This is a guest post by Joe Buttry, Steve and Mimi’s middle son. At Mimi’s invitation, he and his wife, Kim, are sharing a “2 Roads Diverged” view of their recently completed trip:
Before I start, this post contains some salty language, some of it quotes from my father. It is also a little more somber.
We woke up the last morning in Fort Walton Beach and headed for Baton Rouge. We stopped off at the Pensacola Farmer’s Market and grabbed some provisions. I got tricked into buying some crazy expensive artisan guacamole and chips. Farmer’s Markets are tricky, man. We got back on the road quickly. At this point long drives were no longer the trial that they had been. The dogs were more used to the car by now. Harry would even lay down on his bed in the back giving the passenger (to this point mostly me) a respite from his hot rotten dog breath. The miles of pavement and hours in the car didn’t take the toll that they had in the beginning. The drive back to Baton Rouge was actually kind of easy.
The plan all along was to have 2 memorials. Jerry Cepos, Dean of the Manship school, wanted to honor Dad in a gathering at LSU and we would have a service in Minneapolis for family and friends.
For me, the LSU memorial for my father was strange. First off, I was used to doing the talking. Since he died, most of the time when I talk about my father, others are kind of unsure what to do. I get the feeling that they are worried I am going to start blubbering. There is nothing sadder than a hairy guy crying so hard he has snot bubbles. Jerry Cepos very kindly asked if I would like to speak, but I was woefully unprepared. The experience of watching people talk about my father in the past tense was weird. Not bad. They all had eloquent, lovely things to say about him. Things I see in myself when I am being my best me and that I don’t see when I am at my worst. I was a week into working on my remarks for the Minneapolis memorial and far from finished, and these were the kind of genuine things I hoped I could put together for my remarks at the second memorial. But it was still a little strange.
And I have never felt fucking older. The last two years have taken a toll. There are times that it feels like my brothers and I have aged 10 years. We all have less hair than we did before Dad started treatment, a fact that has never been more in my face than when one 20-year-old after another got up to speak.
Another weird thing was the people. These fresh-faced kids and sweet, friendly coworkers were a departure from the people Dad worked with for so long. I have always been drawn to the outcasts. The only lines of work that I ever considered were always with people who were brilliant, but on the fringes of society. The coworkers I chose were probably as far out of “normal” as I could get. My father’s coworkers were very similar people. Daniel Finney would later call newspaper people “exiles from the Island of Misfit Toys”. People who could level you with their written words, but you could never imagine being out on a date. People who can say more with swear words than most can with a thesaurus. People like me.
These coworkers were different. They were the kind of people that you could serve cocktails on the patio without reservations. The kids had yet to fight their way through a business that breaks you down. They love the media industry, but do not yet know that it does not love them back. They have not yet felt what happens when you fall into the cogs of the machine. That machine does stop. It can destroy your world and the world of those around you without slowing. They have also not seen the depth of love that the band of misfits who lived on the fringes of society, while championing the first amendment were capable of. One such bright face told the story of missing out on an internship opportunity in Washington DC that he had been promised. Clearly, this was a big deal to him, as it would be to many kids in college. The response from my father was exactly what you would expect of a journalism man who had the rug pulled out from under him for the last decade; he leaned back in his seat, laughed, and said “Welcome to Washington, DC…..Fuck you.”
Few things make me miss my dad like the thought of him swearing. As a child, I remember being amazed that people could speak like that (though it was rare as a child to hear him swear). It was rarely when he was angry (But even as a Child I could tell when he wanted to swear out of anger). As an adult, the Dad that swore became a part of our relationship. It was rarely unnecessary. It almost always moved the conversation or emphasized a point. It was never to fill space. There was always a point. In an interview, he once was asked what his favorite swear word was. The answer; “probably Fucking, as an adjective.” There might not be a more Steve Buttry answer to any question ever. (At least one that does not involve Roger Maris)
The event was simply lovely. My mother shared a story about reading “The Little Prince” to my father. My brother thanked everyone who shared their lovely words. I had met a few of Dad’s coworkers, but many of the people were strangers. They were all very warm and welcoming. They all had simply wonderful things to say. At the cocktail reception after the ceremony, several students shared stories about Dad. He was either telling someone he would write them a recommendation letter (almost insisting) or taking time to get to know his students beyond their shared interest in journalism. The only thing that wasn’t there was him. He would have been uncomfortable with so much attention directed at him, but you could have never gotten the smile off his face.
