Thank you all for coming to celebrate the life of my father, Buster Jones. Many of you knew him as a quarter horse jockey, who raced for over forty years in a sport where the average length of a career is less than five. Others knew him as brother, uncle, cousin, friend. To my brother and I, he was dad. One way we all knew him was as unconventional. He did things his way, and you found yourself admiring his take on things even if you didn’t fully understand them. Today, I am happy to share some facts about dad that might delight you and a few stories I have collected from friends and loved ones. I share them with you now, so that we might celebrate the way dad lived his life and reflect on the lessons we might draw.
Dad died in a room full of loved ones. Over the last few months, my brother spent time with dad, encouraging him to walk and keeping him company when dad really needed it. In his last days, I rarely left his side. The wonderful staff at the Cherokee Nursing Center provided a bed for me, allowing me to be there when dad called out my name in the middle of the night — a reverse of the many times dad would come running to us after my brother or I woke from bad dreams. Dad would come charging through the shadows to check on us, every time we called out to him. That was dad, he cared about other’s suffering. My wife, Sara, recalls dad always asking about her aunt Lisa who lost the ability to see after a terrible car wreck. Dispite all dad was going through, he still asked about her. And he genuinely felt for my uncle Richard from mom’s side who battled the effects of diabetes, losing his leg, before dying a few years prior to dad. Despite his own troubles, dad cared so much for others that he kept them in mind while dealing with his own struggles.
Dad was such a graceful athlete. I remember watching, one day, through the kitchen window as dad broke a horse. I witnessed just how athletic he was when this horse bucked dad what felt like ten feet into the air — I gasped, and started for the door, sure dad would end up with at least a few bumps and bruises, but before I even made it a step, I saw dad land perfectly on his feet and calmly walk over to the horse and start working it again. After seeing that, you can keep Michael Jordan, I knew what a real athlete looked like. Be like dad.
Dad never missed a chance to make himself heard when he had something to say — this was usually a wisecrack or a perfectly timed phrase that he crafted just to annoy the hell out of you. He did this to my mom, my brother and I so often that we named the family dog after a nickname we had for him. We named the dog Skeeter because of the way dad would sometimes buzz in your ear like a mosquito. I see this same personality trait in my son, by the way. Henry gets the same look in his eye that dad would get when he knows he’s got you. I remember that dad was once obsessed with the song Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, and he would wait till you least expected it and sing the lyrics right in your ear: “I waannna beeee–” Dad, quit, “your sledgehammer.” (Emma, when Henry annoys you, what he is really saying is, “I love you.”)
That was dad. His musical tastes were surprising and eclectic. My friends are always shocked to learn that dad’s favorite band was the Bee Gees. Because he comes from the deep woods of Northeastern Oklahoma, they expect dad to like something more conventional, like, Conway Twitty, who dad liked but not as much as he did the vocal stylings of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb. Dad was always teasing my brother and me that disco wasn’t over, that it was coming back and coming back big. And Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and others appear to have proven him right even if no one ever actually refers to their music as disco. Do you dance to it? In a club? Then, it’s disco. Dad was right.
Dad also had an uncanny ability to connect with children. Kids loved dad. They lit up whenever he was around. They ran up to him and clammered for his attention. And dad never blew them off. He returned their attention fully. He would joke with them on their level, usually evoking laughs but sometimes he got eye rolls in rejection of something that was too corny even for a six year old. He would play with them, get down on all fours with them. And these kids would love every second of it. And dad would love it, too. My cousin Cindi recently shared a story with me like this. My brother and I were only three, so I don’t recall this as vividly, but she remembers it fondly. Her dad had told her that my dad took all the money he won over his career as a Jockey and buried it somewhere in the backyard. When she asked dad about this, dad responded without missing a beat, “Sure it’s true. I never trust banks.” His confirmation sent Cindi, her sister Tina, and us out to spend hours digging holes in the yard in search of these legendary jockey winnings. Cindi recalls digging several holes all around the trees for hours, but finding only a single dollar bill near a bush in the backyard sometime after the sun had set. Cindi is sure that dad buried the dollar just for us kids to find it and finally come inside. She says she thinks of this story often and laughs.
