Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Heart of Gold: In Memory of My Dad

For as long as I can remember, people have told me I look like my dad. Occasionally—in our somewhat small town of Dover, New Hampshire, anyway—upon passing me in the street, people have felt a compulsion to exclaim, “You must be Terry York’s daughter!”

After an anxiety- and angst-filled adolescence, I promised myself that je ne regrette rien, that I would live in the moment lest tomorrow we die. And yet, if in my grief I might allow myself the indulgence of a single regret, let it be that I wish I’d recorded more of my dad’s life story. For he had an incredible life, filled with adventure and spontaneity, and most importantly (a quality I know from my friends’ frequent eye-rolls that I’ve inherited), a perpetual sense of wonder. I can’t recall the number of times this summer, while driving across the country together, that I heard that familiar “Oh, Jill!” indicating that my dad had discovered yet another hilarious/amazing/interesting thing.

My childhood memories are filled with storybook absurdities. My dad chasing my best friend Carrie and I up the stairs with headband antenna on, screaming “eat little girls!” My dad allowing me “5 minute swear time” in which I was allowed to yell all of the profanities I desired, apparently (so says my mom) capping off each with a little giggle. My dad taking me with him on his floral delivery route, letting me listen to Paula Abdul the entire way despite his obvious distaste for her, and—strangely—discovering elephant rides in a parking lot in Maine, which he of course insisted I do. My parents taking me to bars, restaurants, private events to see my dad play in his band; my dad bringing me up on stage with him as young as five to sing along.

I couldn’t bring home boyfriends. I mean, I could—I was allowed—but every time, they would inevitably think my dad was so cool that they’d end up sitting around and playing guitar with him (a. this was partially my fault for dating musicians and b. this is why I hate the song “More Than Words”). The guitar thing continued well into my twenties, as I was reminded today in an email from my ex-husband, whose guitar skills were the best gift my dad ever gave him.

Fortunately, my adulthood was no different. After a gap of several years in which a teenage me decided I hated my parents, we slipped right back into our old ways. Visiting me in Morocco in 2005, my dad spent the week wide-eyed, popping into the various artisan workshops in the Meknes medina and befriending everyone who—inexplicably—shouted “Ali Baba!” to him. He would later tell people the story of just how fascinating and different it was, much to my embarrassment. Now I get it; I just needed to see it through his eyes.

Every summer the past four years since moving home from Morocco, I would take the train up to New Hampshire every possible weekend, usually with Anas, and my dad and I would go yard-saleing. And at every yard sale, the consummate musician, he would ask if they had any instruments; usually he was met with a blank stare, but occasionally he’d be pleasantly surprised as a ukulele or clarinet emerged from someone’s basement. He almost always bought it, he always bargained for the best price, and my mom always rolled her eyes and sighed when he brought the latest musicmaker home, knowing that it would end up collecting dust with the other 50 in their bedroom.

When, in 2007, my dad stopped drinking in hopes of curbing the damage to his liver, he took up an O’Doul’s (non-alcoholic beer) habit. He hated it, but he loved cracking open a bottle of O’Doul’s on his way home from work and drinking it very obviously while he drove, hoping to get pulled over by the cops. The one time he did, and he successfully avoided trouble, he bragged about it for weeks.

In January, I was offered my current position at EFF completely out of the blue. I was happy at the Berkman Center, had no intentions of leaving soon, but the offer was simply too incredible to pass up and I knew from the moment it happened that I was going to say yes…but first, I had to ask my dad. I knew—and he knew, though he never admitted it, not even in his final days—that his time on this earth was short, and I hated the idea of leaving him.

I remember the call vividly. I was walking from my apartment on Massachusetts Avenue to Berkman, less than three blocks away, and I called him, as I often did, while I walked (in fact, fire or police trucks so often went by, sirens blazing, during our phone calls, that it became our own little joke). I told him about the job, and about my concern of being so far away, but he told me, as I knew he would, that this was my dream job and I couldn’t pass it up.

As my best friend Carrie recently reminded me, that’s the sign of an amazing parent: selflessness. I know that deep down he undoubtedly wished I would stay, but he would never say so. And a few months later, as he drove me across the country to San Francisco, my new home, I knew deep down that we were saying goodbye. As fate would have it, our goodbye on 21st Street as he got into his truck was the last time I would see him outside a hospital.

