You Were Cool

Content note: dad stuff, suicide mention.

I’ve been trying to teach myself to play the ukulele, and last night it occurred to me that I should learn how to play “You Were Cool”, by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. It’s one of my favorite songs, mostly because the refrain has this beautifully simple sentiment grounded in some nice specific details:

People were mean to you

But I always thought you were cool

Clicking down the concrete hallways

In your spiked heels, back in high school.

I love that it’s about admiring and respecting someone whom other people don’t respect. But I’d be ignoring something important if I didn’t mention that it’s also a very passive hymn. “Retroactively, I would like to affirm that I, unlike those other heathens, thought you were cool” seems like a weird thing to say to someone after the moments when it would have really mattered to them that someone else thought so. They’ve either “come out the other side” of their hard times, as the lyrics tell us, or they haven’t made it.

It’s easy to say after the fact, of course, that you believed someone, or thought they were onto something. It’s also easy to say after the fact that you should have done more than you did. Retrospect is more about what you’re thinking now than what you were thinking then.

Today my toilet was broken, and so I called my dad. I did it because I’ve been being gently, politely nagged for a little while about building more of a relationship with him. I didn’t text beforehand to check if he was free; he’s not usually free to talk if I ask, but he’ll usually pick up if I just call.

It worked; he picked up right away. I fiddled around inside the tank while he asked me questions about what I was looking at. I fixed it mostly on my own and by accident, so I had to engineer a new topic of conversation quickly to keep him on the phone. I told him about learning the ukulele.

“I’d love to check it out,” he said. “I’ve never played it”—and then, of course, he proceeded to tell me more about the ukulele than I personally know. He told me then that he’s been planning to take a solo car trip, but to where he could not specify, that he was thinking about bringing his dog, and that it might be nice to pass through my town and see me if he did. This sounded really good, and also surprised me for a fair number of reasons—the main one being that he almost never goes anywhere without my mom.

“That sounds cool,” I said. “When are you going?”

“Well, I was going to go last weekend,” he said. “But then the cousins were coming down, and I had to run some errands for your mom. You know, if I come by, maybe I can spring for some groceries and we can make dinner?”

It’s hard to explain how out of character this is without mentioning that for most of my adult life, my dad’s been depressed. As a benchmark, previously the idea that he would have a sense of what he would like to do with a weekend would be unthinkable, let alone planning to cook a meal or go on a trip. His depression was deep enough that I assumed I’d never really have a conversation with him again. There have been visits where I’ve come to see him and he’s been clearly glad that I am there but either evasive about basic questions or unable to put together a sentence.

During that time, I was rarely coming home, skipping holidays, saying things like “I’m really busy this break.” When I was around them I often felt terrible, and whenever I’d asked to change something that was making me feel terrible, my mom took it pretty hard—crying, saying I didn’t love her. Staying away began to feel like a quarantine: cruel, but necessary.

On one visit my dad told me that he just didn’t feel anything at all, and I had a sense of what was coming. In the fall of 2017 he tried to kill himself, and was hospitalized. When my mom called to tell me, before she even said anything, I remember thinking “my dad’s dead.” I still sometimes think “that was the year my dad died.”

And so like…now he’s back, I guess. Making plans, doing stuff. He’s very much alive, acting kind of like the dad I remember from before he was quite so depressed, and I just don’t know what to do with him. Or what to say to him. I gave up on him, and he made it out without me, and now am I supposed to just be like “hey, let’s hang out”?

Darnielle sings: “I hope the people who did you wrong/ Have trouble sleeping at night.” I wonder if he counts himself among that number, if there’s some retroactive self-cursing, or maybe just some willful forgetfulness. I have this instinct to absolve myself, but let’s be real: I know what depression looks like; I knew he wasn’t in therapy or any real treatment; I wasn’t asking any questions. I was checking in periodically, in a hospice kind of way, on my father, who I thought was dying, and I’d made my peace with that. What I haven’t made my peace with is this wild world in which he is still here and I have to admit that I was prepared to let him die.

I hate the idea that maybe the point of “You Were Cool” is that if both of you are going through the shit, and struggling to get free, you can’t help each other, all you can do is watch. Darnielle says

I hope you love your life now

Like I love mine

I hope the painful memories only flex their power over you

A little of the time.

Dad, I hope you have a good time on your road trip with your dog. I hope this is what getting out of high school looks like for you. I always thought you were cool.