As changes go, nothing can be more dramatic than moving from the relative benign winters of the mid-South to the freezing confines of the upper Midwest or from a divided, backward city to a divided, progressive one.
Three days before my 30th birthday, I packed up my car with enough clothes and personal items to last me the few days it would take for the movers to arrive at my new apartment in the northwest suburbs outside Chicago. May sat dutifully in the passenger seat shivering nervously as high-strung terriers are prone to do when something out of the ordinary happens. I tried to calm her down by petting her, but it only made her whimper as if she were somehow protesting leaving our lives behind.
She stood up against the passenger window as I drove toward the Interstate, her skinny, bowed legs shaking, but she eventually lost interest and curled up in the seat for a nap. I watched the meager Memphis skyline fade from view as I headed north on I-55, thankful to be getting out of town.
Unsurprisingly, the weather changed dramatically as I made my way north. Many miles outside St. Louis, I stopped to give May a walk break and the bone-chilling, gusty winds almost knocked her over as rumbling freight trucks shivered through the gas station parking lot. We sprinted back to the car and I powered through the rest of the eight-hour drive, arriving in Chicago just before sunset. It felt strange driving into Palatine, Illinois, much more than a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago. Nothing looked familiar or welcoming on that bitter cold day, but it would be my home for the next three years.
As if on cue, the snow started soon after I arrived, and it kept snowing the whole month of December setting an accumulation record for the city before I bid farewell to the year 2000. Snow in the North is nothing like snow in the South. The world doesn’t come to a complete standstill. Life goes on. I bought a snow shovel to keep in my car so that I could dig my car out of the parking lot at my apartment and at work. I dutifully trudged back and forth like I was a winter pro, but I wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
I didn’t know a single person in Chicago other than a former coworker whom I had only worked with sporadically when I was in Memphis. I liked the anonymity that a big metropolitan area afforded, but it was incredibly lonely, too. Nevertheless, I was determined to make it work. I reached out to my former coworker and started hanging out with him regularly. I joined a group called Highlife Adventures, a social club for singles that organized fun events, and my calendar went from mostly work meetings to a slew of evening and weekend excursions. Suddenly, the big city didn’t seem so vast and empty anymore. I was having some of the most fun of my entire adult life.
Despite all the fun, I found that I missed the travel of my prior life much like a former addict pines for the high points of his addiction. I longed for the excitement of new places to explore. My new life felt mundane, especially in those stark moments when it was just me and May in my apartment watching yet another snow storm blow through the area.
It was during those lonely moments that I reconnected with Dad. Since I had moved away to college and then to Memphis, our conversations were few and far between. Dad never liked to talk on the phone, so calling him was an exercise in futility. When he was working, he’d usually be taking a nap if he was home. Otherwise, his early morning schedule made it difficult to find a time to call him even though I was just one time zone away.
That all changed when he retired. Mom still worked, and Dad sat at home on most days watching a litany of brain-decaying TV shows like Jerry Springer in between his many naps. Like me, he felt lonely, so much so that he decided that talking to his son on the phone wasn’t so bad after all. I called him on most days, usually at the same time before work. He went to bed too early to ever get him on the phone after I left work.
Most of the time we talked about nothing or something, whichever struck our fancy. During baseball season, the Braves were a prominent discussion point. Many times Dad would relay the latest sad hilarity from Jerry Springer, which made him laugh to no end. Dad always enjoyed a good laugh.
I came to depend on Dad being there when I dialed his number. I looked forward to hearing his raspy voice, scratched by countless decades of smoking, on the other end of the line. When I had a bad day, I called Dad. When something great happened, I called Dad. We talked more in those years than we had talked the prior decade. Neither of us were great conversationalists, but put us together and we were positively chatty.
Dad and I had had our disagreements over the years as most fathers and teenage sons have in that formative stage of life, but having reached a different point in my life, I started to understand things differently. Once I shed my proclivity to be critical and focused on the things that mattered, I understood him better and I certainly developed a greater appreciation for him and all that he had done for me. Of course, I had always loved my dad; there had never been any doubt, but to understand him, that was different. Making the effort took more maturity than I had ever possessed, but those Chicago years afforded me the opportunity to close that gap despite the miles between us.
Dad anchored me in who I was, which was him in a younger man’s skin. We both had our crutches, but in those commonalities, I found more than I had ever hoped for. The countless struggles over the years had soured me, turned me inside out and made me cold and indifferent. Despite all of my good fortune, a simmering dissatisfaction lingered that I could just not shake. Like everyone else around us, neither of us were perfect by any stretch, and while I had resented his imperfections for many years, I realized they were my own, and I came to accept them, and I loved him more because of them.