But that’s getting ahead of myself…because that trip was the trip of a lifetime for me, and though my dad had driven across the country more than once (even by motorcycle), I think it was for him too. And God, did we laugh as we covered 3,500 of America. We spent nights in cheap hotels, always being sure to ask for two beds lest they think him some lecherous old man (the prospect of this made him laugh and sometimes, just to embarrass me, he’d jokingly ask for one queen bed).

We cracked up at an Amish gas station in Tennessee that was run by Indian immigrants and sold, among other things, bongs and pulled pork. We stopped at farm stands, filling up his little cooler (he always had one in his truck) with peaches and peas, apples and strawberries, snacking across Arkansas and Oklahoma. We hit up Cadillac Ranch, where—despite the painful cramps in his legs—we walked out into the desert field and spraypainted our names all over the cars, my dad climbing in one for a photograph. We went to the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico where my dad tried his first tamale and fell in love, determined to cook his own when he got back. We sang Beatles tunes and made fun of Paul McCartney (a. Paul, you’re not a bluebird and b. you look like an elderly lesbian). And he took me to Vegas for my first time, getting pulled over for running a red light. And in San Francisco, a city that he’d only seen once on a business trip with my mom in the ‘90s, we took a pedi-cab ride along the Embarcadero, photographing ourselves, our last real photograph together.

And that was the last time I saw the dad I knew.

On the way home, he stopped to see my aunt, cousin, and their families in San Diego and had his regular medical procedure at a hospital there, then left to see America one more time on his own. A few days later, my mom started to worry; he sounded confused in phone calls, my cousin in Texas had to fly to pick him up on the other side of the state, driving his truck back for him as he slept in the passenger’s seat. He refused to stay longer than one night, insisting on driving the rest of the way back, incurring several tickets, a dent in the driver’s side, and a hospital trip enforced by police who pulled him over one night.

End-stage liver disease can do some ugly things. My mom had, for the past five years, shielded me from most, my dad had kept his pain from me. But by July, my dad was no longer making any sense, an unexpected (at least by us) side effect that happens when your liver can no longer process toxins. By August, he had spent the summer in and out of the hospital, a vicious cycle in which doctors would regulate his meds to kill the encephalopathy, which would make him physically weaker. By September, my mother didn’t know what to do anymore. She started having to call 911 when he was home, so crazy was his behavior. When he accidentally set the spare bedroom on fire, that was the last straw; he needed more care than my mom was able to provide at home.

In September, I came for a visit while I was on the East Coast, in between conferences in New York and DC. He was lucid. He cried, totally out of character for him. We talked about me coming home for the holidays, going to the movies. I told him to listen to the doctors. My last night there, I brought him sushi and Carrie (my unlinkable, luddite best friend in the world) played guitar while he egged her on. We got yelled at for the noise, sending us all–including my dad’s required aide–into fits of laughter. I had no idea that would be the last time we’d laugh together in person.

Now pardon me if I take a paragraph to rant about our health care system. This isn’t political, it is simply the truth: Though my mother was hemorrhaging her paychecks to pay for extra insurance from her employer, hospitals continued to kick my dad out after short stays, saying that as long as he could walk, insurance wouldn’t pay for him to stay. A psychiatrist mistakenly (and, if I might add, stupidly) misidentified his condition as bipolar disorder, despite her knowledge of his condition, resulting in his removal from the transplant list. Doctors would tell my mother one thing, then do another. She fought, and she fought hard, but by November he was locked in a cycle where he’d spend a few days in the hospital, come home for a day, do something nuts (like try to make soup with screws and forks), get sent back, get sent home again…And then a doctor finally spoke the truth: There would be no transplant.

All of the care he’d been receiving was essentially a giant band-aid on an incurable wound. And, as I learned just a few days later, that wound had been killing him.

As fate would have it, a conference I was meant to attend in Cairo over Thanksgiving weekend was cancelled on short notice. My mother, who would never have asked me to cancel a trip like that (nor would my father have, and she knew that), called me on Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, and said I should come home. And so I did.

I got one day with him, Friday, before he slipped into a coma. He didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but he knew I was there, he could kiss me, hold my hand, and even ask for a group shot, which we obligingly took, he in his hospital gown grinning like an idiot, surrounded by me and his and my mother’s friends as my mom took the photo on her phone. My mother and I went back on Saturday and Sunday, sat with him for hours, sang to him Christmas carols and squeezed his hands—occasionally feeling a squeeze back—but by Monday morning, when I had to leave, we knew it wasn’t long. I asked my mom if I should stay, but we both knew there was no point.

