By Troy McCloughan
I drive west on I-90 in western New York. I turn off the music, a firm finger to the button that I hope is visible from the backseat where my daughters sit. Alyssa at twenty years old continues honoring the half-time custody schedule; I usually describe her as “my adult daughter,” and she’s behind me. Rachel will be fifteen next month and, as usual in this traveling mode, sits next to Alyssa on the rear passenger seat. They are quiet. Though this is typical because they often sleep most of the vacation drive, they are awake.
I have been thinking, contemplating, and forming my argument since we left our overnight stay in Rochester about twenty minutes ago. I am hurt, angry, frustrated. I have—as I know not to do—compiled a list of complaints since we left our home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, five days ago, July 1st, for a road trip to Boston. I imagine myself a volcano that has given a few burps and is ready to wreak havoc and devastation on its surroundings—in my case, my daughters.
And, I know better: don’t explode on this trip.
I have driven two thousand miles and we have another thousand before we are home late tomorrow night. I am tired; I am emotionally exhausted. Since pulling into Boston late morning Wednesday, July 3rd, we have spent three days walking and sightseeing—a constant cultural and historical three-day sponging. That was the plan, that’s how we vacation.
“It’s really hurtful when I put a lot of energy into something and you two complain,” I say. My voice is loud but my filter is capping the volume.
It is a vague, macro comment, but after my outburst while packing the trunk earlier as we left the Best Western, they shouldn’t be surprised.
Last night, I was overwhelmed. My predicament: We wanted to attend the Vans Warped Tour music festival in Buffalo today. The farther west we drove, the closer we were for the gate opening at 11 a.m. But I was exhausted and Syracuse seemed the best stop. Driving twenty minutes away from I-90 and into Syracuse at about 11:30 p.m., I pulled into a convenience store to use phone apps for securing overnight accommodations. The rates were too high or the comment said something like “Check with our individual participants.” I was close to tears, having driven five hours after spending the day in Boston. I would have to keep driving and it was close to midnight.
So I don’t remember if I asked Alyssa to help reserve a room in Rochester using the phone app or if she volunteered. She’s my middle child, the balance between her siblings. She accommodates, maintains peace, and disregards her own emotions until the needed task is complete.
I drove. Leaning over the console, she reviewed hotels, read a few guest summaries, and we made a decision. She populated the required information and I handed her my credit card to complete the transaction. We pulled into the hotel well after 1 a.m.
This morning at 10 a.m., I packed the car trunk. I eliminated one cooler’s service by dumping the water, loading it with warm drinks, and pushing it deep into the trunk. And this became the conflict catalyst. Alyssa made a comment that I heard as disappointment, then Rachel contributed her own color commentary supporting her sister.
That was it! The first wave of emotion erupted in the hotel parking lot. The seismic graph registered.
I am aware when my own emotional triggers are tripped by another’s words of disappointment because of my actions, and I am aware of the need to quiet the chaotic internal monologue that follows. These two together—if not kept in control—have long-lasting consequences.
A year and a half ago, Rachel and I sat in counseling together due to the event eight months earlier known as “Dad kicked us out of the apartment.” Though I would label it more like “I sent you back to your mom’s for the weekend.” I was hurt by their nagging and complaining at me and about me. Chris the counselor said I overreacted, and I conceded his assessment.
In the hotel parking lot I said something similar to “if I’m packing the trunk, then no one gets to complain.” (I know I said more, but I have a family vacation theory that goes something like this: No matter how horrible the vacation, families will later add a nostalgic lens that shades the hell endured.)
I left them to close the trunk and slid into the car.
Other than usual road noises and with the radio still silent, the car is quiet. I need to verbalize with specificity, so I methodically communicate the list: complaints of hotel choices, complaints of Boston heat, and complaints of packing.
Rachel finally says that she’s helped carry luggage. I tell her Rochester was the first time.
Alyssa has complained but not at the frequency of Rachel, so in a moment of conscious clarity, I feel the need to qualify some statements.