Dad’s sense of humor was epic. He told me about several pranks and practical jokes he pulled on his friends and fellow jockeys, but one stands out to me more than others. At the time dad was living in a small apartment with a friend during a major quarter horse meet in Iowa. The Iowa track had both slot machines and horse racing, so a lot of quarter horse people were spending a lot of time playing the slots. Well, dad somehow figured out that these machines were on a timer, so it didn’t matter how much you played, what mattered was when: certain machines would pay out at certain times during the day. Of course, dad wasn’t going to let anyone know he had figured this out, not without having some fun first. He started small. He would be walking and talking with his roommate near one of these machines at around pay-off time, and dad would stop suddenly and look off into the distance with a blank stare. Then he would say, “Hold on a sec. I gotta do something.” Then calmly walk over to the slot machine and hit a small jackpot, leaving his puzzled friend trying to figure out how he just did it. This routine went on for a while. And his roommate couldn’t figure out the secrete to dad’s success. One day dad found an old wooden nickel, and made sure his roommate saw him tape it above his bed. Then every morning dad would make sure his roommate witnessed him rubbing the wooden nickel for good luck, then hitting a jackpot later in the day. I can only imagine how satisfying it was for dad to finally see his roommate sneak into his room and rub that wooden nickel, so dad could finally tell him the machines were all on timers.
Along with these stories are several seemingly trivial things about dad that I keep remembering. These little things might seem like they don’t matter, but to quote James O’Barr, “Nothing is trivial [when remembering a loved one].” I remember the little hop he had when he would break pool, with that custom pool cue of his. I remember dad’s special ability to take a perfect picture every time. No matter if it was a snapshot, a win pic, or a professional family portrait, dad would flash a perfect movie star smile while the rest of us would be stuck with mouths gaping open and eyes half closed. And I remember how very loudly he sneezed. His sneeze would frighten my friends when they stayed the night. And of course there is that very loud laugh you’d hear when something really got him.
But most of all I remember the type of father he was. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, feed up with the emergence of what he calls the new age, postmodern dad, has this to say about modern fatherhood:
Let’s say there is a small child and a father who wishes to visit a grandmother. The traditional authoritative father will simply say, “We are going. I don’t care if you want to or not, your grandmother loves you, so we are visiting her.” In the same situation, the new age, postmodern dad will say to the child, “I want you to know if that your grandmother loves you and that she is getting older and that means we may not get a chance to see her again. I want you to visit her, but the choice is yours. Only visit her if you really want to.
Of the two, Zizek prefers the more traditional father because he considers the false choice offered by the new age father to be dishonest.
Well, dad was neither of these Fathers. He was neither the authoritative totalitarian nor the manipulative nuisance. He was unconventional as a father, just as he was unconventional in most things. Where a traditional father might parent under the model of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” dad rarely punished my brother and I. When he did, he would sometimes even apologize. More conveniential parents might think that would lead to spoiling children, but something else happened. Instead of trying to mold us into smaller versions of himself, dad let us grow up without having to justify our path to him. I was never made to feel that I had to earn dad’s pride, approval, or love. He gave these freely, and I remember him sticking his head in our room at bedtime to say he loved us and that he was proud of us. He loved us unconditionally. And even though I would sometimes be baffled by what he meant when he said he was proud of us — even though I would wonder to myself, “proud of what? I didn’t do anything special.” I now understand that his pride was given unconditionally, and I could never do anything to lose it.
Dad’s unwavering sense of unconditional love is something that I will continue on to my children because love isn’t something you should never have to earn or worry about losing. Love isn’t a thing you can hold in your hand. Love is free. Dad understood that. I understand that. And I hope my children embrace this lesson too because it is the most important thing I learned from him.
Thank you all for joining us here today.