Me and Dad at Barton Springs in Austin, TX, 1961

Today would have been my dad’s 86th birthday. I’m thinking about the best conversation I ever had with him. It took place the evening before he died.

My parents divorced when I was 4. All I knew about it was that my daddy never seemed to come home anymore. I’d wait on the porch step, jumping up when every old Chevy drove by, then crying when it didn’t stop. He remarried after a couple of years, raising his new wife’s daughters as his own. He got his PhD, and became an economics professor in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, known for being the end of the Cherokee Nation “Trail of Tears.” There were occasional visits, but I always felt like an interloper, and was both sad and relieved to get back to my life with mom.

Pushing away the pain of feeling unimportant to him, I made myself strong and nonchalant. That version of me drank excessively, used drugs, and kept the tough exterior as intact as possible. I reached out for help only once, when I asked him to buy me an electric guitar and amplifier to help launch my dreams. He wrote a letter rejecting the request, letting it be known he thought that was a poor choice of career. My success in the Go-Go’s seven years later proved him wrong, and he readily apologized for not being more supportive. “I’ve got my Go-Go’s records right next to my Merle Haggard albums,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. Knowing he was proud made me happy, but I was off on my trajectory and our closeness didn’t seem important.

The years went on, the Go-Go’s broke up, got back together. Getting sober at age 30, in 1989 finally brought up my daddy issues. In the late 90’s he came to see my band play in Las Vegas. I intended to give him a very personal and emotional letter, a suggestion from a therapist. Instead of the chance to express/dump my feelings on him, he had a heart attack. He survived; I tore the letter up.

His wife passed away in 2004, and I thought he might need me in his life more. I’d married, had a nice home, and most of all, I’d given him a DNA-carrying granddaughter. We both made efforts, short visits, once, maybe twice a year, or less. He was lonely. After being married for 38 years what he wanted most was companionship with a woman. My dad drove his RV around, created a new life chapter as a widower, played his banjo, learned to dance and kept mentally active. He was super smart, a self-made man who came from zero privilege and made his own opportunities. Learning quantum physics at 83—that was him.

I was proud of him and he was proud of me. But close? No. We loved each other because I was his daughter and he was my father. We even liked each other. But we didn’t have enough shared time and experience to create something meaningful and deep.

That began to change a few years ago. He got a place near Houston and would come see my Texas band, the Bluebonnets, when we played nearby. He even stayed with me for Thanksgiving, and a Christmas—our firsts together, ever. His health was a nagging concern: A-Fib, another heart attack, asthma. He was getting older, 81, 82, 83—and would often say “I will probably live to be 85. No one in my family has gotten past 85.” And I’d tell him to stop saying that. I think words are powerful, seeds that manifest reality if you don’t watch it.

When I found him a place to rent in Austin in late summer of 2017, I’d never seen anyone move cities so quickly. He set up up his new house in record time, building a workbench in the garage, getting his TV sorted. He made stews in his crockpot and hung Native American art on the walls. There was a nice barbecue birthday celebration, his 84th, with my stepsister, our daughters, and a lady friend who adored him but who he wouldn’t commit to. He seemed happy to be here with family close by. It felt like a new era was starting.

It wasn’t the era I hoped for. Dad kept feeling lousy—out of breath, unsteady on his feet. In October, he asked me to take him for an angiogram. In a matter of hours, I became an explorer, lost in a medical jungle, trying to lead him to recovery. In true Western fashion, fixing one issue always led to another. All four arteries to his heart were nearly completely clogged–he was literally hanging on by a thread and his brand new cardiologist was surprised he was alive. The heart surgeon wasn’t sure he could operate.

They said it would be rough, but none of us could have imagined how bad it was.

For seven months he endured: a triple bypass, valve replacement, unsuccessful rehab stint, congestive heart failure, “problem solving” procedures, a permanent catheter to drain fluid, infection, leading to sepsis and MRSA, intense antibiotics, renal failure and, finally, dialysis. Six hospital stays, two inpatient rehabs, two skilled nursing stints, an acute-care hospital. Only twice did he go home, both times ending up back in the ER within days. Throughout, he became weaker and progressively less able to fend for himself. Still, he was determined. He set goal after goal: his last was to celebrate his 85th in August—the one he used to say would probably be his last.

