How I Found Out Dads Cry

March 04, 2020
Scratched out roses
Art by Kirsten Hemrich 

I remember the first time I found out dads could cry. I was in the backseat of my mom's old Honda Accord tracing over the various pen marks on the headliner of her car, and it was February. I hated how the sun somehow always managed to be on my side of the car behind the passenger seat, but I wouldn't trade with my brother, Berkley. I would take the side with the heat against the sticky leather because he had the side with the weird, greenish gum stain on the seat, and it made me nauseated whenever I looked at it. This repulsion is exactly why we still sit on our respective sides when we ride with my parents to this day, despite the different cars they’ve had over the years.

We had just left my Grandpa's house after our Sunday lunch with my aunts, uncles, and cousins after church. However, for some reason, my dad hadn't left with us; he had stayed behind with my uncle Tim. Both had their eyes glued to the black, boxy television screen in my Grandpa's kitchen. We were just passing the big fields that contained a mysterious sole white duck I had dubbed “Quackers” when Berkley had mentioned something about a Jeff Gordon. This led to many more questions in which I found out that that Sunday was the day of the Daytona 500, a really big and really important race for NASCAR fans.

“I hope Dale Jr. wins, just because of what happened with his dad,” my mom said as she hung the curve where two white crosses stood off the side of a hill where my great-aunt Shirley and my cousin David had passed away in a car accident when a drunk driver drove in the wrong lane and hit them on their way to church.

“What happened to his dad?” I asked.

“He hit a wall in the race a couple of years ago in the very last lap and they didn’t have these,” she explained, grabbing her headrest, “and his neck broke. Your dad was torn up about it.”


The very idea of this fascinated me beyond belief. It was just as real to me as the man I had made out of the pen marks in the ceiling of the car.


“Did he cry?” I asked. The very idea of this fascinated me beyond belief. It was just as real to me as the man I had made out of the pen marks in the ceiling of the car.

“Lord, yes. He was torn out the frame. It was really sad. Dale Jr. was in the same race, he was right in front of his dad, too,” she replied. 

“Has he cried before that?” I followed. I glanced at Berkley who had opened his Gameboy beside me. He had just gotten out of his booster seat days while I was still caged. My parents were the type that wouldn't let me move out of car seats and into freedom until I hit the weight limit. I quickly maneuvered to get the part of my seat belt that was across my body over my head and put it behind me.

“Of course,” she replied.

“Lexi put the seatbelt behind her,” Berkley said without looking away from his game. My mom turned in her seat to quickly glance behind her.

“Put it back on,” she replied. 

“It is on,” I said.

“The right way,” she said. I sighed and put it over me again. We were driving past the church and the house that usually had dogs in front of it, so I leaned over with my seatbelt at my neck to see if I could catch a puppy or two.

“Do they have seatbelts in the racecars?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “But they look a lot different than ours, I think.”

As we passed the sprawling bare corn field with the mysteriously lone, random tombstone standing solemnly in the middle of it, I returned back to the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Now the tombstone is gone, and I still don’t know where it went or who was there, but I did learn that Dale Earnhardt was called “The Intimidator,” and in his fatal lap, he had made the bold move to take third place in the race, partially to protect his son’s place in front of him.

When I was a kid, I was notorious for getting homesick. I couldn’t spend the night at my cousins’ house until I was in middle school. My parents always expected a midnight call with me on the other line, sobbing for them to come get me when I stayed at anyone’s house. What usually happened was as my friends and I wound down about to go to sleep, the deathly fear that my parents and brother would die without me would begin to set in, too. I always pictured someone coming into our house, robbing them, and then being orphaned. Then the tears usually came, because I didn’t want to be alone. A form of this strange paranoia is exactly what happened in the car ride home. I did not want my dad to die in the car ride home without me. We made the turn at the dumpster, down the road to my house, as my mom consoled me that my father wouldn’t die soon.


This time, unlike others, I followed him.


As soon as my dad made it home (much to my happiness), I had to ask if he ever cried, to which he responded, “yes,” before he retreated down our steps into the basement. This time, unlike others, I followed him.

When I was younger, my dad was much more of my own version of an “Intimidator” to me sometimes than he is now. Because of the stress of work and many other variables unknown to me at the time, my dad was a bit of a grouch at times. Our relationship is a lot different now than it was when I was younger. We’ve always been close, but now he’s one of my best friends.

“Whatcha doin’, suga?” he asked, turning from the TV downstairs to sit in the old blue recliner. This is generally the first thing he says to me on the phone to this day.

“Why do you cry?” I asked back.

“Well,” he paused, “I guess it depends on what is happening.” Being downstairs always made me want to watch the VHS tape of Sailor Moon R: The Movie that I had stolen from my older cousin Kelsey. I had lost the tape somewhere in the basement, but was too afraid to go downstairs to look for it alone by myself. I walked over to my dad, and crawled in his lap. He put one arm under the back of my head and one under my knees and pulled me closer.

“Why did you cry when the race car driver died?” I asked.

“Who?” he said.

“The Dale man,” I responded.

“Dale Earnhardt, Sr.?” he asked. I nodded. “Well, because I felt bad for his son, and he was such a big figure in racing, always one of my favorites. He was just a really good man,” he said. He dropped my knees to lean over and pull the footrest lever up. I fell asleep watching reruns of people spraying the winner with champagne.

The most recent time I saw my dad cry was at Thanksgiving. Technically, it was actually a couple of weeks ago at a rerun of an Andy Griffith Show episode, but that was more of a red-around-the-eyes than a real cry. But this year my dad was volunteered by my Uncle Brian to say the blessing before we ate. My dad’s usual blessing is along the lines of a “Dear God, thank you for this food, thank you for everything, Amen” kind of prayer. Short, sweet, and to the point. This past Thanksgiving, however, he went into detail, thankful for everyone around the living room and kitchen. My cousin Marley squeezed my hand when his voice broke and his eyes welled up.


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