Years ago, as I played video games in the basement, I used to know in advance who was on the way downstairs to inform me of something important, usually that it was time to turn off my GameCube and get ready for bed. Rapid, forceful footfalls, as if she was stomping snow off the bottoms of her boots, announced my mother. Often, her voice would precede her body, as her words hurried like her feet. On the other hand, the slow and heavy creaking and shifting of floorboards announced the presence of my father. His huge frame would fill the doorway at the bottom of the stairs.
In those same early years, and even extending into adolescence and adulthood, I would sometimes feel spooked in our dark, quiet house late at night. Maybe I had seen or read something frightening that day (I, as a rule, don’t like scary stories—I scare easily), and I would jump at shifting shadows or hanging plants tapping on the siding in the wind. Whatever improbabilities were buzzing through my anxious brain as I ascended the dark stairs, I would then, often, hear a loud, irregular rumble coming from my parents’ room. It was my dad snoring. The reminder of his presence would ground me, and the frightful thoughts would fade as I headed to my room.
My living situation recently changed, and I’ve been spending most of my time alone in my apartment, without direct social contact. I see friends and coworkers on Zoom now and then, and I greet masked grocers with a nod, but beyond that it’s just been me and those frightful thoughts. These days the frightful thoughts are mostly mundane anxieties rather than goblins and ghouls—paperwork, heartache, taxes, dirty dishes—but like things that go bump in the night, they are easily over-magnified, and then paralyzing.
Two weeks ago, my dad came to Minneapolis for a few days. He knew some of what I was going through, and usually his way of helping people is getting in the car and driving to them. He had offered to come out, mostly just to keep me company, and I took him up on it. He brought a computer monitor and his laptop and worked from my kitchen table for the rest of the week, while I video-conferenced with students in my apartment bedroom. There wasn’t much to do, so we ordered takeout and played cribbage in the evenings.
Our biggest outing was driving downtown so my Dad could take a picture of the outside of First Avenue. He’s been a lifelong Prince fan, and he wanted to use it as his virtual background for web meetings. I didn’t ask him why he wanted to take his own picture, rather than just use one of the (likely higher quality) images of the Main Room available on Google. I figured he wanted it to be a picture that he had taken himself. To have the knowledge that he was there. Present. Plus, I wanted an excuse to get out a bit.
On Friday of that week, he drove back to Michigan. And for a week following that, every day, he called me on the phone. We would talk for about fifteen minutes, but quickly run out updates to share. All the same, he would call me again the next day.
My dad almost never calls me. We talk on the phone plenty, but typically either I call him, or my mom calls me, and then passes the phone to my dad when she’s done talking. He mentioned to me recently, “I don’t really like talking on the phone. I prefer video, where I can see people’s expressions. I feel like I can read people better that way.” And later, during the same call: “I feel like I’m not helping.”
I think for me words and voice have always been a form of presence. I’m a talker, both by nature and by trade. I’m told I inherited this in spirit from the Kammingas, my mother’s mother’s side. But for my dad, presence is presence. It has mass, and it creaks the floorboards. It crosses state lines. It grounds, and it hushes the frightful thoughts.
Thanks, Dad. You helped. Your presence helped.