Driving at night in the rain

In the last years of his life, my Dad and I had a tradition.

I’d call his house most nights while driving home from work. The phone would ring: Three, four, five, six times. He wouldn’t answer.

The machine would kick in and I’d hear my sister’s voice on the recording. He liked her voice on the machine.

I would talk at Pop while the machine message droned. That machine was right next to his couch in front of his TV. I knew he was there. “Pop! Pop, pick up! It’s Tommy! It’s your son.”

After a time, I’d stop pleading and just leave a message about my day, my kids, what was new, and that I was still pulling a paycheck.

Very, very occasionally, he’d pick up the phone while I was talking. About once every two weeks. And we’d talk.

I’d ask, How are you feeling (“What do you want me to say”). He’d ask about the job (“Good enough, Pop, but I don’t trust anyone”), the kids (“Grace gets As on her report card and all these little plusses”), the dogs (“They miss you”), and Keith’s therapy.

My son Keith is a trans teenager. He has anxieties and hates himself. At times he’s sullen, silent, or suicidal. Pick the day. Other times he might smile during dinner.

Pop understood Keith’s moods better than I did. I think Pop had seen more. He had worked with a lot of different kinds of firemen and corner boys in the FDNY. Some desperate, some down. Not everyone gets out of the fire intact.

So he’d ask, How’s Keith doing?

Pop didn’t understand ADHD and therapists and cutting. He didn’t understand gender fluidity and transsexuality. He believed homosexuality was a sin against God because The Church told him so.

But he saw nothing wrong with my son and believed God was lucky to have Keith.

“Just tell him it’s going to be all right. Tell him I said that.”

And that was it. He’d beg off the phone to do something else, anything else. Eat dinner, watch the Yankees. Our calls were maybe 5 minutes.

Dad’s been dead now almost a year. Nearly every night on my drive home, I think about calling him. It’s a phantasm. Hell, I’m the one who paid his last bill and cut off the phone.

So.

I’ve decided to imagine – sometimes – he’s sitting in my passenger seat, riding alongside me on the half-hour commute, cutting off Lexuses on the toll road. And we just talk.

But the version of Dad I talk to isn’t an old man. Oh no. Pop died when he was 85 years old. When Mom died, Dad was 46 (She was 44).

The Pop I conjure is about 47 years old. Staggered and miserable. He has one dead wife, two daughters at home, fires every day, and forever hospital bills. I was at college. He is alone.

His friends empathize but don’t relate. No one had lost a spouse or divorced. Hell, no one even walked out.

Money isn’t much of a problem. A fire captain just keeps working the overtime. Stay in The City and away from home. Women continue to come to him, bringing cake and attention. He doesn’t trust any of them.

He’s angry and he’s strong. He’s vulnerable and he’s quick to lash out. His steady life is gone. He remembers better days barely five years earlier — days when the family was scrambling to get by. Chemo treatments and late nights with the TV. He thinks these were the good times.

This Pop is a guy I can talk with.

In The Subaru, we talk about traffic and the Yankees and the kids. Sometimes mine, sometimes his. He vents in four- or five-word sentences. His shoulders clench. He grunts. Sometimes, he wants to reach through the windshield and strangle that guy in the Volvo. I pull closer to the Volvo.

At some point Dad will say he’s got to go now; his dinner’s getting cold. And I don’t have to turn my head to know he’s gone.

Switch lanes. Pay the toll. Get home. Good times.