Lucy’s godmother, the one and only Annie, has today’s entry!
I’m truly honored to be invited to blog on my favorite blog, xtcian! Though I’m powerfully tempted to spend the whole time waxing rhapsodic about hooping, something tells me this might not be the ideal time or place, and anyway I have my own blog on tribe.net through which to exercise that peculiar inclination. If your curiosity about hooping simply CANNOT be contained, feel free to pop over to our brand-new website, which has turned out rather nicely, I must say.
Baxter and I are here in LA on a whirlwind California tour teaching hooping workshops (yes, it’s true), and witnessing Ian’s bond with Lucy reminds me of the bond I shared with my own dear dad, who died when I was 19. His death was unexpected and swift—he was an exceptionally healthy 50-year-old when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that took his life within six months. I had absolutely no way of coping with the enormity of this loss, so in large part I just didn’t, and consequently many years of my youth were vacuumed up in what was really an obsession with this loss.
Now that so many years have passed and I have been able to release my focus from being solely on my own pain, I find myself wishing so much that people just knew him, understood in some real way who he was. I’ve realized that the story of his disappearance from this earth was only a tiny fraction of his life, and that there is so much more about him that’s worth sharing with you, my friends in the xtcianosphere. So what I thought I would do today is to do my best to introduce you, as best I can, to one of the greatest people I have ever known—my dad, Jim Humphreys.
For sounds and visuals, the best way to envision him is to imagine John Edwards. Their resemblance, noted by our whole family, is uncanny–particularly their similarity of speech. When he died, my dad was only a couple of years younger than Edwards is now, and looked every bit as youthful and exuberant as the unfortunately doomed presidential candidate. Daddy was also a lawyer with political aspirations, albeit considerably more modest. He was active in the local Democratic Party and talked occasionally of running for mayor of Winston-Salem. Like Edwards, he grew up in small-town Southeastern North Carolina, and like Edwards he felt inordinate ambition from early in life to move beyond the parameters his hometown.
He spoke quickly, often in staccato flurries that suggested his thoughts nearly outrunning his ability to lasso them into words and sentences. In what I now recognize as an innate delight in language itself, he always took care to find just the right word, to say exactly what he meant. Having spent 3 years in Germany (he had compulsory military service after college because he had been a cadet at West Point, where he was teased mercilessly for his hillbilly accent), he was also fluent in German and spoke some French (but zero Spanish, to my great amusement). He read only histories and biographies, lacking the patience to follow the often winding paths of fiction, and would often read a thick hardback with one eye while watching TV (news, old movies, and “Rockford Files” being his programs of choice) with the other.
My parents had divorced, with admirable maturity and absence of drama, when I was 7, and we spent two nights a week at my dad’s house less than a mile away. He was an absolutely terrible cook but did his damnedest to make meals for me and my brother, despite our relentless heckling, eye-rolling, and jokes about his prowess in the kitchen and ridiculous yellow apron. His weekend Birkenstocks, coupled with khakis and a bright polo shirts, were also the object of affectionate derision (“Wow, Pop–what a combo!”) My dad bore our bad preteen jokes and even insulting comic drawings with an endless well of good cheer. He saved my brother’s superhero rendition of him in a cape and tights with a discernible potbelly and a huge, orating mouth, along with every artistic foray we made while at his place, the Land that Art Supplies Forgot. Magic marker menus on notebook paper and pencil tracings of Ziggy were carefully collated in Daddy’s photo album.
At home, his 1977 Gibson Hummingbird was always out of its case, ready to be played. He played and sang at least one song every day, and my brother (who, as you all know, eventually became a professional musician) and I (who still play & sing when I get the chance) learned hundreds of songs that way–traditional, bluegrass, folk, and “gonzo country”–the Texas style pioneered in the 70s by legends Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. I know if he had believed in his own musical talent, which was real but limited, he would have loved to spend a few years knocking around coffeeshops as a gypsy songman, like his idol Jerry Jeff. But his small-town sense of convention and responsibility, as well as the strong desire for a family, took him down another path.
