretend batter’s stance, and Abram stretched his small arm backwards and threw the invisible ball my direction. When I took that crack at the right moment, I didn’t think of the years my dad taught me love through so many sporting seasons and patient mechanics. I thought of Murph teaching me to chop wood in the red-earthed Utah field: slice!
I pointed to my imaginary skyward shot as Abram turned to follow it over the park’s pink-blossoming Magnolia trees. “You did it, Daddy! You did it!”
Are we not all partially parented—reparented, tended in the ways we weren’t fully—by one another?
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