The author chases his father (photo courtesy of the Cox family).
The author chases his father (photo courtesy of the Cox family).

Best Buddies

Some things we can let go of. Other things we can stash in the bottom drawer. But the best things can stay in your heart forever.

A modest executive desk, an inherited piece of furniture, sits in my study. I do not know how it came to be there, and I will never know all the stories written on its surface. The desk came with the house, much like a stock photo of a smiling family comes with a newly purchased frame.

The house is a parsonage—a structure owned by a church to provide residency for its pastor. It is several thousand square feet made from lumber and other materials, full of life during some seasons and with none in between. Ministers and their families occupy spaces like this one as hermit crabs do seashells. They come, carry, and later discard equity that was never theirs. Many things get left behind in such places when clergy retire or accept new calls: furniture, friendships, remnants of their faith. In my ordained life, I’ve found evidence of all as I’ve followed in the sometimes ill-fitting shoes of my predecessors.

Along with the hutch my spouse packs with her growing assortment of porcelain and the massive dark-colored rug used to mask the daily spills and stains courtesy of our children, we kept the desk for its practicality. It fits snuggly in between the inordinate amount of shelving I require for the equally inordinate number of books I keep accumulating and sometimes decide to read.

I fill its compartments with all manner of paperwork. Office supplies, insurance, and medical records go in here. Last year’s taxes were anointed with holy water and sealed away.

And in the one drawer, down and to my right, rests a thick stack of sympathy cards addressed to me and mine over the death of my father. Thoughts and prayers sent by kith and kin, tucked away, given the coldest of shoulders. Avoided because, through a blistering blend of grief, anger, confusion, and adoration, I look at those letters of condolence and don’t know where to begin in answering them.

Because once I start, I know I’ll have to tell my father’s story as best I can—a story from the perspective of his child, his son, his half-shadow. I know it’ll mean remembering the highs and lows—the memories that scarred me, left bite marks, and caused casualties I keep locked away, sometimes to preserve and sometimes forget. I’ll need a crowbar to pry off the cellar door of those sacred moments and should-have-been second chances. I’ll need to do, as best as I can, what my mother always says: “Quote the chapter, not the verse.” I’ll need to make peace with the fact that the questions I want to ask and the stories I want to tell my father will never get shorter but will always grow.

But most likely, I know I’ll need to confess what I already know, that when I open that drawer and read those words, all of it will be real. I’ll have to make amends and move forward. I won’t be able to hide in the miles of distance separating my life in a New England parsonage from his death in my childhood home back in North Carolina. I won’t be able to hide the guilt of not being with him these past five years.

I won’t be able to hide in the miles of distance separating my life in a New England parsonage from his death in my childhood home back in North Carolina. I won’t be able to hide the guilt of not being with him these past five years.

My only solace is believing that if I tell it once, I won’t have to tell it again.

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Before I’m old enough to start school, my father works a second-shift job at Kayser-Roth, a hosiery mill. I stay up late, fighting through sleepiness, hoping to see him. On the nights I manage to postpone my dreams, he and I will lie on the living room floor together. Me in front of him, our left arms crooked in the same position to support our heads, our right hands free to dig into the late-night snack of Doritos or Wise onion rings. We watch reruns of the original Star Trek until I drift off.

This scenario lasts only a short time. Soon, my father will accept a third-shift position. He’ll work graveyard hours for the rest of his career. This causes our ritual to change. Now, under the moon and stars, I’ll hug him goodbye instead of hello. Part of this new liturgy includes a call-and-response. Before exiting into the night, he stands in the doorway. There in his crisp Dickie uniform, his name, Marty, emblazoned across his breast pocket, he gives me a series of parting instructions and questions.

“When I leave, make sure the door is locked,” he says.

“I will,” I say back.

“And check the stove again to make sure it’s off.”

“Okay. I will.”

“I love you, son. I’ll see y’all in the morning. Be good.”

“I love you too, daddy.”

He opens the door, looking back at me on this night the way he will every night. His countenance is one of troubled gratefulness. Troubled because he must leave us and grateful he has somewhere to go.

“Hey, what are you and Daddy?” he asks.

My response is like breathing.

