Given a choice between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief.
Today is my father’s birthday.
Whether or not other people realize it, my father was the greatest man in the world. Most certainly the tallest, if we’re speaking honestly. But he could also lay claim to being the smartest, the fastest, the biggest, and the funniest man alive. There’s times I was sure he was a superhero, whose role as a family man was really just a secret identity to cover up his crime-fighting ways. There was nothing my father couldn’t do, especially in the eyes of his first born, his only son.
My first memory in life is of being probably three years old, and sitting on his lap on a merry-go-round. He had an orange and white cup in his hand, which held a milkshake. He let me have a drink. I got a brain freeze. The pain was bright. I remember it completely.
He taught me how to hunt, though as most of you know me here now would probably find that hard to believe. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere Oregon. I held a hunting rifle in my hand by the time I was four or five. He took me with him on those trips off to Steamboat Falls, those trips that would start early morning in September or October. Sometimes it would be me and him, other times it would be us and my mom’s brother Mark, who I believe to be his best friend.
He gave me my first sip of beer: Bud, out of a can when I was six. I wasn’t supposed to have it but since he had it, of course I wanted it too. And so he did. It was disgusting. But since he gave it to me, I told him it was the best thing ever.
I think I was an accident baby, though no one will really tell me now. The pictures I have from that time certainly don’t seem to show myself as an accident. There’s no forced smiles, no angry faces. Shiny, happy people, one and all. But photographs can be a lie too.
My mom’s parents weren’t happy. They didn’t like him. He was older by a few years than my mother. He got her pregnant with me at the impossibly young age of 19. But they married and my grandparents grudgingly accepted him, and I like to think it turned into love, though I cannot say that for fact.
What I can say is fact is this: we never had money, and were probably crossing that invisible line into being trailer trash. Most people were in the place where I grew up. He was a logger, as were others in his family, as were others in my mother’s family. When you were young in the eighties in Oregon and had no plans for college, most likely you ended up in the forestry service. It was not a safe profession by any stretch of the imagination. Before I was born in 1982, my mother’s older brother Mitch died in an accident with a chainsaw, when the chain itself snapped. I remember seeing his pictures and asking who he was, why he was never around. I remember the looks that were shared before the subject was brusquely changed. It was not safe, but then life never really is.
Today is my father’s birthday and you should know this:
His name is John Edward Irwin. I’m named after him, partially. My first name is Travis, my middle name John. Klune came much later, in a time that I don’t want to remember right now. That is to say, it’s not important to the story I’m telling you.
My father was the greatest man alive. I know this because I am his son. It doesn’t matter that most boys probably think that about their fathers. I know it to be true.
He died when I was six years old.
I was at my grandmother’s house down on Valley View Road in Melrose, Oregon. I was in the back yard, sitting on the concrete porch, trying to whittle a piece of wood into something recognizable. I think it’s a fair thing to say that my future was not in wood carving, given the amount of nicks and cuts on my hands, and the fact that the piece of wood was still just a piece of wood.
I remember my mother coming around the corner of the house, down a little stone pathway. She’s blonde, like me, and in those days, the bigger the hair, the better. She looked like a great big sail coming around the corner. But that wasn’t on my mind right then. It wasn’t on my mind because she was sobbing, her eyes swollen, her cheeks wet. I thought she was mad at me for having the knife that I wasn’t supposed to have. I thought I’d done something wrong and I remember feeling immediately guilty. It wasn’t me, though. I don’t remember the exact words, or how it was relayed to me, but eventually I understood that my dad was gone. To compound the situation, my Uncle Mark, dad’s best friend, my mother’s brother, had died too. At the same time. Both of them had left.
With a clinical, detached eye, I can tell you this: my father and uncle had gone left early to go hunting in an old beat up truck. I don’t know why I didn’t go with them this time. Maybe I was sick; maybe I was in trouble. Maybe I just hadn’t felt like going, though that seems to ring false because I was his shadow. To this day, no one can tell me why I didn’t go. I can’t even remember the last time I saw him, or what the last thing he said to me was.
I don’t know if it would have made a difference.
They’d left before the sun rose. Good old boy hunting trips always involve a few simple things: guns, a beat up old truck, sandwiches, binoculars, and beer. It’s the same, no matter what. The beer is drunk on the way there, it’s drunk on the way back. It’s not drunk while you are actually hunting, of course, because it’s irresponsible to hunt and drink at the same time. Understand that what I just said is not it supposed to be any kind of justification or blanket statement as to how hunting actually goes. This was just how my family did it.
