“Where We Start From”

My dad would be 58 today.

The influence that both of my parents had on shaping how I see the world and interact within it cannot be overstated. As I’ve spent much of this past year focused on schooling and teaching, it’s been useful for me to come up for air now and then and reflect on the experiences and moments of growth that have guided me. I typically avoid acute personal information on this blog, but feel that this process of reflection is as integral to our learning and progress as anything else.

Someone asked me a while back about this, so below I’ve copied my speech from my father’s memorial service that took place a bit over three years ago. If you’re interested in reading through it, maybe you’ll also want to listen to one of my dad’s songs as well.

I wanted to – as briefly as possible – share and reflect on a couple of anecdotes I have with my father…. But before that I wanted to publicly acknowledge and thank my uncle Andy for giving my dad eight more years to see the world, play guitar, and make people smile. Uncle Andy has always been there for my dad. Thank you for being a great uncle and brother.

Even at an early age, my father picked up on and fueled my enthusiasm for whatever hobby I had decided to take up at any given moment. For example, during elementary school – before I decided to move into the lower register of the musical realm – I was somehow persuaded that the clarinet was the instrument for me. Of course, I never heard of a band with a clarinet prominently featured, couldn’t name a clarinet virtuoso, and – until recently – hadn’t fully acknowledged the existence of the instrument known as a clarinet. Up until a music teacher suggested I play the woodwind instrument, I had existed in a clarinet-less universe. It was due to the enthusiastic story my dad shared with me – over one of our standing weekly breakfasts before school – that I found out about the pop history of the clarinet. Namely, my father recited the story of Glenn Miller’s orchestra and a trumpet player’s 11th hour injury leading to the spotlighted clarinet – the story was entirely too dramatic for as flimsy an instrument as the clarinet – likely from its heavy-lifting of the James Stewart film. However, the next thing I knew, the clarinet was what belonged – it was my instrument and unabashedly, my father became my biggest fan – and by extension – the biggest fan of clarinet squonks as they were irregularly practiced within the Garcia household. Invariably, as I switched from one instrument to another, the entire routine would begin anew – exciting story, instrumental cacophony and all.

Another example of this came while I was in high school; for a good part of my high school career, I spent an exorbitant amount of time inside a lion costume trying to make a fool out of myself. However, in order to attain such a worthy distinction, I underwent a rigorous tryout process along with dozens of cheerleaders. Though my father was at that time undergoing treatment at the City of Hope in Los Angeles, we would spend time on the phone discussing movements and skits. On the weekends, Kyoko and I would make the three hour trek to the City of Hope, where my father and I would spend large blocks of time discussing the nuances of making an oversized lion appear to be catching a fly Karate Kid-style – with chopsticks or how to delicately balance on an invisible tightrope. I guess all of that Chicano Theatre training my father had came in handy – I was able to land the role as Monte the Lion for two years in a row. I should note that one effective trick I did in the lion costume was mimic my father’s goofy dance he would perform for me as a giggling toddler – claiming to be stricken with a case of “happy feet.” Shuffling feet erratically and hopping around the living room in mildly panicked histrionics because of this “happy feet” affliction would send me into a fit of laughter, which was exactly what I strived to do in front of a Friday night football crowd. I think that’s what “happy feet” were made for.

Looking back it feels too simple to take my dad’s happy-go-lucky demeanor at face value. It was no secret that his health was declining year after year. Occasionally, when I was in town, or if my father was in Los Angeles and we met for lunch or dinner, we would sit down and discuss his medical updates, the news delivered was never exactly what you were hoping for.  At some point I was reminded of a quote from Ernest Becker that “to live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” For me, it was hard to really comprehend the literal inner turmoil taking place inside my dad and the warmth and humor of his unchanging personality. I couldn’t connect the two: talking with my dad, watching a movie with him, going for a spin with him – I never did get a sense of the “rumble of terror” to which Becker alludes. Which leads me to one of the final lessons that my father would teach me.

Though tolerance and acceptance were concepts taught in our household as long as I can remember, I learned from my father of a different kind of acceptance. Instead of a fretful worry about the future or of that unrelenting “rumble of terror,” I learned – in the soothing croon of George Harrison that “all things must pass.” I came to view life in an ecclesiastical cycle. And while I struggled with any kind of reasonable way of really saying “goodbye,” it became clear that the refrain was superfluous. Entirely unnecessary.

We talked – at length – about this kind of acceptance several weeks before my father went into the hospital and its jellyfish iv tentacles for the final time. After our discussion, I gave my dad a hug, we said goodbye and I got in my car to go home to Los Angeles. Driving through the hills of Mount Helix and across the overpass of the 8 freeway, I reflected on the words we exchanged, postponing my destination home a bit longer. As I drove that afternoon, radio off, lost on empty, I continued to think about, to dwell on, the idea of really losing my father – it always felt like a phantom threat dangled in the air – until then. I drove next to but not in the neighborhood of my childhood, turns and signals distantly familiar – like the swoops and whorls of someone else’s fingertips.

Though more than enough people have asked me how I was feeling, if I was scared, or worried. I can say with certainty, that that afternoon was the last time I really felt fear about what was happening. I’m sure that this is as my dad wished. These past weeks have helped renew my understanding that family is a gift not to be exhausted. This period of losing a loved one is also one of rekindling and reaffirming familial bonds. It has been a blessing to see many of you as you have been there to support and remember with my mother and our family.

In “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot writes: “What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Like many of you, I’ve felt the dull thud of emptiness that comes with the loss of someone as enigmatic and vibrant. I can only assume that this is an ending from which to move forward, to take the lessons, take the memories, take the jokes, the warmth and generosity that Joey left, and take off running with happy feet.