LONGER THAN THE SONG OF A WHIP-POOR-WILL
By Michael Graff
An essay supplement to our 2018 North Carolina Music Issue
A couple of years after the last of my father’s strokes, I saw a sheet of paper on the coffee table with his signature scribbled on it about forty or fifty times, all in different colors and shapes.
I asked him about it, and he said he was practicing, “so I can sign my name when I get my license back.”
The rest of us—Mom and my brother, Kenny—knew his driving days were long gone, but we wouldn’t argue with him. Looking back, it’s hard to tell whether we supported his optimism for him or for us.
Strokes are evil and come from troubled hearts. Dad smoked his first cigarette at fourteen and kept the chain going for nearly fifty years, until a round of congestive heart failure sent him to the emergency room in 2006. “Do you smoke?” a doctor asked him that evening. “Used to,” my dad said. “When’d you quit?” “This morning,” my dad said, “when I couldn’t breathe anymore.” The doctor appreciated the humor, but Dad’s arteries were less forgiving, and the ministrokes began a few years later.
A boy becomes a lot of what his father was; I avoided the Winston Lights but inherited the desire to drive.
Two-hundred miles of dull North Carolina highway, most of it the four lanes of U.S. 74, run from my home in Charlotte to the small town of Shallotte near the state’s coast, where my parents moved in 2015. I’ve driven between here and there, I don’t know, a hundred times in the past three years, and a dozen in the past two months. One day in late August, Dad started folding a PB&J sandwich into little squares and telling everybody he was going to build a home with it. The Hospice nurses said it was time to move him into a facility where he could have twenty-four-hour care to keep him comfortable. His heart is operating at less than twenty percent, they say, but it’s working twice as hard as a healthy person’s, trying to keep up.
You come to know a road if you drive it enough. Never stop at the exit for Route 1 in Rockingham, for instance, because it’s always crowded. But at Cabinet Shop Road in Robeson County, there’s a green and yellow Sun-Do sign that stands above a clean and reliably calm station.
You see places evolve. Did you know there’s a brand-spanking new Bojangles’ in Whiteville, a town you’ve probably never heard of, but one that holds the distinction of producing the third pick in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft and also being one of the few places in North Carolina that Bill Clinton has visited three times?
It’s useless trivia, but it passes the time.
One of the drive’s highlights, if you can call it that, is the six-stoplight town of Marshville, where a sign welcomes people with a sketch of a microphone and the words: HOME OF RANDY TRAVIS.
The home I grew up in was a mile back in the woods on a bumpy dirt road in southern Maryland. We conformed to several rural clichés—wood stoves, pickups, trash-burning barrels, an above-ground pool—but Dad was a Democrat who despised country music. The singers whined too much about drinking problems; he’d quit when we were boys. Or they dwelled too much on the misplaced love of Daddy; my father hated his father, the abusive son-of-a-bitch, but he never transferred that anger to Kenny and me.
He was an eyes-wide-open father who didn’t miss much. As a teenager, I remember thinking I was getting away with chewing tobacco for a few months, until one afternoon we were tracking a deer he’d shot and came across a pouch of wintergreen SKOAL in the leaves, covered in a doe’s blood. “What’s that?” I asked aloud. (What are the odds? I asked in my mind.) “You know what it is,” he said, and then he kept going, knowing his disappointment affected me more than punishment.
Wallowing was worthless in our home, and it found no place on my father’s radio. He’d drive an hour each morning to the fishing boat he captained, oldies on or nothing at all. As he got older, he preferred the radio to be off, regardless of a trip’s distance. “Just like to hear myself think,” he’d say.
I picked up my mother’s love of rock & roll. By the early 1990s, I’d drifted into grunge and alternative. But then in the summer of 1996, my buddy Deke invited me on his family vacation to Nashville. We toured the Ryman and the Country Music Hall of Fame, stayed at Opryland, and I discovered Randy Travis. I hadn’t listened to much of his stuff before, but turns out he was a big deal. No less than the New York Times Magazine published a profile of him in 1989 with the headline, “making country music hot again.” The story describes the song “Deeper than the Holler” as one that fits Travis’s “threadbare theme, rural pride. . . . Travis aims to stay in touch with country’s natural constituency—the common laborer, simple folk and family.”
Honest as a robin on a springtime windowsill,
and longer than the song of a whip-poor-will.
Maybe I was a simple kid who made all C’s in English, and maybe two decades later I’m still no more than a simple writer, but those two lines did something teachers and summer readings couldn’t. I could see that robin on that windowsill. And it wasn’t “playful,” like I might’ve described it—that bird was honest. Is there a higher honor to bestow upon a being on this earth? And the whip-poor-will’s song wasn’t “strange” like I’d say on those nights we’d listen for one. Nope, that whip-poor-will’s song was long. And Randy was right—whip-poor-wills always sang past my bedtime. He’d taken things I’d known all my life and shown them to me in a way I hadn’t seen them, and isn’t that about all we should ask of music?
In February 1997, my senior year of high school, Dad and I drove to North Carolina for a college scholarship interview, and I’ve lived down here most of the years since. I remember sliding a Randy Travis CD into the player on that first trip, hoping he’d like it.
“Sounds like someone shit on the radio,” my father said with a smile.
