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The Drive Home Tapes - Essay Series (Part 1 of 4)

We just wrapped up a stakeout on a case I didn’t want to be on. It was my case, my father told me, but he’d still be there. I nodded. I just wanted it to be over, whatever it was we were doing. Dad asked for something to drink. All I had was faucet water and he sipped some.

But something was off. Why was I on a stakeout with my dad? And why were we in a dingy, white 1980s Camaro somewhere in New York City? And if we were on surveillance, why were we facing a brick wall with our headlights blaring?

As this scripted scene spun, unraveling — I suddenly I got selfish. I broke from the narrative of my dreamcast character, and I just hugged him. Just a big bear hug that I wouldn’t let up from. A hug like I never remembered hugging my father before. This was my siege and hack, my Shanghai of a dreamt omniscience I was supposed to only passively view. Even he looked surprised.

I want to say he was here. That he reacted. That we shared in a moment, briefly, together again. It felt like he was with me, in the twilight instant before snapping awake at 5:24 this morning. Except he’s been dead now for more than 20 years.

So then, there it is. Back in reality. I’m alone and waking, aware now I hadn’t just been with my dad, except in my head. My wife claims she’s never seen me cry. I can’t imagine how that’s possible. Well, here it is, babe, and you missed it, with tears streaming down, all slobber and snot and me audibly bawling. My heart still skips as I replay the scene and the hug and his look of surprise. But please — don’t tell me it was a vision or a visit or that I just got God’s jolt of religion. As far as that goes, let’s just say we’re estranged.

I used to have a rambling prayer I would say since I was little. We weren’t really religious, but I still used to pray, alone, before bed. It became my silent kiss-up to God, the most I could do to ward off the looming grey wall I faced — of everything in the world I thought could go wrong:

Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Amen. God bless Mom and Dad and Joel and Grandma and Grandpa and everyone I love. Let them live long and healthy happy lives. I pray that they don’t get into an accident. Thank you for my health. I pray that I get big and strong and don’t lose my looks. Let me live a long and healthy happy life. I pray that I don’t lose my legs or eyes or end up paralyzed somehow. Thank you. Amen.

That was me, the realist and the hopeful cynic. I tried navigating passage through life this way, in our causally skeptical police family. And I found I held hope sometimes by just a thin tether.

Nightly, I repeated my prayer, adding different ideations of the same bleak theme. Basketball tryouts, meeting girls and other vital things made their way in. I continued my devout bedtime thoughts, even after Grandma died of cancer when I was in junior high. I kept up hope through high school on my odyssey to become a basketball star, what manifested instead into a spiraling masochism of bench sitting and team cuts and bench sitting again. Whatever the struggle — dating, college exams, career turns — after fall after stumble, I still carried on. And quietly, I kept praying.

But everyone breaks. I did in my mid-twenties. A long and healthy, happy life — it was the cornerstone of every prayer, since the beginning. Instead — Dad was dead of a heart attack at 53. I stopped praying after that. I don’t count the anger I saved for God before bed.

(Tune in next week at for Part 2 of 4)


Jason James, a native of East Lyme, Connecticut, is an award-winning essayist and journalist, focussing on experiential nonfiction. He previously served as a police officer and as a DEA Special Agent.

In off-hours, Jason studies Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. He lives with his family in Southern California. Follow his work at and on


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