Blue Impala on Father’s Day

Prior to my son Jack’s birth in 1998, Father’s Day was not a happy day for me. Now it is, at least partly. I enjoy being treated to special attention, but it’s also a time of melancholy wonder, as my father, Robert Burke Warren, Sr. – Burke to his family and friends – died on April 11, 1972, just after I turned 7. He was 31

Burke’s death remains mysterious. Like his parents, he was an alcoholic. One night, after carousing with his cousin, he plowed his ’68 blue Chevy Impala into an embankment, and killed himself. By accident or by design, we will never know. He was depressed, unemployed, and perhaps, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he knew his heirs would receive modest benefits in the event of his death. (Which my brother and I did.)

Burke’s death both crushed and shaped me. Through my relationship to his DNA and his choices, I’ve learned a lot about what to accept, what to fight, and what to feed.

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My last memory of my dad is of him playing guitar at my seventh birthday party, leading my friends and me in singalongs of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Home Grown Tomatoes.” He seemed ebullient that night, although if anyone knows the skill with which a depressive can hide his condition, it’s me. But I was proud to call the cool guitar-playing dude my dad. Two weeks later, he was gone.

All these years later, Father’s Day still finds me stubbornly curious about what might have been. How would my father have aged and changed? Would he be a Mac guy or a PC guy? (I’m guessing Mac, seeing an iPad.) Would he have stayed Democrat or gone Republican? (I’m guessing lifelong Dem, Biden, not Bernie.) Would he have sobered up?

It was not apparent at his death, but I inherited my father’s musicality, and I’ve been a musician most of my life. But I didn’t invest serious energy in songwriting until I became a father at 32, when I crossed the threshold of being older than Burke was when he died.

The received wisdom is that parenthood saps one’s creative juices, and children are like little vampires. But, like a lot of dire parenting predictions, this was not true for me. Jack’s birth brought me a burst of creative energy.

My best material was about family. I now realize a motivating factor was to create documentation for my son. So he would know, because he deserved to know, despite the darkness and pain. Actually because of the darkness and pain. I wanted to show how one could manage fear and wrangle it all into art, a life lesson from the get-go.

So motivated, I wrote about my son’s paternal grandfather, how I felt about him. In becoming a father myself, I felt a few steps closer to knowing Burke, what he’d felt; the delirious happiness, the terror, the humbling – and, at times, humiliating – privilege of parenthood. But for my father co-creating me, I would not be experiencing any of that. I was and will remain grateful for all of it.

Fatherhood expanded my inner landscape, taught me to live with unanswered questions, and moved me further on the road of forgiveness – for my dad, and for others. Fatherhood also enabled me to write the lyrics below. They are about my father, but mostly for my son:

Sometimes you rise into my dreams
Some strange disguise in mad shifting scenes
I’m like you now, back then did you know?
Did that make it easier to let go?

A blue Impala, one hand on the wheel
I will remember you, you were just passing through.

Just a wild seed in the tailwind of time
Cruel as a storm with calm in your eye
You left us all with so very much
So much to claim but nothing to touch.

A blue Impala, one hand on the wheel
I will remember you, you were just passing through.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.