By Madeleine Saaf
I walked into the cream colored room and closed the door behind me. The walls were pointedly cream, not white; white isn’t comforting in this situation. There was a chair and a small rectangular table on wheels and a bed that he was lying on. A laptop glowed next to the bed and out of the shitty speakers the twang of Jimmy Buffett’s voice sang:
I’m growing older but not up.
My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck.
So let the winds of change blow over my head.
I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.
I don’t know which Jimmy Buffett song I head first but I know the first one I could sing from memory was “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” I grew up in Wisconsin, far from the tropics, but there was a nice sized lake in my town and in the summer the area would flood with Chicagoans fleeing from the bustle of their city, seeking a short distance drive to paradise. Townies ran the boat rentals and ice cream shops and bait houses and nautical themed restaurants. They stashed away money like squirrels collecting nuts because when the fall wind blew into town tourists disappeared, jobs disappeared, the stench of tanning oil evaporated and people were resigned to their real jobs -- high school teachers, house painters, soy sauce factory workers -- at least until the local ski hill opened in December.
My family was the kind of middle class where I got a Playstation the year it came out but we didn’t have a boat. My dad’s brother, one of those Chicagoans, would bring his speedboat up on the weekends and we’d spend our days gliding across the water. There was a CD player on board and I don’t remember a time that Jimmy Buffett: Songs You Know By Heart was ever ejected.
I was young, under seven, so I don’t remember what we talked about or what sandwiches we packed. I don’t remember how many beers my dad drank or if I was ever nervous that he was drinking and driving a watercraft. I remember the feeling of stepping onto the pier after a day of being rocked to bliss by the water. I remember the sunburns, every single one. And I remember all the words to “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
The only trip I remember taking as a family was one to Jamaica. We first stopped at Disney World, of which I remember little because it really wasn’t my thing even as a four-year-old, and then made our way to the island nation. I remember that everything felt slower there; I drifted down the lazy river with Blues Clues floaties on my arms; we sat on white plastic lounge chairs that left stripes on my body and I could order fruit and it would just appear on a tray. The sand on the beach was soft, not like the broken-rock feel of the sand back at the lake. It felt good to lay in, so good I would have gladly let it engulf me. Dad and I took pictures in rastafarian hats with built-in dreadlocks. I visited the hair salon and a woman named Carol braided my hair; she tugged at the red strands and I scrunched my face everytime she pulled but when it was done I had little pink and yellow beads that clacked together when I walked. I got to wear a swimsuit everyday; it was also pink and yellow. We only once left the grounds of the gated-in resort and it was enough to scare my midwestern family to stay inside the gates. Inside the gates was paradise; outside the gates was real life where people weren’t delivered fruit on trays.
Inside the gates we ate all of our meals and I ordered a “cheeseburger in paradise, please” as often as I could. I recited the lyrics to every waiter who wanted a good tip at the end of the meal. I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french-fried potatoes. Big kosher pickle and a cold...Diet Coke, please! If I said the real drink order I would get a scolding look from my mother. It wasn’t worth it. The burger would arrive and I’d pick everything off except the ketchup.
Everyone in the family was happy in Jamaica. My hair click-clacked and Dad dozed on his stomach after he’d burned his back and my parents stood on the beach together looking like people who weren’t concerned about the looming tax bill or the woodpecker pecking holes in the blue siding of our house or Dad’s drinking problem or the fact that their four-year-old had annoyed enough waiters that we were running out of places to eat within the gates. We were living in a Jimmy Buffett song. Steel drums and saxophones and stories about exotic drinks and even more exotic women. I could have lived in that song forever. But eventually we had to go home and I had to take the braids and the beads out and the click clack was gone along with the steel drums and saxophones. Empty cans of Miller Lite replaced tropical drinks and there were no exotic love tales, only one of a couple who had been sharing a bed for thirteen years and were running out of steam.
My parents split in July, a month after my seventh birthday. They went for a walk to the lakeshore as they did many nights. They sat on the bench they always sat on and by the time they were back it had been decided that they would get a divorce. My mom says that Dad told her, “I just want to be Jimmy Buffett,” to which she responded, “You don’t have a boat and you can’t carry a tune, but good luck with that.”
Dad wanted to float. He wanted to wear flip flops and drink beers wrapped in colorful koozies. He wanted the summer never to end, to never have to get off the boat and go home to fix shower drains and attend dinner parties and wake up at four in the morning to commute two hours to work, sit in a fluorescent lit office, and do it all in khaki Dockers. Dad wanted life to be carefree and easy; he wanted to float about as the guy who was always having a good time. He certainly did not want to stop drinking. And so he left hoping to live more like his idol.
