Monday, April 19, 2010

"If I were a king, you'd be the brightest gem in my crown"

Hi ladies,

Apologies in advance for the bummer post, but I'm feeling compelled.

It's been one month since my dad died, which means that it's been one whole month and only one month since one of the people who helped make sense of this world disappeared from this mortal coil. I'm not a fan of cliches, but to say that this month has felt both incredibly long and incredibly short is the best I can do right now.

Most kids love their dads, if for no other reason, because they are dads. But it's no hyperbole to say that my dad was one of my favorite people, period. He was a genuine joy to be around; his sharp wit and unparalleled pun mastery were something to behold. Even when he'd lose his temper, his colorful conglomerates of profanity delighted me.

He was a wonderful singer, songwriter, and guitar player. A notably dubious claim to fame was having his song "Good Girls" on the soundtrack for the 1978 Linda Blair roller skating vehicle, Roller Boogie. It's worth noting that my dad's song was 2nd on the soundtrack, right after Cher's "Hell On Wheels" (heard in the trailer below).

Johnnie Coolrock - "Good Girls"

My dad had a theory that another L.A.-based band, the Knack (of "My Sharona" fame), was ripping him off. "I started wearing skinny ties, then they started wearing skinny ties!" That the Knack released a song called "Good Girls Don't" just a few months later only further fueled this conspiracy theory.

In the end, playing some shows here and there and collecting royalties from the soundtrack of a movie that flopped were not enough to earn a living. My dad took up house painting to make money, adopting the moniker "John D. Painter."

He has a real knack for picking colors and soon became the painter of many famous L.A. folk. His favorite celebrity client was Ms. Farrah Fawcett, who apparently had an entire room in her home full of Angels-era memorabilia. In the mid-80s, my dad wrote a screenplay about an L.A. house painter called Navajo White. He wanted John Cusack - a fellow Chicagoan and John - to play the lead role of the house painter.

While living in L.A., my sister would spend the occasional weekend night at his apartment. There was something always unfamiliar there, like it was a space that was never properly equipped to have children in it. But it was comforting, insofar as my dad was there. One night, I told my dad that I couldn't sleep. He got up and made us hot fudge sundaes. I remember it well because it was one of the few childhood moments I shared with him where I was not competing with my sister for his gaze. It was very nice.

As I grew older, circumstances at my mom's house made me want to get out of there. By this time, my dad was back in the Chicago-area, living one town over from the town he grew up in: Homewood, IL. I never really thought of using the words "running away from home" to describe this situation, but my aunt gave them to me, and I'd say they fit. At 15, I packed up two suitcases and got on a plane to Chicago. I had never lived with my dad, but anything had to be better than my mom's house at that point. When I arrived, the air of uncertainty around us both was thick as butter - how would this work? What would it look like? We got to my dad's apartment and he had set up a spartan-but-homey room for me. A twin bed with a t0o-soft mattress, a dresser, an easy chair, and a mobile he'd crafted out of metal discs. He let me choose a color for him to paint the room. I picked dark purple.

To my surprise and delight, living with my dad was wonderful. We made and ate meals together and he was interested and involved in my schoolwork. It was the family life I hadn't had, but had longed for, for years. We made a great team. When my dad decided to once again put the painting business aside to pursue another dream, I tried to help out as best I could. He opened Sputnik, a coffeehouse and music venue that quickly became a beacon for suburban young folks with little to do. It was great and he loved it. Even when he complained, he loved it. Sputnik had a good run of two years, but the morning revenue from commuters was curbed when Starbucks opened a few doors down.

Not long after Sputnik closed, I went off to college. Not long after that Hanna was born, and not too long after that I went back to Chicago for an internship. After college, I moved back to Chicago, partially because I was in love with a boy there, but also because I could be close to my dad again. I'd be at his house every weekend, doing laundry, barbecuing, going for walks in the nearby woods, and fishing. He would book us gigs to perform as a father/daughter act. I am immeasurably grateful for the many times we were about to sing together.

I moved to the bay area to start graduate school, and my dad was proud, but sad to see me leave. He sent me off with a Tupperware full of trail mix and an atlas. For the first time in a long while, I would not be coming back that weekend. We were both choked up as I drove off, but my dad did a better job of hiding it.

I was at work when I found out that he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A quick Wikipedia search told me it was a terminal illness. And despite sitting on this knowledge for 10 months, his rapid decline came as a surprise. Again, I was at work when my stepmom sent me an email. "I lost my Dad to cancer so I know a bit how it feels to hear that someone is starting to leave this world. I think that is starting to happen now." That night, I was on a plane.

One night when I was alone at the hospice with him, I put my head on his chest to listen to his heartbeat. His sternum was a rough ridge compared to what it had been in a fleshier, healthier body. I thought about resting on his chest when he'd read me stories at his apartment for the weekend. His heartbeat was stronger then, his body younger and cancerless; that's the safest space I'll ever know.

Lost for things to say, I sang a song that we sang together many times. "Come on wheels... take this boy away..."

John & Tate Brazas - "Wheels (Cobain Room Session)"

Once he finally stopped breathing, people said I was holding up remarkably well. At the funeral lunch, I was cracking jokes and enjoying a Manhattan. It seems weird, but Alison Bechdel - who also laughed while telling folks about her dead dad - summed it perfectly for me in her graphic novel, Fun Home: "The idea that my vital, passionate father was decomposing in the grave was ridiculous."

Love you all. Thanks for reading!


  1. What an awesome dad! You were lucky to have him :)

  2. he sounds like a fascinating guy, and i certainly love hearing stories about someone so inspiring. please tell more if you ever feel up to it...

  3. Tate,

    Thank you for sharing so much about you and your Dad and the relationship you guys enjoyed. I think anyone would say that's the kind of relationship they want with their father or their mother, for that matter. It sounds like you both had a lot of respect for each other and complimented each other well. He sounds outrageously awesome.

    I was touched by the way you described your feelings around the time of his death. You let us into the tender parts of your heart, as they say...or as i say. You know, the parts that aren't joking around like we're used to.

    I know you didn't write this for any kind of sympathy and I'm not here to boohoo you, but I love you and my heart breaks when I read this. I wish you didn't have to go through it. I found myself trying not to cry as I read through. I'm also thankful that you can share it with us because it really is a gift to know this about you and your pops. I feel like we all just got a little closer with you. I'm with Sarah, share more whenever you want. I'll always be interested.

    In love and friendship,