Sometimes, in the course of writing about music, I drift off into other important topics. This is one of those times and the topic is very important to me. Thank you for indulging me on this one, I’ll get back to the specifics of live performances tomorrow.
Song: My Life (Live)
Album: 12 Gardens (2006)
A few weeks ago I talked about this song and the way I connected it to my father. That was part of an important shadow project that has run parallel to A Year of Billy Joel: Unraveling the complicated and sometimes difficult relationship I had with my late father.
Understanding my father (as well as my mother and myself) better was not the goal of this project but the act of writing about songs that he liked has led to that unexpected but very positive benefit. I mention this because tomorrow will mark three years to the day since my father passed away.
I don’t think that losing a parent is something you ever achieve closure on but thanks to writing about my father through the lens of Billy Joel’s work I have far more answers and fewer questions. I guess I am okay with it as I will ever be.
Last year I was on Long Island on the second anniversary of my father’s passing and shortly afterward I wrote about the experience as part of another ongoing project. I’m sharing it here because it’s on my mind today.
Sunday Mornings Never Change
Two weeks ago I found myself driving through my hometown at 7 AM looking for a place to get coffee. I pulled into the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts and walked inside. It was Sunday and the line was shorter than I expected. I looked around for a newspaper but couldn’t find one so I walked up to the counter and ordered coffee.
I was hungry but I couldn’t bring myself to order a breakfast sandwich or a donut. The idea of eating fast food on a Sunday morning made me feel like I was letting my father down. It was the second anniversary of his death and I was on my way to the cemetery.
When my father was alive he struggled with putting many of his feelings into words. My father could express anger verbally but every other feeling was communicated through actions, most of them involving food. Over the years my father developed a food-based shorthand for each of his three kids as a way of letting us know how much he cared. He made pasta for my sister, grilled chicken and burgers for my brother and made breakfast for me whenever I made it back to Long Island.
The breakfast tradition my father and I shared had actually begun many years earlier. After my parents separated my brother, sister and I stayed with our mother but eight years later I moved back to my father’s house.
Shortly after I arrived things became difficult for my father and I but for different reasons: I was 15 years old and going through typical teenage growing pains but my father was experiencing something tougher. He didn’t say it out loud but for the first time in his life he felt like he was failing. He assumed that he could turn my troubles around overnight but this didn’t happen. Then, after more than a decade of climbing the ladder at his job he found himself out of work.
For what seemed like a very long time, both of our futures were uncertain and we were frequently at odds with one another but every Sunday morning we put these problems aside.
Every Sunday morning I woke up to find the same things: Coffee, a stack of Sunday papers (there were four newspapers in the area and we read three of them) and a full breakfast. We’d eat, read the papers and talk sports until it was time to take on the rest of the day. We did this every single Sunday from the day I arrived until the day I moved out five years later.
While other family members sometimes joined us around the table, as far as my dad and I were concerned, Sundays were our thing. Sometimes it was our only thing and it was important to us. This is why I always made sure to make it to his house for breakfast when I was back in town.
Back in the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts I sat in the car with my coffee for a few minutes but I couldn’t waste too much time. I wanted to get to the cemetery early to beat the rush. My family is big on visiting graves and if you don’t get there early on a special day: like the anniversary of a death or a birthday of a loved one you could find yourself standing in a line waiting to pay your respects.
By 7:30 AM I was driving through the gates of the cemetery. I had only been there once since my father was buried but I knew the way to what I like to call “dad’s new place.” I drove slowly along the path leading up to the spot where my father is buried and parked my car across from a pickup truck that I didn’t recognize as belonging to any member of my family. I got out of the car and started walking towards my dad’s marker when the driver of the pickup truck got out and called my name. I recognized the voice before I saw his face.
Steve was a friend of my father and an all around good guy. It was good to see him. He was part of my father’s inner circle, in fact Steve was one of the few people who knew my how sick my father was before he died.
Steve and I were quietly looking at my father’s headstone when he said:
“I come down here on Sunday’s sometimes to have my coffee and read the paper.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, every couple of Sundays I used to go to your dad’s place. He’d make breakfast and we’d read the papers.”
“He and I used to do the same thing.”
“I know, he told me that every time.”
I asked Steve to give me a second. I went back to my car to get my coffee. I had thought that bringing coffee to the grave site would have been disrespectful but obviously it would have been okay with my dad.
About 15 minutes after I arrived a car pulled up and out stepped my grandmother, my aunt and my sister. My aunt and sister were holding cups of coffee and my grandmother had brought a newspaper.