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Dad, I Know You're Trying

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John? It’s Dave.

John drew a blank for a long moment, and almost asked for a last name, which was a testament to how long it had been since he’d last spoken to his brother.

Dave Sheppard, who’d grown from an impish little boy to a man while John was away at college, and then away with the Air Force, rarely checking in to see how his little brother’s life was going. Dave, who had a wife John had met a total of three times (he’d been deployed when they got married), and two daughters that John had never met at all.

“Hey,” John said cautiously. He had no idea what Dave could possibly want.

I’m going to be delayed getting there, and I wanted to make sure there’d be someone with Dad at the hospital.

It felt like John had come into the middle of a conversation, where he was supposed to know what was being discussed but in reality had no clue. Why would his father be in the hospital? Why one so far from home?

John?

“What’s this about?”

There was a gusty sigh from Dave’s end. He said he told you.

“Told me what?”

John had been meaning to call his dad after that last conversation they’d had at Red’s, but he just hadn’t gotten around to it. There’d been the McKay family drama to deal with, and midterm exams for his students, and a thousand other excuses to put off another awkward and emotionally fraught, conversation.

Dad’s having heart surgery tomorrow. It’s a risky procedure, which is why he came out there.

Right. St. Sebastian’s Medical College was always advertising their state-of-the-art cardiac facility on the television. Of course Patrick Sheppard would choose the best hospital to get his surgery done.

Was that why he was trying to make amends? Because he thought he might die? John’s stomach twisted.

Look. I know it’s a big ask, and it’s coming out of left field, but can you be there? It’s really important to me.

A big ask. To be there for his father, whose life was at risk. John felt like an asshole.

“I’ll be there.”

Thanks. You can call or text me at this number if anything comes up. I should be able to get there tomorrow evening. Dad’s surgery is scheduled for seven in the morning.

Dave rattled off the rest of the pertinent information, and John committed it to memory.

See you tomorrow, Dave said before he hung up.

“I’ll be there,” John repeated, though there wasn’t anyone there to hear.

*o*o*o*

It was late, but John couldn’t sleep. He had too much on his mind, so he’d slipped out of bed and gone into the living room with his mother’s old guitar. He left the lights off as he sat on the couch and strummed random chords, until they stopped being random and became an actual song. G, D, C, A minor 7th. Soft and slow and a little bit sad.

He wasn’t really paying attention to what he was playing, until he heard Rodney signing softly from the doorway. Rodney almost never sang.

“’How can I try to explain,
When I do he turns away again
It’s always been the same, same old story
From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.’”

John stopped playing. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Something on your mind, Sheppard?”

Rodney joined him on the couch. He was wearing one of John’s old USAF t-shirts and a pair of Captain America boxers.

John ran his fingers up and down the strings, making them whine. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.”

“I don’t think there’s a rule book for this sort of thing.”

John sighed. “I hate this. I suck at the emotional stuff.”

Rodney made a derisive noise. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard you say.”

John just shrugged. He knew what he knew. His mom had been the emotional one, never afraid to express herself no matter what she was feeling. She laughed, she cried, she screamed and shouted. Patrick Sheppard, on the other hand, only ever expressed one emotion: disappointment.

He may have had the King family features, but John was a Sheppard through and through.

Rodney nudged John with his shoulder. “I don’t know what’s going on in that spiky head of yours, but I’m sure it’s wrong. I’ve heard you sing. I’ve seen you with Madison. Hell, you’ve been there for me every time I’ve needed you. You do the emotional stuff just fine.”

John ducked his head, embarrassed. And maybe a little pleased.

“You’re not exactly objective,” he pointed out.

“And you’re not made of stone,” Rodney shot back. “Here’s a newsflash you might not want to hear – neither is your father.”

“You met him once.”

“I made a snap decision about you and look how well that turned out.”

John huffed out a laugh. He set the guitar aside and leaned against Rodney, stealing a kiss. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

“I don’t appreciate that comparison.”

Rodney wrapped his arms around John and gave him a proper kiss. John melted into it, and he was grateful for so many things, chief amongst them the knowledge that Rodney wouldn’t ask John to talk about his relationship with his father. Or anything else that John wasn’t willing to freely give.

“It’s late,” Rodney murmured. “Let’s get back to bed.”

“About tomorrow.”

Rodney got up and pulled John with him. “Never mind about tomorrow. I’m coming. That’s what we do, right? You’re there for me, I’m there for you. And it’s my turn.”

“Didn’t realize we were keeping score.”

“I’m always keeping score.”

They got back into bed, and John curled up next to Rodney, unabashedly cuddling. He was still worried about going to the hospital and seeing his father, but it was comforting to know he wouldn’t be doing it alone.

“Who’s winning?” John asked sleepily.

“It’s a tie.”

*o*o*o*

“I’ll be right out here,” Rodney said. The bank of chairs was down the hall from John’s father’s room, easily visible from the door.

“Thanks.” John gave him a quick kiss.

Rodney settled in with his tablet and an oversized cup of coffee. “Text me if you need me.”

John was grateful for the support. He and Rodney were both taking a day from work so John could be there. Even if his dad didn’t want him to be, and there was only one way to find out.

He knocked on the door before going in. He wasn’t prepared to see his father in the hospital bed, hooked up to a heart monitor and wearing a hospital-issue gown that was open to show his bare chest. Patrick Sheppard had always seemed so…big. Imposing. And now he seemed diminished somehow.

Or maybe John was finally seeing him as he actually was.