While this terrible stuff was happening, something wonderful was also going on. I saw him, dozens of times a month, if not every day. I advocated on his behalf, nagged the doctors and case workers, cozied up to nurses and med techs, made playlists with his favorite music, got him to play his guitar, sang with him, downloaded books to read, brought fresh fruit and kept on him to not give up. Nearly 60 years of single-parented, only child-ness ended. I had a dad I’d grown to love deeply.

The more I loved him, the more I realized what I’d missed. It was a new pleasure having a dad to consult, one that could give me advice about the pressures and stresses in my life. He had great perspective and input on anything I asked about. Watching how hard he tried to live, overwhelmed me with sadness, and then I’d get frustrated—why didn’t he try more, try harder, to eat, to stand, to move? I desperately didn’t want to lose him. Not after losing him as a child. Never knowing what to expect, I dreaded calls, or walking into whatever room he occupied. Would he be in his chair eating, listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins? Or would he be curled on his bed, shaking, depressed that they’d found an infection, or weak with dangerously low blood pressure, or swollen with fluids puffing his feet or his belly or his hand? I’d do everything in my power to make sure he knew he was supported and loved, and try to distract him with talk. I’d leave him, grateful for the time, but sob all the way home.

Despite all this, his focus, presence and mental capacity stayed intact. Staff came in continually, taking blood and vitals, giving breathing treatments and oxygen, hanging bags of fluid to drip in his veins, followed by drugs to take fluid out. A continual in-and-out of PICC lines and ports and catheters. He took it all like the most stoic superman ever and befriended everyone.

“It is what it is,” he’d say.

I still had a daughter to parent, and business to take care of. Life went on and good things were happening, but always, my dad was on my mind. Empathy and compassion and love and worry kept me up at night and stress levels high. I developed respiratory ailments and took a Transcendental Meditation course to manage my stress and exercised vigorously in boxing and spin classes.

During it all, we talked. We talked about everything. We talked about the time I took weed to his home and my other stepsister narc’d me out and I was sent back to Austin. We talked about his disdain for his mother who wouldn’t leave his alcoholic dad, and I’d defend her. He told me it was my mom who wanted out of the marriage, not him. I wasn’t all that surprised. We talked about philosophy and Marxism and politics and music and books. When things looked grim, we talked about death. He told me the Native American saying: “There is no death, just a change of worlds.” He wasn’t afraid of dying, not one bit. His humor, always quick and unexpected—and increasingly more self-deprecating—was a trait that made the terrible tragedy of it all bearable. I liked that he liked my jokes and my directness and honesty.

It was the dialysis that took his strength and will away. It stripped the life force from his blood, along with the toxins it cleaned out. He could barely eat but was too proud to be fed. On the last evening of his life, I flew home from a 3-day work trip and went straight to him. The nurse had called: she thought he might have a couple of weeks left. His voice was frail, but he was still alert, happy to see me. We talked about death again, but this time, not in the abstract. Dad knew it was over but refused to meet with hospice. He wanted to “keep on, keepin’ on,” doing dialysis, trying for rehab.

As I gathered my things to leave, tucking him in, he said “Wait. Don’t go yet.” I dragged a chair back to his bedside. And my dad told me, on what neither of us knew would be the last night of his life, what he needed to say: “I have so much regret. I feel so much loss. I wish I had known you like this sooner. I wish I’d known you better for longer. Because you are an extraordinary woman.”

          I thought quickly. What did he need from me? What could I give him?

Sometimes I am in tune with a higher power that channels through me, and I know what to say and I know how to say it. This was one of those times. I reassured him: I would not have been hanging around, making a close relationship with him my priority. Right now, right then, he was getting the best me I’d ever been. Besides, I said, he’d never have let me quit school and run off to be in a band. No way. It was meant to be like this. This was our journey. This was our time.

It had been a long visit, four hours. I left, promising to bring butter pecan ice cream, his favorite, the next morning. One more ping of hope entered my heart. Maybe he’d eat ice cream, turn all this around and get better.

The next morning, I nearly didn’t go, I thought maybe I’d wait ‘til evening, after his dialysis. But I didn’t want him to feel forgotten, and I’d promised the ice cream. He let me give him a few spoons of butter pecan. His mind seemed far away. I had the therapist stand him up so we could hug each other properly. I wheeled him into the sunlight on a terrace and told him I’d miss him and always remember him. My words brought him back from wherever his thoughts had taken him, and he took my hand. We hadn’t locked his wheelchair and the wind started blowing it towards the edge of the balcony. I got a ridiculous image in my head of him flying over the rail, the wind carrying him and the chair off in a gust.

