Richard David Shipley, 1950-2017

It was sunny on Thursday afternoon when I went to work in a building where I have no phone signal. By the time I left work at 9pm, it was raining, and as I walked to my car in the rain, my phone came back to life, and I started to see a rash of texts and missed calls from family members. I called my brother Zac, who lives next door to our father in Wisconsin, and he told me pretty quickly, "He's gone." It rained almost constantly for the next 3 days. Sometimes weather is heavyhanded like that. 

My dad, Richard Shipley, was born on April 6, 1950. He was featured in the Baltimore Sun as an example of one of the newborn babies belatedly counted in the Maryland census. He went to high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and then Towson University, which was then called Towson State University. I went to Towson, too, and my dad continued to call it "Towson State" for decades after the "State" was dropped from the name. In college and afterwards, he sang in a band and lived in a hippie commune, he worked as a bricklayer, and worked a few years of night shifts at Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital, before ending up in a long career as a government employee, working for the Department of Transportation at the Navy Yard in Washington.  In 1974, his band was playing a show in Baltimore County, and he struck up a conversation with a guy who was in town recording an album. Lowell George invited my dad to stop by the studio and watch Little Feat work on one of their greatest albums, Feats Don't Fail Me Now. My parents saw Little Feat many times, and they were my first concert, still one of my favorite bands. 

May 3, 1978 was designated Sun Day by President Carter, as an Earth Day-style day to advocate for solar power (the idea came from Earth Day founder Denis Hayes). There was a Sun Day concert on the National Mall with a performance by Jackson Browne, and that's where my mother and my father met (oddly, Sun Day was on a Wednesday). Their marriage lasted about 10 years, which I'd say is not bad considering that they got married a month after meeting. My brother was born a year and a half later, and I followed 2 years after him. 

Most of the first few years of my life, my family lived on a farm in Front Royal, Virginia. My dad grew ginseng and commuted into D.C. My earliest memories are of the farm house, of my mom and my bearded dad reading to me and walking through the forest with me and my brother. Dad traveled out of the country for work often, sometimes for weeks at a time. His favorite story was about returning from Australia with his beard freshly shaven off. For days, I refused to look at him or talk at him, until finally, when "Family Ties" was on TV, I got up, pointed to Michael Gross's beard, and said "you're not my dad, that's what my dad looks like." Dad stopped shaving immediately. 

I was 6 when my parents divorced. I don't remember knowing much about what was happening or why. I just remember getting into my mom's blue Subaru and leaving the farm, the only home I'd ever known, forever. I remember it was raining that day. Both of my parents were in dire financial straits after the divorce and moved to be closer to their families, my dad back to Baltimore and my mom to Delaware. I think they both sacrificed a lot for the necessity that they not remain married. I spent years wishing my parents stayed together, until I realized that it was for the best. They could barely be near each other for the next 20 years or so, until their kids started having weddings and children and they managed to be in the same room a few times a year. 

For most of my adolescence, my dad only got to see my brother and I every other weekend. On Friday he'd drive 2 or 3 hours from Washington to Delaware to pick us up, drive us 2 or 3 hours back to his house in Baltimore. And then on Sunday night he'd drive us back to Delaware. For over 10 years, he'd spend 8-12 hours in the car to see us every other weekend, and I'm pretty sure he would've done it every weekend if that was the arrangement. I believe in going the extra mile for the people I care about, sometimes literally, and it's because that's what my dad did for us. We'd often stay at Grandma Burma's house on Mayfield Avenue, and she'd make us blueberry pancakes or sausage and hominy with chili sauce for breakfast. 

Dad bought a house in Fells Point for cheap at an auction in the late '80s, before the property values started to rise. Growing up, I'd go visit my dad in Baltimore, in one part of the city where kids could fairly safely walk around the neighborhood, and I built up most of my CD collection walking to the Sound Garden. We swam at Beaver Dam in the summers, he got us Easter candy every year at Glauber's chocolates, we went to the Maryland Science Center and the aquarium more times than I could count. I'm sure my mom hated that he got to be the fun weekend parent, but he didn't want to be just a weekend parent, and he did what he could to raise us as he would've if we lived with him every day of the week. 

