Dad was always there

It’s a steady presence that lets a child feel secure: a father who is there.

My dad had a strong singing voice. Like father, like sons: my brother and I could carry a tune and sing out. Dad encouraged it in us from a very young age. He’d ask us to sing as we rode around in his car, and we’d serenade him and Mom with the day’s popular songs. We also had a pretty good Beatles repertoire. My brother sang John and I sang Paul, our voices blending. Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!

My parents weren’t surprised when the school’s choir director asked their permission for me to join the choir a year early, in the second grade. She had heard me sing in music class and wanted my voice as soon as she could get it.

I loved being in the choir. I sang my heart out. At our concerts I sang to my dad, who was in the audience without fail.

James Monroe School

Sometimes I’d wait backstage for my turn to walk out as part of some production, but most of the time I stood with the choir on risers at the foot of the stage. From wherever I sang, the first thing I did was scan the audience for my dad’s face. I could seldom see it in the dark. But I knew he was there and it was enough for me.

James Monroe School

I’m fortunate to have these photographs of my elementary school’s auditorium from eight years ago when they held an open house after an extensive renovation. Here’s the view my dad would have had, as he preferred to sit in the balcony.

James Monroe School

Dad was always there. He came home every night and spent his evenings with his family. He attended every school event my brother or I were in. When my brother ran track and cross country, they went not only to every meet, but even to most practices. They’d sit streetside in their car and watch. Here’s a photo of them doing just that in 1984. Mom is prominent in the frame but Dad is there, in the driver’s seat. To the right, out of the photo, is the school practice track and my brother running on it.


When I did a summer basketball camp, Dad came to watch me play (badly). When I was invited to sing in an opera, Dad came to listen to me practice with the chorus. When I got braces, Dad took me to many of my orthodontic appointments and waited for me. When I flew to Germany the summer after my junior year, Dad wrote me that he wished he could be a butterfly on my shoulder.

When I got my first apartment, Dad came to see it right away. When my sons were born, Dad waited in the hospital, eager to meet his grandbabies. When my marriage began to stumble, and then to crumble, and then to flame out horrifically, Dad had no idea what to say that would help but he took every phone call through the whole mess and let me vent and rage. Those phone calls home kept me from losing my mind.

Dad was there.

If you’ve read the other stories I’ve told about Dad since he died (all here), you know our relationship wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and that he could be difficult and unkind, and that it left me with some stuff to work through.

But none of that obviates one iota that he was in the game with his children every step of the way. That it set his sons up for successful adult lives.

Where I go to church, in an inner-city neighborhood that knows poverty, families are usually significantly broken. Fathers are out of the picture. Kids live with moms and current boyfriends, or with aunts, or even with family friends. They bounce from roof to roof, from bed to bed. They don’t know stability. It shows up in their lives: the trouble they get into, the challenges they have transitioning to adulthood, the deep anger so obvious in them. They got a raw deal, and they know it.

But I have a solid sense of stability and goodness because Dad was there.


16 responses to “Dad was always there”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    A beautiful tribute. My parents divorced when I was young. My dad was there for the big things but I missed the kind of day to day presence that you describe.
    I deeply believe that today’s epidemic of absent fathers is a significant cause of many of the bad things happening in modern society.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      On Friday my post is about how I didn’t get to be there every day for my sons. It remains my deepest regret. I made the best of it.

  2. Robyn Weber Avatar

    I enjoy your posts discussing your relationship with your father now that he has passed. I’m certain you are aware, but even considering the issues you had to overcome, you are so fortunate. While my Dad was physically present, up until I turned 16, when my parents finally divorced, he was not there for me emotionally. Most of the time, particularly toward the end, I was scared of him and feared what he might do next. After the initial grief of losing him in 1983 when I was only 19, I realized that his death brought me relief. The end to the alcoholic chaos allowed me to proceed ahead, graduating from high school, college, and law school, with relative peace in my life. It’s amazing, isn’t it, the lives that were being lived in those tiny houses on Lancaster Drive. While some of us knew the basics of what might have been occurring in another family, the details were mostly unknown. And it was a time when you did not discuss the details out of shame. I have since forgiven my Dad for his shortcomings, reaching the conclusion that he did the best he could given his circumstances. Anyway, thank you for writing and for posting. It causes me to reflect further which only helps my healing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My mother’s parents were both alcoholics. My mom knows that chaos. Now, she will tell you that her parents loved her, full stop, and that her home life was overall pretty good. But you never knew when her dad was going to be on a bender, and it led to poor money management, and never wanting to answer the phone because it could be a bill collector.

      We simply must forgive our parents, because it is the only way we can be at peace and live fully.

  3. DougD Avatar

    That’s great, I appreciate your ability to consider the positive aspect of your father in your life.

    My wife still struggles with her parents, her upbringing was stilted. Her parents remain poor communicators, and having a big house was more important than things like dental care or contributing to their kids’ education. But if anyone needed a ride anywhere, to get dropped off at university or picked up at the airport they were there. Absolutely reliable, for that one thing…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Few of us got perfect parents, and we spend some or, unfortunately sometimes, all of our adulthoods sorting it out. I think the goal is to find peace.

  4. Victor Villaseñor Avatar
    Victor Villaseñor




    Its getting rainy here.

    Just kidding, please dont stop, Down the Road is great, every aspect of it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Glad you enjoy it. While I mostly write about photography here, when I want to tell personal stories I do it and hope the resonate.

  5. Zimmette Avatar

    I too had a father and mother who were actively present for myself and my brothers. And therefore, we had a stability in our lives that I know was missing from the lives of some of my neighbors, friends, and classmates. As the years have unfolded, MY view of my parents has shifted from one of rebellion and difference to gratitude and harmony.

    Declaring peace of mind and spirit within elicits an outward serenity. This filter runs through the insignificant and holds on to those people and places and times that were most influential. Thanks for the reminder to acknowledge such in my parents.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You were fortunate in your childhood, to be sure, to have parents where were involved and present. Yet somehow even those of us who had that have to process through stuff form our childhoods. Because nothing is ever simple, is it.

  6. Lynd Avatar

    Jim, excellent….. lovely read… thanks for sharing….look forward to your next posting….



    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m happy you liked it!

  7. Karen Bryan Avatar
    Karen Bryan

    Beautiful. My family recently got together to celebrate our Dad, on what would have been his hundredth birthday. I can echo so much of what you say here. We didn’t have to hear Dad say he loved us; it was simply the air we breathed. The sun rose in the East, spring followed winter, and Dad loved us. We will always be awestruck and grateful.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How very fortunate you are!

  8. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    My Dad worked hard and long hours driving for UPS. He was hardly ever able to be there for after school functions or other things. He gave freely of his time on weekends though. And he’s been there whenever I’ve needed him in adulthood. These pieces you’ve written here about your father have helped me sort out some feelings I’ve had about my own relationship with my Dad. Thank you Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m grateful that you told me. I’m writing mostly to process my grief and I’ve hoped that some of this has been useful to others.

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