Paps: Mourning with Words

On Thursday night our Nashville Predators were getting killed. I laid in bed with sore hamstrings, sore calves, sore quads, sore hips, sore obliques, sore pecs, sore lats, sore delts and sore traps. We went lights out halfway through the third period and I rolled over onto my right side, curled up into a ball. I cried myself to sleep.

The tears weren’t because my state’s Cinderella story hockey team were getting their asses handed to them in game five of the Stanley Cup finals or because my body was abnormally and mysteriously sore. I cried because I couldn’t stop seeing his face.

“What do you think about that, boys?”

My cousin and I couldn’t have been but just a few years old — old enough to remember but just barely — when we stood in the dining room at my Gran and Pap’s house. They had recently gone to see Tina Turner live in concert and had brought back an oversized booklet with enormous photos of Tina, her band, her crew and a lot of their backstage antics. At the center of the book was a pull-out poster of Tina wearing a tight-fitting white dress seductively sprawled out onto a lounger. Her lips were painted bright red and she was laughing. She was definitely sexy but I didn’t know what that meant back then.

It’s one of my earliest memories. I remember the book, the dining room table and the enormous headphones that were laying on it. Their design reminded me of a rotary telephone with a coiled wire attached to them. The back door behind us was sliding glass and at one point had a sliding screen door on the other side. I remember the handle on the screen had been taped over because, as Paps said, “Granny tried to walk through” it and that was funny to me. I don’t know what actually happened but we both laughed about it.

We laughed together a lot. I was still very young on one particular night when we were going out for dinner. There was only four of us – my mom, Gran, Paps and myself. Before we left, I found Pap’s deodorant — a strange stick of Old Spice that was shaped differently from any deodorant I’d ever seen up until then (or after, if memory serves). I asked him what it was and he told me that if I put some on, I wouldn’t be able to keep the women away because I’d smell so good. I asked him if he had it on, and when he said yes, I decided to do the same. That night I rode in the front seat with him to the restaurant with a confidence my young self had never had before. I felt big, like an adult that may confuse the workers of the restaurant into giving me an adult menu. All because I was wearing deodorant and was riding in the front seat with my Paps. I remember asking if my Gran and mom being in the back seat of the van would prevent us from getting girls that night. We joked about it during the trip and we laughed most of the way there.

Though he provided me with more laughter than I could stand in a lifetime along with timeless stories to create those laughs, the man also taught me more life lessons than most fathers teach their sons. When I spent time with him I always came away with something. Lessons about love, life, work, planning a future, taking care of your wife, taking responsibility for your own shit and taking care of others every chance you get.

We had a mowing business for years and we’d spend most of the summer together mowing yards, counting money, pumping gas and eating Hardee’s cheeseburgers. He taught me that while it wasn’t impossible to mow a yard after it had rained, it was extremely difficult and it’s best to wait for it to dry. As an adult, I understand it better but as a kid I always loved the rain because it likely meant I didn’t have to mow that day…

…except for when he woke me up to come mow John and Avis Phillips’ yard after a big rain. I think it may have actually still been raining. We unloaded the mowers and I started in the front yard like I always did. He spent some time gassing up the other mower, wiring the trimmer and taking care of anything else that needed to be done when my mower quit. Three times. The grass was too high, too thick and too wet to mow that day. I was still sleepy, had a young teenager attitude and needed to cool off so I made a rude gesture toward my mower and walked away. I’ll spare the details of his pep talk lest I incriminate my business partner but the ultimate message was “Don’t ever walk away from something you start.”

I think I was 13 or 14 when that happened and I haven’t forgotten it. I may have spent the rest of that day sulking but it’s been a driving force in many aspects of my life ever since.

