This’ll Be The Day That I Die

My father, Lamar White, Sr., passed away fifteen years ago today. I’ve written about him before on these pages, but the fifteenth anniversary seems like a significant enough milestone to revisit his life and to reflect on the ways in which he continues to animate and inspire my own life. Every now and then, one of his friends will find me on Facebook and mistakenly believe they’re connecting with him, and every now and then, I’ll have to break the news to them, even a decade and a half later. We not only share the same name; we also share the same community, the same passions, and the same love for Louisiana.

My dad lived big and dreamed even bigger. Privately, he talked about running for the U.S. Senate one day, writing a book, and most audaciously, singing a solo in front of his church, First United Methodist of Alexandria, Louisiana. If he had lived long enough and gotten his life together, he could have done all of those things and much more.

As a high school student, he was valedictorian of his class, the quarterback of his football team (who bragged that he set a school record for fumbling in every single game), a champion in speech and debate events, and an enormously talented singer in the Alexandria Senior High School choir, also know as an Alexandrian. In college at SMU, he played on the golf team with the late, great Payne Stewart. When Stewart won the 1999 US Open in North Carolina after an iconic putt, my father rushed the 18th green and somehow managed his way down into the locker room. Stewart died in a plane crash only a year later, and my father died the following year.

Dad’s life was cut short on February 3, 2001, when, at the age of 41, he wrecked his car into two pine trees directly behind our family home, after losing control of a bend in a road named Horseshoe. My father was enormously successful in his short time on this planet: He built subdivisions and bought a slew of apartment complexes, along with his family, all across the state. He and my mother hosted the first-ever real estate television show in Central Louisiana history, titled “A Showcase of Homes;” today, an entire network is dedicated to that programming. He also quietly invested in a slew of small, single-family homes around town, many of which he owner-financed for people who could not otherwise receive a loan from the local bank.

He was always a good and decent man, a man beloved and respected by his community and his colleagues, a deep thinker, an intellectual, a lover of wisdom, the kind of person who would read a good book, like Man’s Search for Meaning, and then purchase 100 copies to distribute to everyone he knew.

But he was also a man plagued by his own demons of alcoholism and addiction, demons he could never fully shake.

The day after he passed away, a close family member told me I would no longer legally be required to call myself “junior.”

“No way,” I said, “I’m always Lamar White, Jr.” I consider it an honorific, a lasting tribute to a great but flawed man.

I don’t know if I’ll ever accumulate the arsenal of goodwill and good acts that he collected in his short life. He set a high mark. But in the last fifteen years, I’ve learned about the endurance and the fluidity of grief and human empathy. I’ve learned that grief and profound sadness are healthy, a manifestation of love.

I also take solace in the music my father cherished, like this from Cat Stevens:

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim blue fading up to the sky

Grief, even fifteen years later, lends itself to poetry and not prose. My young father, despite his teenaged children and his young bride, died on the Day the Music Died.

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

Poets, keep dreaming.