We headed back to my mother’s house for a quick meal and to load up my dad’s car for the next leg. In perhaps the strangest transition ever, we went from the memorial to a three-day long bachelor/bachelorette party in New Orleans. You see, when the plan was to move to Baton Rouge, Kim had told a friend of hers that it would be a great idea to have her bachelorette party in New Orleans. It went from being a few of the girls hanging out to 7 people renting a four-bedroom condo and partying for 3 days. That they all got there on the night of my Dad’s LSU memorial was just a coincidence.
I feel like I need to share a true talent of Kim’s. She can plan a trip. When she is planning a vacation (as opposed to whatever we have embarked on with our hotelement) she will go through every possible permutation of airline, hotel options vs. vacation rentals, and all manners of transportation. She leaves no stone unturned. She will figure out the best plan. When we got to the condo we scored a great parking place out front. We parked my Dad’s car, which we had swapped for the hotelement, figuring a homemade camper filled with stuff would be an easy target parked on a side street in New Orleans. The condo was perfect. We headed out to meet the others at a karaoke bar. We proceeded to have some drinks and eat our way through New Orleans for the night. For what it is worth, if you are ever there check out Verti Marte. It’s a shithole of a bodega with a food counter in back. Eat as much food there as you can. You can diet later.
The next morning I was the first one up. I worked on my remarks for the next memorial for a while. I was starting to get parts built up that I needed to weave together with some tact and a greater command of the English language than is normally required of me. The vibe in the house was a little odd. Kim has prepared everyone for the possibility that I might not be feeling up to doing much. Yet, at that point I was up for a bit of escapism. I had a bit of guilt. We were just hours clear of a memorial for my father’s memorial and I am here partying it up in New Orleans. I have to remind myself that we didn’t plan it this way. That this was to celebrate the wedding of one of our best friends. Everything has been heavy for a few days and there is plenty more somber on the horizon, so I welcomed the respite. All of the people we were with had also been incredibly supportive. Most of them are closer to Kim than to me (almost all of them are her coworkers, most her friends before that), but they still sent cards and a kind word that really touched me. We spend the day doing New Orleans things. We ate. So much. We went to brunch and had drinks. We go to Magazine Street and had drinks. We went to Frenchmen Street and had drinks, watched some Jazz and ate even though we weren’t hungry. I tried to get a tattoo, but Kim thought that since I had been drinking for most of the day that I should wait.
So the next morning I got up and went to get the tattoo. When I was a 6 I got the chicken pox. I don’t know if it was a particularly bad case, but I know it felt like it was. The constant itching made it impossible for me to be comfortable. In an attempt to take my mind off of the itching, Dad taught me how to play chess. We spent a large part of the next week playing. Twenty-eight years later, when he started inpatient chemotherapy, I wanted a way to show my father that even though I wasn’t there he was in my thoughts. I downloaded a chess app and sent him a request. We played sporadically, mostly while he was in the hospital or awake late at night, unable to sleep. I decided that a fitting tattoo would be the silhouette of a knight from a chess game. It only took ten to fifteen minutes. It hurt, but not as much as I thought a tattoo on the inside of the wrist would. The process of healing would hurt more. I never realized how many times a day I put my hands in my pocket until there was searing fresh tattoo pain each time.
We met back up with the group and continued our quest to eat and drink at every single place in the Crescent City. And multiple trips to Verti Marte. We headed to the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, also known as the last place a freshly tattooed long hair in a t-shirt and jeans like me is expected to hang out and drink. We moved on and ate more oysters than is reasonable. In all it was a fantastic time with some good friends during a time when that was just what I needed.
We left New Orleans for Baton Rouge and navigated an Interstate 10 shutdown. After a quick nap for Kim, car swap for me, and some travel complications for my mom (fittingly, Dad’s memorial would be fraught with travel difficulties.) we were on the road. This was the killer drive of the trip. We went from Baton Rouge to Minneapolis in about 26 hours. It was long. It was dull. In the middle of Missouri at 2 in the morning we almost hit two deer that came out of the median. Had I been paying less attention I probably would have. I rode the adrenaline rush to a truck stop where we slept for the night. After a few hours of sleep, we were back at it, driving the remainder with delightfully few near deer experiences.
