My father’s hands
When I think of my father, I remember his hands. Liver-spotted and dexterous, hands that tied flies and built wooden toys for children at Christmas. Those hands that palmed my chest and stomach when I learned to swim now cannot break free of the bed rails—or of the esophageal cancer that slowly strangles him.
It is late March 2006, and the nurse has tied my father’s hands to steel bed rails so that in his morphine-induced state he won’t pull out his IV. Needle pricks from three weeks in the hospital have left the backs of his hands bruised and yellowed. I look at his hands and remember how strong they used to be, how so many things I know how to do came from watching his hands.
My father was a teacher. Not by trade but by nature. He understood the catchphrase “teachable moment” better than most educators.
I am 5 or 6, freezing in an ice shack on the Kennebec River, smelts sizzling in a frying pan close by. His hands busy tying flies, he says, “You should help one person each day.”
Years later, in the front yard, with a rake in his hand, he tells me, “Marry your best friend, son. That’s what I did.”
The lectures didn’t end when I grew up, either. I even looked forward to his monthly phone calls, sure to find a lesson somewhere. He would make sure I was replacing the windows the right way, or make sure I was not turning into “one of those awful Little League parents.” I would groan, “Dad, I’m 35.” “And you still need a lecture,” he’d say. “Sad, isn’t it?”
His most important lesson didn’t come as a lecture. My sister and I stand in the hallway awaiting Dad’s return from the X-ray lab. They have taken him off the ventilator to see if the mechanical breathing apparatus allowed his lungs to rest and heal to where he can breathe on his own. We are praying for a miracle. At the sound of a bed coming toward us, wheels grinding dully, we look up. Dad raises his hand, and the nurse stops pushing the bed.
My chest gets tighter when I look down at him. He is bald, his eyes sunken. A month earlier, my daughters, ages 8 and 5, did not immediately recognize him.
“How are you doing?” As stupid as that question is, I can think of nothing else.
“It could be worse,” he says.
“It could be worse?” I repeat. “Dad, how the hell could this get any worse?”
“There was a little girl from the children’s cancer floor coming out of X-ray when I went in,” he says simply. “Looked like my granddaughter. That would be worse.”
I will sit with Dad during his final night, the distance between him and me widening like gaps between his final sandpaper breaths. At 7 a.m. the nurse will say the obvious, and I will look toward the ceiling as if watching Dad drive away after visiting his grandchildren. Only this time there will be no wave, just a disjointed feeling of permanence.
I believe dignity may be the most challenging attribute a parent can pass on to a child—dying with it, even more so. When the nurse wheels the bed away, Dad’s hands are no longer tied down. Now they are folded peacefully across his chest.
—John R. Corrigan
The letter in my locker
I wrote a letter to my kids a few years ago. It’s three pages long, and it sums up what I’ve learned in four decades of life. My kids are too young to understand now, but by the time they reach adulthood, they will have heard most of the advice in that letter: Live in the moment, do not attach yourself to physical things, treat others the way you would like to be treated, find happiness in the service of others, make the most out of today, follow your dreams, don’t take yourself too seriously, be aware that there are hypocrites and manipulators in the world, et cetera.
I sealed the letter in a plain white envelope and wrote instructions not to open it unless something horrible happened to me. A Marvin the Martian magnet holds it to the side of my musty gray metal locker at work. It is surrounded by police uniforms, spare change, “tribute of mourning” ribbons for my badge (to honor fallen colleagues), pictures of my kids, “The Far Side” cartoons, poems, scraps of paper with handwritten notes, business cards, dust, and lint—remnants of almost 20 years of serving others.
As a police officer, I’ve seen life snuffed out or irrevocably changed in an instant. I realize that could happen to me at any time. Yet knowing that letter is there in my locker makes me more comfortable with my own mortality. If something does happen to me, my children will get that letter. In it, they will read about my love for them and about the advice that I want to pass on to them when they are old enough to understand it.
Every day, when I open my locker, I see the letter. It reminds me to be careful at work, and to show my children and the people I come into contact with that I truly understand and practice everything I’ve written. If that day comes and my children finally read the letter, I hope that because of my actions, they will take my written beliefs to heart and improve upon my example.