My dad was a voracious reader, especially of sci-fi, and at one point he had a pretty huge personal library. Most of my favorite books were recommended (or given) to me by him, and I probably only read a small fraction of all the books he gave or offered to me over the years. In middle school I was devouring Kurt Vonnegut and Jersy Kosinski books like a weirdo. We'd go to dad's house on the weekend and he'd show us "Monty Python's Flying Circus" or "Mystery Science Theater 3000," or "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and in the car we'd listen to Steely Dan and Tears For Fears. We'd see "Homicide: Life On The Street" film crews in Fells Point all the time,and on a couple occasions he got hired as an extra: once he was a uniformed officer, once he was, um, a body in a morgue. We'd go see a new John Waters movie at The Senator, and then drive through the neighborhood where it was filmed. I got so much of my taste and my sense of humor from my dad, my way of looking at the world. He would talk our ears off every minute we were together. We'd stop at restaurants on road trips, and draw up fake menus for "The Roadkill Diner," full of punny names of dishes made from animals scraped off the road, and leave them at the table for the next customer to discover. He remembers me being embarrassed and grabbing the menus so people didn't see them, but I just remember finding them funny. 

When I went to Towson, I got to live a lot closer to my dad than I had growing up, and I spent a couple of breaks between semesters at his house before I got an apartment off campus. After college, my girlfriend Jennifer and I got our first place together right uphill from Fells Point, about 10 blocks from his house. My dad took early retirement in 2001, and spent most of the last 15 years of his life pretty much enjoying life and living by his own rules and his own schedule. He learned a lot about studying the stock market in his job, so he basically put a lot of his money in stocks and became a day trader, watching the financial channels during the day. The recession hurt his stocks pretty bad, but I think he recovered better than most, and he always got by. Around Christmas every year, he'd make these lovely care packages full of food and gifts, and go around Fells Point quietly giving them to the homeless.

Dad had a Great Dane named Shelby, and when she died, he quickly got another Dane puppy, Scarlett. Dad hadn't had a dog since he was a kid, and it made him so happy to walk around the neighborhood, walking the dog and striking up conversations with strangers. For 15 years, he was the guy who was always walking around Fells Point with his giant dog. If I took care of the dog while he was traveling, every time I walked her, people would recognize her and ask me if I was Rick's son. Over the weekend my brother-in-law John told me a story I'd never heard before: he was in Fells Point on his first date with the girl he's about to marry later this year. He saw my dad on the sidewalk, and had her pull over the car to stop and say hi. "Hey, that's...that's my father-in-law!" he said. She looked at him in shock: "YOU'RE MARRIED!?" 

My dad met someone around the time he retired who made him very happy, and she moved into the house and became a part of our family. And then she left him, very abruptly, after 10 years together, and he was pretty heartbroken. His social circle got smaller, he stopped throwing parties, and he drank more and was less cautious about taking care of his diabetes. But my first son was also born around the same time, and his grandchildren would always brighten his mood. 

I did what I could to help my dad through some rough times, and he was always there for me. When my car broke down on I-95 at 10pm in college, he came and rescued me. When I got laid off with a newborn son at home, he loaned me money when I couldn't make ends meet. There were a few times in life when I disappointed him, or when he disappointed me, but it was rare that we weren't on good terms. We went to lots of concerts together, Steely Dan, Little Feat. I think the last show I took him to was Jackson Browne, who of course was performing the day my parents met. 

My grandfather wasn't a very affectionate father, and he and my dad didn't speak to each other for a few years when my dad chose a different career than the one his father wanted for him. And I think my dad made an effort to avoid that, to tell us he loved us as much as possible, to not tell us how to live our lives, to support us unconditionally. My brother and I are devoted to our kids like he was devoted to us, and I think that made him prouder than anything. 

When my son James goes to bed every night, he hugs a bear that my dad gave him, and when my son Daniel goes to bed, he hugs a bunny that my dad gave him. Every baby gets a ton of stuffed animals, but for some reason, my boys chose the ones they got from their grandfather. He knows how to pick 'em. James will grow up with memories of his grandfather, but Daniel, who turns 2 this week, won't. And that makes me sadder than almost anything about this. Dad's dad passed when I was little, so I 'met' him, but I don't remember him. I wish I did. I wish I met Dad's older bother Wallace, who passed away before I was born. Daniel's middle name is Wallace because I spent my life hearing about the uncle I never met, the most brilliant person Dad said he ever knew. 

The last couple years of Dad's life were a little rough. He'd lost most of the feeling in his feet from diabetes, and became more and more prone to falling. Living in a narrow 3-story townhouse meant going up and down stair several times a day, which became more and more difficult and dangerous. He wanted to sell the house and move into a smaller place with no stairs, but property values in the area peaked years ago and there were renovations to be done. His feet were so numb that he didn't notice when he stepped on broken glass in November 2015, and got a Staph infection in his foot, and spent several weeks in and out of the hospital. 

