“Are you reelin’ in the years? Stowing away the time?
Are gathering up the tears? Have you had enough of mine?
- ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ – Steely Dan
“Throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll,
The answer they reveal: life is unreal…”
- ‘Your Gold Teeth II’ – Steely Dan
Do you believe in signs, symbols, or messages from beyond the grave? I never really have, though I’ve often wished I could bring myself to believe in them. It would make the concept of death so much simpler to grasp, because whatever lies beyond our earthly presence, the message would be clear: something else exists beyond this life, and when we die, we don’t just enter an eternal, dreamless sleep. I’m as terrified of the concept of dying as I am fascinated and obsessed with it, so if I could find some sort of rational understanding, maybe that would dissipate some of the uncertain terror.
Actually, to be fair, I have experienced some unusual, supernatural-ish type phenomena in the past, which I’m reminded of today on what would be my father’s 67th birthday. Given that David Swierk was killed nearly five years ago (have I mentioned that before?), this day– and this entire week, with Father’s Day and my own uneventful b-day squished in there– is a more somber occasion than it should be. Regardless of my targeted attempts to remember and focus on the happier memories, a fog of regretful sadness still hovers over my heart when the calendar reaches the end of June. I’m writing this between tears because, no matter what I do to recall the joyful moments, it’s hard not to focus on those moments we’ll never have in the future, or those moments we can never relive in the past.
Because let me tell you: we had some GREAT FUCKING TIMES during the 29 years of my life he was alive! I have never laughed harder, or felt more at peace with myself, as an adult or child, than those moments my father and I just enjoyed each other’s company. My dad loved to party– he was always the guy falling asleep in his chair who refused to go to bed, often waking up and insisting “one last shot?” or “another hit?”– and, when he could allow himself to let loose, enjoyed life for all it was worth.
He was a huge nerd– like the dorkiest dude you would ever meet– with an incredibly hit-or-miss fashion sense, who revelled in some of the lamest, cheesiest jokes in the English language. His sense of humor was often, in a word, bizarre– why he repeatedly asked his grandson to go fishing at the Market Basket will forever remain a mystery– but it was still sharp, with a dry wit and deadpan sarcasm that’s synonymous with the name, ‘Swierk.’ I have him to thank for some of my better taste in comedy– like how I’ll always make, and laugh at, Young Frankenstein references– and, also, for many of my more pretentious musical preferences.
This was a man, after all, who revered The River, 92.5 (Boston’s independent radio station), and forced his young children to listen to countless hours of music that was painfully unappealing to young children. He was such a dick when it came to the radio growing up, utilizing his penchant for stockpiling relatively useless, inane trivial tidbits– along with an encyclopedic knowledge of musicians, songs, and lyrics– to trap us into listening to the most eclectic, least enjoyable musical choices. I may look back fondly on those deep cuts from David Bowie, Talking Heads, or Steely Dan (to name a very few) now, but at the time? It was brutal.
It’s probably fitting– given how musically inclined he was himself– that those musical links tend to evoke my more visceral emotional reactions. It wasn’t just his uncanny ability to hear any song several times then know every lyric– a talent I luckily inherited– but how deeply he connected with the music he loved. Whether he was listening to an entire record from start to finish– because cherry picking the songs you enjoy off of an album was akin to cheating– or playing on his own, he was at his best when music was the center. He always had several guitars floating around the house– including an imitation Paul McCartney ‘Beatle Bass’ guitar from the 70’s that someone else has and, quite honestly, I wish I possessed– and would spend countless hours jamming in the basement with our dog, Ziggy, howling on vocals.
Despite my reluctance back then, it’s impossible to overlook how much he taught me about music. He introduced me to numerous artists and songs I may have never stumbled upon on my own, whether on the radio or amongst the massive compact disc collection he and my mother owned. I can still vividly recall the weekends he and I would spend driving around New England to various A.A.U. basketball tournaments: he and I in a maroon Volkswagen Passat, listening– and relistening– to whatever six CDs he had loaded into his car’s six-disc CD player in the trunk, while he explained every possible detail about the band, song, or album playing at any given time.
I mentioned before that, despite my hesitation to believe in anything out of the realm of logic, I have in fact had experiences that fall anywhere from coincidental to freaky. They happened by chance, the way life tends to– blindsiding you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday— rather than something I was looking for or expecting in any capacity. And even though they could be interpreted multiple ways– or dismissed entirely if I refuse to apply any deeper meaning– those moments still linger as some sort of not-so-random links to my deceased dad.
You see, every so often since he died, he’s actually spoken to me on the radio. Or, to be more precise, he has communicated with me– on very rare occasions– through the songs played on The River, 92.5 (Boston’s independent radio station). It happened, most notably, two months after he passed away, right after I had moved back to Massachusetts. I was living on the back porch of my aunt and uncle’s house at the time, and one afternoon, as I pulled into the driveway after work– crying, as I usually was back then– “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead began to play on The River, 92.5 (Boston’s independent radio station).
It stopped me in my tracks, since the song’s theme and lyrics– about a son desperately searching for ways to soothe his dying father’s pain and find meaning in his impending death– hit too close to home. Yet somehow, the tears stopped as the song went along, and when it ended, for reasons I didn’t really understand, I waited for the next song. When the opening notes to “In My Life” by The Beatles began, the tears returned, but with a twinge of acceptance matching the piercing pain.
I was baffled that the station seemed to be playing my grief playlist for me, but I still laughed at the notion that anything but random chance was responsible. So I waited one more time, for one last song, to prove this was a fluke and life was nothing more than a cruel joke. But when Elliott Randall’s ripping guitar signaled the beginning of “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan? I stopped laughing.
Because, personally, there is no musical act I associate more with my father than Steely Dan. When I mentioned those trips together around New England– listening to the same albums over and over– I tend to think of a three-pack of Steely Dan CDs he purchased at Sam’s Club, and hearing Can’t Buy a Feeling, Katy Lied, and Aja in rotation. So the fact that any Steely Dan song– let alone “Reelin’ in the Years”– came on was a sign too far: this was my dad, using what he had at his disposal, channeling a message to me in a format he knew I would recognize.
What was the message, beyond, “remember your dad had great taste in music?” I honestly haven’t thought much about that, because the actual specifics of the message– if it was any sort of real and true connection from a spiritual plane of existence– isn’t what’s important. Remembering why I missed him– and continue to miss him dearly– was what mattered, and those cherished memories, and those ways that he is completely ingrained in who I am, and how I see the world, is what’s important.
He’s still alive, after all, in me, in my sister, in his brother, in his wife, in his grandchildren, and in his countless friends, cousins, nieces, and nephews. He’s still alive when I hear the songs we used to sing together; he’s still here when we lift our shot glasses to throw back another glass of Crown Royal; and he’s still alive every time someone asks us to “walk this way” in a certain direction, and we mimic the lead person’s specific walking mannerisms.
The last line of a poem, ‘Remember Me’— that I read at both my father and mother’s funerals ten years apart– goes:
“For if you always think of me, I’ll have never gone.”
And that’s true! His physical being may no longer exist, and– despite my interactions with The River, 92.5 (Boston’s independent radio station)– he may not exist in any spiritual form, either. But his memory will always remain, if I work to preserve it, and cherish it, and remember why he meant so much to me. Remembering who he was and why we loved him so much on his birthday; what better gift could I give my dad now that he resides in the ether?