It Happened To Me: I Never Told My Dad I Loved Him Before He Died
Some of the first memories I have of my dad and I are of us fighting. Like REALLY fighting. Full on screaming at each other. My dad lost it with me when I was about 2 or 3 and I accidentally sat on my toy box with my cat’s head sticking out of it.
There was also the first time I ever said “fuck” in front of my parents -- a word that I learned from hanging out with my trashball neighbors who I remember were really into Billy Joel's River of Dreams, and I hated Billy Joel at the time because my dad always complained about how “Piano Man” was requested at about 99.9% of his gigs (he was in cover bands and wedding bands for years). My dad flipped his shit on me both of these times, and many, many other times after. These temper issues were, of course, passed down to me.
Probably the most epic fights of all would happen on Friday afternoons when my dad would pick me up at my mom’s small but homey single chick style condo to take me to his place to stay the weekend –- an agreement they made after they got divorced.
I would spend the weekdays with her and go to school and then the weekends with him, but I would never want to hang out with him. Why? I have no idea. We just clashed.
Almost every other time he came to pick me up, I would start screaming and crying and would lock myself in my bedroom, overdramatically hyperventilating, while trying to explain to my mom –- “He doesn’t get me,” “We have nothing to talk about,” “I hate him,” “I’M NOT GOING, YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO."
The Jukes are a pretty legendary New Jersey band who rose up alongside Bruce Springsteen back in the 70’s -– they even opened for Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Bob Seger, and the list goes on and on. My dad, Kevin Kavanaugh, CLEARLY had it going on and was even dubbed the “Night Mayor of Asbury Park” which, of course, no one will ever explain to me. Maybe I don’t even want to know! But I found it near IMPOSSIBLE to talk to him.
For a long time, I would rarely smile or laugh when we hung out. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my dad -– I always knew I really did. And he was a GREAT dad. But growing up, I realized my family was kind of different than my friends’ families. I was an only child so I was alone a lot. My family didn’t really hug or kiss or say “I love you.” There were no family reunions and no real contact with extended family. So I grew up finding it kind of corny and lame to express emotion.
To me it was embarrassing to tell or express to my family that I loved them -– in private OR in public. It was almost like a weird fear of appearing un-cool if I showed any ounce of emotion.
That fear completely disappeared when I got the call while I was at work in LA: My dad had suffered a massive heart attack due to complications from diabetes, lost oxygen to his brain for 20 minutes, slipped into a coma, and it would be a good idea for me to fly home immediately.
My world completely fucking shattered. I was only 23, how was this happening? I haven’t even gotten married yet, I don’t have any kids, would my dad ever be a grandfather? I remember standing in the terminal waiting for my flight home, on the phone with my mom just hysterically crying and telling her that I was scared that my dad didn’t know I loved him and didn’t know that I appreciated him because I never told him or showed him. I felt regret. I felt like I lost my opportunity to have a real solid connection with him.
All those times I would cry in front of him, refusing to hang out with him because I just “Didn’t want to” -– I can’t imagine how hurt he must’ve felt that his own daughter was trying to get out of spending time with him. To this day it breaks my heart and I don’t know yet if I’ll forgive myself for the way I treated him a lot of my life.
My dad remained in a coma for about 3 months –- he was severely brain damaged and the doctors just kept saying “It didn’t look good.” On June 4th, 2011, after months of traveling to and from Los Angeles and crying at his bedside in the ICU, getting calls in the middle of the night from the hospital asking permission to perform incredibly invasive but necessary procedures as I was the next of kin (aka the only one who could make life-altering decisions for him), and helping to organize a music benefit that raised thousands of dollars for my dad’s medical expenses as he didn’t have proper insurance for most of his life, he passed away at the age of 59.
I’ve learned so much about my dad after his death -– through listening to his friends’ stories and by just sitting and THINKING and reflecting. Sometimes when you just sit by yourself and let yourself cry and just shut up and think, a lot of things become remarkably clearer. I almost feel like I know him on an entirely new level now. And I ADMIRE him.
I admire how he played music up until the night before he was admitted to the hospital, even though he had no savings, no house and had even filed for bankruptcy at one point. He didn’t care -– he did what he loved his entire life.
I can both admire and hate his stubbornness –- the stubbornness which prevented him from just sucking it up and seeing a doctor when he should’ve to get his shit straightened out before it was too late. To put into perspective how stubborn he was, he had a tumor on his chest for 5 years that he used to duct tape when it was bled. When I asked him why the fuck he didn’t go to the doctor, he said he did a lot of research online and that it wasn’t melanoma because he would be dead already.
But above all I admire his huge, enormous heart and how much he cherished his friendships and relationships. I can’t even tell you how many of his friends showed up to the hospital in those three months and how many of them showed up to his memorial –- I can only hope to be so lucky. I started to really appreciate how good of a person he was, how kind he was to everyone, how much he impacted the lives of so many people -– fans, friends, piano students and his own family. Even his cat, Fredo.
I remember the last thing I said to him in the hospital before I left on a plane back to LA. I don’t know if he could hear me at all, but I said: “I’m gonna make you proud of me.” And immediately I flew home and began writing songs –- almost like I was supposed to carry the torch or something.
I wouldn’t stop writing. I would hole myself up in my apartment for entire weekends just writing and recording on my laptop. I was obsessive. I had neglected playing music for years and all of the sudden I had a passion for it again. And the weird kind of fucked up thing about it is that I don’t think I would’ve ever thought to take music seriously had he not passed away.
After he died, my mom and I were going through all his stuff and I would just be enamored looking at old black-and-white pictures from his band days with Southside Johnny, The E Street Band, Steve Van Zandt. They were always hanging out with some hip dudes from the record label or the Rolling Stones writers or Ronnie Spector. My dad looked like such a bad ass in aviators and denim jackets. I was shocked to find out that at my age, he had pretty much the same fashion sense that I do now.
When I look through his childhood pictures, I see a little redheaded boy with my eyes, my face, my mouth. I realize that not only do I now understand my dad, I AM my dad. Even though it’s taken me 26 years to realize it, we are connected.He’ll always be a part of me, and I know he’ll be there when I need him –- just like he always has.