A Dad Who Left Early

We lost a great dad this week. His name was Steve Caffey.

When I first saw Steve, probably at Christmas in 1992, I thought, “Wow, that guy needs to wash his hands.” Then I learned he was a mechanic, and realized he probably had washed them more times that day than I would wash mine in a week.

I also learned that he had a youthful energy many his age could only hope to possess. At family holidays, he constantly interacted with children — his own and others’. He made them smile, and they returned the favor.

When my wife and I had a child of our own, I started understanding Steve a little better — why he rolled around on the floor with the kids, and played peekaboo.

It was because he loved being a dad.

I spent some time with Steve outside family holidays. I saw his Coca-Cola collection and the animal sculptures he created with concrete and incorporated into parts of their fence. I saw cannibalized remains of laptop computers in various states of disrepair.

He always had his hands in something, but there was nothing like watching him under the hood.

The few times I stood watching him work on my car, it was obvious he knew what he was doing. He was skinny, but deceptively strong. He could quickly reach and work on parts when others might have to spend hours clearing a path. He could tell me in about two minutes what was wrong with my car, if that long.

One time I rode in his truck with him to take Stephanie to a friend’s house. He spoke of his colorful past, which I won’t try to repeat here. I’ll just say that we both ended up starting sentences with “back in my day..” and sounded like old men, but his stories were much more interesting than mine.

Through all that, I still feel like I only caught a glimpse of who Steve was. During the last several visits to Tulsa, I didn’t see him, but I saw his and Johnna’s children. When they were babies I wasn’t very interested, but now they’ve become some of my favorite folks, always warm and welcoming.

Just like Steve.

His children have set up a site to raise money for the funeral services. If you can help at all, it would be hugely appreciated.

To Local Friends Who Soon Will be Remote

We’ve lost weight, gained weight, and learned how to sit and wait. We’ve endured sunburns and broken bones, stomach flus and kidney stones.

Largely thanks to Shannon’s activity during Benjamin’s elementary school years, we have met many others who have children of similar age. We have shared laughs, likes, dislikes, and dining tables. We’ve built things, torn them down, and leaned upon shoulders that sometimes were already overburdened. We have rocked Rock Band like only 30 and 40-somethings can. We have walked many 3k’s and 5k’s — a few to celebrate a friend’s victory over cancer while remembering those less fortunate.

One week from today, the only house our son remembers, and the one where your children have slept over and endured my homemade breakfasts, will no longer be our home.

Watching us bring up a boy from age 2 to age (almost) 11, you have seen us at our best and our worst, yet you have remained beside us all the way. I hope you feel we’ve done the same.

I didn’t care much for children besides my own until I got to know yours. Partially miniature versions of you, and increasingly their own tiny selves, they won a place in my heart.

This isn’t goodbye. We aren’t moving half a country away. We will come visit here, and will welcome you there. We are, and forever shall be, your friends.

Unexpected Medicine

Sometimes you manage to give your children just what they need emotionally. Other times, they return the favor without even trying.

On the way home from a late softball game, Benjamin and I stopped to grab food for all of us. We parked to go in rather than burning gas in the long drive-through line. Sitting in the backseat of my car, he heard his mom’s voice break a little when I used speakerphone to ask what she wanted.

“Why was mom crying when she said for you to decide?” he said.

“She is sad because she will miss her friends after we move, and thinking about what to order is the last thing on her mind.”

For the first time after the night we told him we were moving, he started crying.

“I’m gonna miss my friends,” he said, his voice trembling.

“You will be able to stay in touch with them,” I said.

“Video chat isn’t the same as hanging out in person.”

I turned to look at him and patted his knee. “You’re right. It isn’t.”

I weakly said, “I’m sorry,” more than once while he wiped his tears.

He sniffled. “Okay, I can go in now,” he said.

Benjamin struggled to keep from openly sobbing while we sat waiting for our number to be called.

“Will I be able to ride my bike to Charles’ house?” he said, asking about his cousin.

“No, we won’t be close enough to him for that.”

Fresh tears ran down his face and he made partially stifled crying sounds.

I was at a complete loss for words that would comfort him.

Within a couple minutes of getting back in the car, he said something to me with his mouth closed, and my answer made it obvious that I had badly misunderstood. He laughed out loud. The rest of the drive was a challenge for me to repeat back what he was saying while he chewed his food.

I won’t claim it was particularly clever or high-brow humor, but we laughed longer and harder than we had in weeks. He somehow kept his food in his mouth through all the laughs.

You can’t plan those moments in life.

Letter to a Jazz Man

Dear Jack,

This morning my iPod chose an instrumental track from one of your albums, and at first I admit I didn’t realize who it was. Jack Mitchell and His Big Band. What a talented group of geezers.

Jack Mitchell and His Big Band

I took my iPod out of shuffle mode so that I could hear the rest of your album.

The random selection had been a bit of a coincidence, because my wife and I signed contracts just this past week to sell our home in Texas and return to Bella Vista, Arkansas — the town where you and I met.

I interviewed you for The Weekly Vista, and wrote a review of your CD. Living and working in that retirement village, I met many folks I would have been proud to call my grandparents. Former NASA workers, CEO’s, artists, professors, and musicians. With your soft-spoken demeanor and kindness, and your exuberant drumming, you were tops among them. When you showed up in Bella Vista, you joined and later took the lead in a jazz band that played two presidential inaugural balls.

Curious about getting back in touch with folks after we settle back in Bella Vista, I looked up your name online and was glad to see a Facebook page for your band, a YouTube video, and online articles about your band’s various notable performances.

I hoped you would remember that time that I arranged to have your band play for a Chamber of Commerce fundraiser for the needy. My new friends happily dancing to your band’s smooth tunes, I approached the stage and requested “Big Bad Bill.” You either misunderstood me or just went with what you thought a 30-something might request. The band launched into, “Jump, Jive, and Wail,” a song that The Gap commercial had made popular, and the most dancers all night shook a leg.

Your drum solo that night left me amazed that a man nearly 80 years old could still wield the sticks with such dexterity. Your work on the track “Drummin’ Man” amazes me, too.

As I perused the Google results, I found an article in the Cleveland Banner that indicated you had moved back up north after more than 20 years in Bella Vista. You continued to play drums and joined a jazz band. It also told of how you served in WWII in the Air Force Band, and invented board games including “Know Your America.”

That same article, sadly, also told me that you had passed away in 2011.

I am glad that I got to know you, Jack, even just the least bit. Although I hadn’t seen you in at least 12 years, I felt a loss when I read of your death. The world lost not only a great musician, but a great American and a true family man. Your music lives on in my iPod.

Source of his later life details:

Changes in Gratitude

You do a favor for someone, or they do one for you. Do you expect at least a simple “thank you” and “you’re welcome” to be exchanged?

I recently found a videotape I shot of a former boss’ children at an event, with him as the person in charge. He was always supportive and friendly — a very nice, honest, hard-working man. We had enjoyed at least one lunch together after my leaving his employ. I figured it would be nice to preserve the video rather than leave it to rot on the tape.

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