Below us, the van that took him for dialysis pulled into the drive. Time to go. “I love you dad,” I told him, and he answered as he always did; “I love you baby.”

Dad died a little bit after he got back from dialysis that evening. The staff was surprised, they told me they’d seen thousands die and very few got to exit so peacefully. I thought he’d left like a Native American warrior would; that he’d decided for himself it was a good day to die.

Hoka Hay: let’s go.

The grieving was ragged, much harsher than I expected. Sadness and sorrow, I was used to—but not that.

His absence in my life had always given me purpose. I am, at my core, a sad young girl who wanted to matter to her daddy. That deep sorrow and longing was soothed in ways that both hurt and benefitted me. It gave me drive, ambition, and perfectionism. It gave me joy in creativity—an act that pushes the pause button on whatever churns beneath the surface. His absence was a presence throughout my life, one I made light of, dismissed and denied, until I began, as an adult to confront and accept that very large absence. And then finally, there we were, together. He and I completely present with each other.

A few weeks after his death, I went with my stepsister to go through his things. He’d mastered the art of minimalism without even trying. No debt. His valuables: two gold rings, a guitar, a banjo, a few guns, a truck and a car. I suppose, of value to him as well: a recliner and several binders jammed with hundreds of song lyrics, chord charts and tabs.

Then I found another file. It held every letter I’d ever written to him, neatly folded, in its original envelope. Postcards from my early band tours and reams of press on my bands. CD’s and cassettes from every stage of my career.

It was a trove of postmortem evidence, the treasure I never expected: I mattered very much to him, and I always had. I can’t erase the story of the little girl who waited on the porch steps for her dad to come home, but now, as a woman in my 60’s, I can embrace a new, revised version. That little girl finally got her wish.

Showing 25 comments
  • Russ aka Windanseadesigns on IG

    Kathy, so stunning. I find the words hard to come by, but this post has left me in tears. Thank you. You’re an amazing, talented and gifted woman. Cherish those gifts.

  • Dudley Creek

    Kathy you are so lucky and blessed to have had your dad come back into your life. (i wasn’t as lucky as you). We as human beings (as fragile as we are) are always deep down looking and wanting the acknowledgement and love that only a parent can give. You seem to have gotten what you didn’t get when you were younger , a place in your daddy’s heart that is immeasurable. He also got a daughter that he really loved and cherished ,so you both did benefit.Even though there was so many years without each other as you said. things worked out the way they were meant to be. You both got a great gift. A gift i’m sure you will treasure forever. (Tears)……….I love your book and i was at The Stones show in SA so i was in the same audience as a future Go Go (I’m having a fanboy moment) i’m sorry ….i had to say it.

  • DeDe

    Thank you for sharing your emotional story about your dad. I’m so glad you got to reconnect with him and get to know each other. It’s really neat he kept a file about you after all those years. I have only met my biological father 2x in the past 11 yrs, unfortunately I have not been able to maintain a relationship with him. I have tried. Your story is inspiring.

  • Bob Politi

    Kathy, I read this after having read your book. I recognize the pain you felt while you were growing up and remember your story in the book about having visited your dad with his wife and daughters. Also the letter he sent you with his reply to your one request for a guitar and amp, I know was heart breaking and a turning point for you. So difficult. I can only imagine. I’m really happy you were finally able to reconnect albeit so many years later.
    What I admire more than anything is your ability to forgive the past and your openness to make amends. It speaks to your heart and character.
    I truly admire that in you.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • LastChancers (@LChancers)

    That was beautiful. Your Dad sounds like a good man. It was a gift that you finally got to get to know each other in the end.

  • Renel Salinas

    Thank you for sharing this part of your life with your Dad. After reading All I Ever Wanted, this builds on the story of your relationship with your Dad and the reason he left. My favorite part is when you discover that file with your letters, postcards and your musical legacy. It was sweet and goes to show you how proud he was of you. Can’t wait to read some more from you. ❤️

  • Umaneo 2018 (Ernie)

    Heartfelt and lovely. Thank youbfor sharing your memories.

