The Last Holdout
You know that gross thing people say — that women have some psychosexual predestination to become our mothers and marry our fathers? It’s either Jung or Freud, I can’t remember. Or Dwight Schrute. It’s gross. Not me, I always thought. Although I catch myself releasing precisely the same glottal sigh as my mother when someone leaves the basement light on (How hard is it?), I managed to avoid the dad thing for most of my life by dating boring, mean people I didn’t like. It was a solid plan. Until I met my husband.
It was impossible not to like my dad. A beloved lounge act in Seattle from the 1950s through the ’90s, he was as kind as he was magnetic, the king of an age when entertainment was analog. Even now, old-timers sometimes rush up to me on the street, misty-eyed, memories of novelty songs in smoke-choked bars tumbling out of them.
Dad had a story about every corner: here, the bar where he first locked eyes with my mom (it’s now the new Amazon campus); there, the club where, during the 1962 World’s Fair, he looked up from the piano and saw Count Basie sitting at the bar and nearly fainted (miraculously, it’s still around). In a city obsessed with its own shifting identity — thanks to a series of tech booms, the Seattle of my childhood is already fading — my dad was a rare lifeline to a Seattle before they built the freeway, when the suburbs were still farmland. To me, he was the city.
My boyfriend, Aham, and I had been dating only a couple of months when he suggested setting up a gig for my dad at Vito’s in June 2011. Vito’s was an old Seattle holdout — low lighting, burgundy vinyl booths, a taxidermied cougar in a glass case — that had fallen into divey disrepair until a couple of entrepreneurs bought and restored it in 2010. Of course, Dad had played there way back when. He played everywhere. And Aham had played there, too, at the new Vito’s. He was a jazz musician, like my dad, with a couple divorces under his belt, like Dad, and two kids, like Dad when he met my mom. He was kind and funny and magnetic. Glottal sigh. I was dating my goddamn dad.
Dad was in and out of the hospital a lot that summer, as prostate cancer did its work, but the week of the Vito’s gig was what families fighting cancer call a “good week.” White hair wispy and nearly gone, face pale and puffy from steroids, frighteningly winded by the short walk from the car, he wasn’t himself. But when he sat down at the piano and fell into his familiar patter, ebullient and electric, it was as if nothing had changed, nothing was broken. The room was full to capacity, his friends blending with my friends in a joyous throng, like the raucous shows and dinner parties I remembered from when I was a kid. When Aham stepped up to the piano with his trumpet and they launched into “Here’s That Rainy Day,” I leaned over to a family friend and whispered, “I think I might marry him.”
Dad died six months later. He didn’t make it to our wedding, we never got to have a family Christmas, but we had that gig, and I’m so grateful. I’d always thought of family as something that just happens to you, but that night at Vito’s — one perfect moment that I engineered, when my old family and my new family, my old city and my new city, all briefly merged — it became clear that family is something that you build.