“It’s mainly Rachel, but, Alyssa, you just complained about the packing.”
“I was just making a comment,” she says, her voice matter-of-fact.
A few silent miles pass. I need to tell them how all of this makes me feel. I didn’t learn this initially from Chris the counselor, but from a couple’s therapy book Brenda and I have read out loud together and applied to our relationship since we started dating two-and-a-half years ago.
“It hurts me when I spend a lot of time and energy planning our vacation. I have literally spent weeks researching hotels and sites. So when I hear a lot of complaining, it hurts me.” I pause. How does this make me feel? “It makes me want to take my own vacations by myself. I really enjoy our time together, but it’s not enjoyable when there’s a lot of complaining.” I pause. “I don’t really want to do it alone, but I would save a lot of money and I would do what I wanted.”
Chris the counselor encouraged Rachel to express her feelings. I guess she’s still working on that at this point. We are a family of silence. We don’t inherently bear the responsibility of creating conversation when there is none. But right now, I really want them to speak to me. At least maybe an uh huh or I don’t know. Alyssa will remain silent, she’ll hear what I say, she’ll shrug this off, and we will enjoy the music festival soon after we arrive; Rachel will remain silent, she won’t acknowledge what I say, she will hold onto this conflict for a while. It might be hours before she and I share words.
“Why should I not drive home from here?” I need to clarify. “Why shouldn’t I just drive home now?”
I’ve slipped into the unfair, extreme parental threats. I have no intention of driving home and skipping the music festival. Yes, it was a brief momentary thought, but it never had the chance of becoming reality: I know Alyssa really wants to attend, I really want to attend, and I really do not have the stamina to drive eighteen hours straight through to get home. And, yet, I said it, suggested it.
I turn to Rachel and repeat my exaggerated threat, emphasizing that it’s a question.
“I don’t know,” she says, frustrated but not emphatic.
We had a similar exchange two summers ago between Portland and Seattle on the way to my brother’s house. We had been in Los Angeles five days with my high school best friend, then two nights tent camping in the Redwoods. Rachel had been complaining, short with her responses, negative with her words. My voice maxed the small economy sedan space as Alyssa remained silent and Rachel finished texting her mom so that I could take her phone as discipline for her behavior.
“Give it to me,” I hollered.
“Hold on,” she said, attempting to match my volume, recent tears glistening her cheeks.
The traffic slows at the festival’s highway exit and vehicles form a tortoise moving line. I recognize my own emotional progress: I am not hollering. It’s close to eleven o’clock; the gates will open soon. Because the musical acts draw daily for stage playing times, I’m hoping the girls don’t miss the maturing boy band they have followed a few years since its being introduced on the Disney channel—the girls planned their own road trip last summer to see the band in Oklahoma City.
In less than an hour, we park and approach the ticket booth. Alyssa steps forward, pays for her ticket; she’s covered some of her expenses this vacation. I buy tickets for me and Rachel. I extend one ticket toward Rachel; she says thanks and I hear a softened tone contrasting her typical emotionally heightened voice mid-conflict. And this revised tone isn’t surprising or uncommon as part of the conflict descent; she seems to sincerely thank me for what I’m doing.
The girls step into the first line. I scan, then walk for the shortest line, but I don’t look back for them, and I am beyond the gate much quicker. I don’t want to be around them when I feel this way—unappreciated, frustrated.
What would they think if I kept walking and didn’t wait? I would be alone and could blame the crowds for me losing them.
Just inside is the Ernie Ball stage, a large easel-like board with band names and performance times, and professionally painted canopies displaying band names that line the perimeter and umbrella band merchandise. Due to the congested crowds that move with eager anticipation, the atmosphere is similar to a carnival midway, though I do not see or smell food.
The girls approach but we do not speak. We stand on the warming pavement, shifting our bodies to glance at our surroundings. The girls have attended music concerts since I initiated those five years ago with an Oklahoma City road trip to see a boy band, but we have never experienced a music festival. It’s awkward: there’s been recent conflict and we should be happy and talkative. Since there was no discussion in the car, we have no plan for the day.
