The missing years

My dad passed away peacefully on a beautiful Sunday morning 20 years ago today. These deathiversaries – as I am wont to call them – have become sacred days on my calendar and I try to celebrate my father in a special way. He loved being outdoors, so you’ll most often find me on a long walk or a stroll in some gardens. And I find myself almost always happy. That was one of my father’s most indelible traits – he was an eternal optimist. Damn him. It’s a tough act to follow for sure.

Twenty years is a big one to wrap my head around – so I did some math. That’s funny because I’m not good at math but I did figure out that I have now lived 31% of my life without my father. That’s almost a third of my life – you can check my work on that. I’m not sure why I did that because it certainly didn’t comfort me. I guess this is just my convoluted way of telling you that I have lived a long time without my father.

Same.

Lately, I’ve been imagining a conversation with him – probably over a Coors Light – his beer of choice. I would give him a recap of some of the highlights of the past two decades. (There are a lot of ways to measure 20 years.) Without a doubt, the very first thing that I would tell him is that his beloved University of Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA National Championship in basketball in 2019. Nothing on this earth would have made him happier. Nothing. My father loved sports – as a participant and a fan. More importantly – to me at least – he was a good sport, too. He was a humble winner – although his teams didn’t do a lot of that – and he was the rarest of men – a gracious loser. No one was louder than him watching a game – well, maybe me and my sister. We inherited his sonic capacity for yelling. I don’t use that voice very often anymore – it terrifies my cat and makes my dear wife question her choices in life. Dad was always in it to win it, but was amiable in defeat and would optimistically lament, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Here’s an ironic sidebar. That magical night UVA captured the national championship, I watched the game alone in my condo silently while said dear wife was sleeping. You see, she cares less about sports than anyone I’ve ever known. It is one of her few flaws and I have learned to live with it. Let me remind you that that game went into overtime. Silent overtime. Granted, I was ferociously texting with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris in Charlottesville – but I didn’t make a peep. That said, I’m fairly certain that I damaged some internal organs by keeping all of that emotion inside. When the game was over and UVA had finally won THE BIG ONE, I wept with unbridled, albeit hushed joy. And I swear I could smell my father’s cologne. He was right there beside me. He still is in so many ways.

Rarer than a Bigfoot sighting – my dear wife enthusiastically cheering at a football game. (Probably because it was over.)

I would also tell my dad about the lore of the Bubba lucky charm. He had season tickets to UVA football games – no doubt where he honed his good loser skills. After he died, I kept the tickets for a few seasons. They were great seats, and it was nice to get together with Chris in Charlottesville on sun dappled fall afternoons. I don’t recall exactly how it began, but we invented a good luck ritual to use during games – the Lucky Bubba. My niece and nephew called my father Papa Bubba, and it became an endearing nickname that we all used. Chris and I decided that during each game we would be allowed three “Bubbas” to use when we needed something good to happen for UVA. We took this lark quite seriously and used our three lucky charms strategically. Sure, more often than not, UVA would still lose the game, but the Bubbas worked enough times to keep us engaged. And when a Bubba brought us to victory – well, that was the best. We still rely on Dad’s lucky charm – mostly by text. Laugh if you will, but we’ll always have that 2019 national championship.

Me (quietly) celebrating UVA’s Natty with my dad. And yes, those are of tears of joy.

I would most certainly tell my dad that I got married – real married. A lot can happen in 20 years. He would be pleased that I married a woman who shares his very best qualities. My wife is also an optimist and like my father, wakes up cheerful every morning. And like him, she is tall. My father regarded height as a virtue. He was 6’4’’ so I guess he did have a particular perspective on the subject. My wife also shares my father’s reverence for nature – particularly flowers. He had a green thumb and grew the most beautiful roses. He loved caring for them, and I can still picture his long frame bent over pruning his beauties on a hot day.

My dad was an everything’s coming up roses kind of guy, so it makes sense he had such a way with them.

I don’t know if I would tell Dad about the pandemic, but I have often thought that he would have done well with it. My dad was a resolute handwasher. He grew up dirt poor on a farm with no indoor plumbing, but I guess my grandmother instilled the importance of proper handwashing in him. He had big hands to match that tall frame and when he would come in from working in the yard, his first stop was always the kitchen sink to wash his hands. His hands were graceful, and he was never in a hurry as he scrubbed them. He was almost prayerful about it – as if he were giving thanks for the beauty of the earth and the soil between his fingers. I can just think of him washing his hands and feel peaceful.

The lucky truth is that I have a conversation with my father almost every day. These chats can run the gamut from fuchsias to flounder to Tony Soprano. My dad is in so many of the things that I love, too, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. I don’t have to search for a connection to him – it runs deep inside me. No, I’m not the eternal optimist he was, but I am more often hopeful than not, and I think he had something to do with that. And Lord knows, I’m a good loser and I have found this to be an invaluable gift in this life.

