By: Ashley (Kehoe) Blackburn
I was about 3 when I figured out there was a pretty good chance my dad was actually a superhero. He didn’t have a cape and he was about average height and build for a dad, but to me, it seemed like he could do anything, fix anything, and right any wrong.
By kindergarten, I decided that having a partner-in-crime for a dad was even more fun than having a superhero for a dad. We did messy chemistry experiments in the kitchen, dressed the dog up in costumes, and staged ridiculously elaborate photo shoots all over the house while my mom worked nights, the only evidence of our shenanigans being the rolls of film she would later develop and either laugh her ass off or roll her eyes at, usually both. When I turned 7, I had to learn to share my dad with my brand new baby brother Mike, which I was decidedly not thrilled about at first, but warmed up to the idea when I realized we now had someone even more naive and gullible than I was to play tricks on. Plus I realized, as little brothers go, my parents had gotten me a damn good one. Around 9 or 10 I started to outgrow our nightly bedtime story tradition, but still secretly loved to hear my dad do all the character voices, so I’d listen through the wall or sometimes curl up on the bed and help with the story-telling when he put Mike to sleep. By 12, I was starting to transform from daddy’s little girl into my own willful, spirited, sometimes patience-testing person. And then at 14, in a span of the four longest and shortest months of my life, I and everyone who loved him lost my dad to leukemia. Just like that.
Looking back, I sometimes feel relieved for not having to live through the years when I would become too cool to be seen with my dad at the mall – not knowing how much that would crush him. We never had to ride out the phase where I would be certain that he knew absolutely nothing and tell him so to his face on a regular basis. I never gave him the silent treatment because I’d figured out that not talking to him would hurt him more than even the harshest of words ever could. We never had to make it through a series of rebellious, late-night high school moments when I might have kept him up worrying, and I never had to see the look of rage on his face – tempered only by devastation and disappointment – when I let him down in ways only a teenage daughter can.
Unlike most daughters, I have no memories of being intentionally reckless with my dad’s feelings, or saying some of the hateful things daughters say without knowing at the time that they can never take it back. For that at least, I’m grateful. My relationship with my dad will only ever exist in a context of childhood adoration and youthful idealism, because that was all the time we had together. But still, I’d trade living through all of those more nerve-fraying moments of adolescence for having to go without them, because imagining what our relationship would be like in adulthood instead of being able to actually experience it will never be enough.
It wasn’t until I turned 28 that I started to understand the full impact of losing my dad. It hit me in a sudden, piercing way, when I realized around the time of my 28th birthday that I’d been alive for twice as many years as he’d been gone. At 28, I had shared exactly half my life with my dad, and went on to live the next half without him. Every year going forward from 28, my lived reality would tip in the direction of a life without my dad. With every year that passed, my memories would grow dimmer and more distorted, and it would become more of a struggle for me to remember anything of what had already started to feel like someone else’s life when I looked back on it. Every year I’m alive now, it becomes one year harder to try and discern meaning from the lessons my dad tried to teach me when I was still too young to understand, he and I both blissfully unaware that he would only be able to see me through my fourteenth birthday. Every year, I grow farther from the person I was when he was here and closer to whoever it is I’m becoming in his absence.
This reality is something I now live with daily, but I wouldn’t be my father’s daughter if I didn’t do it with a sense of humor. After all, this wouldn’t be a story about my dad without a punchline, so here it is: Every year that I’m alive and he’s not, I’m still my dad’s daughter. And even without him here, I’m still, somehow, becoming a hell of a lot like him. It surprises me how often people who knew my dad for more years and in more depth than I ever did will sometimes say how much Mike or I remind them of him. And for anyone who knew our dad, some would say the joke is really on us, because our dad was nothing if not an overgrown goofball, a prankster, a loveable trouble-maker, just a big kid with a big heart. That’s what this story is really about.
John Kehoe will always be my dad, but he’s also so many other things to other people: a brother, a son, a neighbor, a roommate, a coworker, a runner, a best man, a best friend, a husband. As I’ve grown up, I’ve also grown to appreciate the fact that my dad wasn’t just a dad, he was someone with a whole life and stories that I know almost nothing about – some heartwarming, some hilarious, most a bit of both. My dad lived a lifetime worth of memories – and by all accounts some arrest-worthy misadventures – before he ever imagined having a wife, two kids, and a house with a big backyard in the suburbs of Chicago.
Looking back at old pictures, I’ve realized my dad didn’t always have a dad haircut. In fact, many people probably remember him with long, shaggy, greasy hair that makes me glad I missed out on the 70s by a full decade. The clean-shaven dad I remember actually spent most of his adult life with a mustache. (Add the 80s to the list of eras I’m glad I don’t remember much of.) I never got to share a beer with my dad, but other people have countless – if blurry – memories of drinking with him late into the night or early into the morning. His childhood friends tell stories about pick-up baseball games, fist-fights, broken bones, and friendships that somehow endured across distance and into adulthood. His high school friends have more scandalous stories, about getting high, pulling pranks, discovering rock and roll, and even stealing cars – stories I’ve heard variations of, but with many of the details mysteriously missing. His college friends have similar stories, of stealing pizzas from a delivery driver and successfully lifting a huge neon sign from one of Chicago’s el stations. His friends from Down the Hatch – the bar where my parents met – tell stories about “kegball” – softball with a keg in the infield that you had to chug from every time you made it to 2nd base. People still talk about my parents’ wedding as if it was one of the best parties they had ever been to, even to this day. To tell my dad’s story, these are the moments that matter the most, and to capture them, I’ve enlisted another partner-in-crime, the only other person who can tell these stories as good as (if not better than) my dad could have.
You can’t tell a story about my dad without it involving my Uncle Bob, who most people know as R.L. – my dad’s younger brother and lifelong best friend. They grew up together, and somehow – sort of despite all odds – grew into two of the best men I’ll ever know. From boyhood on into fatherhood, they did everything together, and since I can’t even begin to know what “everything” includes, he’s going to tell us, in all the detail that a brain still clogged with chemical residue of the 1970s can muster. Together, we’re going to share the memories that my dad and his brother and best friend would have if he were here to share them himself. We’ve chosen to make some of the characters in these stories anonymous to protect the identities of the innocent – or in this case, probably the very guilty.
We hope you see yourself in these stories somewhere, just as much as you see whoever John Kehoe was to you. As a reminder, this is not a sad story. It’s a story about the 1970s, rock and roll, the moments you laughed the hardest, and the times you learned what it really means to be free. It’s a story about life, love, friendship, fatherhood, and growing up without ever growing old. This is John Kehoe’s story.