Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.

A Final Flood of Colors

photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger

     

photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger

 

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
~Clive James from “Japanese Maple”

 

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Following His Broad Shadow

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
~Seamus Heaney from “Follower”

My father did grow up plowing with horses, and hated every minute of it.  He was overjoyed to one day be able to afford a tractor, and although it was only a little Farmall Cub (in one of the photos below), it teamed up with my dad to do remarkable things.

I’m telling this story again as my Father’s Day tradition since it says a lot about who my dad was, but even more so, it explains much about who I have become having grown up in his shadow.

My father departed this soil twenty years ago, having completed umpteen “projects” in his spare time and leaving just a few unfinished.  This was undoubtedly the most remarkable.   He dove right in to whatever he decided to accomplish and his Farmall tractor was often part of the plan.

These photos chronicle my father’s 1968 backyard project.   This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his desk job and then consumed most of his weekend waking hours.  He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished.

He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands.  He did use his little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full.   He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the graceful curves. The cement was poured by a cement truck, but the sidewalks were all self-mixed in our own little cement mixer that ran off a small engine.  The tile that lined the top of the pool was all hand grouted and placed, square by square.  The pumphouse/changing room was built alongside.

I was 14 that summer, not truly understanding how extraordinary an effort this was, but simply accepting it as another “dad” project like any other he finished through sheer will, stubbornness and a desire to go on to the next challenge.   Now, 46 years later,  as an adult who is plum tired at the end of an office/clinic work day, I marvel at his energy putting in another four or five hours of physical labor when he came home at night.  No wonder he never suffered from insomnia.

Once the pool was declared finished, a hose ran water for several days, and it took 2 more days to heat it up to a temperature that was survivable.  Then my dad took the first dive in.

Once he had taken that first dive, he was happy.  He swam every once in awhile, but was soon onto another project (reconstructing a steel walled gas station that arrived on our farm in piles of panels on the back of a flat bed truck, so that he could have a full size “shop” to work on indoor projects during the winter).  It was sufficient for him to just to be able to say he had done it himself.

So as I study the look on my father’s face in these photos, I am startled to see my self looking back at me, like a reflection in the water.  I now realize determination and utter stubbornness manifest in different ways.  I have no mechanical skills whatsoever,  but like my father,  I always have a dream I’m pursuing, and I follow his broad shadow in that pursuit.

Thanks to my dad for showing me how to dive right into life and not waste a moment of it.  The water’s still fine.

What I Nearly Said

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‘Hold on,’ she said, ‘I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.’

                                               So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also…

                                         Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums…

And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
~Seamus Heaney  “A Call”

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