Counting the Days It Rains

September 28, 2017

You can never miss someone all at once. Maybe that’s better so we don’t die of broken hearts. I miss my dad in subtle, simple ways that come on suddenly and rush around me like a north wind and hit me in my bones.

I miss him with something simple like the smell of gasoline on my hands after filling my car up. When I was a kid, I’d take any chance I could get to go with him anywhere – to the gas station, to the auto store. Rubber car floor mats and 10W40 oil and gasoline smells remind me of being waist-high in an auto parts store, overwhelmed by the tall aisles of foreign objects, containers of fluids, and car tires. The pressure gauges were my favorite. I loved sliding the plastic indicator in and out like a slide whistle. 

Fall weather and rain remind me of him. He kept a huge calendar on the corkboard in the kitchen where he tracked when it rained. He would write “RAINED TODAY” in the little white squares on the month’s page. “RAN SPRINKLERS” on others. He was tracking the amount of moisture on the grass and avoiding wasting water by running the sprinkler on already-watered grass.

Obviously football season makes me miss him. Although, I believe when we truly love someone, any word can be related to them in a linked chain of thoughts. In improv, they call it A-to-C thinking – “A makes me think of B, which makes me think of C.” Helps you get to a more creative idea. But when we miss someone, it’s a cruel trick that lets your brain jump from garage door to dad. (The B in that chain is a quote from The Dick Van Dyke Show). Some memories are a direct route, though. Football is one of those.

Daddy would watch any football game, old or new, but he particularly loved the Dallas Cowboys. He and I would talk about games on the phone the day after they happened. I should rephrase that so as not to give an insincere impression of my football knowledge. He would talk; I would listen. He omitted any jargon and told me about plays in plain terms. I did the same with the law. He was interested in the legal system, always desperately wanting to be chosen for a jury. So complex cases fascinated him. I loved explaining legal issues of procedure or jurisdiction to him. He did the same with football. Much like my explanations didn’t make him a lawyer, his explanations didn’t make me a football expert.

He particularly loved cold fronts and weather changes, even when they blew leaves into the garage. So when I woke up this morning and a cold front had blown through, it made me miss him again. To help deal with that, I turned on a Dallas Cowboys podcast. Unfortunately, I had nearly no clue what I was hearing. Now, to be fair, they were using jargon and speaking fast over one another. Maybe the more I listen, the more I’ll learn. Maybe I need to make flashcards. But next time you see me, ask me how the Cowboys are doing. I need looming pop quizzes to help inspire my quest for Cowboys expertise.

Cars are another thing that make me think of him. When I left work this week on my first day back from bereavement leave, I scratched my car. Well, more accurately, I scraped my car on a pole. My first instinct was to grab my phone and call him. And I couldn’t. So instead, I called mom, then my brother-in-law. Honestly, I didn’t want to call Omar because he was still at work and would see it soon enough. But those calls didn’t help, so I wept the whole drive home.

In the garage, I pulled myself together and reminded myself that my parents didn’t raise a helpless damsel in distress. They raised me. So I mashed the Google button on my phone and said desperately into the microphone, “I scratched my car. What do I do?”

The pleasant AI voice reading from the first page of search results said, “Most scratches can be removed with whitening toothpaste.” I grabbed a roll of paper towels and some Windex to clean the spot. The scratch was huge. My Beetle had basically hugged a concrete pillar as big around as a tree trunk. I took a tube of Crest Whitening with Scope + Cavity Protection from the guest bathroom and grabbed a soft cloth from the garage supply box.

I went to work. There on the concrete floor of the garage, in my dress pants and blouse and leather work shoes, I crouched beside my car and slathered it in toothpaste. With both hands, I rubbed in vigorous circles over and over. The white streaks on my car’s blue paint started to fade. The scratches lightened then disappeared. Little by little, the door panel returned to its smooth surface, albeit now it smelled minty fresh.

The heat from the engine and the humidity from the open garage door had sweat pouring down my face and back. But I worked through it, determined not to be incapacitated by my grief. I couldn’t bring my dad back by rubbing toothpaste into my car door, but I could ensure he did his job before leaving. He and my mom raised a woman capable of helping herself with a little muscle and sweat, a Google search and the last half of a tube of Crest. Only a small gray nick remains, but I can patch that with the paint pen I ordered from Amazon.

The State Fair of Texas starts on Friday. It’s so unreal that he’s not here to go with us. Going to the fair with him, mom, and Shannon are some of my favorite childhood memories. On the Midway, he would play the Guess Your Weight game, always pulling his pants down below his bellybutton and jutting out his gut. The guesser always overshot his weight and Dad would carry away a toy for us, triumphant. He also couldn’t resist the pool table games, and eventually, mom would have to drag him away from the tables and their uneven feet.

One stop on our Fair trips was always the building beside Big Tex with the spas and gutter systems, sewing machines and mattresses for sale. One year, the first booth inside was selling storm windows. They claimed they could block out the heat, so their demonstration was two windows facing each other, with just enough space for a person to stand between. On the outside of the windows were heat lamps. The window on the left was the competition’s, and you could feel the heat coming through. The one on the right was the window they were selling, blocking out the heat. The lamps would alternate on and off, giving off a red glow each time they illuminated.

Dad stood between the two windows when the lights were off, and when they glowed red again, he placed a hand on either window, vibrated his body as if he were being electrocuted, and made a groaning, sputtering sound. Two people behind him shrieked, then laughed as they realized what he was doing. He had no idea there was an audience behind him, he just did it to make himself laugh.

I’m so glad I took a day off work last year and went to the fair with him, mom, and Shannon. What a priceless memory. I had no idea when I went it would be our last fair day together. Unbelievable.

So this fall, I will remember him with every Cowboys game, with every cold front blowing through, and by counting the days that it rains.

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Heather McKinney