I’m still hurt, so I’m hoping they ask when we should meet tonight so we can be apart for a while. It’s possible we’ll be here nine hours, depending on when their band plays and how much energy we have.
Alyssa speaks: “Do you see any other stages?”
I turn, nod, and walk toward another stage. Rachel maintains distance following me.
The band apologizes for technical difficulties. There are two drummers facing each other in the middle of the stage, a female keytar player, and a male guitar player who begins singing.
We’ve been under the hot sun since Boston and today continues the trend. The recent New York rains provide accompanying humidity, lending to an oppressive heat.
I remove my orange Ohio State Fair 2012 knit backpack and dig for sunscreen. I apply it to my face, neck, arms. I offer it to the girls. Rachel shakes her head, Alyssa dabs a little.
Alyssa wants to find more stages, so I follow them. I lag behind, stop to assess the alcohol options: one twenty-four-ounce craft beer is twelve dollars, a shot of whiskey is eight dollars, and a premium shot of whiskey is ten dollars. Looks like a good reason to remain hydrated by using the festival’s free filtered water station.
I don’t see the girls. Do they want to lose me? How will they feel if I don’t look for them? I walk in the direction I last saw them. They come back to me. We see a large stage where national touring acts perform. Large permanent tarps cover the stage and seats. Though we haven’t been standing long, the heat and sunshine continue to sap my energy.
Alyssa walks into the women’s restroom. Rachel and I stand, though not close together. We haven’t spoken since she didn’t know if I should drive home rather than attend this event and her thank you at the ticket booth. Teenagers walk around us in both directions. I am easily three times the age of many of the concertgoers surrounding me.
The stage is identified by two separate banners, and a band plays on half of the large stage. Each half-stage will have alternating thirty-minute performances. The girls’ favorite band today and the reason they wanted to come will play at 7:15. We sit in shaded seats.
Later, we venture, looking for the stages we haven’t located. The girls follow me close as we weave through bodies. I hear fast, guitar-heavy music and see a large accompanying crowd. We walk the standing audience’s perimeter, then hug the crowd to avoid narrow foot traffic lanes.
Three young males—teens to young adult—stand arm’s distance in front of me. One holds a bottle of Gatorade and looks at the older male, who smirks, reaches for the bottle, drains a quarter of the fluid, hands it back. Bottle in hand, the other rears back and catapults the bottle toward the stage, fluid streaming from the bottle as it descends into the crowd.
I’m dumbfounded. I look for security, scan for the posted signs I noticed earlier suggesting send-a-text-message to a specific number if you see disruptive behavior. I want to shake the teen by his shoulders, tell him people could get hurt. I want to ask the leader why he would instigate such a thing. But I’m acutely aware of my forty-seven-year-old body possibly being pummeled by three much younger and larger males not appreciating my parental-like intervention. I’m also wearing my eye glasses, which means one fist to my face and with damaged glasses, I will not see the Google map on the entire drive home, assuming shards of lens do not permeate my eyes and I’m not riding home in the backseat with emergency room patches covering my eyes. I pass on the teaching moment.
We find another stage with a band. We stand beyond the crowd. The music stops.
The male singer breathes heavily. He says, “We are the generation!” The crowd roars. “We don’t listen to anyone else.” More crowd response.
I like that: positive empowerment energy, an enthusiastic crowd. Now, I’m focusing on the singer.
“My dad abandoned me; fuck him.” The crowd is alive. I like it, I get it, I understand.
“Fuck him and fuck that generation.”
Yeah, I agree, reject that authority. The crowd increases the verbal approval.
Wait! He’s talking about me—my generation.
Behind me, Rachel says, “Uh huh.”
I turn, she’s smiling, maybe smirking. She relates, she connects. Does she think when he says “abandoned” that she imagines I did that to her when I sent them to their mom’s that weekend?
Or was it the divorce?
I just spent money for two tickets and brought my daughters here. What does the singer mean fuck me? I have bought my own Vans shoes and my daughters’ Vans shoes. I’m helping support this festival, which means I’m supporting that singer who despises my generation.
