Ohio, you were welcoming and disregarding, eye opening, life changing, terrifying, and downright cold.
As many of you already know, my step father, Wayne, had a heart attack the night after Christmas. Wayne is the inspiration behind a significant chunk of my material. The stories of his infamous cough and knee-buckling handshake have brought many of you to see me after shows. Sharing similar stories about your parents and grandparents, Wayne really connected with fans. His stories brought me closer to many of you. I've joked of him being a "robo-hobo" around the house, but the idea that he could be taken from me so suddenly really never crossed my mind...
Following the heart attack, he was rushed to Marion General Hospital where he suffered a stroke the next morning. Several hours later, he was life lined to a larger hospital in Columbus where they removed another clot, and we thought the worst part might be over. He was unable to move anything on the left side of his body, but his mind was sharp, and he'd communicate with a head shake or a hand squeeze.
I was doing shows in Las Vegas when I got the initial news.
It felt like a scene out of movie. I was on the phone listening to this detrimental news while overlooking the Vegas strip from my 38th floor penthouse suite window. I felt like a fraud. I felt guilty -- here was a man who invested a lifetime of work to provide for his family, and now he was laying in a hospital bed hooked up to machines. Meanwhile I was draining the water from my spa tub. I mean, Wayne still had a job at the age of 72. Seventy-two years of work. And this was his reward?
Not only did I want to fly home right away, I wanted to switch places with him. I wanted to go back in time and take advantage of every moment I had with him without my typical distractions. I wished I'd found more opportunities to spoil him and bring him on the road with me. I was faced with years of squandered chances and regrets, and it was crushing me.
We were told by numerous medical professionals that his post-stroke condition was normal, and they were confident he'd improve. We kept hearing that it would be a long road to recovery, but he's showing good signs, and we should "remain positive."
So I stayed in Vegas.
I was due in Louisville, Kentucky the day after I finished shows on the strip. I flew in with the plan drive my rental car to see the family each night after shows. Unfortunately, the weather had different, polar-vortex, plans. Because of the tundra and dangerous road conditions, I only made it up once. I drove through the night to be able to spend the next day with Wayne.
Nothing prepares you to see someone you love in that condition. Nothing.
Every breath was a struggle, and the rest of his energy focused on trying to flutter his eyes open for brief glimpses. Each flutter revealed a struggle to focus. His eyes would tumble around till they found the ceiling tiles, struggling to stay open. He couldn't close his mouth--a cruel irony. His mouth sat there awaiting words that no amount of force or coaxing would make come.I grabbed his hand, and mom let him know I was there. He tried to speak to me several times but only groans of words came out of his body.
A surreal feeling creeped into my bones as flashbacks of him in better health and better times played in my mind. When Wayne came into my family's lives, he fit instantly. We developed a playful relationship of pranks and joking around. His favorite pranks required an audience. Whenever my friends visited the house, Wayne would appear in the room with the swagger of a wild west gunslinger, shoot out his hand and look me dead in the eye.
"Kiss my shoes, boy," he'd say with arm outstretched for a handshake.
And me, in my 15-year-old cockiness, thought that I could handle it, every time. And every time Wayne would find the pressure point in my hand and watch my knees buckle as I went to the ground to a roar of laughter and cheers from my friends.
After his attempts to speak to me failed, my mom leaned over his hospital bed and whispered, "Make him kiss your shoes, Wayne."
I watched a corner of his mouth start to curl as he squeezed as hard as he could. His hands were frail but rough--tarnished is a better way to put it. I could feel every manual labor job he ever had in the wrinkles and creases in those old mitts.
Mom narrated our last joke, "Oh you got him Wayne! He's going down--he's down! You still got it, babe!"
Wayne died while I was flying back to Los Angeles two days later.
I found out he passed away at the beginning of what became a nine-hour layover at the Denver airport...more thanks to the Polar Vortex. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to be alone with my emotions. I just had to act like everything was fine and that it was just another travel day.
This is not the first time I've lost a father figure, but if I'm honest, it is the first time I lost a dad.
Wayne took up a role in my life that I don't believe my biological father could ever have filled even if he'd lived past my 11th birthday. Facing the death of Wayne revived memories of losing my biological father and ignited a lot of reflection and a deeper curiosity about both men, their lives, personalities and how they molded me. During the two weeks I was home for the funeral, I learned more and found a deeper understanding of these two strikingly contrasting men - my father, and my dad. Two completely different people, with completely different outlooks, habits and ways of life -- but I needed both of them, the good and the bad parts of both to shape me into who I am and what I will become.
I found a quote that I felt was very fitting and that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
It's a simple enough phrase, but powerful and calming. Even though Wayne isn't physically here anymore, his memory, love and life lessons will always have a place in my heart.
It was good to be home, I just wish it was under better circumstances. I know it's selfish because there are so many people hurting much worse than I am, but I just wasn't ready to lose a parent...I don't believe you ever are.
During the layover that wouldn't end followed by the reality of death, the support of my friends and fans has been nothing short of overwhelming. I am so grateful to every single one of you. I was inundated by emails, messages, posts, tweets, comments, texts and ridiculous generosity, and if I haven't properly thanked you yet, please know that every single outreach touched me deeply.