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In the Wake

Illustration by Tim Bouckley

As a boy I was closest to my mother. I told her all my secrets, all my fears and wishes. But on the weekends our father would pack up his truck and take my brother and me to our cabin in the woods and we would leave our mother behind. The cabin being a place for men. When I confessed to Mom, as an adult, how I sometimes felt bad about leaving her, she said, “That’s okay. You always wanted to be with them.” 

I don’t know what kind of man I am, but I know I am something that’s a cross between my father and my brother, Tim. Those days out in the woods, sitting, watching them, I was trying to learn what being a good man meant. And then later what it meant to be a husband and father. 

Now Tim is gone. The man I knew as my father is, too, for the most part, though his body remains. Three weeks after my brother died of cancer, in 2021, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Tim and I knew it was coming. We talked about it in the last months of his life and I told him, over FaceTime, I needed him to get better because I didn’t think I could deal with our father’s decline by myself. He gave me a wry smile and raised his eyebrows, one of the few indications he ever gave during his nearly three-year-long illness that he knew he wouldn’t survive. But it was a moment of levity in a stretch where we had very little of it. 

All our lives, people remarked about how close Tim and I were. Our relationship was a marvel to them. We grew up in Corbin, Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains off I-75. Our mother was from Korea. It has taken me most of my adult life to understand how that singular difference forged us together, again and again. We were six years apart but it seemed like we were twins who had an unspoken language for how odd we felt in our hometown, for what it was like to carry an anger around in your shoulders at all the shit we put up with, big and small, and then to go out into the world and be diminished again when people found out where you grew up. Tim was the only person who knew what my childhood was like, and I was the only one who knew what his must have been. 

Our parents seemed to impart to us that our job in life was to watch out for each other, and we did. It is not enough to say that I looked up to my brother. I leaned on him well into adulthood, though, when he got sick, I couldn’t help him. I was six hours away. I had my own very young family; my wife, Mary, was in a stressful job; and the demands of modern life are unrelenting. No amount of checking in or FaceTime calls could change the fact that he was getting sicker. At night, unable to sleep, sitting on the couch alone in the dark, I would burst into sobs at what clearly seemed inevitable, imagining life without him, and Mary would rush in from the bedroom where she had been sleeping and take my head in her hands and pull me close. I was determined to not let this happen with our father, as if I had some say in the matter.  

At the onset of Tim’s illness, our daughter had begun showing signs of behavioral issues, and though she had improved, she needed more help. During the pandemic, and six months before Tim would pass, in 2021, we moved to get her into a better school district, which came with bigger homes and higher property taxes. Just as my father had done when Tim and I were boys, I plunged myself into work, constantly pitching stories to my freelance outlets, picking up a position at a low-residency MFA program, all while teaching a full load of classes at the college where I was finally on the tenure-track after several years of stringing together temporary contracts. It felt like I was on a treadmill set to twelve and an incline of ten percent and it felt like that treadmill had been at that pace for years. Stress and grief and worry was a daily cocktail, and now I was reconciling that my father, a man so large and powerful to me when I was a boy, was losing himself.  

Tim died near the end of May. I stayed up every night, unable to stop thinking about my brother and what was happening to our father. I watched every old movie that the three of us had loved, every old movie Dad had taken us to when we were boys. Eventually the fall semester started but the fog lingered.


On the night our daughter was born, after the nurse had taken her from Mary to place her under the warming lights, she began to cry. Mary said to me, “Go with her.” So, I followed. She was an incredibly small baby. Six pounds and not many ounces more. Her little red body writhed in pain and fear and cold. The lights hit her bare skin but she was still shivering and wailing and I said, “It’s okay. Daddy’s here.” And she stopped. She stopped instantly. The nurse said to me, “Keep talking. She knows your voice.” 

We brought her home and those first six weeks were some of the sweetest of my life. I was so in awe of Mary and her strength and love. I kept reliving the moment the nurse put our daughter in her arms and Mary had said with both sweetness and astonishment and unmatched love, “Baby, baby, oh baby.” She brought Mary and me together in a way I could not have thought possible. Life seemed to have a True North in a way it previously did not. 

You make promises to your child long before they even recognize they are human. You make many of these promises to yourself and don’t even tell your spouse about them. You learn about a gear of love you didn’t recognize you were capable of and you learn what real sacrifice and frustration is. You imagine life without your child, all the things you could do or could have done or kept doing had they not arrived into this world. You see your old life as in a rearview mirror, its images and memories quickly getting smaller and indecipherable and the road ahead becoming windier and narrow. And because you’ve never traveled that road—and because it seems so much more fraught now that you’re carrying someone along with you—you lean on your past and try to remember the people who brought you along. 

I don’t recall my father ever saying, “I love you.” I don’t recall him hugging me after I entered high school. But I always knew he loved me. I knew how much my brother and I both mattered to him. I watched Dad struggle with greetings and goodbyes, unsure if he should hug his grown sons, unsure of how to show his affection. After Tim had his own kids, he told me, “I just hug Dad now and don’t let him off the hook.” He wanted his boys to see that. He wanted our father to feel it, but I have never been able to do that with him, worried I might make him uncomfortable. 

