It was one of my favorite kinds of days in South Georgia on the farm. The impenetrable humidity and heat was minutes from intermission as the smell of relief danced on the horizon. Rain. A southern summer is only as easy as the liquid sunshine that soothes it. And we were about to be soothed. My dad came bounding in the house, home a little early from work. He was as excited as a child on Christmas morning. The peanuts were ready to be picked.
We had to move fast before the monsoon caught up with us. Armed with a half dozen large buckets, we hopped in his Jeep Wrangler and drove to the field across from the house. As he shuffled through a stack of cds to determine our soundtrack, he teased that perhaps I had been in California too long and didn’t remember how to get my hands dirty. I teased back, as if he had directly challenged me… not a chance.
It was decided. James Taylor.
My dad and I have always been two peas in a pod. James Taylor, animals, impromptu dance parties, warm hugs. He was my basketball coach, my chauffeur, my music buddy, my hairstylist, my finder of lost things, and my literal life-savior on one occasion where I thought it would be ”fun” to open the truck door while it was barreling down the road… sans seatbelt. He would drive me to voice lessons in Thomasville, two hours and fifteen minutes EACH WAY. We filled up the time playing games like “Name That Song,” where we took turns naming the song that came on the radio. If you answered correctly, you’d get a point. If you could name the artist, you’d get a bonus point. My husband always marvels (Lie. He is always totally annoyed.) at my ability to know the words to every song that comes on the radio. I owe it all to my dad and the endless hours we spent in the truck playing our favorite game. My dad took my sister and I to school every morning. If we were running late, he would often get stuck with hair duty. And I would often get stuck looking like a small animal had buried itself in my mane while I slept. My personal favorite was his ponytail look – three to six ponytails sticking out of my head because he couldn’t get all the hair into one rubber band. In all honesty, I was ahead of my time (See: Gwen Stefani circa 1995). He made the best vegetable soup and homemade French fries. He was my favorite dance partner at school dances. He read to me every night before bed. And he did all of these things while working six-day weeks. My dad always made time for the things that mattered, the moments like this…
As Fire and Rain started, the two of us went to work on those peanuts, swiftly and without conversation. We just softly sang to ourselves. Our hands dug into the earth, rescuing the peanuts from the ground, tossing them into buckets. Thunder barked in the distance, awakening me from my harvesting zone. I looked up. The light blue sky, beautifully juxtaposed with the dark clouds that were rolling in. I could literally hear my heart whisper…
Don’t let this moment pass you by, Nikki. Etch it into your soul.
You’ve Got a Friend began to play. This was our song. This and Joy to the World (The one by Three Dog Night. Not the Christmas carol. Duh.).
When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand, And nothing, whoa, nothing is going right.
I took in the sky as if I was painting it. You don’t get this kind of sky in Los Angeles. The trees, the crops, the grass. So bright, so alive. It’s like God created a special shade of green just for this place. I silently prayed it would remain hidden forever.
Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there. To brighten up even your darkest nights.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the smells of rain and Georgia soil as if it was the last time I’d get to smell it. Home. I could feel the dirt under my nails. Cali girl my ass, I smirked.
You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running, to see you again. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, All you got to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got a friend.
I turned to my dad as lightening threatened, “Hey dad. I love you.” And just like he’s done a million and one times – exact same lilt, exact same tone, exact same tenderness, “I love you too, Nik.”
If the sky above you, should turn dark and full of clouds. And that old north wind should begin to blow . Keep your head together and call my name out loud now…Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door.
The rain finally caught up to us. We hauled our buckets of peanuts into the Jeep and then hauled ass to the house. In the movie version of this, my dad would be played by Gene Hackman, Mississippi Burning days. I would play myself. That is until the studio demanded we hire a “name actress” for international distribution. Sandra Bullock, circa Hope Floats, would then replace me. David and Nikki (Gene and Sandra) would be laughing and screaming as they barreled towards the house through the blankets of rain. Can you see it? Every father- daughter in the world (remember…international release) would watch, equal parts jealousy and enchantment. And yet, the movie version wouldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. This very real moment with my dad. A moment that I did, indeed, etch into my soul. A moment that I can only pray stays with me until I take my last breath.
I’m sure by now you’re wondering where I’m going with this blast down my awesome redneck past. I’m sharing this with you because its Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, and because my dad is one of the 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. To get specific, Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, the most common type actually, and every 65 seconds someone in the U.S. develops it. At 62, my dad was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of dementia called Pick’s Disease. In the last six months, he has forgotten my children. He has forgotten that he even has this inhumane disease. He has forgotten that he was my basketball coach. He has forgotten “Name That Song.” And he has most certainly forgotten our perfect afternoon picking peanuts with James Taylor.
It’s all gone.
After dealing with not one but two life and death situations this year, I feel like I’ve paid some dues in the exquisite, yet often excruciating pilgrimage called life, and this is what my heart whispers to you.
Don’t let the moments of your life pass you by.
Every minute matters. I don’t know how much time I have left with my dad, but I know it’s not a lot. Every minute matters. When I was home recently, I took every chance to just touch him. Put my arm around him. Lay my head on his shoulders. Kiss his cheek. Every minute matters. Bennett’s life was saved, and I get to see him slide across my kitchen floor in his walker, shove puffs into his mouth by the handful, and then break into a smile – a smile I often think could finally bring about world peace. Every minute matters. Before Hudson even buckles his seatbelt in the car, he has already planned out his song list. We rock out. And I am reminded that I am building a memory for him- just like my dad did for me. Every minute matters.
Sow yourselves into the present, knowing that the threads will one day come undone. The sound of rain. Ladybugs. The way your dad is always happy to hear your voice when you call. The smell of your grandmother. Peonies. The way your mom gets so giggly after a glass of wine. The way you collapse into your husband’s arms at the end of the day and think to yourself, “He must have been made specifically for me.” For heaven’s sake, a sunset on the North Shore of Hawaii. The way your baby smiles. The way your toddler rocks out. The love. The heart explosive, burst into tears because it’s just all just too damn beautiful, love. A version of this is near you or with you everyday. Do not let the moments of your life pass you by.
Recently, my husband surprised me for Mother’s Day with James Taylor tickets at The Hollywood Bowl. The second I heard his voice, the tears began to stream. My dad and I had always dreamed of going together. In my imagination, it went a little something like this. We would softly sing every lyric. When You’ve Got A Friend came on, I would wrap my arm around his arm and lay my head on his shoulder. The second How Sweet It Is trumpeted, we would stand up and boogie. We had let that moment pass us by. It was too late, now. So, I just sat there…sobbing. My poor husband. He hates when I cry in public because he assumes everyone thinks he is the one making me cry. But this time (this one time), he simply held my hand and let me cry. And then, my heart. It whispered again…
Don’t let this moment pass you by.
I quickly sowed myself into the present and began to softly sing every lyric. When How Sweet It Is started, my husband and I rose from our seats and boogied. As James closed with You Got a Friend, I wrapped my arm around my husband, laid my head on his shoulder, and didn’t let that moment pass me by. Even though I didn’t get to share that dream with my dad, I truly feel like I honored him by living it for the both of us. He was there. He was there in the singing, in the dancing. He was there because he is forever etched into my soul.
You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am. I’ll come running, oh yes I will, to see you again. Winter, spring, summer, or fall…All you got to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah
You’ve got a friend.
I love you, Dad. Thank you so much for always being my friend.