When I was twelve and my parents’ marriage was falling apart, my dad explained to me that he never actually wanted to get married and have kids. The only reason he did it, he said, was because it would make him less likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. It never occurred to him that telling me this might hurt me. He was a successful musician and an esteemed jazz scholar, but he had virtually no ability to sense another person’s feelings. If he were growing up today, his diagnosis would have been obvious: Asperger’s syndrome.
I shrugged this moment off as another instance of my dad’s profound insensitivity, which was so much a part of my foundational world that it didn’t feel shocking. I knew he was clueless about the emotional bonds that connected us, but they were real to me anyway, and reacting would have been pointless. I had watched my mother pour her heart out to him, and he never once heard her. She could never make him understand how the things he did affected her—his charts analyzing how much money she spent on different categories of groceries at the Safeway, his refusal to break his routine when she needed to talk. “Make an appointment,” he told her, and the emotional response that followed didn’t even pass his notice. He didn’t get that channel.
So when he shared this information with me, about the draft, I ignored it and immediately brought his attention back to the only subject that ever worked for us: music. It was 1982, and we were at the piano, playing through an anthology called Great Songs of the Seventies, which had just come out. We had spent the better part of the last decade playing through its predecessor, Great Songs of the Sixties, and the advent of the seventies volume was a big deal in our house. We were in the F section. We skipped over “Feelings” by mutual agreement and moved on to “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” My Dad played and sang, and I stood to his right, singing and turning pages for him. But about the time Paul Simon started asking her to “please explain about the fifty ways,” my dad stopped playing, looked down at the floor and shook his head.
“I really shouldn’t be singing this with you,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, suspiciously, with the preteen dread of a grown-up about to do something weird or embarrassing.
“Because it’s talking about what Barbara and I are doing.”
“No, it’s not!” This song is about lovers, I thought. It couldn’t possibly be about my parents.
“Yes, it is.”
“Dad, it’s just a song.”
But a song was never just a song for him. The alchemy of words, melody, and harmony operated like a main line to the emotional channels in his body and brain. Music was his only feeling channel. Songs he played at gigs, songs he sang with me at home, songs whose structures and patterns he dissected and analyzed in academic articles—these songs were the alpha and omega of his emotional life.
“Let’s sing something else,” I suggested.
He opened one of his fake books and paged through it.
“Ah, this one is good,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been working on a chord progression for the verse.” I knew the song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” by George and Ira Gershwin, but I hadn’t heard the verse before. My dad’s hands spanned the keyboard, every finger leading multiple lines of internal melodies through the layers of chords, and he sang the words in his earnest, boyish tenor. As he approached the end of the verse he expanded the harmony further, stretching the outer limits of the chords, building up to a crescendo in the last line, where the lyric takes a sharp turn from the mundane to the profound:
I’d like to add his initial to my monogram.
Tell me where is the shepherd for this lost lamb?
This was my dad’s cri de coeur, and I heard him. I heard the voice of a little boy who couldn’t make a friend at school because all he wanted to talk about was paper products (the different varieties of Kleenex, toilet paper, and paper towels were a lifelong obsession for him). I heard the voice of a young pianist who wanted to perform but was paralyzed by perfectionism and anxiety. I heard the voice of a mature man who knew he was different and felt deeply ashamed of his inability to handle social situations that most people navigate as easily as they breathe air. I heard him telling me, I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood.
Of course, it went both ways, and he could never be my shepherd. Whether by nature or nurture, he could never be a father in the sense of a protector or a guide to much of anything—except the American songbook, the universe of our connection, which was almost enough. The song ended, and we turned the page.
Nica Strunk practices law on the East End of Long Island. She is known for the quality of her briefs.