A Father’s Liner Notes During the Pandemic
1. Jason Paige, Original Pokémon Theme Song or Gotta Catch ‘Em All
Our days are on repeat. We wake at the same time. We wear the same things. We follow the same work schedule — “Momma” in the morning, “Daddy” in the afternoon. If the weather is decent, we play outside, and our play is the same — chase and kick the ball and chase again. We watch the same TV shows.
We watch Bodhi’s TV show because he is a toddler and because everything revolves around him and because we have been stuck at home and have run out of ways to entertain and because he is lonely and his loneliness sends him sometimes into uncontrollable fits of tears and screams and because Mom and Dad don’t have the energy to argue with him (which is an impossible task made even more so now) and because we — his parents — are lonely too and because we love our boy and spoil him, especially now, and because this show with its iconic theme song and a resurgence the year Bodhi was born has become an addiction and because we go to sleep singing the song and we wake up singing the song and Daddy hears the song in dreams and because if we do not watch this show or listen to its opening song Bodhi will go into uncontrollable fits of tears and screams and because this song, this show, stills him.
So we watch the same TV show. And we watch the same TV show. And we watch the same TV show.
2. Beastie Boys, So What’Cha Want
We plan a trip to the office at school to retrieve the books I was teaching before the semester went remote. It is a good morning, everyone in a cheerful mood, despite the low hanging clouds that have grayed the last week. Some mornings are rough. Some mornings Bodhi wakes up cranky and crying and clinging.
Today, he sits in the middle of the king-sized bed, in fire truck pajamas. He smiles, his one dimple denting deeply into his right cheek.
“What color do you want to wear today?” Deedra asks. She peers from the bathroom doorway, brushing her hair that grew longer in the last weeks. Before all of this, her hair kissed the top of her shoulders. Now, it falls down her back.
“Purple!” Bodhi says. “Daddy’s favorite.”
“That’s right, buddy,” I say. I slip on jeans for the first time in two weeks. They feel alien to my skin, rough, not like soft cottony sweatpants. “What color toothbrush do you want to use? Red or blue?”
“What color toothpaste?” Deedra says. “Blue or green?”
“Green!” Bodhi throws his hands up, as if he has won a marathon. I smile. I wish I still possessed the same thrill in small things like toothpaste and toothbrushes. He reminds me, especially now, that joy can be found anywhere, at any time.
“What do you want to eat for breakfast?” I ask.
Bodhi stares at the ceiling, brow furrowed, as if the answer to the question posed to him will save the planet. He makes the universal sound of contemplation, hmm, before rendering a decision. “Cheese!”
“Flat or string?” Deedra says.
Again, deep contemplation.
“What do you want to drink? Milk or apple juice?”
“All right,” I say. “Let’s do this.”
I play Beastie Boys on the phone as we finish our morning routines. Bodhi brushes his teeth with his red toothbrush and green toothpaste, and he slips on his purple shirt, and he eats his flat cheese, and he drinks his apple juice. And we dance. We dance in our bedroom. We dance as a family. We dance, and it shakes the photos on the walls. We dance the entire morning before we get into the car and make our way through a world that seems familiar and not.
3. Queen, We Will Rock You
The neighbors are out because the sun made an appearance. Grills fire up. Music blasts from outdoor speakers, a strange mix of cheesy country and bad pop and Spanish hip hop. Most of our neighbors have kids Bodhi’s age; it was one of the reasons we chose the neighborhood, so Bodhi wouldn’t lack any friends and he could run and play until he collapsed, which he always did.
But that was then.
Those kids he played with have siblings, and all those siblings are running and playing with each other. Some wave at Bodhi. Some don’t seem to recognize a world outside the boundaries of their homes.
I garden. Digging up soil, planting annuals. I am desperate for color, and this desperation makes me obsessed and my obsession means I go to the nursery with a mask on or online order too many flowers. Bodhi helps. A three-year old helping equals throwing dirt at Daddy. I create a new game: Save the Worms. When I dig up the soil, Bodhi transplants dislocated worms into flowerpots or what he calls “worm hospitals.”
I play my own music. When the sun is out, Freddie Mercury croons.
At some point, a worm wiggling in between his fingers, Bodhi stops and watches the other kids. He watches them swing on their playsets. He watches them jump on trampolines. He watches them run and laugh. He knows he can’t go to them like he used to. So he watches. He stands statue still.
“Buddy?” I say. “I found a big one. He needs help. Hurry.”
He doesn’t look at me. He drops the worm into the grass. “I’m done,” he says and walks back into the house.
4. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll
Before his world was reduced to the rectangular lot of our home, we would make the long drive to work and school. For over six-months, this was our routine — five days a week on the same route through the same Ohio fields of the same Ohio farms. Sometimes the early morning fog would be so thick we could barely see in front of us. This made us quiet. Sometimes I listened to a podcast. Sometimes, songs from a playlist.
One day, when the fog was at its thickest, Joan Jett came on with her badass voice and her badass riffs on her badass guitar. The faint outlines of houses blurred by in a shroud of white. In the rearview mirror, Bodhi nodded to the beat of the song. The sun filtered through the murk, spreading a blinding gold light.
