Saturday, November 16, 2019

Travels with Dad

A Multimodal Memoir of Found Materials and Memories

This is my favorite photograph ever. A shot in between shots, candid, taken when I was 21, at a time when my Dad was entering the final phase of his life. I love this photograph because it tells a story of that often silent bond of love and trust between a father and his son. I loved hugging my Dad. Recently, my son has started hugging. Like really hugging. It ignites a love in me that brings the best of my Dad back to life. When I look at my boy and think of my Dad, I feel their bond. It’s more than knowing he’s watching over us. It’s as he’s hugging me again. I know this is a bit sentimental and even sad to read, but Father’s Day is tricky for me emotionally like that. I just want you all to find a father or a son to hug today, even if not your own. It will be a good in your life.
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If you're typically here for my movie writing, then feel free to go right here to start and read a recent piece on two movies I love and how they connect to my Dad, manhood, power and choice.

And if you want to come back after that, here is...

A Guide to Navigating This Experience

Rationale -- Read this first, a write-up on the construction of this essay.

Instagram Posts -- They tell a large part of the story (one of them is a video), so do some clicking or sliding if it calls for it, and read the captions. 

YouTube Videos -- Throughout this piece, there are YouTube videos embedded with songs placed to highlight a particular moment in time and memory. Please listen to as much of them as you'd like, unless otherwise directed. You do deserve some choice in the matter.

Photographs -- Click them to enlarge or zoom.

Links to Posts -- Throughout as well, I have placed links to things I've written over the years that connect to those very same situations of power that have put me where I am now. Please follow them at your convenience.

Please feel free to leave comments here on this post. I love comments. I will reply to them.

Prologue: A Few Notes About Me and My Dad

This is and collection of memories, photos, and songs about many things, but most notably it covers an experience of manhood, the power of life and death and the choices we make or don't make on the path to bettering ourselves (or not). 

I was born male and performed that gender all the way through, sometimes struggling with that need for us to be macho. I was a sensitive kid, more interested in the arts than sports but living otherwise for most of my youth.

I was raised in two homes.

One home, my Mother's, was always a bit more comfortable and welcoming, though rife with the dramas of a bipolar, workaholic single parent.

The other home, was not as nicely decorated or warm, kept by a guy, my Dad, who I mostly remember as a baseball coach, football fan, lover of reading and writing, politics, movies and TV, music, pretty girls, and drugs...hard ones. (I only learned that last bit as a grown-up.) I tended towards the same exact loves.

I was a late bloomer, overweight, low self-esteem, body image issues, I even dabbled in those hard  drugs (mostly pills) to cope at times, as my Dad did, though the true disease of addiction seems to have passed me by.

Luckily, my Dad kept himself mostly together when I was young, hiding his depression and drug addiction.

But the lack of a male figure in my adult life is what this essay is really all, the adult version, now father myself forever changed by the final few years of my father's life and the two weeks before his death and the two weeks after..and the years that followed.

It's also deeply tied to my love of movies and of music, my Dad's music, which I've used as a guide to help myself remember.

Part 1: Traveling Alone

My Dad got arrested for the final time (after multiple arrests and stints in jail) in Winter of 2014. I found myself driving to Claiborne County, Tennessee, and Bell County, Kentucky, often in the year before bail him out or pick him up or drop him off or visit him in jail. Melancholy is the only way to describe those drives:

Around that time, I had just started my Instagram account. I suppose I needed an outlet for my newly rekindled passion for movies, and there I found a community of movie lovers who mostly treated each other's taste with respect and tact.

Anyway, ultimately my Dad would be charged with manufacturing methamphetamine among other charges and sentenced to 10 years in Kentucky's state prison system, to serve a mandatory 2 years given completion of a substance abuse program. It was the most trying and melancholy 2 years of my life.

He was sick with liver disease the whole 2 years as well. One does not receive sound medical care in prison. It's just the truth.

