My dad died from cancer in January of 2018. I’ll spare you all the medical details, but it wasn’t the “if you just fight your heart out you’ll beat it!” type of cancer. It was the “Nobody survives this shit past 5 years” kind.
He held on for three and a half years before passing away. I got to hold him as he went, and I will forever be grateful.
I love my dad. I say it in the present tense because, even though he’s gone, that love is still there. He was a good dad, involved and proud as hell of everything I did while growing up. I know not everybody can say that. I’m one of the lucky ones.
One of the things he shared with me was his love of music. Though our tastes diverged in later years, he introduced me to classic rock when I was in middle school. Led Zeppelin, The Doobie Brothers, Grand Funk Railroad… I remember listening to all of them on his old vinyl when I was a kid.
But his absolute favorite band was Credence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty’s voice is the fucking soundtrack to all the childhood road trips that live in my head. I can still see him grinning at me as he (incorrectly) sang along, “There’s a bathroom on the right!”
His favorite CCR song was “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” he said because Fogerty originally wrote it for his son. It was their ritual whenever he came home from tour to sit on the back porch and imagine all sorts of fantastical stuff happening in the yard. My dad had to travel a lot for work when I was younger, so I guess he identified with that.
Fast forward more than a year and a half after his passing, I was on a business trip of my own. I was in Santiago, Chile for two weeks, which is fucking amazing if you ever get a chance to go. But that trip was a little less than amazing for me. It was my third trip that quarter and my youngest son was 2 and really missing Dad. We would have nightly Facetime sessions in which he would bawl his eyes out. Needless to say, with that and two other kids to manage, my wife was both a saint and nigh murderous.
On these two week business trips we usually had the weekend free. Can’t fly back home, so might as well do something fun. My coworkers and I decided we really wanted to assault a mountain, so we picked out this nine mile round trip hike (with guide service) up to a glacier in the Andes. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
The guide picked us up at our hotel before dawn. The drive was about 2 hours long, past almond and walnut orchards, through little mountain towns, and along dirt tracks barely big enough for one car at a time. We stopped in a tiny mountain village to get some sort of permit we needed, where I made friends with the local strays (because there are stray dogsEVERYWHERE in Chile—they’re like community pets).
Eventually we got to the trailhead, which was in this little ranching community. Got out of the car, and all these horses came trotting past us as the caballeros moved them from one corral to another. Turns out the mountain valley we were about to hike was used as grazing land for these horses they raised, because where are they gonna go?
We found the trailhead, up we went, and HOLY SHIT I’M DYING. I like to think of myself as an experienced hiker, but I come from a place where 1500 ft above sea level is a “mountain.” 8000m above sea level is whole ‘nuther beast, and it took us a while of trudging upward, gasping for breath, before our bodies started to acclimate.
I won’t bore you with the minute details (there are pictures for that), but suffice to say the pictures don’t do it justice. The vibrance of the colors, the way the mountains in that place tower over you as you walk—a camera can’t do justice to just how SMALL you feel in the midst of that. It was something else, and it was absolutely gorgeous.
It was several hours before we reached the glacier. Our route took us past bubbling mineral springs, recent rockfalls, and enormous stones left behind in the valley by the glacier eons ago. The glacier itself was kind of underwhelming—just looked like some dirty snow and ice on the mountain. But I can say I saw and touched a glacier, damn it. That’s what counts.
Coming back down the mountain, I was again struck by how small I felt with those peaks towering around me. There’s a lot of copper and iron in the rocks there, which gives them a green or reddish-purple hue. In the light of the afternoon sun, it looked like a giant paintbrush had been dragged across each one of them. It was staggeringly beautiful.
In that moment, all I could think was, “I gotta tell Dad about this.” And then I remembered that I couldn’t, and I got that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. All that beauty seemed a tad dimmer after that.
We made our way to the bottom of the trail and found our van again. After six hours we were all completely zonked (except for our guide, who was part mountain goat). We reclined our chairs and settled into an exhausted semi-doze as our guide started up the car began to wind back down the mountain again.
I remember the afternoon sun streaming in through the dirty glass, the ethereal quality of it as I hovered on the edge of sleep. I faintly heard our guide ask about having some music, but didn’t register what was playing until I heard those first dry chords and John Fogerty singing, “Just got home from Illinois…”
All of a sudden, it was like he was there with me. My Dad, big as life, tapping his foot and slapping his knee to “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.”
I cried like a baby—silently to myself, because God forbid other men see our tears. The guide and my colleague up front never noticed, but my boss was reclining beside me. He had to have known, but he never said a word, then or afterward.
All those things I’d wanted to tell my dad since he died came flooding through my mind. I told them to him, like a silent prayer, knowing how he’d react to each word. The things he’d laugh at, the things that would make him spitting mad, the things he’d tear up at along with me.
Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe the altitude. Maybe it was the culmination of a long period of grieving. Maybe it was all of them at the same time. But there was such a feeling of catharsis afterward, like a weight being lifted. After the tears dried, I found myself no longer grieving but thankful.
Because in that moment, I realized the ones we love are never truly gone. They live on in us, in our thoughts, in who they shaped us to be, and in the stories we tell about them.
Is it a form of ancestor worship? I don’t know. But it’s the fucking truth. So now when I have something I want to tell my dad, I tell him. I don’t let the time passed or the thin veil separating us stop me anymore. I talk to him because he’s there, and he’s listening.