My brother Zac has lived in Wisconsin for most of the last decade, and Dad's closest friend in Maryland had health problems of her own. So when Dad got sick, I did everything I could, I drove him to the hospital and picked him up and walked the dog when he wasn't home. It takes me 30 or 40 minutes to get to his house from my place, and I was often coming from work way down in D.C., and he insisted on going to a hospital up in Baltimore County, so it was mostly a lot of driving around. I had a newborn baby at home, so I was exhausted, and one time I got mad at him because he asked me to come over just to put the trash on his front step. But for the most part, I was happy to do what I could. He went the extra mile for me, figuratively and literally, a thousand times before. You can never do everything for your parents that they did for you, but there's always something you can do. 

My dad had his foot surgery and came home from the hospital and recovered pretty well, considering that at one point a doctor told him he might lose his foot. We went duckpin bowling with my son James on his birthday last year, and Dad was so happy to hobble around and lose a game to a 7 year old. But he still had trouble getting around, and I was still limited in how much I could help him run errands. Last summer, he called my brother to vent about his difficulties, and he and Zac came up with a plan: Dad would move into their duplex in Wisconsin, where Zac would be right next door and could him get by and get healthy, and we'd clean up the Fells Point house and finally put it on the market. 

In the last week of September, dad put most of his belongings in a shipping container, and we rented an SUV, and I drove Dad and his giant dog Scarlett the 800 miles from Baltimore to Milwaukee. We listened to 11 out of 13 discs of my Little Feat box set on the drive. I was optimistic that he'd be much better off with my brother next door to look out for him, but he was going to be living a lot further away, and I had no idea when I'd see him again. I turned in the rental car, cried in the airport, and flew home. 

In November, Scarlett the Great Dane walked over to Dad's chair and laid down next to him one last time, and expired. In February, he had a pretty bad health scare and went to the hospital. The doctor essentially told him point blank that heavy drinking was putting a strain on his heart, and he finally stopped drinking. He spent the last 3 months of his life sober, and the last 7 months of his life spending lots of quality time with Zac and his kids, the kind of quality time that me and my sons had had gotten plenty of the last few years. 

He had some rehab in the hospital to get his legs back in shape to walk again, and his real estate agent finally found a buyer for the house. About a month ago, he flew out to Baltimore for 6 days, and we spent 4 of those days together, as we drove all over Baltimore running errands, finalizing the sale of the house, and going to his favorite restaurants (it's harder to find seafood in Milwaukee than in Baltimore). He missed Baltimore, and still talked about getting an apartment back in Fells Point, and getting another dog, and getting back to his life as it was. But he wasn't too steady on his feet. I wanted him to cancel the trip to Denver that he had planned later that month, and spend a few months really improving his diet and his health before he made any big plans. 

Dad went to Denver, and enjoyed lots of legal marijuana, and ate a lot of unhealthy food. By the time he flew back to Milwaukee in late April, he was sick as a dog and was soon back in the hospital. The last couple times I talked to him, in the hospital and after he got home from the hospital, I was a little terse with him. I kind of knew then that he was blowing his shot at getting better, that he was going to keep indulging himself right to the end, and I was mad on behalf of Zac, who he'd always wait until the last minute to ask for help. But I had no idea that it was the last time I'd speak to him. I told him I loved him at the end of the call, like I always do, but it wasn't one of the hilarious hourlong conversations that we'd had a lot of over the last year. I'm glad he went to Denver and got high one last time, I wish I hadn't been so mad about it. He probably wouldn't have lived much longer if he didn't anyway. 

If Dad had died in Maryland, I'd be dealing with the difficult stuff, finding the body, arranging the cremation, and my brother would be getting the news 800 miles away and feeling kind of powerless and disconnected. But Dad died in Wisconsin, so my brother is doing all of that, and I'm the one who got the call and then just went home and slept a lot and did nothing, because there was nothing much I could do. My brother gave me some tasks to take care of today, though, so I'm going to try to make myself useful as we plan some kind of memorial in Baltimore later this month. 

I've gotten a lot of love and support the last few days, but I'm still just letting the news seep in. The grief has hit me hard a few times and I've cried and screamed along to songs and had some good cathartic conversations, but when you're in mourning, it's 24/7, and you're mostly just inside your head. I feel really fortunate that it's only now, at 35 years old, that I'm really experiencing my first loss of this magnitude. Everyone loses a grandparent or a pet or a few when they're young, and those can break your heart but might be a little more expected, a little easier to accept. Losing one of your parents is like losing one of the basic building blocks of your life. On Sunday I celebrated my son's birthday and hugged my mom and celebrated life. But there'll never be a day that I don't think about my dad, that I don't hear a song that reminds me of him or hear his voice in my head. 
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