Dad didn’t become Jimmy Buffett. He got together with a woman twenty years younger than he was, lost his job as a tool salesman, started a building company that ended in bankruptcy, and finally worked two jobs to stay afloat. Every summer Jimmy Buffett rolled into town to perform at Alpine Valley and most summers Dad was at the show. I was told I couldn’t attend until I turned twenty-one. But every summer when Jimmy was in town we’d pop the Songs You Know By Heart CD into Dad’s car and jam to it for a week or so. I always remembered all the words.
After ten years, Dad’s girlfriend left him and he moved into a small cottage behind a friend’s house. He covered the walls in metal and wooden signs pointing to “The Beach” and announcing his “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem,” policy. It became a glorified tiki hut and I’m sure the only thing keeping him from pouring sand on the floors was his OCD tendencies. On the flagpole outside he hung a pirate flag and he started wearing puka shells with every outfit. He didn’t have a boat and he still couldn’t carry a tune, but he made his own little paradise.
It was nice of the hospice nurses to put on Buffett for him in the cream colored room. My uncle says when the nurse came to the cottage to administer the pain medication that she’d noticed the decor (shocker) and set up the laptop to loop on a Jimmy Buffett playlist when Dad arrived at the hospital the morning he died.
I hadn’t made it in time. They’d taken him to the hospital and I got on a plane and apparently 600 miles per hour wasn’t fast enough because fifteen minutes away from the hospital my mother got the text that he’d died. She didn’t tell me until we were inside the hospital doors. It didn’t matter because I already knew. The car was silent aside from the dings of her phone. My godfather had picked us up from the airport in Milwaukee; I was in the passenger seat and Mom was behind me. It was silent and it was dark but I could see her face in the side mirror every time her phone lit up and her face told me fifteen minutes out that we hadn’t made it in time.
I don’t know what song was playing when he took his last artificially-produced breath, but “Growing Older, Not Up” was on when I walked into the room alone to say goodbye to someone who was already gone. Dad was fifty-six years old. He hadn’t grown up and he was still growing old. He had the kind of cancer that starts in the lungs and creeps about, claiming the rest of his body along the way. By the time it got to the liver that was tainted with the toxins of a heavy drinker, it was only about prolonging his life, not saving it. For nine months he sat in a chair receiving chemo and he laid on a table receiving radiation. He couldn’t taste food and his face swelled to an unrecognizable degree and though he wouldn’t admit it to me much the pain was always there. I knew because I could hear it in his breath, each one a taunting reminder that the timer was almost up. But he was living.
The cream colored walls were not comforting in that moment -- the fluorescent lights bounced off them in a harsh way that made my eyes burn. It was Jimmy who comforted me, who took me out of that room and put me on a beach somewhere with my dad, inside the safety of the gates where fruit still arrived on trays. Away from the cream walls and sticky floor and the nurse waiting outside the door, waiting for me to finish my goodbye to someone who was already gone so they could take his corneas and use them for a reason still unclear to me.
Leaving that room was like leaving the resort, or getting off the boat -- uncomfortable, foreign. I didn’t know what the world was like on the other side and I didn’t want to have to find out. I wanted to stay on that boat with that CD. But that’s the problem with CD players, they don’t have a “repeat all” button to create a never ending loop. Eventually the CD stops playing, Buffett’s “Volcano” fades from maracas to silence, and nothing will happen unless you get up start the CD over again.
This summer I turned twenty-one. It was the first birthday I spent without Dad and the first summer he would have let me go see Jimmy Buffett. After years of whining and begging to go, I didn’t want to. Every memory I have of Buffett is a memory of my dad. Every time I hear “Cheeseburger in Paradise” I want to picture being on that boat with him, nothing else creeping in to replace that memory. I don’t want the image of some drunken topless girl dancing to “Fins” to cloud out the quiet one of Dad and I pointing to the “fins to the right” and the “fins to the left” while we drove along State Line Road.
I have to keep living. I have to keep getting up and starting the CD over again. I have to keep making memories that he will never know, never touch, but Buffett is sacred. Dad lives in those thirteen songs. They hold the scent of his cologne and beer-stained breath, his out of tune voice, his red and black swim trunks and sock-created tan lines.