“Play that song again,” Bodhi said when it ended. “It’s so cool.”
“You like it, huh.”
“I love it,” he said. “It’s my favorite.” A few hours later, when I’d pick him up at school, he would tell me to play “The Monster Mash.” “It’s my favorite.”
“OK,” I said. I played Joan Jett again. I kept playing her until we arrived an hour later. It was as if Joan were willing the sun through the fog, summoning it to blaze the world awake.
5. Elton John, I‘m Still Standing
Bodhi is in the bathtub, suds on the top of his head and shoulders. Toys drown all around him — cars, action figures, robots. Deedra’s rubber ducky collection floats in a sea of bubbles. Before Bodhi came into the world, Deedra amassed a substantial collection of rubber duckies. I brought some from Hong Kong and South Korea and Thailand. Seldom did the duckies see water. They sat as decorations around the tub or her office. Now, Bodhi claims the duckies. They swim on a daily basis.
“Play my favorite song,” Bodhi says.
“What’s your favorite song?”
“You know, Daddy.”
“Is it ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’?”
“No,” he says.
“Is it ‘The Monster Mash’?”
“Is it ‘Funk Soul Brother’?”
He shakes his head.
“What is it then?”
“It’s the one that sounds like this?” He hums and splashes. Water flies out of the tub. Streaking the walls Deedra painted a week ago. I tell him to chill. To keep the water in the tub. He says sorry and hums again. The tune sounds familiar and new.
“I don’t know that song,” I say. I kneel on the floor and sop up water with a hand towel.
“Yes, you do, Daddy,” he says.
“I don’t think so.”
Frustration creeps into his cheeks, his mother’s trait — a red that rouges the cheeks in an instant. “You know it. It’s like this. I’m still standing …” and he continues with random words that do not form a coherent sentence.
“Elton John?” I say.
“It’s my favorite.”
Through our time together, Bodhi and I have listened to many songs. But not this one. And I don’t think his mother would play it; early ’80s Elton is not her sound. A week ago, in fact, I proclaimed Elton John was one of the best musicians of our time, like Freddie Mercury, and Deedra posited that Phil Collins was. “How are we even together?” I said.
“How do you know this song?”
“My teacher likes it,” Bodhi says.
It has been five weeks since he last attended school. That last day, when I dropped him off, they took his temperature and wouldn’t let me walk him in like I usually did. I remembered him being carried off, Bodhi looking back at me wondering what was going on.
“Do you miss your teacher?” I say.
He nods, suds falling into the tub.
“Do you miss school?”
“What do you miss most?”
“And your teacher?”
“She’s sings a lot.” Bodhi sings Elton again and smiles. “Can you play it?”
I find it on a playlist I entitled, Resetting, which I made before Bodhi came into the world, when I thought there would be no Bodhi to come into the world. The world then was breaking my heart as it is doing now, and the playlist — filled with songs by Bowie and Prince and Joanie and Billy — tethered me to the planet when I thought I would float off. “[It] was my reaction to still being relevant,” Elton said in an interview. This boy in the tub, throwing a car up into the air and laughing as it splashes into the water, makes me feel relevant. More than relevant. Necessary.
I watch his joy. I have been watching him more intently since all of this, watching how he is growing up so rapidly, watching how sometimes he stares off into the distance, off into his imagination, watching him live and breathe and love in this strange time. And what is it that Elton says? “Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid” — we’re still standing.
6. The Notorious B.I.G., Big Poppa
When it gets to be too much, when your anxiety feels like a vice closing around the throat, when you lose the sense of who you are, you take long drives the way you used to when you were younger, in your teens feeling teen angst, and the only way to alleviate this tightness is to be alone behind the wheel with the music turned up so high you can’t hear anything.
You drive. No destination. With the purpose of getting lost.
To lose yourself in rural Ohio is easy. Fields lead to more fields to more fields. Roads are so flat you can see miles and miles ahead. Directions — north, south, east, west — lose meaning because you are headed nowhere, and nowhere can be anywhere as long as you keep your foot on the gas. Picking the right songs is vital. To drive to the wrong song can have the opposite of effect of intention, which is to settle and calm, so you can exist and thrive. On these drives the songs are never the same. Sometimes it’s some sappy love tune by Air Supply or Chicago or Luther Vandross. Sometimes it’s the electric guitar stylings of the early 90s hair bands like Bon Jovi or Winger. Sometimes, like this time, its Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes and Eminem and A Tribe Called Quest and Snoop Dog and Queen Latifah and Big Poppa. And somewhere between some farm and some small town, on some small road, somewhere an hour far from home, you are becoming more aligned when you receive a text that reads: He’s asking where you are, and you turn on the GPS to get home, realizing, as you always do, you can never truly be lost, especially when someone is waiting. When you arrive, that someone will run and embrace your legs and say, “Daddy,” with utter joy. He will hold you tight, bury his face into your thigh, and you will pick him up, noticing in the weeks at home how he keeps growing heavier and longer, and you will kiss both cheeks and forehead, and you will say, “Daddy’s back. He’s not going anywhere. Let’s play.”
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