My father had a mantra long before mantras were fashionable. He would tell us, “Only cry in victory, never in defeat.” As I kid, I thought he was talking about sports. Turns out it can be applied to all sorts of situations and his words have been a compass for me these past 20 years. And that is why should any of my tears fall today, they will gently land on the corners of a smile.

Thanks, Bubba.

I keep this photo on the bookshelf in my office. It is the essence of my father – outdoors, shirt off, cold beer in his hand and a smile on this face. Cheers, Dad! And keep those Bubbas coming – we need them in all sorts of ways.

One shining moment

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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

I like to think I’m a deep, complicated person, but really there are just a few things you need to know about me to really know me. I love family, dolphins, Jesus, the Rockettes and sports. Not necessarily in that order. And before you haters get all judgy – and you know who you are, for me, sports and family have always been deeply intertwined. I’ll get into that later. Oh, and the other thing I love is being a Virginian. Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina since 1995, but I will always – always – be a Virginian.

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Home is where the heart is. For reals.

This revelation was never more apparent to me last week when the University of Virginia Cavaliers played Texas Tech in the finals of the NCAA basketball championship. ACC basketball is a religion if you live around Tobacco Road as I do and UNC, Duke, and NC State are the Holy Trinity. UVA is treated as that second cousin by marriage that you can’t quite remember how you’re related to.

I was born in Virginia and lived in several cities there for the first 39 years of my life, but none longer than the dozen years I lived in Charlottesville. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever live in a prettier place and it is not surprising that C-ville often pops up on lists of one of the best places to live in the US.

My father was a UVA alum and I grew up going to a lot of Cavalier basketball and football games with him. They lost a lot back then, but it never seemed to deter his enthusiasm for the ‘Hoos – the unofficial nickname for sports teams of the school. He would always say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda (his nickname for me).” Most times, next time took years.

Dad had great seats for UVA basketball – on the floor a few rows back from the team. You could hear the squeaking of the players’ sneakers and the coaches yelling at the refs. As a kid it was all pretty exciting, especially the coaches cussing, and we enjoyed some glory years when NBA Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson led Virginia to two final four appearances.

When my dad passed away in 2002, UVA’s fight song was played on the church organ at his memorial service and his absence was a strong presence on Monday night as I settled in to watch the game. I could almost feel him next to me on the couch. Our father/daughter bonding was mostly done over watching games and I’m so grateful that I inherited his passion and appreciation for sports. Sadly, my dear wife cares less about sports than anyone I have ever known, and she went to bed before tip-off. I was left to virtual watch with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris who lives in Crozet – a charming little town just outside of Charlottesville.

UVA led for most of the game but lost a 10-point lead late. That’s when I grabbed a

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How my sister “watched” the game.

picture of my dad off my bookcase and held it the rest of the game. Laugh if you must, but I don’t think I would have made it through those excruciating last minutes (including an overtime, are you kidding me?!) without him. My sister had stopped watching on TV late in the first half – she couldn’t take the tension and relied on me for text updates. I felt like an old-time Western Union operator sending telegrams. UVA is up by two. Stop. Texas Tech just hit a three. Stop. I’m having a heart attack. Stop.

As victory seemed so secure that even UVA couldn’t blow it, I texted her to turn the TV back on so that she could bask in the victory. When it was over – really over and we had won – I called her and we both sobbed. No words. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life. Oh, and just to be clear –sure, I was thrilled that UVA won, but those tears weren’t for a basketball game. No, they were for my dad. I got to witness one of my father’s wildest dreams come true and that, my friends, truly was priceless.

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My Instagram post after UVA won. And, yes, those are tears in my eyes.

That night – actually, the next day – when I finally got into bed at 2:00 AM, a montage of all the games I’d seen with my dad went through my head. I’m sure I smiled the whole night through and I wasn’t even tired when the alarm went off at 6:00 AM. And the first thing my wife said to me was, “Well, I guess your team won.” Bless her heart.

Yes, “my” team won, but it was so much bigger than that. Charlottesville won. Ever since the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017 when self-proclaimed members of the alt-right and white nationalists marched to promote white supremacism, Charlottesville has been identified with harrowing images of hate. None of us who love Charlottesville will ever forget those images – angry white men marching with tiki torches  on UVA’s main quadrangle and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” We were completely gutted.

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Get off my lawn. Seriously.

That’s why a basketball game felt so important. It provided some healing, if just for a few hours, for a community that really needed it -in the transcendent way that few other experiences can. Chris texted me a few days after the game – she had been down to the notorious Corner – a seven block area of bars, restaurants and shops that serves as the hub of UVA social life. It is the home of Mincer’s, a fourth-generation family owned business selling UVA merchandise since 1948. Mincer’s was where most of my dad’s Christmas presents came from every year, because one really can’t have too many UVA coffee mugs.

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Dad’s Christmas haul always included lots of UVA merch.