  • Karen

    Wow, Kathy. Having lost both my parents, this hit home tremendously. I’m so happy for you, that you got to have those last few years. ❤️

  • Lynn

    Kathy. I can’t believe how similar our story of our respective fathers are. He left when I was 3. I won’t bore you with the details of how we reconnected, but it was fate.
    He died in November 2013 before my 50th birthday in early January. He’d already had a gift for me.
    I thought I wouldn’t be able to get over my grief. I felt as if I was alone in feeling this way. I got to know him so late in my life.
    We grew very close and I was finally “daddy’s little girl ”
    Reading your blog made my day.
    It’s not so much the quantity of our time together, but the quality. If only it could have been longer…😪

  • T Kirkbride

    This was so moving, and I’m not usually a softie, normally knowing what to do or say this has made me re-focus. Thank you x

  • Bo Bernard

    Wow. So strong and greatly written. Welling up with tears thinking of my dad, mom and god mother who’s hand I held as she passed. That was the most proud moment of my life besides my children’s birth. To feel the soul leave the vessel they possessed for a lifetime is unforgettable. God bless you dear lady I am glad you got this. So many never do. Bo.

  • Fabianne

    Kathy, your post has left me in tears.
    Thanks for sharing with all of us such a personal part of your life.
    🙏🕉

  • Mike

    What a beautiful, poignant story. It’s sad but happy all at the same time. Happy because you were able to have a loving relationship with your dad, but sad because it was cut way too short. As children, we look to our fathers as towers of strength. I lost my dad 24 years ago, cancer and emphysema took down my tower slowly and painfully right in front of me, yet I always remember him as strong and vital, taking me to Cubs games, or Sunday mornings at Chicago’s lakefront fishing. Your father died peacefully, he had gotten what he wanted in his life for so many years…You. Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to reading more of your blogs. Wishing you good health, happiness, and peace.

  • joolsmcsweeney

    Hi Kathy. Your openess and ability to write such a lucid account of your relationship with your dad is really inspiring. Our paths crossed a couple of times, many moons ago, the first time at one of your gigs in Florida, and then again in LA, at your old apartment in West Hollywood, which I’d moved into, and then again at Sunset Studios, when I was a 20 or 21 year old messed up kid from London – an ex-punk rocker with an attitude and a wild streak that often came across as arrogance. I’d lost my father at the age of 11, after he finally succumbed to MS after a long struggle, which left me with a deep sense of guilt that I couldn’t save him. I’d gone from having an almost idyllic childhood to having a nghtmare adolescence, my behaviour rapidly spiralling out of control until I was kicked out of school at the age of 15. One of my happiest memories of my dad was the time we spent together staying with his aunt and uncle’s family in Williamsburg, Va. I was 7 then and still the bright young thing who was meant to have the world at his feet. I never got over losing my dad, and I became an angry young man, wasting the talents I had and only living for the moment, unable to see a future for myself. I was fortunate to have a degree of charm and wit, though my lack of self-esteem always caught up with me and as soon as it seemed things were going too well I’d leave and head off to somewhere new. That pattern repeated for so many years, taking me around the world until I ran out of places to hide. It’s only in recent years that I’ve attempted to face up to my problems, writing about my experiences and going back to school to study art. The writing helped me enormously, allowing me to look back and realise I was intrinsically a good person who became sad and lost. My emotional immaturity held me back from growing up, though I was able to hide my pain by being a good actor – people saw me as confident and charismatic, when in reality I was racked by self doubt. Writing about my past has been cathartic, and perhaps one day I’ll tell the whole story. But for now I’m happy to reflect and learn to be more philosophical about life. It’s only recently that I started checking you and The Go-Go’s out again, and remembered what a great band you were and how much I’d enjoyed your music back then. Since then I’ve watched some of your videos and it made me want to reconnect, as I now realise how fortunate I was to experience some of the things I did back then. I hope, once the nightmare of this pandemic ends, you’ll come to the UK to play. Until then, best wishes to you and I look forward to your next blog.

