When your parents die, their lives are yours to reimagine.
A small consolation maybe, but just as when you’re young and your mom and dad might fantasize about where your life will lead, you can, once they’re no longer around to explain themselves, look back at their decisions and, limited only by their words and actions, reconstruct them as the people you need them to have been.
I always start small, with the questions that might at first seem trivial. For instance, why was George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” the only song my father loved?
There are obvious reasons. It’s the single most soulful vocal performance ever from the greatest country singer of all time. The song begins with Jones softly stating, “He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die,’” then pushes that romantic cliché to its obvious end. We flash forward to the heartbroken man’s funeral: the day he stopped loving her, get it? With cool restraint, Jones underplays the verses’ black humor, as when the narrator, an old friend, remarks of the carefully arranged corpse, “First time I’d seen him smile in years.” Then, on the chorus, voice and strings ascend together without friction or restraint, as though all gravity has vanished and every musical element is free to float effortlessly upward.
That’s what a music critic would say, anyway. But my dad wasn’t a music critic. He wasn’t even a music fan. Hell, he was barely a George Jones fan. “The Grand Tour,” “The Race Is On,” “A Good Year for the Roses”—my dad rarely, if ever, turned to these classics. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was the only Jones song—the only song, period—I ever knew him to listen to deliberately.
It was also the only song he cared enough about to take the time and explain to me. Morbid as my preteen imagination was, the meaning of “They placed a wreath upon his door/And soon they’ll carry him away” eluded me till my dad helped me see the dead man in his coffin. Something about those lyrics impressed him so much that he had to tell someone else, even if it was a 10-year-old fidgeting in the far back of a station wagon en route to Little League practice, but what?
Here are the facts I have to work from: Jack Harris was born poor in Scranton in 1941, and through hustling as a siding contractor, he scraped together a comfortable life for his family. He died broke in 2005, after any equity that the ’70s recession hadn’t eroded was fully wiped out by the cost of treating a mysterious neurological ailment that struck my mother in her 40s and soon killed her. My parents had met as kids in the Trenton housing projects, jitterbugged through the ’50s together, and became grown-ups just before the Beatles made perpetual youth an option if not a requirement. One morning in 1992, he woke up and she didn’t.
Unfathomable, self-imposed rules governed my father’s life. He negotiated payment plans with the hospitals and doctors who cared for my mother rather than seeking bankruptcy. He worked. And he worked. His was that kind of work ethic that begins in moral belief but ends in blue-collar fatalism, where you commit yourself to the work you have no choice but to do as a way of exerting control over your life. You’ll never be free to quit your job, but you can make sure you pay your debts. Or, as George Jones sang, you’ll never be free to decide who you love, but you can commit to loving her till you die.
Watching my father I learned that adulthood could be the process of learning to enjoy your lack of freedom. But once your wife was gone and your kids no longer depended on you, that stupidly unanswerable American question “What do you want for yourself?” was sure to resurface. Within a few years of my mother’s death, a high school classmate who’d harbored a long-term crush on my dad re-entered his life. He moved into her house but refused to marry her, sidestepping the issue with a vague “I’ve already been married” until she was dying about a decade later and her wishes outweighed his inscrutably principled resistance. I sometimes suspect that he was swept away so quickly by her infatuation that he was half of a couple again before he knew what happened, but that he later came to welcome the sense of obligation this new relationship brought him.
When George Jones himself died in 2013, I was inching closer to the age my dad was when he lost my mom. I too knew debt and death and heartbreak. I’d never married, but about six months earlier a relationship headed in that direction had suddenly evaporated. I was, in short, ready to be sad. Really sad. George Jones sad. The colossal desolation in Jones’ voice, that paradoxical mix of resignation and indignation, crooked its finger beckoningly my way. What’s most insidious about his artistry is how he makes inconsolable grief sound like an achievement. As the music critic Charles Aaron tweeted after Jones died: “He made being heartbroken seem like the most exotic ADULT thing ever.”
And yet, as I learned from my own experience, there is nothing particularly grown-up about heartbreak; nothing is easier to commit to than a life of misery. That hardly makes “He Stopped Loving Her Today” the story of a hopeless fool. It’s too beautiful for that, and too ambiguous. It’s the testimony of an awed outsider who can’t quite comprehend the monumental obsession he encounters. It’s Ishmael witnessing Ahab, Nick pondering Gatsby, Marlow discovering Kurtz.
My father was a religious man who never talked about God. But I believe the version of him I’ve reconstructed could hear a hymn to a broken man’s self-determination in “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Like the Catholic Church had taught him as a boy, suffering was holy. So much of our pain is private, we need moments where art opens us up to a sadness greater than ourselves. I can imagine why my father would, like the song’s narrator, stand in awe of that man’s love.
But I don’t want to be that man. And I don’t want my dad to be that man. And I don’t have to let either of us be that man. If so much of my dad’s life was anchored by pain, I choose to remember those moments of grace, of lightness, of humor, when he expressed his love through his actions, whether patiently failing to help me be less mediocre at sports or caring for two dying wives or simply explaining a country song. He endured a harder life than he should have, yes. But just as George Jones allowed him to see the beauty in his suffering, my dad, in turn, showed me how to recognize something transcendent in my deepest moments of pain without surrendering to despair.