The Story of an Artist Called Warren Zevon

My Dad used to talk a lot about this time he was in Los Angeles back when his brother, my Uncle Jeff, lived there for a time in the very late 1970s. A guy was on the street, trying to get rid of his two tickets for a sold out show...Warren Zevon a small venue. They went. My Dad would tell that story every single time this song played on 103.5 WIMZ-Knoxville, the classic rock station, the only station we ever listened to once I got out of my country phase.

Warren Zevon and Uncle Jeff will show up again, separately, later.

He also told me about Led Zeppelin.

Imagine these guys, son and father (*), in a car together sometime in the 1990s, and the older playing his steering wheel as a Gibson Les Paul, hitting every note along with the great Jimmy Page on that particular curvy, rocky stretch of I-40 between Newport, Tennessee, and Waynesville, North Carolina, where Dad's parents, my grandparents lived, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Imagine the younger having heard these guitar licks for the first time ever:


Within the next few years, the older would tell the younger about going to see Zeppelin live in concert in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1974, where they played for four hours, no opening act, an acoustic interlude in between hours of hard jamming, the older on speed and beer and weed. Ticket price: $8. The younger's mind was blown. How cool is his old man!?

Part 2 -- A Week-and-a-Half Until Thanksgiving

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(As I write this, I made that Instagram post almost exactly two years ago. It's about the two weeks...November 18 - December 2, 2016...leading to my Dad's death. I recently adapted a thread of an idea from that post just above into a personal narrative essay, a Definition of Power, recounting an experience two weeks before my Dad died that works towards my growth as a result of such an experience. You can read that here.)

What follows is a reworking of that Definition of Power, a story of my father's drug addiction, letting go and reminding ourselves that we can be better because of the past choices of others. They can be our beacon.

Right now, I'm nearing the three-year mark since my Dad left me. I've become, like I wrote in that definition essay, something better than I was before, softer, more understanding, a better teacher, one who has worked the past two-and-a-half school years to become more of a student myself and less of an authority reigning over my kids. I've come to better understand my father's disease, a disease borne of desire for power and control over yourself.

My school recently adopted a curriculum, which features Kwame Alexander's novel-in-verse, The Crossover, a story of a son and his father and the things they share and the ways they differ. The curriculum has recently asked us to write three poems, modeled after types Alexander uses in his novel, that create a narrative arc representing a personal experience that helped you realize your sense of self and the world around you. Here's mine (that I'll share with my students this week):

Definition Poem


Power (noun)

1.the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.
2.the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

As in...power is situational. My Dad's drug addiction had power over me. 

As in...Power arises in moments of need. It sits in contrast to control, for it is control that makes us powerless. My Dad let go, lost control in the wrong ways. That loss took his power.

As in...Letting go is power, a form of it that is decidedly situational. Our choices in any moment are power. The bad choice of a drug addict is not in choosing the drug but in choosing to never let go of the need to control. My Dad dying taught me this.

Found Materials Poem


Instagram Post on November 18, 2017

Don’t get on Facebook much
but it knows me.
This pic popped up today.
My Dad put his arm around me.
A year ago today,
the mountains were on fire,
And I drove through them.
Dad had done his time. He was sick.
He would only live for two more weeks.
Through one last Thanksgiving, a free man,
free from his past sins.
But it was one of the hardest days of my life.
Nearly as hard as that day two weeks later
When he drew his last breath.
It was also a beautiful day,
Like the one in this photograph,
A day when my Dad put his arm around me,
A touch only my father had.
A touch I would WALK through fire
To have again.

List Poem


I was angry that school year my Dad died...
and the one before...
and the one before...
I had kids that seemed unteachable,
sometimes out of my control.
Sometimes that lack made me feel powerless.
I expected my students to sit...
and listen...
and do...
because I said so...
If a kid crossed me,
I would buck up and react,
sometimes yell,
show my frustration,
do everything
they tell teachers not to do.
I was indignant
in my righteous expectation
that I had all the power.

So, I...