Dad was a pragmatic father. He didn’t push us. We had Mom for that. He took his foot off the accelerator and tried to hit the brakes for us when she drove us too hard. He reminded us that common sense and hard work were just as important as being smart. I strive to be a father like him. Even if he wasn’t free with his emotions and even if he didn’t offer a ton of advice, I see I have followed his example from when I was a child, watching him leave for work in the dark and come home in the dark. I saw him grind his days out to give us all the chances and opportunities he never had. My father offered examples, not expectations.  

When Tim’s sons were born, though, I saw my brother scoop them up in hugs and kiss their heads. He coached their basketball games and played video games with them, and I knew I wanted to be that kind of father, too. I wanted to be the best of both of them to my own children. 


I was sixteen and in the car with Dad. We had just gone to the bookstore at the shopping center and Dad has always had this habit of snapping his fingers and pointing at you when he wants to say something important. It’s such a tic that Tim taught his boys how to do it when they were toddlers and then they’d greet me with it when I walked in the door. “Uncle Mike,” Cooper would say with a snap and a point. “How’s it hanging?” Then he would burst into laughter. 

We crested the hill of the shopping center and Dad, one hand on the wheel, turned to me and said, with a snap and a point, “You doing any drinking?” The car had been quiet before this. 

“No,” I said. And it was true.

“Good,” he said. He paused a moment while he made the lefthand turn. “What about T? T doing any drinking?” Tim was in graduate school then and he often told me about his nights out at the bar with his friend Nick.

“I think he goes out and drinks. Not a lot.”

“We’ve got to be careful about that shit,” he said. “Alcoholism runs in our family. My old man was an alcoholic.”

“I know,” I said. I had grown up hearing stories about our grandfather, about how he was sometimes a mean drunk, about how my father had been in fights with him. 

All of this had come from nowhere. Heart-to-hearts were not a hallmark of his. We moved through our little town, headed for home. We passed the banks and fast-food joints and then he turned to me. He snapped, again, pointed his finger, pistol style, once more. “What about dope? You smoking any dope?”

I almost laughed but I knew he was serious. “No.”

“What about T? He smoke dope?”

“I don’t think so.” 

“Let me tell you about that shit,” he said. “You get out every once in a while and smoke that shit, you can have a pretty good time,” he said. “But you smoke that shit every day, that’s no way to live, man.”

I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. We rode in silence a moment more and I asked him, “When’s the last time you smoked dope?”

He lifted his chin in thought, looking to the sky. “I was probably forty-six,” he said. We both laughed. That was only three years ago, I thought to myself.

Dad came from nothing. He had no affection for his father, who was a moonshiner, and an alcoholic himself. He remembered being eight years old when “drunks would burst into the house offering to trade toasters for jars of liquor. We didn’t even have electricity,” he told me. “What were we going to do with a goddamn toaster?” 

Out of this chaotic and unstable history, he created a life for us. In part because he was smart himself and in part because he understood people, had an empathy that belied his own cold upbringing. All his life he has marveled at his good fortune, never ceasing to be amazed at the life he created while at the same time not clearly seeing how much Tim and I admired and loved him. He told my mother once that he didn’t understand why we always wanted to come home to visit them because when he left home, “I never wanted to go back.” 


A middle school gym on a Tuesday in winter might be the saddest place to visit. Only a smattering of parents scattered throughout the stands makes the place feel emptier than it is. From the bench, you can hear the echoes of popcorn being munched, of younger brothers and sisters playing with Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls in the far corners, all noises amplified in the big, cavernous space. It was harder to hide in those kinds of spaces. At one of my seventh-grade basketball games in a nearby town, Mom and Dad were seated near other parents behind our team’s bench, a rarity for them. 

Our coach was a yeller and a screamer. Maximum volume at all times is my memory of it. We had dreaded entering our seventh-grade year for just this reason. The game was close in the final minute: We were ahead, and the opposing team was on the free throw line. Our coach told us not to foul, telling me specifically to ensure I didn’t get an over-the-back call going for the rebound. 

When the boy on the opposing team missed the free throw, I felt sure I could get the rebound without fouling, but I did not. The whistle blew and our coach went berserk. “Mike! Croley! I told you to not foul. What are you doing?” He stomped a foot. The gym came to a hush as he wound up for round two. The Hot Wheels and Barbies stopped in midair. The other middle schoolers in the gym, watching their friends play, stopped their conversations as my coach went after me again. Even louder this time. That’s when I heard the metal supports underneath the wooden bleachers start to maw under the force of a great weight. The heels of my father’s Florsheim shoes sounded like two pieces of lumber being clapped together as he started making his way toward our bench. 

Those who didn’t know my father, who had seen him attend our games for years, knew him to be quiet and reserved. Friendly but not a personality. He said nothing during our games. No shouts of encouragement. No flails of disgust at a bad play. He was a sphinx in the stands and when the game was over, he and my mom were already heading for home by the time we emerged from the locker room. They were not like the other parents who waited around to greet their children. 

