ASK A STRAY DAD: DOCTORED LYRICS

Q: So, how was your weekend?

A: On Thursday a doctor in Ruidoso induced my sister-in-law, to try and evict the twins that had been living rent-free in her uterus for the past 9 months. As the Cytotec opened the front door and gave notice that Baby A and Baby B were to vacate the premises ASAP, we drove from Albuquerque to their home in Roswell to fulfill our familial duties—that of moral support, meal-prep, and pet-sitting. Heidi was the one extra visitor allowed in the delivery room, her sister having explicitly and repeatedly asked for her to be there; I think Jamie would’ve chosen my wife over her own husband, given Heidi’s experience in these matters. But P and I, we were going to be shut out, like some snot-nosed, sunburned hoodrats on the wrong side of the gates at a Sandals resort. 

On the way down P put her headphones on and binge-watched Amphibia, and once Heidi and I ran out of ways to complain about our jobs we began to do what we often do on road trips; take a stroll backwards in time through Apple music’s library for the carefully curated greatest hits according to both Heidi’s childhood and her mother—may Judy rest in peace.

This means a lot of Fleetwood Mac and Fleetwood-Mac-Adjacent; first and foremost Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” The rhythmic chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka, chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka of the guitar rolled in like a freight train, and as soon as it was clear that this is what I think it is and not “Eye of the Tiger,” which totally ripped off this guitar bit, I waited for my wife to follow with the vocals. She came in strong and sweet, like she’d just finished an Old-Fashioned. She was on-tempo, on-key—a blessing, but never a guarantee—and sounding exactly like Stevie. Except for one thing. 

“Just like the one-winged dove / Sings a song sounds like she’s singing. Ooh, baby, ooh. Ooh.”

“Wait, did you say ‘ONE-winged dove?”

We are having this conversation over the top of the rest of the song as I narrowly avoid hitting a woman walking in flip flops and a torn blue dress while carrying a plastic Wal-Mart bag along the shoulder of the fast lane on I-40. And someday I would love to know the story of whether that one-winged woman made it home alive. But in that moment we had more important things to attend to. Like getting to the birth of these twins, and hearing how it came to be that Heidi’s been singing the fourth word of one of her favorite songs wrong, hundreds of times, for the last 41 years. Like all good missteps in childhood, this one can be blamed on her mother, who sang one instead of white, and so the kid followed suit. “And you know, there was no internet back then to check the lyrics, so that was the way we sang it.” 

No internet, no. But, you know, an inside album cover or cassette sleeve with all the lyrics printed directly on them, if had anyone bothered…

“You’ve ruined it for me,” she said, though the smile whispered she didn’t mean it. 

“Have I really, now? Or has this made it better? It’s like you and your mom have you own version.” 

“All I know is mine makes more sense. Aren’t all doves’ wings white? I just thought it meant that she couldn’t fly, so she sang instead. Or maybe it was a cry for help.”

We stopped talking for a bit. Surreptitiously I pushed the button on the steering wheel to turn the volume one notch higher. One-winged dove it is. 

Technically, Heidi and Jamie are half-sisters. Pragmatically, Heidi has been raising Jamie since both were kids. Their mom—a bit of a trainwreck in the same way that the Hindenburg was a bit of a blimp accident—departed this earth when Heidi was very early into her 30s and Jamie was just barely learning how to be an adult. But long before then, really from the time Jamie was born, Heidi was looking after her in ways that their mother wasn’t. It didn’t really come as a shock, particularly once we moved within driving distance, that Jamie wanted Heidi to be not just at the hospital when she delivered, but in the delivery room. 

Heidi got the call early Friday morning that Jamie was moving along towards deliverance, at least to a degree that Heidi risked missing the whole thing if she didn’t get in gear and make the 80-minute drive into the mountains. She left P and I with three dogs, a long grocery list, and a borrowed truck, on a 105-degree day in Roswell—a day so hot even the aliens knew better than to be there. Once the fridge was stocked and the dogs were kenneled we headed past an abandoned missile silo and the site of the murder of John H. Tunstall and toward the modestly cooler temperatures of Ruidoso, thinking we might get to see the babies through the hospital window. Thirty miles outside of town Heidi called to let us know that things had taken a turn and they were going to take Jamie in for an emergency C-section. And that Heidi was going to stay. Which is exactly what she did. We killed time at a lake then drove back to Roswell for leftover pizza; Heidi stayed in a hospital to make sure her sister lived through this. 

By the time she got home the chili and teriyaki I’d made were cooling on the counter and the dogs were conked out on the couch. It took Heidi deep into the night to unwind from seeing Jamie go through such an ordeal. But early on Saturday we were off and running to the hospital again, P and I hanging out in the parking lot under a tree while Heidi checked in on her sister, who’d had to have a second surgery to stem some significant internal bleeding. Jamie was so weak and medicated that she couldn’t hold her brand-new babies, let alone give them names, so Heidi held each child in turns until her arms gave out and everyone in the room, including the new mom and dad, were asleep. We swung by a lake afterward to take a dip and cool off before heading back to Roswell, where I made two more dinners, including a double-batch. We ate, we drank, we passed out well past midnight. 

You’d think by the end of two days of doing this Heidi would’ve been eager to stay in bed for the last day before heading to the hospital one last time and then home. Surprise surprise, she got us up dark-and-early instead, bought us Starbucks, then took us on a field trip to Carlsbad Caverns, 100 miles in the opposite direction. Spending that near-silent time together in one of the most spectacularly otherworldly natural settings I’ve ever seen felt like ice cream for my brain; a cooling treat, a reward for, well—what, exactly? All I’d done is cook a couple of meals. Heidi had badgered hospital staff into taking exquisite care of her sister and nieces, keeping all three of them alive and healthy in the process. And of course Jamie’d done even more, pushing until she had nothing left to give and then toughing it out through two surgeries and enough blood loss to make Paul Verhoeven wince. For a guy locked in existential anguish regarding his purpose in life, it sure doesn’t help to be reminded, so easily, of how inessential I truly am. 

On the way home, via the now familiar route to the hospital, we went straight back to the classics of our childhood. This time she even gave me a turn as DJ. We pulled onto I-40 on the outskirts of town as Jon Bon Jovi tried to belt out the chorus only to have Heidi steal the mic. 

“I’m a cowboy / On a stale horse I ride.”

“Aw, come on, seriously? It’s ‘steel.’ He’s talking about a motorcycle.”

“But he says he’s a cowboy. A motorcycle isn’t a horse.”

You’re right. It’s a metaphor.

 “Okay,” I said, “but before we do this again, please explain to me what a stale horse is.” 

“Well old, obviously,” she said. “Or really dry. I always pictured the two of them riding across a desert.”

“The two of them. Bon Jovi. And his stale horse.”

She persisted, undaunted. “I only get song lyrics wrong when it applies to animals.” A long pause while, fingers interlaced near the gear shift, we both consider that. 

Then: “I think maybe I give them an ailment so that they need taking care of.”

“And you’re just the lyricist to do it.”

She smiles, shyly. The seatbelt tightens against her shrugging shoulders. 

If I think too hard about it, my guess would be that her mom was singing as the one-winged dove. And Heidi, even at the age of 6, knew that she was singing it as the person who was going to nurse that wounded bird back to health. Or at least take care of it for the rest of its life. 

That must make me the stale horse.

If only I could be so lucky.

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