The accident happened this way: they’d made it up into the mountains on an old logging trail. My dad was driving, my uncle in the bench seat next to him. I don’t know how fast they were going. I don’t know if there was an open container in the truck. All I know is that they rounded a blind corner and drove into the rear of a large flatbed trailer used for hauling away logs. The trailer had apparently been abandoned there for years.
To this day, I still wonder about the circumstances that led to that moment. Hadn’t they been up there before on that same road? Hadn’t we all? Shouldn’t my father have known about this trailer? Was he distracted? Was he drunk? Did he fly around that corner at high speeds? Who found them? How long did it take?
And of course, the darker questions: were they still alive after it happened? If so, for how long? When did they die? And why didn’t I know it the instant it happened? I was told they died instantly. I suppose I could believe that, too. But there’s always the nagging doubt: what if, what if, what if?
And these are questions I will never get the answer to.
Why am I telling you all this? TJ, you’re probably thinking. You have just completely ruined my day! This was a beautiful, sunny Sunday and now it’s just ruined.
I’m sorry, though I can’t say completely. Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 56 years old. I can’t help but to wonder every single goddamn day what life would have been like had he not died. Every single day, I wonder if the shitstorm of my teenage years would have been avoided, because then my mother would not have remarried the man who became the devil incarnate, ironically also named John. I wonder if my dad would have accepted me when I came out at, though I think he would have hands down. Immediately. Without question. He may have been a redneck, but he was my fucking father.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’d know that after a three month hiatus, I started writing again. The story came out of nowhere, though its roots are firmly cemented in my past. Today is the 21st day since I’ve starting writing this new book and already it’s approaching 100K words. I’ve never written anything that quickly before. Ever. I’ve only released the title on FB and this post is the first time I’ve discussed what it’s about. There are no spoilers.
The book is called Into This River I Drown and while it is still a romance (for some reason, I love love), its love story goes further than that. It is about one man’s love for another, but it’s also one man’s love for his father. Big Eddie is the father’s name. Benji is his son and the narrator. Benji finds a man named Cal in a unique set of circumstances and Cal is…. well, to say any more about Cal wouldn’t be fair at this point. It takes place in small town in Oregon called Roseland. The denizens there are a quirky bunch, but my favorite character so far has to be one of Benji’s aunts: a woman with Down’s-Syndrome named Nina. I adore her.
I hope this book will be finished in the next few weeks and unlike my previous books, I really think this will be a one-time story, no sequels or prequels. Granted, I thought the same thing about BOATK and we all know how that turned out.
Just know that the new book is my most personal yet, because it deals with one thing I am desperately familiar with: the loss of a father. This is not going to be a humorous book along the lines of Who We Are, though I still do enjoy finding humor in the little things in life that I have attempted to add into Drown. Part of me wonders if the reason I’m writing it so quickly is because I just want it to be over with. It’s never fun to reopen old wounds. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m asking questions to family about my dad. I’m writing a story that I almost wish I didn’t have to write. But even then, I want people to know Big Eddie, and in turn my own father, so badly that I keep writing. It’s weird, these little layers that keep getting pulled back. I’m learning things about these characters that I didn’t know when I set out on this completely random story. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried. I’ve gotten so fucking angry that I wanted to knock the laptop across the room. I’ve learned things about my own father that I never knew.
In the end, though, Into This River I Drown is my exploration of grief, both the bad and the good. Sometimes, I think we grieve only because we don’t know what else to do.
It’s a ghost story, though not in the traditional sense. Memories can be haunting too
If you’ve followed me this far, you’ll know that my three previous works have incorporated the idea of what makes a family. I think I may always include that because I am still trying to find what family means. I’ve written my own definitions, to be sure, but it feels like I’m still trying to find it. I don’t know. I made a promise early in my writing career that I would never write the same story twice, and I plan on keeping that promise. Drown may very well turn out to be my complete thoughts about what it means to be family. I think that maybe BOATK and Burn have led to this.
I’m sorry if I’ve rambled a bit here, and I hope you’ll forgive me. I just wanted you to meet a man that I still think was the greatest man alive. How could he not be?
He was my father, after all.
Happy birthday, Pops.