On Tuesday I flew to Victoria, British Columbia for a conference; after arriving to my hotel, before dinner, I started writing this, knowing that it would be harder later on. And just one hour into dinner, I got the call: At 9:55pm EST, on November 29, 2011, my father, Terry Chesley York, passed away.

I am so grateful for the four years that I got to spend living just an hour or so from my parents. I am so grateful for every time my dad popped down to Boston “just to say hi”, taking me for a quick dinner or fixing something in my apartment. I am grateful for all of the quick phone calls we had, all of the political arguments (his Facebook political status currently reads: Conservaliberative), all of the love of music he instilled in me. I am grateful for the years we spent together in the theatre, performing A Christmas Carol three years straight and in the same roles, no less! I am grateful for his generosity, the way he’d leave a full tank of gas and $5 bills hidden in various crevices of my car every time I’d leave again for college. I am even grateful for all the pre-Google days in which my dad sat me down and made me listen to one song or another over and over and write down the lyrics for him. I still, to this day, remember all of the words of Squeeze’s Tempted.

My daddy was a three-instrument musician and a hell of a visual artist. He could–and did–build a house or fix up an old car. He loved to kayak and sail. He lived the life he wanted and though I know he struggled hard with regret, in the end, I think the last five years of pain were probably, in his mind, worth the first fifty-four of fun.

My mother and I have decided against a funeral, at his behest, and I have no need for flowers, but if you are so inclined, you can make a gift in his memory to the Fender Music Foundation. If you want to read his obituary in our local paper and sign the guestbook, please do. But most of all, what I would love is your memories of him.

Dad, wherever you are, I will miss you every day for the rest of my life.

16 Comments

  1. This is the best, funnest and most touching blog I’ve read about someone’s passing by one of their children. (I’ve read a few before.) There’s a good old saying I once heard in Peshawar, “You can tell a parent by their child.” I’m glad you shared part of the 54 years of fun, however, tough the 5 years of pain may have been.

    Respects.

    j

  2. Simply gorgeous post, Jillian. Sometimes I feel silly spending so much time with my Mom after the death of my dad two years ago (from leukemia, he also suffered from encephalopathy, though only for the last few days). I think, “amn’t I too old for this?” But your post reminded met that family, if it is loving, is a tremendously gift. We are lucky to have them, and we’d be foolish not to cherish them.

  3. Dear Jillian: I am so sorry about your dad passing away. But at the same I am glad to know he lived a so full life. And you are so lucky to keep sweet memories of him.
    A huge hug, my friend.

  4. I smiled and cried at the same time while reading this. In your inimitable fashion you have touched me deeply yet again. I love you.

  5. We met your Dad a year ago when he came to our door holding our smashed mail box in his hand after he ran it over on an icy winter morning. He had a sheepish grin on his face and said he didn’t intend to meet us that way. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories of him. I wish we had known him longer.

  6. Your little luddite loves this and felt tears well up while I thought about so many memories over the years. Love you so!

  7. Jill, What I appreciated most about your Dad is that he trusted you and treated you like an adult. While my parents were busy trying to make sure I wasn’t up to anything shady, making curfews, and rules, and checking on me wherever I went, your parents trusted you (and us). They provided a safe place for us to come hang out and have a good time. Your Dad treated us as if we were friends of his, not just yours. He welcomed us with open arms into his home, offered us food and drink, and great conversation. I never once saw your Dad upset or sad. He was perpetually happy, and that is how I hope he will live on forever. I also know he was enamored by you, Jill. Every show, every concert, every event…he was there, and he was proud. You were the center of his world (alongside your wonderful Mom). At times when I fought hard and long against and about everything with my father, I was jealous of the strong, mature relationship you both held so dearly.

    I know we don’t talk much, but you and your wonderful family are often in my thoughts as I remember high school and college.

    Thinking of you, let’s meet up next time you’re in town.

  8. Jill,

    Absolutely beautiful and touching. I wish I had the opportunity to spend more time getting to know Terry York. But through your mother, you and your eloquent remembrance, I believe I truly know Terry York. He was quirky and lovable. I’ll never forget when I first met your parents, your mother told me that your father mentioned that I must buy expensive lipstick, because they always looked perfect. Only your father would notice the little things.The funny thing is that everybody else remembers and loves him because of the little things that matter the most.