The apostle Paul asks in a letter to the church of Corinth, “O death, where is thy sting?” I know the answer. It is here with me, on the other end of the call, in the hopeless voice of my sibling.

“Best buddies,” I say.

My father’s profile disappears. I check the door behind him and listen for his Dodge Daytona to start up. Our ceremony of affirmation is complete until tomorrow, when we’ll do it all over again.

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My sister’s number causes my phone to buzz. She’s calling me. This is not our typical form of communication. We are Generation X and Millennial. Text, direct messages, and emojis are acceptable. We call no one if we can help it.

My first words to her as I pick up are, “What’s wrong?”

Her voice is high, and she’s breathing heavily. Sentences tumble out of her mouth like she’s pouring them from a bowl she’s been unsuccessfully trying not to spill until she can get to me.

All I hear is, “I think Dad just died.”

It’s 10:30 a.m. on Good Friday. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a liturgy I was preparing to read later this afternoon. My sister talks frantically. She’s in shock, but her words drip with concentrated effort. She says the paramedics are there, working on my father.

“But, Justin, I don’t think it matters,” she says. “I know he’s gone.”

I listen, but my mind is in the sanctuary where a large cross lies on its side, a black cloth draped across the beams. This is done in my faith tradition to represent the suffering of a God who took on flesh for the sake of the world, who was put to death by the power and principalities of an empire. The cloth will hang there the rest of today and through Holy Saturday. Only at dawn on Easter morning will the bleakness of death disappear.

The apostle Paul asks in a letter to the church of Corinth, “O death, where is thy sting?” I know the answer. It is here with me, on the other end of the call, in the hopeless voice of my sibling. Frozen in my office, I cannot see the coming of the white cloth, the replacement garment representing the promise of life and resurrection.

No. All I can see is black. Only darkness.

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The first heart attack came a month earlier. That time, it was my mother who called. Their rambunctious labradoodle slipped out the front door and bolted down the street in pursuit of wide-open spaces. My father gave chase, but he was no match for the streaking ball of fur on four legs. A few houses down, he discovered he couldn’t catch his breath. My mother found him lying on his back on a neighbor’s front lawn a few minutes later, conscious but weak. An ambulance took him to the hospital. An overnight stay with testing ensued, a blockage discovered, a heart stent prescribed, surgery went well. Almost all the obstruction was removed.

Dad comes home a few days later, and with this news, I talk with my spouse, and we plan a visit to North Carolina at the beginning of March. Our first family trip there since moving away in the spring of 2019. The trip will include many firsts, including our daughters’ first pilgrimage to a Waffle House and their first time at the Asheboro Zoo. It will be the first time my parents have seen their eldest grandchild since she was a year old and their first time meeting their newest grandchild in person.

Our trip goes by in a blur, and we make plans to return in July.

All went well until new ailments showed up to replace the old ones. And with each, my father bounced back less and less.

My parents send us home with Southern staples I can’t find in Yankeeland. In an insulated cooler bag, I find a hunk of liver pudding, a half pint of pimento cheese, and a sinful amount of Musten & Crutchfield Chicken Salad. My wife and I snack on the creamy pimento cheese in our hotel room that night, but the chicken salad makes it home. I place it in the fridge.

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That heart attack was only the latest in my father’s long list of medical issues.

As a child, my grandmother found him on the side of the road beside his bicycle. All signs pointed to a car hitting him, but the motorist was never found.

A year later, he developed Bright’s disease—an inflammation of the kidneys—and spent months confined to a hospital bed. My grandmother never left his side. He made a full recovery, and this incident sealed a closeness between them.

When I was in high school, a dull sensation crept into his right leg, and the doctors didn’t know what to make of it. A spinal-cord stimulator was surgically implanted, granting some relief. Several more years went by and it took a few more surgeries before a problematic nerve was discovered and repaired.

In 2005, I sat in a waiting room and watch a surgeon hand my mother my father’s wedding ring. A routine stent recommendation, on further review, turned into full-blown open-heart surgery. The swelling my father was experiencing, particularly in his hands, was causing his wedding band to turn his ring finger purple. The surgical team snipped the ring off the way you would a section of unwanted chicken wire around a coop.

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” the surgeon said in a tone only slightly warmer than the operating table my father was lying on. “Everything is going to be fine. We do this every day.”