In folklore, robins got their red-orange breasts while protecting baby Jesus from a fire—and if you told my father that, he’d roll his eyes and say you’re full of shit. After a childhood getting whipped by nuns in Catholic school, Dad doesn’t believe in God. He finds joy in other places. For instance, he thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world when you flip him off. The past seven years feel a little like that, a middle finger to whatever’s trying to take him away from here.
Randy Travis, who lives in Tennessee and once made an entire album of hymns, is more likely to believe the folktale. He nearly died from a stroke, too, in 2013. He stopped making public appearances until 2016, when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He sang that night, the crowd joining in after the first two lines:
How sweet the sound
He finished the first verse. The clip chokes me up, that deep voice rolling over those words, chin quivering as he fights through it, “I once was lost” becoming “I wonne waaa yos”—like a man signing his name on a sheet of paper over and over.
I’m not sure where I fall on faith, and it’s been years since I listened to the pop-country coming out of Nashville, but I know I believe in the power of lining up little hopes. I’ve seen it in my dad. Over the years, the dreams he’s had for himself dwindled from skydiving again (he jumped more than a thousand times in his youth), to driving, to walking, to simply sitting up straight. But he still vows to get up and out of the nursing home, and if that’s what keeps him going, we’ll take as much as we can.
Over Labor Day weekend, the Hospice chaplain talked to us about funeral plans—Dad wants his ashes spread in the Chesapeake—and said he was “beginning his transition.” Doctors have prepared us for his death at least a half-dozen times in the past decade. I can’t count the nights I’ve shot up in bed during dreams in which he’s okay again, walking again, making sense again; and then I’ll stay there until morning wondering what his mind’s doing in that moment.
I returned to Charlotte for a few days in the first week of September and noticed that the dogwoods in front of the house my wife and I bought earlier this year had begun to pop bright, red berries. The robins loved them. I’d open the door in the mornings and find dozens of the birds hopping around the yard. Occasionally one would flutter off a window or our storm door, presumably from all the excitement of the day’s harvest.
It’s easy to become bored with common things—a four-lane highway, or a daily schedule at the nursing home, or a type of bird or music. But maybe these days we make too much of what awes us or infuriates us, and too little of the regular life in the middle. What’s common only became common, after all, because it adapted and learned to fit in. A cliché was once original. Country music was once meaningful. Walking was once easy. A common robin once saved Jesus.
The second week of September, I rushed back down the highway toward the coast ahead of Hurricane Florence. I figured I’d ride out the storm at the assisted living facility, the safest place in town, the staff assured me. But as the forecasts became more ominous, they decided to evacuate. One-hundred four residents waited in the hallways for buses to take them inland to other facilities with available beds—a half-dozen people here, a dozen there.
“Know why they’re moving you?” I asked my dad.
“Because I don’t like it here?” he guessed.
“No, there’s a hurricane coming.”
“Oh, really?” The Weather Channel had about a thousand reporters in the area to warn us of the end of the world, but he hadn’t noticed. “First I’ve heard about it.”
He was in a burgundy shirt and mesh shorts, holding his extra clothes in a trash bag on his lap.
“Look,” he said. He pointed at a man standing near the door. “It’s Uncle George.”
Uncle George, who’d raised him, died in 1995, sitting alone in a chair on his back porch, his hand on the pistol he used to take the cancer pain away. Now Uncle George is the latest person to visit my father, a dying man who doesn’t believe in the afterlife. In the past two months, he’s told me he’s welcomed everyone from his mother to his deceased brothers to an ex-girlfriend named Kathy, whom he had to break up with in the 1960s because, as he put it, “You can’t treat a boat right and have a girlfriend, too.” I guess when you’re stuck in a wheelchair and can’t go where you want, people come see you, one way or another.
I put my hand on my dad’s arm and said, “Well, hell, it is Uncle George. What’s he doing here?”
“I don’t know,” my father said.
Then I looked down at a piece of masking tape on his bag of clothes, which had his name and his destination:
CARL GRAFF: MARSHVILLE.
The Randy Travis Music Festival happened to be scheduled for that weekend in the musician’s hometown. Organizers canceled it just before my father and Florence arrived.
Dad roomed with a guy who went by Link, who didn’t say much but dressed up in khakis and a sweater vest on Sundays. The storm didn’t do much damage at my parents’ house, but just fifteen miles from their door, roads were washed out and people lost everything. Dad went back down 74 and to the facility in Shallotte two weeks later, oblivious that he’d survived one of the worst hurricanes in state history.
I’ve kept pages of notes over the past seven years; I’m not sure what I’ll do with them but I know keeping memories helps me saddle the sadness. From time to time I’ll post his quotes on social media, and I swear, if I take any of my father with me, I hope it’s more of the amusement with which he sees the world.
One quiet exchange during the chaos of Florence stands out.
Kenny and I had gone to visit Dad around dinnertime. Dad ate most of his popcorn shrimp and tapioca pudding while news of flooding played on the television. Then he looked down and wiped his nose.
“I’m not getting up anymore,” he said, his eyes filled up with water. “I know that now.”
The moment of clarity startled us. He grabbed each of our hands and asked us to hug him goodbye. We pulled his head to our chests and asked if he wanted us to call the nurses to transfer him to bed.
“No,” he said, “I’d rather stay here and hang out with you guys.”
Enjoy this essay? Check out the 2018 North Carolina Music Issue & Sampler.