The author at their grandparents' house in 2002.
My dad and I are morning people. If you asked him why, he’d tell you it’s a habit from his military days. If you asked me why, I’d tell you it’s a habit from childhood.
My dad was always the first one up in the house. I know the sound of his footsteps across the wooden hallway floor from my parents’ room to the kitchen the way a mom knows the cry of her child. I would lay in bed on Saturday mornings waiting to hear the measured creaks of the floorboards. I’d pause just for a moment, so as not to seem too eager, and then I’d follow them into the kitchen.
The mornings were our time before any of the responsibilities of being a husband and father could stress my dad out. I saw those few precious hours before the rest of the house stirred as my chance to actually connect with him, which often meant blasting Jimmy Buffett in the Black Pearl ― our family’s minivan ― as we drove the back roads between our house and the hardware store.
My dad, like his dad, isn’t big into talking about feelings, so I tried to decode his thoughts through the Buffett songs he chose to play on our drives, as if some secret message to me was hidden in the lyrics.
Whenever I was having a rough time with bullies at school, he’d play songs like “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On” and “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” as if to tell me not to wallow and that this, too, shall pass.
During weeks when I caught my parents arguing over finances, he’d often play “Peanut Butter Conspiracy” before stopping at the gas station to pick up a few scratch-offs and a lottery ticket. “I’ll get it one day,” he’d tell me, before tossing the losing numbers in the trash.
The best mornings were the ones when he’d play “Delaney Talks to Statues,” the song I’m partially named after. When my mom was pregnant with me, she went through hundreds of names in hopes of picking out the perfect one. She finally narrowed her search down to “Delaney,” a name with Irish origins. When she pitched it to my dad, he immediately threw on Buffett’s song, which Buffett had written for his own daughter, Sarah Delaney. By the time the first chorus came around, my mom knew it was my name. Whenever my dad played that song, it felt like his way of saying “I love you.”
The author in 2023.
The worst mornings were the gloomy drives to the airport before he would fly back to Afghanistan. During these hourlong drives, he’d put on songs from Buffett’s “A1A” album like “A Pirate Looks At Forty” and “Tin Cup Chalice,” and I’d sit silently screaming for him to tell me what was going on in his head. Was he mourning the life he never got to live because he enlisted in the military directly out of high school? Did he want to leave everything behind, including us, and flee to some far-off shore? Or was he simply daydreaming to escape reality?
In the decade he was in Afghanistan, I only got to see him in person for two weeks every six months. Naturally, our already stilted conversation skills got worse over time. Technically, we still had mornings together via phone calls and Skype, but without Jimmy Buffett on the line as our translator, most of our talks stalled out after the quick “how’s life” pleasantries. I used to blame him for not trying harder to connect with me, but when you watch your daughter grow up in disjointed spurts, I’m sure it can’t be easy to know what to say.
My dad is no longer in my life — partly by his choice and partly by mine — and while I know it’s for the best, that doesn’t mean there aren’t days when I miss our mornings together. This past Saturday was one of them. In a way, it seems only fitting that I saw the push notification that Jimmy Buffett had died at 7 a.m. And because he’s also a morning person, I knew that wherever my dad was, he’d seen the news as well.
A rush of emotions swept over me: grief, disappointment, nostalgia. But I didn’t know how to express any of them. So I did what my dad taught me best: I threw on some Jimmy Buffett and went for a drive.
Delaney Strunk is an Air Force brat and editorial strategist living in Atlanta. They believe that an All-Star Special from Waffle House can heal most wounds, and they’ve never met a red lipstick they didn’t like. You can read more of their ramblings by subscribing to their newsletter.