“I understand that,” she said. “But I don’t.”

My mother took the ring and clasped the symbol of marriage to a partner she’s known since she was thirteen. She cradled their commitment in her hands for hours.

Then, for several years, my father’s health improved. He traveled the straight and narrow of wellness. His diet was disciplined, and he walked every evening with my mother at a local cemetery where his Grandmother Martin was buried. He weighed himself each morning, writing the numbers in a small journal he kept on a nightstand. The weight fell off, leaving him a silhouette of his former self. All went well until new ailments showed up to replace the old ones. And with each, my father bounced back less and less. By the time was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, he had little bounce left.

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On Holy Saturday, I move around the house like a prizefighter in the late rounds; only instinct pushes my feet from room to room. My flight to North Carolina flies out the following day, Easter morning. We decide against a turnaround trip for everyone. I will go alone.

I pack bags with clothes to last me a week. Near noon, I head to the kitchen to make lunch for the girls. I’m not hungry; my appetite is as empty as a barbecue joint’s parking lot on Sunday. I don’t want to eat, but I know I should.

I open the fridge and look past the large ham my family will enjoy without me tomorrow; I see the container of chicken salad. Time moves slowly as I pick it up and my sister’s words fill my head. She told me my father went to pick it up the day before we arrived. He knew I loved it, how my spouse loved it, and he wanted us to have some when we arrived. It’s packaged date isn’t even two weeks ago.

He was just here, and now he’s not.

Grief comes up violently, like bad seafood. I slide down the side of the cabinets. I dry heave; I cry; I wail uncontrollably.

Some drugs were so potent he hallucinated. “I lived during the seventies, son,” he told me, “and I never had anything as strong as what some of those doctors will give you.”

Later, with eyes still bloodshot and puffy, I spread the pâté substance over a couple of pieces of light bread. The few bites I take do little. The taste haunts more than it fills, and I throw what’s left away.

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Being sick is a full-time job, and it wears a person down. A ceaseless number of illnesses, conditions, and setbacks left my father in a fluctuating state of trying to manage unbearable pain. By the time I was in my early twenties, he was forced to retire. No longer punching a time clock, he filled his weeks with doctor appointments, surgeons, specialists, scans, and X-rays. And my God, the medicines. Prescriptions, dosage adjustments, a cocktail of therapeutics spilled out of kitchen cabinets turned apothecary. Insurance covered some and not others, and because of this, he’d take some and not others. Some drugs were so potent he hallucinated.

“I lived during the seventies, son,” he told me, “and I never had anything as strong as what some of those doctors will give you.”

He slipped into what my grandparents call “the sugar.” Diabetes was his new houseguest and would come and go like an estranged uncle who shows up on Christmas Eve once a decade.

The word depression came up. He saw a doctor for that too. I struggled to understand where his despondence came from until my mother told me what her mother, my grandmother, who suffered with depression, told her on one occasion.

“I can look outside and know the sun is shining but can’t see it.”

My father would drift along in seasons of sorrow, not seeing the sun. Our whole family would.

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The week of the funeral, all I do is cuss or cry.

I clean the room he died in. The room where he took his last breath, the room where my mother yelled for my sister, who came and administered CPR until the first responders arrived.

While I’m there, neither my mother nor my sister wants to enter the room. I spend an afternoon placing my father’s clothes into container bins bought at Costco and rearranging the furniture at my mother’s request. She doesn’t want to see it the way it was. Cleaning off his dresser, I find a cigar box. Inside is the bowtie he wore at my wedding and a note I wrote him after a trying time in our relationship. Part of it reads:

If we are to be like our fathers, I feel lucky you were mine. You instilled in me, above all else, faithfulness to your wife and family and perseverance, no matter how hard things were or became. And for all this, I call you divine. I call you godly. What I hope I understand, but did not before, is that we act and are moved by the power of a transformative Spirit who dwells inside each of us. People say they never see evidence of such things, but I saw it daily in the actions and face of my father.

I cried when I first read the letter to him all those years ago. I cried harder when I found he kept it. When I read the letter in its entirety at the graveside service, I think no more tears will come.

I am wrong.