But for me, it’s not enough to write down my beliefs. I try to be the best person I can be every day—even in very difficult circumstances, even with offensive people. I’m more successful some days than others. I curse too much, sometimes I’m cynical, and I don’t go to church as often as I should. I also get depressed, yell at my kids occasionally, and sometimes I’m not as loving or as compassionate as I should be. In fact, I am far from perfect, but I hope my children will eventually realize that perfection is an illusion. What really matters is that, instead of just writing about our beliefs, we all take action to be the best humans we can be.
My father’s lectures
My father wasn’t a spanker, a shouter, a poker, or a grounder. He was a lecturer. When he really got into it, I swear he channeled another dimension, some celestial debating hall in which Pericles and William James present their cases before a council of mathematicians, with the legendary Rabbi Hillel presiding. His timing was brilliant, too. When I got a C in math, he waited to give me The Talk until we were in a moving car, so that I had nowhere to run. Of course, it wasn’t a confrontation at all, and how much easier a confrontation would have been than the reasoned interlocution that ensued.
When I want to convey my admiration of him, I tell a true story of a lecture so short it barely deserves the title. I came home from middle school and mentioned that one of the few black kids on the playground got picked on that day. I’d even heard the N-word for the first time. Dad asked if I told a teacher, and I said no, I was just glad they weren’t picking on me.
“No,” he said. And his voice was soft; this was different. “Do your homework” this was not. “Whenever you hear ‘nigger,’ hear ‘dirty Jew.’ Whenever you hear ‘spic,’ or ‘fag,’ or ‘dyke,’ hear ‘dirty Jew.’ And take it personally.”
Those words have had an enormous impact on me. They have helped to define the person I strive to become. And so they have become the go-to story, the story of a simple lecture of justice and moral clarity.
But over the years I have come to appreciate the longer lectures too, those knots of on-the-one-hands and on-the-others I so hated as an adolescent. But nowadays, I mostly find myself shaped by convoluted auxiliary points, by caveats and nuances. Like my father, I have become a collector of alternative angles, finding sanity in interminable deliberation.
Dad doesn’t care about my old math grades anymore. In truth, I’m not sure he ever did. It was the process he was pressing into my mind, the process of living as an impromptu lecture. I believe in dissecting consequences, analyzing obstacles, considering possibilities, making a plan—and doing it all now, in the moving car, without notes or preparations, whether you like it or not—because life isn’t as easy as getting grounded or spanked, and there’s an awful lot we have to talk through.
The dads we are given
My dad did not contribute physically to my creation. I was adopted when I was 3 months old. He did not want me at first. He told my mom he was not comfortable taking on somebody else’s kid. He felt tremendous guilt because a genetic condition rendered him sterile and unable to give my mother the children they both so deeply desired.
My dad finished high school and apprenticed in a machine shop at the Washington Navy Yard. When I was in elementary school he transferred to the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he made parts for the moon buggy and the Hubble space telescope. He was a hard worker.
After the idea of being an adoptive father took root, he was a great dad. He chatted with everyone, a trait that caused me great embarrassment when I was a teenager. He would strike up conversations in line at the grocery store, in the seats at the movie theater, and at all the campgrounds we ever frequented. Once, while we were visiting a small airport, my dad talked a local pilot into giving me a ride in his airplane. I am amazed that he trusted a complete stranger enough to let me go, but he did. He never said “no” when I tested my own wings, whether somersaulting on the front lawn or taking off in the family station wagon to go to college four states away.
Then there was the time our next door neighbor’s house caught fire. My brother (who is also adopted) saw the flames and woke him. Dad told my mom to call the fire department, and then he went next door to help. He opened the front door and called out. Our neighbor answered, but Dad could not see her because of the thick smoke. So Dad stretched out on the floor with his feet hooked on the door frame and kept calling to her to come toward his voice. Eventually he felt her hand and pulled her out of the burning, smoke-filled home. He stayed to assist the firemen when they came, and only after my mom pointed out that he was only wearing his skivvies did he go home.
My dad fixed things. He fixed the car when it broke down. He repaired the hot water heater when it stopped making hot water. He kissed skinned knees and mended the skateboards that caused them. I don’t remember anything he couldn’t fix except maybe his own appetite for good food, and the brain-stem stroke that took him in his 64th year.
As I said good-bye to him in the neurology ICU, I told him that I loved him. I told him that I didn’t need to find my “real parents” because he and Mom were my real parents. I thanked him for being my dad.
—Kathy Wells McMenamin
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From This I Believe: On Fatherhood, edited by Dan Gediman. ©2011 by This I Believe, Inc.
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