The radio booth smelled like old men and dusty records but I liked it anyway.
When Glenn Miller came on I would start dancing by myself. Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer. How can you not dance to Chattanooga Choo Choo?
My Dad had introduced me to The Glenn Miller Band years earlier.
We were cleaning the living room when he popped in his Glenn Miller CD and then told me to drop the broom and “dance with me!” Dancing with him for those few songs, him leading me, trying to teach his high-strung teenage daughter to loosen up is one of those memories I will always keep, the kind no one can take away.
He was always making those kinds of memories for me – teaching me how to live life, to have fun, to enjoy the little things.
Dancing alone in the radio booth also kept me awake.
I was working the 4:00 AM Saturday morning shift, it was my first radio job and a chance to hopefully land a shift in the daylight hours. But for now I was stuck in the darkness – alone and nervous. Whenever I’d turn the microphone on I’d get chills, up my arms, down my neck and sometimes in my throat. The nerves were so intense I would occasionally bumble my words or, even worse, freeze up entirely.
Between newscasts and nerve sessions I would imagine who had sat in the seat before me, another girl perhaps or maybe a young man who was now old.
They had all warmed the same black bar stool chair with the awkward swiveling motion, they had all pressed their lips up to the microphone and they had all seen that light flick to red -“On Air” – before letting the words fly from their mouth.
If they could do it. I can do it.
I said the same thing when I learned how to drive and then when I learned how to drive a stick four years later.
I had bought the car for myself with a loan co-signed by my father. He had been diagnosed with cancer five months earlier and would be gone in one month.
“I can’t figure it out,” I told him on day, on the brink of tears.
I was so impatient, so headstrong and so determined to learn the stick shift but I kept stalling. My father was standing with me in the kitchen, resting his arm onto the counter for support. He was so light now, so skinny. He had aged 30 years it seemed in just weeks.
“Let’s go,” he said, “I’ll teach you.”
“But Dad, what if…” I didn’t want to say it out loud, so I thought it – what if you puke. He had been so sick. That’s the thing about cancer – it just gets worse as it eats you alive and in my dad’s case it was eating just about ever organ he had.
“Just go, c’mon,” his voice was stern.
So we went.
Out to the car.
He squeezed his long legs, the legs of a man who towered above most, into the back seat of my two-door Nissan Sentra.
“I don’t want you to remember me this way,” he told me between lurches.
“I won’t, Dad, I promise.”
The car jolted forward, or was it backward? Over and over.
I just couldn’t keep the damn clutch from going out. Dad was trying his best to explain, to smile but in the end we had to lurch back home so he could get out of that seat and into the bathroom.
I wouldn’t learn stick that day. It would come to me weeks later but my Dad wasn’t there. By that point he was bound to a wheel chair, unable to leave the house and definitely unable to ride in my back seat.
When you know someone is going to die, when you know they won’t be around for much longer you try to think of things to say, things you may hear in a movie or something but the words don’t come as easily as you think.
“I had a good life,” he would say, “I did. I had a beautiful wife, six beautiful children and I loved my job. At least I had everything I ever wanted.”
But he was pissed.
You could see it in his eyes. He was a physician himself and he knew his cancer was the worst kind of cancer. He knew there was no hope, he knew he was going to die and he was pissed that he had to leave us.
That he couldn’t see his children grow up or live out his life with his wife.
He wanted to stay.
When I would hear him telling my mother that the chemo would be a “waste of time” I would try to say things I thought would motivate him to will himself better.
“Dad, please, don’t you want to see me get married some day? Don’t you want to walk me down the aisle?”
I forgive myself now for saying that only because I was a kid, but it still haunts me.
Of course he wanted that, he wanted that more than anything. Words can’t turn some things around. Some things – like adenocarcinoma and three brain tumors – are unstoppable.
I flicked on the microphone for the 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning newscast. But this time was different. There would be no errant chills in my throat because when I looked up, he was there.
My father had taken a detour on the way home from his overnight shift at the Emergency Room to watch me give a live newscast. He had volunteered to come, wanting to see his “little girl on the radio.”
I glanced up between stories and I could see his face through the small tiny glass window of the thick padded door – he was smiling, from ear to ear.
Kind of like he is in this picture.
“Did you make someone smile today, Alaina?”
He asked me this often during my childhood.
“I think so,” I’d say.
“Did you know that when you make someone smile, just once, they’ll be a little bit happier and then they’ll make someone else smile. So for every person you make smile you could make dozens or even hundreds of other people smile.”
I think that was his secret, smiling and making other people smile.
When that awesome story appeared in the Columbus Dispatch this Sunday a lot of you read it, including an old college friend who promptly sent me some photos he’d stumbled upon recently, “profile photos of a great Doctor, and a great man,” he wrote in the e-mail, “one who saved my life a few years earlier when I had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin. I wanted you to have them, as well as the knowledge of how much he garnered my respect and adoration.”
It would have been my father’s 61st birthday this week.
And today, he would want each and every one of you to make someone else smile.