One thing that bothers me in my life is that every family characteristic I have I can easily identify as my mom coming out in me. It doesn’t bother me that I’m my mom made over — that’s my best feature, honestly — but I sometimes wonder what characteristics of my dad’s I have and am just not aware because I didn’t ever really know him. I didn’t grow up with him. Despite having a dad that didn’t give a shit about me, I was a fortunate little boy because my father figure was a strange combination of Chuck and Paps. Sure a lot of how I handle myself as an adult comes from lessons and examples Chuck set for me — I couldn’t buy a better step dad no matter how much money I had — but I can’t call any of my Chuck-isms genetic because they’re not. I don’t know why I need that so badly.

It was only recently when I started picking out little things about me that I’m confident are Paps-influenced. The most prevalent example is my need to be involved in something I’m passionate about and put my whole heart into it. Paps spent a lot of time at Harmony Presbyterian Church. I don’t know that Paps was ever particularly religious or even spiritual at the time — he never brought it up to me, at least — but he was attracted to being involved there. He loved being the go-to guy for fixes and was super involved with helping the other men build things, make repairs and make business decisions for the church. Together we mowed the church lawn, took the church’s garbage to the dump, helped clean and organize, and every once in awhile would randomly stop by just to make sure everything was okay.

In many ways I do the exact same thing only it isn’t church, it’s TITLE Boxing Club. I spend at least a little bit of time there every day. Sure, I’m a paid trainer there, but I’m there when I’m not getting paid just to see everyone. Just to help out where I can. I love gloving people up and going over the proper form and technique with people. I love sharing my fitness journey with prospective clients and telling them how much TITLE will benefit them. Very much like Paps at the church, I love letting strangers know “If you come here, I’ll go out of my way to make sure you’re taken care of” and I’ll always stick to that. Instead of happily putting together a food basket for you like Paps used to do, I’ll happily show you how to properly throw a hook so you don’t hurt your wrist and you get sexy shoulders for the upcoming pool party.

He had a hard time sitting still — once deciding to paint the garage door and rig an umbrella over his grill just because he ran out of shit to do — and I’m the same way. He’d definitely sit still for a good NASCAR race and I’m kind of the same only my NASCAR is hockey. He spoiled his wife very much like I do mine. And despite a possibly rough exterior and sometimes being awkward in social situations, he loved everyone. I’d confess to being his twin in that regard but it may ruin my rep.

The last few years of his life were extremely difficult for everyone, particularly my mom. Every day she’d have to juggle her daily responsibilities with meeting the needs of a father that was mostly bedridden at a nursing home and a mom that lives in constant grief because her best friend lives somewhere else where she can’t always see him. My mom is the strongest person on the planet and she handled it better than anyone else could. Nobody else in the world could take care of her parents the way she does. I often think there is no greater love in the world.

While it often hurt me to see my mom in distress, it also hurt me to see Paps in his condition. It was so hard for me to see him in his bed, sometimes sleeping, sometimes crying. Knowing that day in and day out he was thinking about improvements he was going to make to his home when he got out bothered me. Not because I knew he was never coming home, because I made a decision on day 1 that I was never giving up on him; rather, it bothered me because I knew this wasn’t him. Paps is supposed to be up tinkering, not in bed and withering away before our eyes. It just never seemed real. It was never fair for him.

Paps is gone and that can never change. I hate that I was never able to cook him a proper breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. I hate that he wasn’t able to come to my wedding. I hate that he was never able to come see where I live. Despite this, he knew I was okay and he was one of my biggest fans all the way to the end. What he gave us will be in our hearts forever and we’ll pass it on to others as we meet them and as we help them. Paps will in one form or another live forever. What he gave us was that strong.

I don’t believe in Heaven, Hell, Valhalla, Purgatory, angels, demons, valkyries, ghosts or any of the like, but I’m ready to see him again. He’ll get my attention somehow and tell me my yard needs to be mowed.

And I hope he does. In that moment, I’ll nod and say, “I know, Paps. I’ll go get the mower,” and breathe in that summer air that’s mixed with gasoline and sweat that always reminds me of him.

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