Chris had gone to get her championship T-shirt – the exact same one that the team wore after their victory. She has lived in Charlottesville for over 40 years and those events almost two summers ago wounded her deeply. She texted me an adorable picture of herself in her shirt, and wrote, “It was so cool to see so many people, townspeople mostly, not students, so excited to be buying shirts – young, old, black, white. This is the Charlottesville I know and love.”

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Winning fits Chris to a tee. We have been through a lot of losses together – in all manner of ways.

I am far from naive. I know a basketball game can’t resurrect Heather Hyer, the young woman fatally run over on the Downtown Mall while peacefully protesting the Unite the Right rally, or erase the years of bitter racial conflict surrounding Mr. Jefferson’s University that was built by slaves. As UVA Associate Professor Lisa Woolfork reflected in an op-ed piece for CNN, “They are NCAA champions. They are students who worked diligently in their courses and on the court. They are not hand sanitizer. Their accomplishments should not be used to conveniently expunge traumatic racist history or clean the reputation of this city.”

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I made a somber visit to Charlottesville a few weeks after the Unite the Right rally.

She’s right. We all love a happy ending and often gloss over the ugly origin while skipping through the agonizing middle, but there can be no shortcuts on the road to redemption. And it can never be a tidy process. We must continue the difficult conversations and we are compelled to sit with discomfort. Our country is deeply broken, and no sporting event on earth can eradicate the deep and painful scars of the past, but for one shining moment in April, Charlottesville felt whole again.

And I was home.

scott statdium

A community celebrates a championship…

cville strong

and the journey to redemption for this city I love continues.

 

 

 

House fire

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The Downtown Mall in happier times.  Photo: visitcharlottesville.org

I have no memory of my first visit to Charlottesville. I was a baby in my mother’s arms. She would have been in Charlottesville visiting Aunt Lillian – her mother’s older sister. I would visit that home, near the Downtown Mall, many times as a child.

I grew up in Harrisonburg, VA, a small town about an hour from Charlottesville and travelling there always felt exciting – like going to a real city. There have been many trips to Charlottesville since that first one some 60 years ago, including a dozen years that I lived there beginning in the early 80’s. My father and my sister went to college there. My mother took her last breath in a hospital there. Charlottesville has always felt like a second home to me and what happened there on Saturday has broken me.

Disclaimer: This is not a political blog post. If you’ve followed me at all on any social media you most certainly are aware of my leanings. No, this is a personal post – more of a lamentation if you will. I am grieving another loss – the loss of what little innocence remained in my life. Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced a great deal of loss – my parents, my longtime partner, and a job I dearly loved – that’s just a bit of the inventory. I’ve become comfortable with loss. No, I don’t like it but it feels familiar to me.

When you suffer such loss, you tend to cling tighter to happier times – you grip those memories with white knuckles and you don’t let go because sometimes you feel like your life – or at least your sanity – depends on it. So over the years, my memories of Charlottesville have been a virtual safe house for me. It was a place I could go in my head to feel whole and happy again. I am either blessed or cursed with a wicked memory and I can see my times in Charlottesville like a movie I’ve watched a dozen times.

I can see my dad and me on a sun-dappled October afternoon in Scott Stadium watching UVA play football. I can hear him cheering – more like yelling – and I can feel his big bear hugs after a touchdown. UVA would more often lose than win but my father, ever the eternal optimist, would always put his arm around me as we walked out of the stadium and say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda.”

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Win or lose – a happy place for me and my dad.  Photo: virginiasports.com

I can see my mom at Mother’s Day brunch at the Omni Hotel, dressed so elegantly and relishing being the center of attention as she sipped – more like gulped – her champagne. Good Lord, my mother loved champagne. I can also see her take that last breath at Martha Jefferson Hospital on a blustery cold night in December. That may sound morbid to you, but I don’t intend it that way. My mother was in death as she was in life – a lady – and she exited with courage and grace and that moment is one that I will cherish until my last breath.

I can see my former partner and me at an apple festival. So many apple festivals! I’m not even that wild about apples but those festivals were such pure joy – folks out in sweaters and fleece enjoying the grand weather, eating apple everything, listening to bluegrass music. I wonder now what we possible could have worried about back then.

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A bushel of fun.  Photo: tripsavvy.com

I suppose it was a simpler time everywhere across our nation but Charlottesville is my personal frame of reference for a precious time of great contentment.

That was until Saturday. I don’t care to recap the horror that unfolded in downtown Charlottesville, not far from Aunt Lillian’s house. Heather Heyer, 32, is dead and several people are recovering from injuries. And a beautiful city has been terrorized.

I know what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday is way bigger and far more important than me. It happened to our whole country and the national grief is palpable. I feel it – you feel it. But my grief is also personal and I don’t know where to go with it.

My safe house has been burned to the ground.

heather

The end of the innocence.  Photo: nytimes.com