There are images of my father and mother in the throes of early courtship...another showing him leaning back in the front seat of a car. His hair eases down his shoulders and resembles Peter’s on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive.

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Back downstairs, I collect cleaning supplies and a couple more trash bags. Nervous energy, a hum-like reverb, courses through my body. I keep moving so as not to focus on it. My sister and mother talk about everything but what needs to get done. I make a comment about the amount of trash and dust up there. I say something about his CPAP machine, and the next thing I know, I’m screaming.

“All of this is so fucking stupid! None of it would have happened if I never left! I wouldn’t have let it get this bad!”

I don’t know if I’m talking about the state of the room or my father’s final state. I want to say something else, but my voice cracks. I motion for both of them, and they oblige. Hugging and holding me up, letting me know my unspoken sorry is enough.

Later, we sit at the kitchen table. We sift through photos, our hands gliding over a time capsule of memories. We choose several for the funeral home, where we’ll receive visitors the next day.

I look at the pictures. I know many of the stories behind them. Still, some go further back—events from before my memory bank started accepting deposits. There are images of my father and mother in the throes of early courtship, my teenage father sitting beside my mother’s mother, Dood, with curlers in her hair, and another showing him leaning back in the front seat of a car. His hair eases down his shoulders and resembles Peter’s on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive.

This is the man I never knew, so I ask my mother what he was like. She tells me all the things a life partner knows about their significant other and keeps from me all the details a lover should.

In the grab bag of memorabilia, I find a picture of me and him. He’s twenty-one. I’m not even a year old, nothing more than a collection of chunky rolls stacked on one another with a dash of red fuzz on top.

“Was he excited when he found out he was going to be a father?” I ask my mother.

A brief pause; she braces and puts emphasis on her next words.

“Oh yes,” she says. “He was very proud.”

We select music. Johnny Mathis. The Crystals. We choose the only other woman I knew my father loved besides my mother, Diana Ross. The sound of the Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” plays at his wake.

My mother writes the first draft of the obituary by hand. She composes a list of family and those who became family. While naming nieces and nephews, she stops and asks me, “What do I need to put in front of your name? Do I put pastor? Minister? Reverend?”

“Mama, I don’t care about any of that,” I say. “You can just put Justin.”

She nods.

“You know your father enjoyed telling everybody you were ordained,” she says.

When the obit is published the next day, an honorific “Rev.” appears before my name.

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At the graveside, I sit beside all those my father loved: my sister and aunts and the one he worshipped, my mother. Though some pastors preside over the death of family members, my mother says she wouldn’t be able to stand to see me speak over my father, especially if I lost control. This honor will go to the founding dean of the seminary I attended. It’s a favor I’ll never be able to repay. He prays, reads holy scripture, and offers the words of Christian hope—words assuring me my father is now in better hands. He says other words, too—words I can’t remember. And then the service is over. The lives that are left, the ones who will deal with the loss, move out and move on.

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I fly back to Connecticut and am engulfed by the love of my spouse and children. In this abnormal time, they are my normal. I fall back into our routines, rituals, and work schedules. I can dissociate the loss to a degree, but the absence is like a phantom limb. I keep looking for it. I keep looking for my father.

Then, one night, I am with my oldest before bed. She and I tell stories. She is the weaver of tales, and her imagination is the engine that sets the course. I take the pieces she gives, the characters and settings, and attempt to build a world we can enter together, but this night is different.

She asks me about my father, her Poppi.

“What was he like?” she asks. “Who was he?”

I tell her, to me, he was the smell of Hardee’s biscuits and gravy coming through the backdoor on Saturday morning after working the night shift. He was the bearer of broad shoulders, the ones I rode through the cold water of a John Deere-colored sprinkler during those summers we lived in the trailer in front of my grandparents’ farmhouse, too young to know we didn’t have much and too happy to care what others might think of us.

He was the applier of shaving cream to my five-year-old face, and the supplier of my makeshift razor, a kitchen spoon. Like a mockingbird mimics song, I copied his motions, looking up at a mirror too high to show my reflection.

He was the instructor walking me around the house before departing for his third-shift job. We checked the knobs on the top of the stove, reciting in unison, “Off, off, off, off, off.”