“John? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Good morning to you, too, Dad.” John sat on the edge of the empty bed next to his dad’s. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He wished that had come out sounding angrier and less like his feelings had been hurt.

“I didn’t think you’d be interested,” Patrick said. “Did your brother call you?”

“You should’ve told me.”

“You were preoccupied.”

Now it was Patrick that sounded like the petulant little boy, and John felt it like a physical blow. Because he was right. His dad had been reaching out to him and John had blown him off. More than once.

“Thank you,” John said. Something else he’d put off doing. “For helping Rodney and Jeannie. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I only ever wanted what was best for you, son,” Patrick replied. “Even if I did it all wrong.”

Jesus. They were really doing this. John didn’t know if he was ready to bare his soul to his father, to lay out all the past hurts and catalogue them one by one. That wasn’t the Sheppard way of doing things. Was it only the risk of the impending surgery that was making Patrick so bold?

“Dad –”

“Let me have my say, John. Please.” Patrick waited for John to nod his agreement. “It was wrong, the way I handled things after your mother died. She wasn’t ever really mine. She belonged to the music, and the people who traveled in that circle with her. And you could’ve easily been part of that. I would have lost you, too, but I understand now that I never really had you either. You have too much spirit to contain in a suit or a boardroom or an ordinary life.”

John crossed his arms and tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. His father had never spoken to him like that his entire life, and it made him feel unaccountably guilty even though he’d done nothing wrong.

“I thought you hated her,” he said, eyes burning.

“I’ve never loved anyone more, before or since.” Patrick looked down at his hands. “We never made sense, Grace and I. Opposites in almost every way. She couldn’t stay, and I couldn’t go. All I had was you. Your brother. The pieces of her that shone out of each of you. I thought I could protect you from the world, but I was just being selfish.”

John remembered the pain of it like it was yesterday. After his mother’s funeral, after the last mourner had gone home, he’d realized that all of her things were gone. Like she’d never been there at all. Like she’d died a second death. Years later he’d found some boxes in the carriage house. The Lush Summer album, and pictures of Grace and John with other famous musicians. Her guitar. He’d snuck them out and put them in a storage unit until he got out of the Air Force.

A song floated through his head, a melancholy ode to fathers and sons.

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears

That song ended without any real resolution, because the father died before he and his son could find common ground. Was that going to happen to him, too? Had he waited too long?

“I guess they call that a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Patrick said. “I tried so hard to hold on to you that I ended up pushing you away.”

“You never said anything.”

“I didn’t know how.”

John brushed impatiently at his eyes. “Why now? You want to unburden yourself because of the surgery?”

Patrick sighed. “I know how it looks. Truth is I’ve been wanting to have this talk with you for a couple years now. Did you know I’m in therapy? It’s helped me see a lot of what I did wrong, and what I can do to try and make it right.”

Therapy? Patrick Sheppard? For just a moment John felt like the floor was tilting under his feet. He realized he knew as little about his father as his father knew about him. And for the first time in a long time he wished that wasn’t how things were between them.

“You’re a good man, John. I’m proud of the life you’ve made for yourself.”

That shouldn’t have meant anything, because John didn’t need or want anyone’s approval. Except maybe he did. Maybe that’s all he’d ever wanted from his father, the acknowledgement that he’d done okay. That he wasn’t a fuck-up even though he hadn’t gone down the road Patrick Sheppard had laid out for him.

The door to the room opened and a nurse came in with an orderly. John hastily wiped the wetness from his cheeks. “Mr. Sheppard, it’s time to move you to the OR.”

Patrick nodded, and John could see it now. The fear he was trying to hide. Without even thinking, John moved to the side of the bed and put his hand over his father’s.

“I’ll be here when you come out,” he said. “We can talk more then.”

Patrick squeezed his hand, and his eyes were full of tears too. “I’d like that.”

John watched as his father was wheeled out of the room and hoped it wasn’t too late for them.

*o*o*o*

“And then he jumped. Missed the rope by a mile. He broke his arm and I about had a heart attack.”

Rodney snorted. “I’m so glad Madison is a girl.”

“Girls are no picnic,” Dave said solemnly.

“I bet it looked awesome, though,” John said in his own defense. Wearing a cast all that summer had put a serious damper on his heroic flights of fancy.

“Don’t feel bad for him,” Dave said. “All the girls in the neighborhood were swooning over the poor injured hero.”

They all laughed, and to John it was still so new and so surreal, to be sitting in a room with his father and his brother and Rodney.

The old hurts hadn’t gone away, but they’d lessened. John tried to put himself in his father’s shoes, tried to understand why he’d done the things he had. Why he’d been so strict and distant and unyielding. Patrick Sheppard was a changed man, and John figured it was time he tried to do the same.

“You going right home once they cut you loose?” John asked. Patrick’s surgeon was keeping him two more days, for a total of ten, just to be cautious.

“I thought I might stick around a while. I’m retired now, plenty of free time.”

John tried not to show how pleased he was that his dad was going to be staying, because old habits died hard. But the exasperated look Rodney was giving him said he wasn’t fooled.

“Me, too,” Dave said. “I haven’t heard my big brother play in a long time.”

“He’s headlining at Red’s on Saturdays,” Rodney said. “If you don’t mind sawdust and cowboy hats.”

“You should come to The Blue Lily, too.” John nudged Rodney with his shoulder. “McKay’s the piano player you wanted me to be, Dad.”

“I’d really like that,” Patrick said, which made Rodney blush.

John was ready to take a chance on his family again, while there was still time.