My father, Paul Allyn, died peacefully today after a brief battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
My mother, Kathie, and my father met and married at 16 and 18, respectively. They had me at 17 and 19. I don’t have many memories of my father actually being part of my daily life as my parents split up when I was around 3, I believe (I’m sure mom will correct me on any facts I get wrong…I’ve never been good with dates).
Not too long after that he moved back to New Jersey, where he’d grown up. Growing up, I rarely saw him. We would fly up to visit every so often, and we would always talk on holidays and such, but for the first 30 years of my life or so, I probably only actually saw him in person enough times to be counted on one hand. I think this typifies the unconventional relationship that we always had which was that we were never “estranged” or anything but sometimes years might pass with minimal communication as we all get wrapped up in life and time flies faster than we realize, but we would always remain close and pick back up like no time had passed. We had a very low maintenance, guilt free but great relationship. After a visit when I around 16 (I think), I wouldn’t see him again for another 13 years or so, and yet somehow there was nothing “weird” about this.
Paul was born in Japan (his father was Art, an American soldier, his mother Aiko, a Japanese woman). From a very early age he became involved in all manner of martial arts. By the end of his life, he was a recognized master in many of them at a level akin to his idol, Bruce Lee. He even had devised his own system, Sento Kunren Ho, or “combat training method.” The family would eventually move to New Jersey. After his stint in Texas where he met mom and had me, he returned to New Jersey where he eventually became a police officer which amused many of his acquaintances back in Texas since, at least as I’ve heard it, he had a bit of a reputation as a hell raiser. I have no idea how much is true and how much is “fishing stories” embellished by time, but I’ve heard he used to like to walk into bars and start trouble just so these rednecks could be surprised at the ass whipping delivered from this 5’7″ lithe man. Back in NJ, he got married a second time to Cathi and had 3 more kids, Kymberlea, Karlea and A.J. He eventually retired early as a Lieutenant, separated from Cathi and moved to Florida to be near his parents.
Of my visits to NJ, I remember loving Great Adventure, a Six flags type amusement park. I remember all of us going to a haunted house once, and I got too scared not very far in and a worker had to radio for someone to come escort me back out the entrance while the rest of the family finished going through. I remember a trip to the boardwalk where the smell of the sea air accompanied attempts at carnival games. In one of my earlier visits, I remember a TV with no channel knob where they had to use a pair of pliers to change the channel. I remember a martial arts competition, where for some reason they also had a Garfield mirror for sale that I took home. Donut shops (sometimes stereotypes happen for a reason). I remember at least 3 of their residences and his workout room in his house. I remember him buying me a shoge (a very cool martial arts weapon) that my uncle Jim would later end up breaking. I remember playing my new Duran Duran record on the record player in Kym’s room where I was staying in the spare bed.
Paul was also a musician. In his younger years he played guitar and sang in many bands both in NJ and Texas. In fact, he played with Donnie Wilson who I would later meet in community theatre and jam with in my own youth, and then many years even later than that, I would end up in a band with that we have now been in for over 20 years. In his adulthood he let all his musical pursuits fade away. Then around 2000, a big family reunion was brewing down in Florida so we made plans for me to come visit and see everyone for the first time in far too many years. He asked me to pick out a good acoustic guitar for him and bring it along so he could pick it back up. I brought him a decent Alvarez acoustic and he picked it up like he had never stopped playing. We were jamming Beatles together in no time at all. I don’t think I saw him again until 2009.
We had kept up our periodic phone calls during that time and one day I’m at a band gig back in my hometown of College Station when he calls me to say hi. There’s something suspicious about the conversation which leads me to believe he is here for a surprise visit. This suspicion is confirmed when he slips up and misspeaks about something I can’t remember, but says something about “here” instead of there. I let it pass without calling him on it to not ruin the surprise. Sure enough he makes a surprise appearance at our gig. It’s his first time back in Texas since he left almost 30 years prior. This begins a new renaissance in our relationship. For the next several years, calls and even visits are very frequent. I find it so amusing how alike we are in certain ways despite him never being an active part of my life. It really drives home the effect of genetics. We talk on the phone like friends, not just father and son. Amusingly, I find myself taking the role of wisdom dispenser most of the time. It’s like our roles have flipped. When he would visit, we would play acoustic guitars together, harmonize on Beatle songs (“No Reply” was a favorite), and just hang out. We would walk to Torchy’s tacos which he repeatedly mispronounced “Torky’s.”
Then there was another summer night in 2009 when after one of my gigs, a woman came up to me and told me that her friend wanted to talk to me but was really nervous. Why? Because apparently my dad was also her dad. I told her there was no reason to be nervous and I spent some time talking to the half sister I didn’t know I had. Apparently her mother had told her about her real dad because I was a local around the same age playing in bands around town and so her mother wanted to make sure that if we ever met, we didn’t start dating or something. The next day, I was filming a short film and started messaging dad to break this news to him. He had known of the possible existence of this daughter but had never known for sure. We all met up and instantly took each other into our respective families. She visited dad in his final days as well.