He was the possessor of hands full of nicks and cuts from working on textile machinery and, later, chemical plating baths, his self-sacrifice evident whenever he held my or my sister’s hand.

He was the nightly announcer at last-minute royal rumble matches of He-Man action figures, somehow becoming equal parts Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby “the Brain” Heenan as he detailed the disqualifying tosses that would send Beast-Man and Skeletor off the bunk bed and onto the floor.

He was the instructor walking me around the house before departing for his third-shift job. We checked the knobs on the top of the stove, reciting in unison, “Off, off, off, off, off.” Our ritual ended at a locked door, where I assured him my mother’s and sister’s safety was in good hands until the sun rose the following morning upon his return.

He was a man who forever made wrong turns on every trip to the North Carolina coast, getting lost without fail in the tangles of highways crisscrossing Raleigh. Once, I sobbed because he and my mother were so upset at how far they’d wandered off the path. He pulled the car over.

“Son,” he told me, “you can never really be lost because every road will eventually take you where you need to be.”

He was my partner, my co-conspirator in raging a two-man war against every wave Poseidon sent our way on the shores of Myrtle Beach. Our dual drop-kicks, elbows, and dramatic uppercuts showcased humanity’s refusal to go gently into that good night. We raged as the sea broke everything around but us.

He was the instigator who swore to my sister on mornings when he would drop her off at school that he would not turn up the radio and embarrass her. Only when both her feet would hit the pavement would he blast Rod Stewart and shout out the open door how much he loved her.

He was the one who worked extra shifts near holidays and birthdays. My sister’s jean jacket from the Limited Too is a testament to such facts. So was the Super Nintendo waiting for me when I arrived home from school on my eleventh birthday.

He was an acolyte and worshipper of Coach Dean Smith and the religion of North Carolina Tar Heel basketball, the sage who told me how the boys in light blue would “break my heart” like a high school sweetheart. I still refer to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium as nothing but a glorified tobacco barn.

He was the voice who, after a high school football game when I said a teammate named Bo was good, responded, “Yeah, I saw him. But you know, number 66 is pretty good, too.”

I wore 66.

We walked the rest of the way to the car in silence.

He was the person who told me blue-collar folks were my people. He said this outside of a carwash on an early morning in 1994. I can still smell the soap in the workers’ buckets.

He was the best man in a group of good men who stood beside me at my wedding.

He was the humor in the room, the consummate comedian, the laugh waiting to happen, the deliverer of the punchline you wished you had come up with yourself.

I look at my daughter.

“He was a good dad,” I say, and wonder if any accolade could carry more weight.

She looks back at me.

“You’re a good daddy, too,” she says.

When she’s asleep, tears hit my pillow, and for the first time in a while, I know their cause is happiness.

In 2013, at his wedding, the author with his father, Marty, outside Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina (photo courtesy of the Cox family)
In 2013, at his wedding, the author with his father, Marty, outside Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina (photo courtesy of the Cox family)


A minister never knows how long they will stay in a place until they are swept away, like the prophet Elijah, called to go elsewhere. When our next time comes, I’m sure my family and I will leave some artifacts behind: the extra set of mixing bowls, a cumbersome chair and ottoman, maybe even the two useless cats.

I have no plans to leave those sympathy-laced letters behind. I still haven’t read them all, but I’m slowly working on it. Like the mannerisms, expressions, and the face of my father, I’ll carry them with me.

This thought comes to me while dropping my oldest off at school. I don’t turn the radio up, so there is no embarrassing blasting of music for her—not yet. No, I hand her the oversized Ghostbusters bookbag she insists on toting and tell her I love her as she hops out the car door.

“Love you, kid.”

“Love you too, Daddy,” she replies.

“Hey, what are we?” I say.

She answers with the words I said a thousand times to my daddy, and I drive away grateful because I know precisely what those words mean, thankful my father displayed them to me every day of his life. Words said so often they became a proclamation of unconditional love, a prayer that was always and will always be answered.

“Best buddies.”


About the author

Justin Cox is an ordained minister, late-night baker, and displaced Southerner. He's a regular columnist at Baptist News Global, Good Faith Media, and The Christian Citizen, where his writing often engages the intersectionality of food and faith. He currently resides in New England with his family.

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