Four years ago, the Australian rock band Jet released their third album, which contained the song “Hey Kids.” Though the song’s lyrics do not address father abandonment, a similar child-to-parent complaint is registered when the adult child chastises his Baby Boomer father for changing his values rather than the world.
Alyssa says, “Let’s stand together. “
I’m not sure what she wants. She has her phone in one hand and waves the three of us together with her free hand. “Face each other,” she says. She holds the phone chest high, centers it between us, aims it toward our feet, taps the phone screen for a picture, looks at the display, and says, “Okay.”
“I want to find the ‘Reverse Daycare,’” I say. It’s a resting place for the parents who bring kids. We walk, stop at booths, look at merchandise, and eventually find the parent tent. The dark green canopy walls hang to the ground and one corner peels upward as I approach. A female volunteer not much older than Alyssa waves me inside. I turn and nod at the girls, tell them to stay in contact with me.
I lower me head and step inside. The tent is quiet and dark. She asks if I want a water refill, if I want a Monster drink. I accept the first, decline the second. Folded metal chairs surround a large television monitor, which fills the corner of the room. Most chairs are occupied. Some parents watch the monitor; some have heads back, eyes closed, and mouths agape.
I gaze at the monitor and recognize The Breakfast Club movie. The girls and I have watched this at home. They discovered it through the music and mention in one of their teen films. I immediately recall the many scenes where the detention students reveal—when pushed by peers—the emotional and physical conflict with their parents. Claire says her parents don’t give a shit about her. John imitates the verbal assaults from his parents. Andrew says about his father, “God, I fucking hate him. He’s like this mindless machine that I can’t even relate to anymore.”
Still standing, I thank the volunteer for the water refill and leave.
I find the girls at the main stages and we relax in the stadium chairs. We eat a little. I get a message on my phone that my dad who gave up parental rights when my mom remarried over forty years ago has succumbed to cancer. The message is from his daughter, my younger half-sister I’ve known about for thirty years but never met or saw in person until last summer after finding her through social media.
When I was fifteen, my grandmother, at my request and after my mom’s consent, helped me initiate what would become sporadic contact: a few letters and a phone call every fifteen years. But I never saw him until Rachel and I visited last summer. The girls and I are maybe four hours away from them in Ohio, having had plans to stop there and visit tomorrow. My half-brother soon texts that he is too busy helping his step-mom with funeral arrangements to see us.
Tears collect along my eyelids. I feel guilty, having assumed my dad had a couple years to live based on my research of his diagnosis and treatment, having put off seeing him until our way home rather than on our way to Boston, having not given Alyssa the opportunity to meet him. Maybe it is regret that I didn’t try a little harder or that I didn’t make him or his family a priority. I know that everyone will tell me that he made the decisions that kept us separated and that he never attempted to see me or my family.
Maybe I just wanted to see him one more time; maybe I wanted Rachel to see him again and Alyssa to meet him.
We are not being invited to the funeral. I need to get the girls back to their mom’s, so we don’t have the days to spare anyway. But I’m not asked and actually feel I’m being encouraged to stay away. I will finally look online about two months later for the obituary. No mention of me, his first child, or my kids.
I am not only nameless; I do not exist in that world.
I hand my phone to the girls, let them read the messages. Rachel communicates consolation concerning the event. The girls have questions about the funeral, the tentative plans to stop and see the family.
I text and message my siblings condolences, offer encouraging words. Their responses express the struggle of losing their father.
Soon after the girls see their band, we walk to the car through the soggy field, dodging puddles. I am tired; we are tired. But we are chatty, discussing the next overnight stop, the drive home tomorrow, the music we enjoyed.
We rearrange the car, get ourselves comfortable. I use my phone and check email. I have a notification that Alyssa has tagged me on Facebook. I look at the picture she took hours earlier. It’s our six feet, toes pointing to each other.
Her publicly accompanying comment notes, “A family that Vans together, stays together.”