1. Read books about my students, students from poverty.

2. Moved my seat to the middle of the room, where I could become just another student.

3. Started sharing time with my students, offering them moments to breathe, relax, talk, reflect.

4. Applied to get my Master's Degree in English Education.

5. Worked to stop sitting in opposition of others. I stepped away from my left-wing pole and moved towards the center. I re-read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, and I find myself affirmed in that move. Like Jean Louise, I had to reckon with the hard truths of my understanding that my Dad was never perfect, not by a long shot.

 New Words

I wrote this the other day:

And in reminding us, and Scout, of this [the need to humble oneself and listen), he also reminds us that Atticus is still the smooth (and completely imperfect) operator he always was.

Scout questions why Atticus just let her lay into him, cuss him, show her unending anger and confusion. Uncle Jack knows what’s up: “He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being” (Lee 266).

Call me a moderate, but that, right now, is what the world needs. We need to realize that we are human beings and that we are all flawed and that righteousness, especially self-righteousness, on one “side” (quoted in a very general sense) or the other is just wrong and will lead to no true change.

Doesn’t Atticus remind us, bring us to tears, at the end of TKAM, when he tells us that we can (and I’m paraphrasing) actually know somebody if we just really take a look?

That’s what both of these novels are about: They are about learning to listen, to see, to watch.

We hope, in the end, that Scout may come back to Maycomb and work with others, with everybody who may let her in, and together they can be that moral compass, a watchman, guiding the world.

I wrote this today:

My Dad's death has been my watchman.

Musical Interlude

The day after Dad died, my Uncle Jeff posted link after link of songs that reminded him of his brother. That was one of the ones that hung with me. He accompanied it with a message that read something like this:

My brother Gary died
because of drug addiction.
In the end, it was his liver
but ultimately it was
Gary’s lifelong drug addiction
that caused his death.
Gary was truly successful:
he had a beautiful relationship
with all his family
who deeply respected his gentle ways,
his engaging intelligence,
and his personal integrity.
He earned a fine college degree.
He enjoyed a very happy and fruitful career.
He knew the precious love of his wonderful son and daughter.
He was fully active in and well loved by his community.
My lovely brother experienced “real" periods of success
in treatment for his addiction;
he was “clean” for long months at a time.
Gary had a full and fulfilling life
but he also lost his battle with serious drugs.
I want to thank all our friends for loving him
through all of this struggle.
Gary’s body simply couldn’t take any more punishment…

Part 3: Death

My sister and I chose this song for his funeral:

Then, we headed to The Carolinas...where Dad always wanted his ashes scattered...

Part 4: The Two Weeks After, or (The Pilgrimage of Scattered Ashes)

I wrote and gave a eulogy for my Dad's funeral. Recently, I was able to share it in a discussion in one of my Master's classes in American Literature, an answer to this question posed by a classmate:

In your opinion, what are the important values/attributes a father should teach his son? How does each value/attribute contribute to being a man in society?

As for you question, it is a tough one for Dad was not the best Dad, especially in my teen and adult years. He passed a few years ago. I loved him with all my heart.

He was around a lot when I was a kid, and I think the most important attributes he passed on to me was a curiosity in all the interesting things life has to offer. I am an English nerd because of him. He loved to share the books and films and magazine articles he loved.

Perhaps even stronger than that, my Dad imparted on me that it is important to fight for the underdog, a lesson that Grant Wiggins, in Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, was definitely not taught, though I think that's the entire point of his journey as the narrator of Jefferson's story.

I wrote this when my Dad passed if you have the time. I think you might get a pretty good answer to your question from it.

My Dad once used that Warren Zevon song as his ringback tone.

He often told my sister, Ally, and I that he wanted to be cremated and that he wanted his ashes scattered in three places. We obliged him.

1. Our hometown of Clinton, Tennessee

We did a lot of riding around our hometown in the first week after Dad died.

2. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Western, North Carolina

After this, we went to Early Girl in Asheville for a fine breakfast.

3. The Atlantic Ocean -- Folly Beach, South Carolina

It was cold on Folly, but we felt our Dad there with us...warming us.

A Movie (and an actress Dad loved)

My Instagram account was mostly meant for posting stills of movies to accompany reviews and essays I wrote on this very blog.

