Tom Petty, My Dad, and Me

I don't want to say goodbye all over again

I was on the phone when I found out that Tom Petty had been hospitalized.

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My old boss interrupted me. “Oh no. This isn’t good news for you,” he said. For me? My heart was already heavy with the Las Vegas shooting, but so was everyone else’s. What was he talking about?

“Someone just sent me a link,” he said. “Tom Petty’s in cardiac arrest. He’s on life support.”

Now I understood. I was about to break down into full-blown tears, but I stopped myself.

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“People don’t come back from that, do they?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he responded.

I changed the subject back to work, and then to TV shows, and then over to podcasts. I knew what would happen when I hung up the phone. I would have to deal with this.

Tom Petty, although I’ve never met him, feels like a father to me. I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to someone else — my own dad died when I was 10.

It was a tragic goodbye, a slow disappearance as cancer ate away at his throat. It was so traumatic that I didn’t allow myself to think much about him for years after he was gone.

All throughout high school, I kept my grief neatly tucked away. I was a ballet dancer after all, and I looked perfect from every angle. It’s amazing what you don’t have to feel if you just hold on tight enough.

But all that changed when I turned 20.

A few months after my 19th birthday, I was fired from my first professional ballet job. And a year later, after freelance gigs and audition hell, I decided I was giving ballet up for good. But without ballet, I had no clue who I was. Suddenly, I found all my thoughts turned toward my dad.

My dad — the rock n’ roll connoisseur, the life of the party, the guy with a joke always at the ready. He was a rock star at the after-party, just without the guitar.

I Googled him late one night and found a post written by an old girlfriend about a wild night they’d had together. Everyone packed into his VW and headed to a Beatles concert. I hated her. I hated that this woman wrote about my dad like she knew him (a fact, I realized, that would never be true for me).

I remember asking myself questions like: If he was still around, what kind of person would I have become? Would I be spending my nights auditioning for a comedy troupe? Would I have dreams of landing on SNL? Would I be opening for some nobody at the Troubador because my dad had pushed me to learn guitar?

I didn’t have answers to any of these questions, and it killed me.

During my long nights of wondering who the hell I was going to be now that I didn’t have my dad, or my first love, ballet — I did find solace in a new man. His name was Tom Petty.

I traded classical music for classic rock, simply because it reminded me of the side of myself I’d never explored: my dangerous side, my dad side. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers somehow connected me to my dad. He instantly won my heart.

I was new and alone in California, but as I drove around my new city, Tom’s smooth voice sang to me, not just about the highway exits I was literally driving past, but also about me.

I was that American girl standing utterly alone and disappointed with what this world had promised but not delivered. I was that girl who was tired of herself. And I was certainly that good girl at home with a broken heart. And even though I never got into weed, I understood “Last Dance With Mary Jane” to the core of my being.

I was tired of constantly wanting to disappear; to numb the pain away.

Tom Petty told me that even though I was broken and alone, “the future was wide open.” And I believed him.

It was about a month into my new musical obsession when it dawned on me. What if my dad had never even liked Tom Petty? I stopped dead in my tracks, realizing that something I thought bonded us might actually just be my underdeveloped and clichéd taste in classic rock.

Panicked, I picked up the phone. “Mom?” I said flustered. “Did Dad like Tom Petty?” Her brief pause felt like an eternity. She finally answered:

He loved Tom Petty.

Listening to Tom is always like having a conversation with my dad.

Tom and I talk about the time a girl broke his heart and he was having none of it, we talk about first loves, first losses, and the ache of big dreams. He was there for me through it all: first jobs, new apartments, and my college graduation.

Tom was even there the first time a boy told me he loved me. My then-boyfriend took me to see Tom perform live at The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. And somewhere in between “American Girl” and “Something Good Coming,” I heard a small mumble in my ear. “What?” I looked up at him. “I love you,” he whispered. “I love you too,” I said.

Tom was magic that night. At one point, he said, “This one’s for the ladies” and strummed the first chords to “Free Fallin.'” The audience squealed with delight, myself included. As we stood under the starry night sky, I looked up in wonder.

“Miss you, Dad,” I whispered. It was a small beat. And then I returned to the song.

Tonight, I stand on my apartment balcony and look up at this specific California sky — the one Tom taught me to love — and I find myself once again in wonder. “Miss you,” I whisper. Whether it’s to Tom or to my dad, or both, I’m not sure. But it really doesn’t matter.

Because I’ll miss them both, always.

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Skylar Harrison
Skylar Harrison

Skylar is both word and food obsessed and once cried over spilt guacamole. And no, she doesn't want to talk about it. Follow her at @skylarharrison.