The 18th of October was the first night it got cold this year. Cold enough to frost. Cold enough to kill the remnants of the basil plants in the pot on my deck. I was at a community meeting around 7:30 at night when Renee sent me a text:
The heater won’t come on.
HVAC problems worry me. They are expensive. They require tools I do not have, tools that are expensive and that I will rarely use otherwise. And it requires specialized knowledge I won’t use elsewhere. So I end up paying someone else to do it, and can’t know if they are doing it right or not, or ripping me off or not.
When I was growing up, Dad was an HVAC technician. He worked for a propane company that sold furnaces, and he spent most of his hours crawling under people’s houses if he was lucky or in their attics if he were not. He always wore a blue work shirt, with the shirt pockets bulging with papers, small screwdrivers, a dial thermometer, and a penlight. The tuft of chest hair poking over the top button, the trucker’s cap on his head. Small me would wrestle with him on the floor, and he would amuse me to no end by making his pupils dilate with his penlight.
Dad eventually went into management, and then in my late teens, left that field to go into Emergency Management professionally. But he kept his tools and his licenses, and so he was the person everyone called when there was a problem with their air or heat. This side hustle bought our Christmas presents most years, paid for trips otherwise out of reach, and I’m pretty sure made my getting my class ring possible my senior year.
Dad and I both could work on cars. We both knew how to build buildings and make furniture. But only Dad could do HVAC work. It was magic.
If your car’s AC was running hot, he would bring his gauges and his tank of coolant the next time he came over. On holidays, his opinion was sought on noises the furnace was making. The last time he was at my house, I sought his advice on moving the condensing unit so we could put add another deck. Once, he troubleshot and fixed my AC in North Carolina over the phone from North Mississippi.
But Dad’s gone now, and so when the heater doesn’t work, you take your chances with somebody a friend recommends, and you hope they are honest and hope they are competent, and you realize, once again, how you are more alone in the world than you had expected to be at your age.
Today is the second anniversary of the last time I heard my daddy’s voice talking to me. The last time I heard him call me “Son.” It was the day he told me how tired he was, the day he told me he needed to hurry up and get better because the EMS folks needed him to do his job so that they could do theirs.
I told him I was worried I would call when he was sleeping.
“Son, these days, it feels like I am always sleeping. I’m tired of being tired.”
Dad died 48 hours later from COVID, contracted in the line of duty. Sometime around 1 PM, two years from the day after tomorrow.
Today, on the two-year anniversary of the last time I heard Dad’s voice, I had an HVAC repairman in my house. He is honest, forthright, and competent. He’s done minor things for me over the last two years and was originally recommended by a friend. I like that he is a one-man operation. I like that when I pay him, that exact money feeds his family and pays for his kid’s school, just like Dad’s customers paid for my high school trips. I like that he doesn’t sugarcoat things.
But the work, while competent, doesn’t seem like magic when he does it. And it’s just another reminder that I am more alone in the world than I thought I would be at this age.