In 2010, his parents had a joint 80th birthday party. Obasan (what I’d always called hi mother) had requested, half jokingly, that I write her a song. Not just any song, but one where I sing by myself and then people can sing along on the choruses. One night during my visit, I took some (really crappy) cell phone video of Obasan and Dad singing together (videos here and here). During this visit when they were playing some of her favorite music, I learned of two songs in particular that I took note of. Then, because I’m a horrible procrastinator, the day before the big party, I sat down to finally write a song for her detailing her history with my Grandfather. And since that wasn’t enough work on my plate, I also set out to learn these two songs that were among her favorites. I got the lyrics to my freshly composed song to my uncle Marc to put on the overhead projector so people could sing along on the choruses. Here was the result:
My dad was always one of my biggest fans, sharing my songs, commercials, movies, etc., beaming with pride (as does mom…I’m lucky to have such proud and supportive parents). He would be the first to tell you about the flaws he had, especially as a younger man. He never wanted to bother you with his problems. Which is why our communication was less frequent after he was diagnosed with COPD, a degenerative lung condition. He had always been a very active and fit guy but a lifetime of smoking had irrevocably damaged his lungs and now with COPD, he found himself with no energy and short of breath all the time. When I would call, I could hear how it had sucked the vitality from him, but he just kind of kept to himself and didn’t call much because that was his way when he was less than great. So I’d make sure to check in frequently and I could tell he enjoyed the outlet though he would never initiate it. I did my best to just be a positive light. Once I called and he casually remarked “You know I was in the hospital, right?” No, I had not known he was in the hospital. In his last couple of years with COPD, he wasn’t up for travel any more so the frequent visits had ceased. In the years since I’d seen him, his father had also died.
This last August, Obasan was preparing for her yearly trip to NJ to visit her other children, Dori and Marc. On a whim, my dad asked if she had room for him and off they went for a family visit. While he was there, he started not feeling well. Thinking it was probably related to the COPD, they took him to the hospital. He was shockingly diagnosed with stage 4 umbilical pancreatic cancer. They explored the options, but pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates and in his weakened state, chemo wasn’t even an option. It was at this point that it was decided to put him on hospice to make his final weeks as comfortable as possible. Dori and her wife, Laurie had a spare bedroom that had been used when another friend had spent their final days there as well, so I believe it was already fairly well equipped (like an adjustable bed and such). Dori and Laurie are two of the most amazing people on the planet, and took such good care of him, as well as any visiting family, and this despite the fact that Dori is on crutches after foot surgery! Obasan stayed there the whole time as well. In line with my dad’s nature, he chose to keep it pretty low key as he “didn’t want a bunch of drama over it.”
The day after my Grandfather’s funeral (on my mom’s side), I flew up for a 4 day visit to see my dad for what I knew would be the last time. He was frail and bedridden. He had aged more in the last 2 years than in the previous 60. Most of his time was spent sleeping and just trying to be comfortable. Most of my time was spent on the couch in the living room with Dori, Laurie and Obasan. When it was time for his meds every 3 hours, I would go in and say hi and then if he remained awake, I would stay for as long as it seemed feasible just chatting and spending time with him. At night, I’d borrow Dori’s car and head to my hotel 6 miles away just to sleep. It was an odd time, being that we both knew he was basically just waiting to die, but a good one that also had moments of humor and conversation and just good time together.
When I learned of his last minute whim to travel to NJ with Obasan, I asked him “So, do you think maybe you knew something that you didn’t know you knew?”
“Maybe,” he said. I still wonder if something told him to go back to his home turd where he spent most of his life. Obasan also commented on what a blessing it was that it happened there with netter doctors and with Dori, Laurie around and Marc and Kem in driving distance. She thought it would have been much worse in many ways had it happened back in Florida. On my last night there, I sat on the bed beside him watching a baseball game that was still going into the 12th inning. Just like dad.
The next morning, I went back over to wait for my ride to the airport. When it was about 5 minutes away, I went in to say goodbye. It’s a very uniquely strange feeling to say a farewell with such finality. Dad had his eyes closed. I told him I had to go.
He asked “Go where?”
“Back to Texas,” I said.
I’ll never forget that moment when his eyes suddenly filled with an urgency and desperation, realizing I was leaving. though moving was hard for him, he rolled up to hug me and I hugged him back. Tears were shed but always through a smile. I told him that my body may be leaving but that my mind, heart and soul were there with him 24/7.
“As they always have been,” he said. He told me that when he got to the gate, he’d tell them to save a special place for one hell of a guitar player someday. He told me that if I wanted to, I could always go by his place in Florida to see if there was anything I wanted as a keepsake.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Dad,” I said as I squeezed his hand, a tear rolling down my cheek. “You’re still here now.” I left a glow-in-the-dark alien guitar pick on his night stand. We exchanged “I love you” and I left my father for the last time. As I waited for my plane in the Newark airport, it was actually familiar and I could remember being there with him and Cathi
He held on a lot longer than most thought he would, but it wasn’t much of a life towards the end. At least not one I know he’d want to live, so I knew he was ready to be at peace. Today, I decided to change my Facebook cover photo to a tribute to him. About 20 minutes later, someone inquired how he was doing, and we got the word that he had passed peacefully about 10 minutes previously.
You’ve all probably heard me say it a thousand times by now, but in times like these, I always take great comfort from the scientific Law of Conservation of Energy that states energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms. We are all made, quite literally of stardust, and when our bodies are returned to and recycled by the universe, our energy, including whatever energy makes up our “souls,” or the synapses in our brain or anything else can only change forms. It is not destroyed. Dad and I were very similar spiritually. We tried to concentrate on the positive and would never want to burden anyone. I know he wouldn’t want anyone being sad or devastated by his passing (but would also understand that it’s inevitable to varying degrees).
I always choose to celebrate a life rather than mourn a death, and while many would say 63 is far too young, my father still lived a hell of a life full of love and many wonderful adventures. This is the closest death has ever hit me (I mean I guess you don’t get much closer than the source of half your DNA) but I am at peace, as I am happy that he is as well. Please save any condolences and instead hug your loved ones and celebrate life. Do something that brings a smile to your face and try to bring as many smiles to others as you can. You don’t have to be sorry for my loss, for my heart is full of everything I gained from my father. I hesitate to stop writing this, as I’m sure time will bring a million more things to mind that I wanted to say but for the moment I’ll just say, “until later.”
Golden Slumbers, Dad.
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”
-The Beatles “The End”