First person plural: off. Blame this on cold medicine.
I should mention that my Dad is the oddest person I've ever met. He is and has always been a quantum person: blip! he's here, joking, laughing, fully engaged and charismatic in the way men who claim membership in the "Smiling Irish Bastard Hall of Fame" can be. (I have next to no idea where my family actually hails from, it's just the phrase and the similarity that matter most here, not the documented truth.)
Then, in a minute--blip! Gone. He still stands in front of you, or next to you, but in an instant his mind has gone somewhere completely alien and unreachable to you. Someone once wrote of Dean Martin that he must be either the deepest soul on the planet, so elusive was he, or that he was the shallowest. I'm never really sure of either, but the two do share an ethos of being phenomenally elusive people as hard to hit square on as Linnie Patrick coming through the hole. Years can pass without any real, substantive information being exchanged in conversation, and I have, on occasion, written down what I know about my dad using notebook pad. I don't get past the second page. There is not enough information to fill the pages, thus saving the world from the 3,923,918th anguished daddy-issues bildungsroman.
(You all owe him a note of thanks. I forward them on for you happily.)
Linnie Patrick is a deliberate reference here: Linnie played for Alabama and was quicksilver in cleats when Bear Bryant coached at the University of Alabama. My father met Bryant once--possibly more, but again, information here is scarce--through the equally vaguely defined relationship my grandfather claimed with Bryant. All I know is my grandfather, a horse-trainer who shuttled around the country from track to track, knew Bryant in some degree and had enough of a connection to wangle a visit and (apocryphally) a scholarship offer for my aunt. I'd love to elaborate, but I can't. That is all I know, leading to the endless stream of qualifiers, parentheses, and limiting modifiers. I don't know much, and like 99.9 percent of history, it has evaporated into an oblivion of forgetting, half-memory, or denial.
Bryant, like my grandfather, had a lifelong partnership with liquor. It explains why my father spent his adolescence wondering where my grandfather went, since grandmother had enough with the whiskey rollercoaster and filed for divorce. That same fruitful but ultimately destructive partnership also hastened Bryant's death 28 days after his retirement. Chesterfields and country boy eating didn't help, either, just as in my grandfather's death. Before he died, the noise of his coughing started in his chest and then went down a murky obstructed drain before emanating from his lipless mouth, wending its way through the tar-encrusted tree branches of his ruined lungs.
I used to think Bryant had to have the same cough. He just had to: the cigarettes, atrophied lungs, the fluid buildup from circulatory problem. My grandfather died the kind of massive, sudden, and decisive death people who drive their bodies like they stole them do: heart failure, brain death, all in a matter of minutes, at about the same age as Bryant, followed by his live-in girlfriend a few minutes later whose heart also, seeing what was happened, tried to cash in on a two-for-one deal with the paramedics on the scene and stopped a few minutes later.
We're a day past the 25th anniversary of Bryant's death. There is no special hold for Bryant on me personally: he was undoubtedly the most dominant coach of his time, he had a colorful personality, and he really did wrestle a bear, all things where credit is due. Other than that, Bryant is another respected ghost of a time I did not experience, and will not pretend to channel in any way. That belongs to those who were there.
I do owe Bryant for one full, well-lit exposure of my father's otherwise clandestine soul. Bryant dies. I'm sitting there in my pajamas, all of six years old and fully awake at 6:00 a.m. when the news came on and announced when Bear Bryant dies. I don't notice my father waking up an hour later and surfacing from the bedroom, but in a second my eyebrows moved a bit as they do when you're listening really, really hard trying to see whether someone is behind you or not.
I turned around and saw a man who had the look of someone who had been run through with something sharp, decisive, and final. I can only speculate what the moment meant to him. Perhaps a brick had been removed from the fundaments of his semantic universe; perhaps it was the shock only sudden, unanticipated bad news can send shooting through your nervous system. Maybe he was envisioning the future death of his father with a clarity and horror he could touch, taste, and feel for the first time. Again, I don't know.
But the death of Bear Bryant let me get one of the few clear shots I ever saw, and perhaps will ever see of my mercurial dad. And for giving me that, I do have a connection with Bear Bryant, and owe him thanks. He served as the proxy for people busy with the endless miserable details of existence to project feelings--exult, pain, the difficulty of ever loving anyone conditionally--that got put on the back burner for more pressing things like mortgages, feeding the kids, and squeezing sleep in between waking, working, and eating. He seemed more than human in that moment and more deserving of something--a hug, a word, a nod, than anyone I'd ever seen in my life.
I owe Bear Bryant for that glimpse of the slippery thing known as my father. So: thank you, sir. Without you, I would not have the snapshot of one of the two times I ever saw my father in tears, something he will deny to this day before--blip!--changing the subject and going wherever it is he goes when he's not here.
First person singular off.