“Good job, Mike! Good job! Good hustle,” he shouted. He started clapping his hands together and pumping his fists at me. “That’s okay. That’s good hustle.” He was making his way toward our bench, encouraging and shouting for me in ways I had never heard him do before and that I would never hear again. He stopped behind our bench, the entire gym’s eyes on him, and he crossed his arms and stood. “Keep working hard!” he said once more and gave me another fist pump. Few people knew that under his calm demeanor and professional attire was a man who had stood up to his own father in ways no one should have to. All my life Dad claimed to be a pacifist, but when pushed he’d show flashes of the intense anger that he often kept in check. The fact that he was a big man, thick-chested from nights lifting weights behind our house, underneath the stars, made him an intimidating presence—my coach’s yelling, unnecessary and embarrassing—had lit some sort of emotional fuse I didn’t know he had.  

We won the game on a half-court shot. Everyone rushed into the locker room, relieved, elated. But I was not. I was trying to make sense of my father. 

What he said when I got home that night was that my coach had been an asshole and a bully. That I did the right thing by playing hard. We didn’t talk about it again. I called Tim, who was in college, and told him what Dad had done. He couldn’t believe our father had snapped. 

Tim had been a very good basketball player in high school, but the coach didn’t play him. Our family has always chalked it up to small-town politics and maybe it was that—some parent said something to the coach about our parents and the coach felt he needed to steer clear of us. Maybe that’s true. It doesn’t really matter that much to me anymore but what does matter is that I watched my brother sit behind players who weren’t as good as he was and I couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand it. Mom, most of all, couldn’t stand it and told Tim that if he quit, she would buy him a new car. Any car he wanted. Tim loved basketball too much, though. Couldn’t give it up. Didn’t even want to transfer schools. He simply stuck it out. 

When I was in my twenties, in graduate school, I’d come home for breaks and Dad and I would watch movies and games in the basement. He’d mix himself a drink and we’d settle in for a few hours. One day, he started talking about Tim, about how talented he was. “There was a guy from Clay County that saw him play in a 3-on-3 tournament once and told me Tim was the best basketball player he ever saw,” he said. “That’s a hell of thing to say about someone, isn’t it?” 

“He’s pretty damn good,” I said. 

“He’s so fake-y with the ball. Great ball-handler. Your mother always wanted me to say something to the coaches when you two were in high school, but what good would that have done you guys?” he said. “You’ve got to learn to handle things on your own.” 

I still don’t know if he really meant that or if he was trying to rationalize why he never spoke up. Mom always knew in a town like ours, it didn’t matter if she said anything. “It has to come from your Dad,” she told me. “They won’t listen to a woman.” 


The day before Tim was taken off life support, we went to visit him in the hospital. He was asleep. He was so frail and small. In childhood he had always been one of the smallest kids in the class and on the teams, but he’d grown into a big man, six-foot-three and 240 pounds at his heaviest. Now he was even less than a shell of himself. We took turns holding his hand. I kissed his forehead. He was mildly alert but couldn’t speak. I was crying and he put his hand to my cheek and patted it as if to say, It’s okay. I’m sad, too. My brother was a giant to me, but I saw he was a boy to my parents, their first-born, a remarkably chubby toddler compared to how skinny he would be as a boy and teenager who had openly defied my mother when my father was around. 

I watched my parents and I knew they were not seeing their son but the baby they brought home, the one who upended their lives in all the best ways, in all the hard ways. How could they not remember that little boy who had grown into this very sick man? 

Even in my father’s already diminishing state, he rallied his anger in the car on the way back to Tim’s. He cursed Tim’s high school coaches, the breaks he had not gotten. Perhaps he was lamenting his own silence. It’s not that what happened ever held Tim back, but in the face of Tim’s death, I think Dad was pondering how he could have helped ease his oldest son’s pain and had chosen not to. 

Tim loved watching his own boys with Dad, the way Dad hugged them and picked them up and played with them. He told me once, “That’s a side of Dad I’m unfamiliar with.” He was freer with our children than he was with us. 

My children will grow up with no memories of their uncle and very few of their grandfather. They will hear me talk about them, feel my sadness, but they will not really know the root—or depth—of that sadness or how much I will always need them to help me find my way, how I am always measuring myself against them.

I tried to prepare myself for the loss of my brother and I’m trying to prepare for the loss of my father. I try to tell myself I don’t need their guidance, that I can do this on my own: be a father, a husband, a man. I don’t know if I can do it well, only that I must, and if I’m lucky the days will stack themselves up and in the collective weight of all those days and memories, my wife and our children will say it was enough, that I was there for them to the end.  

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Published: June 6, 2024

Tim Bouckley has made illustrations for the New York Times, POLITICO, the Poetry Foundation, and others. Bouckley won the 2023 Applied Arts Illustration Award for Personal Illustration.