  9. This was so beautiful Jill.

    I only knew your father from the summers I spent visiting my mother in NH, so I cannot claim a long-formed attachment to him or your mom. But one time in particular we stayed with your parents overnight- my mom, both of my brothers, and me- and despite it being inconvenient they welcomed us with open arms and absolute kindness. It was a hard night, since my mom and Jay were having a bit of trouble (hence our stay), but your dad sang Jesus Christ Superstar with me out on the porch until some ridiculously late hour. I still remember thinking that he was such a cool dad, and even wishing a little bit that he were MY dad. He made a really hard time for us all so much better with his infectious laughter and friendly demeanor.

    Im so glad that you have these good memories of him Jill, and I am so deeply sorry for the loss of such a kind and sweet man. You and your mom are in my thoughts.

  10. Jill that was absolutely beautiful. I sat here with tears in my eyes but also a smile on my face. I knew your dad thru the Elks in Dover. I didn’t spend alot of time with him but when I did see him I always walked away with a smile on my face.

  11. This was so beautifully touching. What I remember about your dad was that even though I didn’t see him that often, I always felt a kinship with him – my favorite uncle. Even during the time we lost touch, I always thought of him fondly, and remember thinking as a teenager that i got my sense of humor from him. I will always treasure our short road trip together, the cheap hotel, cheaper diner, and loads of laughs. Love him, love you.

  12. That was beautiful, Jill. I have so many wonderful memories of your dad, and connecting all of them is the feeling that he always thought I was something special. I think it’s that sense of wonder you mentioned. When he listened to me, he did it with his whole being, giving me his full attention, and caring about what I said and did as though it were the most amazing thing in the world. He did this with everyone, from what I could see, and it showed how much he truly did love other people – selflessly. He had a gift for connecting with others – like the boys who came home with you. Everyone loved Uncle Terry because he had so much love for them, and for life. My children were able to meet him just once, but they, too, instantly loved him, just as Ann and I did when we were young. He truly did have a heart of gold, and I think all who knew him are better off for it. If we can all hold on to just a little bit of that wonder – see the world through his childlike eyes – we will be able to continue to see it as magical.

    I will never forget his smile, his laugh, listening to him play the guitar or tell stories, like the stories he used to make up about his finger. :-) I remember your parents’ wedding day – how absolutely in love they were. I remember your first Christmas, and how much fun he had with you. I remember several times sitting around the kitchen table the first night we got there for a visit – talking and laughing until very late (later than I was usually allowed to stay up). I remember watching him on “The Family Feud” when your mom was pregnant with you. I’ve never seen a game show host so nervous before or since! I remember watching him proudly with my mother on “The Grand Ole Opry.” I remember talking with him about becoming a teacher when I was making my decision to do so – thinking about how lucky his students were to have had him in their lives. I know I was blessed to have had him in mine.

    Thank you for sharing your story of him with us. You truly are a reflection of your dad – not just a mirror of him. :-)

    Love, Kathy

  13. Dear Jillain,
    I’m so touched even though I didnt know your dad, but this speaks for all daughters who lost a one-in-a-million father, or basically for all who lost a loved one …
    With love
    Miriyam

  14. I never had the pleasure of meeting your Dad and only know of him through my husband, Tom Metcalf. I am sitting here in tears and feel as though I know him after reading your beautifully written tribute. Tom has spoken often of your Dad and what a wonderful person he was. He told me many times about the Christmases he spent with your family when you were little and how you would sit on his lap. Thank you for giving the those of us who were fortunate enough to know your Dad, a glimpse at how amazing he was. May you and your Mom find peace in your memories and of those who shared a love for this amazing man.

  15. Sweet memories of Terry York. I was the little kid who lived at 10 Highland street and one summer day, when I was 9 years old wandered down the street to the end, where the music was coming from. Terry York, on the porch with his band playing tequila. I remember thinking. This kid is really cool and kind and funny and even a little shy.

    So sorry for your loss Jillian and glad I got to meet you and Terry a couple of years ago on a drive by visit. Thanks for your tender memories.

  16. Wow cuz this is really excellent job! Congrats and keep it up.

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