  • Kathy Valentine

    Hi Jools, In time, I hope this space becomes a place where readers engage and support each other and appreciate you sharing your own moving journey. -kv

  • Brian Allen

    This heartwarming story Kathy is a wonderful reminder that it’s never too late. I knew the pain of a broken family and sometimes it can be overwhelming. I was also estranged from my father due to his alcohol and substance abuse. It’s not like he didn’t know any better he was a highly educated man, but we all have our weaknesses.
    Your story parallels mine on so many levels. My father did not particularly care for my first career choice of Radio-Television or my second in 1988 when I became a Police Officer. But about a year later we reconnected and I forgave him for the abusive childhood and he expressed genuine remorse. He died three years later from the ravages of alcoholism, but he was sober those last three years. He rediscovered his faith and tried to make amends with the family. I’m very glad you experienced pleasant final memories with your father. Those are the memories you should hold on to. Congratulations on your incredible success my fellow Texan. Blessings and happiness to you in Capitol City!

  • Blake Traister

    hey Kathy. for some reason I ended up your site. and I read your story about your dad and you. it was beautiful ,sad, amazing. I have COPD and diabetes. I cant go outside because of this pandemic. I wanted to share sort of the other side of health…at least for me….I have difficulties walking around my house, cooking, doing daily chores because of COPD. I live with my mom (longer story) and shes 80 and plays tennis 4 times a week. Or will one day again. Every time I would start to sweat or feel my chest get tight and I would have that drop in energy. But I dont want to show that to her. im not gonna lie…im feeling very down right now. Im bored and lonely and I just wanted to reach out tonight….

  • David Allee

    I remember a tweet you posted about your Dad nearing the end and I replied that you should ask him everything you possibly might want to know- and you said you were. What a touching story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Anna Armstrong

    A beautiful elegy. My father would have been 90 on August 23. He passed away when I was 14 back in 1982. I miss him every day. I hope to someday write about him with the same honesty and generosity as you’ve done here. And, yes! Those “intuitive thoughts” – what a God shot ❤️

  • Paul it LaDue

    Kathy,

    This was so very beautiful.

    It made me cry.

    Thank you.

  • John

    Kathy, What a great story and told so lovingly. As a dad in my 60’s though I knew towards the end that you would find that folder with those letters & clippings. A dad’s intuition call it. So happy you got to reconnect with him and share what was left in his life.

  • Kathy Valentine

    Hey everyone! Thank you for your comments – I like hearing from you, if anything I’ve written has struck a chord (always a musician first!) I’ve tried to reply to comments separately but it never seems to work, so I’ll keep checking out different editing tools til I get that. New stuff. Learning curve. Cheers! xxkv

  • BobP

    Ok so we know it must be impossble for Kathy to respond to everyone and everything that is sent or posted. In one of her posts she said she would like to see this area as a place for people to share and collaborate. So let’s try this. Has anyone ever had a close friend who is young and vibrant come down with a terminal illness and ask that you write and perform a song for their services? Well this is happening to me right now and it’s quite difficult and emotional to do. I am writing as if this person has passed yet they are still here. Even worse, she would like to hear it before she dies. I’m trying hard to grant her wish and make it really good. It’s so different from going through your own personal woes and have those burst of emotional inspiration where song writing spills from your soul. I only hope to do a good job with this and channel her life and inspiration into this music and song.

    I’ve reread Kathy’s post about her and her dad and its helping me to reconcile a person dying with ongoing love, forgiveness, understanding, and hope. I think it’s making my writing perspective better.

    I have to say while I recorded the guitars and bass I cant stand up to Kathy’s creative and melodic bass lines. I do however appreciate the perspective she has given.

    As for everyone else, stay connected and keep the blog alive. Dont wait for everyone else.

  • BobP

    Hey y’all, is that a Texas thing? Quick update, my friend passed yesterday. So young and faster than expected. Cancer has it’s own agenda. You just never know, so be a good person, care about and forgive others… You just never know.
    I finished the song, calling it Star as she was and will continue to be a guiding light, and in fact she truly has been and is the Star of the lives she touched. I’ll perform it at the service.
    Music is such an incredible gift, whether you play it, dance to it, or just listen it.
    I’m wondering why the call to keep the blog alive hasn’t worked well. Really….. dont wait for others, we came here because there was something in common between us, whether it’s music, maybe you read Kathy’s book and felt more connected, you dig the gogos, you dig Kathy… Whatever it is????
    Share something…
    Have fun with it. Remember, lifes short.

  • Becky Chapman

    Wow. What a wonderful, touching tribute to your dad. It’s truly what it means to honor one’s parent.

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