Even though it is so easy to exaggerate the attributes of the dead, so easy to render them as they appear in our memory–larger than life, rinsed of flaws and limitations, amplified to proportions that would be unrecognizable in life–I know that when I say my father was an extraordinary parent, I am not exaggerating. Nothing in life brought him more joy than my brother and me. He delighted in us whether we won or lost, whether we were behaving ourselves or being little whining pains in the ass. He both loved us unconditionally and genuinely *liked* us, as people. He believed in us and consistently demonstrated that, which gave us the gift of real confidence in ourselves. He listened to us, he was fair, he was interested in who we were and who we would become. He often mentioned how excited he was to become our friend when we were grown, to get to know us as adults. He would tease me, saying, “Maybe someday you’ll start calling me ‘Jim’–” to which I would scream “NO!!! I’m NEVER calling you anything but Daddy!!!”
Among my dad’s papers I found one of those local magazines (like “Triad, On Point” or “Winston-Salem Magazine”–mostly advertisements for local businesses) who they had interviewed my dad as one of “The Top 10 Eligible Bachelors of the Triad.” They printed the answers to a semi-personal questionnaire which all the “eligible bachelors” had filled out (my dad was never one to refuse good publicity) and I was struck by one question in particular: “What is your life’s greatest achievement?” All the other bachelors (many of them, like my dad, divorced with children) had cited business or professional achievements. One of them even talked about buying his first boat. My dad’s answer was: “Being father to two nice children.”
It goes without saying that my dad’s funeral was surreal. I had been largely oblivious to the symptoms (forgetfulness, exhaustion) preceding his diagnosis with an advanced and inoperable brain tumor, which happened two weeks before I left home for my first year of college. One day my dad was up and about, his normal self; the next day he sat me down and told me that no matter what was wrong with his brain or what happened to him, I was to continue my life as planned, no interruptions; the next day he was disoriented, flat on his back in the hospital, head shaved from the biopsy, voice weak, unable to find words. We never again had a real conversation. As he had directed, I left for college two weeks later, as planned. I returned for 3 visits before he died in February–two weekends and the winter holiday. Nothing about it was in any way real to me when I received the phone call that he was gone.
My dad had several close friendships and knew thousands of people, and thousands showed up at his funeral. In my shock I experienced this outpouring of love and respect as through a convex lens–large faces waving in front of me, one after the other, moving, distorted, speaking words. Thankfully, some words made it through my glassed-in state and offered me another chapter of what my dad had to teach me in this world. Face after face that I did not recognize came up to me after the funeral, saying, “Your dad really helped me once…” “I wanted to go back to school and your dad lent me some money…” “I can’t tell you how much your dad helped me when I was having a hard time a few years ago…” I was astonished that none of these people was familiar to me. I didn’t know any of their names or how my dad knew them. Most of them I would never see again–my mom moved away from Winston-Salem before I graduated from college, so I hardly spent any time there again. But they gave me the gift of letting me know who my father had been, in at least one respect, outside the world of my perception. They realized that I might never have known something important about who he had been. I am so grateful for that.
This was one easy example of a way my father has been able to guide my life toward Light, toward being a better person than I might have been, even though now he has been absent from my life as long as he was in it. It’s an amazing thing, to realize that I can still learn from his example, or at least try to. But I’ve had to turn away from the temptation to wallow in this loss, to refuse to grow out of anger that things did not turn out the way they should have.
Of course, my father should have lived, should have been able to delight in witnessing the growth and change in our lives as well as take more time for himself, for answering his own unanswered questions as he got older. I often wish that he could have gotten to know the many wonderful friends in my life–there are so few left who really remember him. But I thought I’d take some time today and let you get to know him a little, not just because he was my dad, but because he really was a great guy, and you would have liked him.