Once we arrived in town we headed to Kim’s favorite Minneapolis restaurant, Sawatdee. We met a friend who Kim went to college with. He works at the nearby Guthrie theatre. After that we headed to a Fuddruckers’s where my family was gathered. Anytime that my family can get together is a wonderful time. The feeling of being surrounded by people who love you and are there to support you was almost overwhelming. My mother’s side of the family has always been very close. Any family event is well attended. Those who can’t be there always wish they could be. My father’s side is a little less close, though no less loving. It has been a long time since we were all together. Most of my cousins from Dad’s side were there and that would have made him happy beyond words. He recently wrote a letter to all of us telling us that in the twilight of his life, he held times together with his family in his heart, and that he wanted that for all of us. We have already begun planning a family reunion for 2018.
The next day I spent the morning getting my remarks together. My father had spoken at family funerals in the past and he did it with amazing eloquence. I very much wanted to be able to do the same for him. I also would be following some amazing writers, preachers, teachers and storytellers. They were bringing their A game and I would have to as well.
We got to the venue and settled in. I found a quiet place and wrote out my remarks long hand, just to have in case I needed them. All three my father’s siblings spoke beautifully, as did my uncle Jim from my mother’s side. Several colleagues spoke, all of them with the edge and bite that only comes from years of stacking paragraphs in an uncertain environment, but also the genuine true love and respect that comes from time in the trenches together in defense of the first amendment. Daniel Finney, who could not be in attendance, wrote a piece that was read by my uncle Dan.
Daniel has been close to our family since my father’s second stint with the Des Moines Register. He has recently written a series about his struggles with his weight, depression and anxiety. On more than one occasion, Dad and I talked about what truly remarkable work it is. Dad thought that it should win a Pulitzer, but noted that Finney’s work didn’t fit well into any one category, but loosely into several, making it unlikely to win any of them. I think the idea that a young man who he took under his wing (one of many) writing as honestly and unflinchingly as Daniel while breaking the rules of what is typically celebrated journalism really tickled Dad. A journalist was telling his own story and telling it in such an unfiltered way that makes himself a little uncomfortable. Yet, he does it anyway and incredibly well. Dad also loved to see his friend getting healthy. He was as proud of Finney as I have seen him towards a coworker. Last Christmas Daniel wrote another article. It was the story of my parents’ Christmas letter. He told how in the face of his own mortality my father remained positive. Almost frustratingly positive. He was never unrealistic. At that point, we knew how it was going to end. Yet his thoughts were not on the end, but making the most of the days that he had left. It was one of the kindest things I have ever read. Both that piece and his words for my father’s Memorial are gifts that I will always be grateful for.
My sister in law spoke wonderfully about Dad as a doting, softy grandfather. My brothers and I spoke about Dad as a father. Tom spoke about how even in his last days, he was assuring everyone that everything was ok. Mike talked about how Dad’s life was a love story, with his work, with my mother, and with family. I talked about baseball. I talked about how cancer strips you of your identity. How all of the phone calls become about doctor’s appointments and platelet counts. Yet, through the Royals 2015 run to win the world series, we remained kids watching a baseball game with their Dad.
After the ceremony, we had a nice meal and drinks, before returning to the hotel to play board games in the lobby. Kim and I left after a bit and headed to a tiki bar to meet my cousin Jon, my bother Tom and some of his friends who travelled to be there. These were the kind of events that Dad would have loved. He reveled in the opportunity to be with his family. He would have played with his granddaughters, had a drink and some laughs and posted more photos to social media than even his most millennial nieces and nephews.
As his treatment wore on, his smile changed. I don’t know if it was the smile of a man that was bone tired, or if it was the smile of a man who knew he didn’t have very many smiles left. Part of that change was that he relished every one of them, holding it for a little longer, as if taking a picture in his mind. This night would have been full of that smile.
I miss you, Dad.
Joe, this is a beautifully moving piece that would have made your father smile. Your comments touched my heart deeply.
Beautifully written, Joe. I enjoyed reading about your adventures in the hotelement and your thoughts leading up to the memorial in Minneapolis. As far as measuring up with the preachers, writers and storytellers, you don’t have anything to worry about — your words were most touching.