In the two weeks after my Dad died, I asked my Mom about the movies he loved when they first met. She could only remember one. This one (and pictured below).

Part 5: "The Grand Finale"

Dad used to get so excited at the last wave of blasts at the end of 4th of July Fireworks displays. "Here it comes," he'd say, "the grand finale."

My son was born two weeks early, exactly 18 months to the day after Gary Powers, my father, died of complications from untreated Hepatitis B antibodies that manifest in cirrhosis of the liver and nephrotic syndrome.

Today is a beautiful bittersweet day! December the 2nd will always be that for my family. Two years ago on this day, my Dad, Gary Powers, passed away in the ICU in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. I remember every second of that day. Every moment of pain, every moment of peace. Every sigh, every tear. My Dad's hands. I kissed his forehead and said goodbye. Flash forward 18 months to the day, June 2nd, and my boy, Kit, every bit my Dad's Grandson, was born. I see my Dad in his smile and feel my Dad's warmth every time I touch him. I remember every second of that day. Every moment of pain, every moment of peace. Every sigh, every tear. My Buddy's hands. I kissed his forehead and said hello. I don't need to imagine what sort of Grandfather my Dad would've been. I know. Because if there was one thing my Dad had, it was pure love in an abundance few people can possibly possess. Read the eulogy I wrote for my Dad (link in bio), your friend Gary two years ago. Remember him with my family today, the day my son is 6th months old.
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I wrote this two days after my son was born. It accounts for the music and the love and the craziness of my wife's labor.

In between that death and birth, I listened to this song pretty much on repeat:

It's one of those my Uncle Jeff posted on Facebook the day after.

Now, I see my Dad in everything. I love movies I never loved before. For years, I had downgraded the MCU as less than cinema...a topical argument these days, as it happens.

Like I did with my students, I began to let go of my cynicism, something my Dad actually warned me about years earlier, when I was an undergrad lamenting at the stupidity in taste of my generation.

I watched every single MCU movie in two months. None of them is better than this one:

Here's that Letterbox'd link.

What success I feel that I have, what voice I have, what power I have, came in the choices I was able to make in the years now following my Dad's death. I understand life better because of it.

And, in becoming a father myself, I understand life that much more.

I remind you, once more, that I have felt myself softening, no longer enraged at the slightest inconvenience, no longer angry (at least not as angry), more of a man because of this. Perhaps the sign of real man is that he has found the power and made the choice to not always perform some ridiculous idea of a real man.

The school year following Dad's death, the 2017-2018 school year, I began to take chances. I put myself out there in ways I never had the courage to before. I stopped being so anxious about trying new things. I found confidence. Perhaps I began to understand how short life is, and how fragile we all are.

A post shared by Kevin (@kevinonlyknows_) on

You can't have the sweet without the bitter, though. I cry still...

But I found power in remembering that my Dad was a good man, despite his demons, and my family and I often take comfort in knowing that he fought hard enough to be free before finally letting go. That he found peace in sobriety through his prison sentence, and that made him even more free.

Listen to this whole song, if you please. Cry with me.

Now, my young son and I stop and look at photographs on the wall together. He wants to. He stops and points up to a picture of his chubby father, at 13, at a beach vacation dinner with his Dad, "Papa Gary," we call him. And my wife and I squeeze him and tell him how much Papa Gary would squeeze him, if he could.

That thought brings me a moment of happiness...that I never thought possible.

Acknowledgements and Works Cited

Thank you to my wife for the scrapbook she made, which I used to share about ashes scattering.

Thank you to YouTube for always having the songs I need to share on this blog.

Thank you to Instagram for giving me a place to share my passions for movies and books and travel.

Thank you for traveling with me, Dad, always. Thank you for showing me what it means to be a good man, in times when you were and in times when you weren't. I love you forever.

And thank you, dear reader, for traveling with us as well.

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If you have been inspired by this post, please consider reading about the mission of Shatterproof, a non-profit bent on ending the stigma around drug addiction and helping families deal with its devastating tolls. 

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