Essay by Beth Harding, Portland State University, 2017. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
I remember a time when I was still oblivious to it. My brother, sister, and I would pile out of the car and race through the parking lot to the store, or up the driveway to the house, never so much as a glance backward. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point I started to take notice, fall back, slow my pace, wait for him.
My dad wasn’t always that slow. He didn’t always have to concentrate so hard to just put one foot in front of the other. Memory has a way of playing tricks on you, but I swear that I can remember him being tall, capable, and strong once. When I was real little he could put me on his shoulders and march me around: I have pictures to prove it. I also have fuzzy memories of family camping trips—him taking us to places like Yosemite, Death Valley, and the California coast. What I remember clearly, though, was him driving to and from work every day in that old flatbed truck with the arc welder strapped to the back, going to fix boilers, whatever those were.
My dad owned his own business; I was always proud of that. I’d tell my friends that he was the boss. Of course, he was the sole employee, aside from my mom who did the books. I didn’t tell them that part. But he did eventually hire a guy named David. My mom said it was to “be his hands.” At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant but I knew that his hands certainly looked different than other people’s, all knotty. And he’d started to use that foam thing that he’d slip over his fork or toothbrush so he could grip it better. I supposed that maybe a new set of hands wasn’t a bad idea.
When I was about 8, he and my mom made a couple of trips to San Francisco to see a special doctor. They said that he’d need several surgeries before they were through, but that they’d start on his knees. I pictured my dad as a robot, all of his joints fused together with nuts and bolts. I wondered if I’d have to oil him, like the tinman. It made me laugh to think about it: bionic dad. That wouldn’t be so bad; maybe I could take him to show and tell. To be honest, I was sometimes a little embarrassed by the way he looked when he came to pick me up at school or my friend’s house. He wore braces in his boots to help him walk, he always moved so slow, and his hands had all those knots that made them curl up like old grapevines. And then there was that dirty old fanny pack he always carried with him because he couldn’t reach his wallet if it was in his pocket. Yeah, bionic dad would be an improvement.
It was around this time that my parents decided to give up the business. That was fine with me; it meant he’d be home all day. Also, his flatbed work truck quickly became our new jungle gym and the stage for many new imaginary games. Maybe it was him not being able to work anymore that finally made it click for me, but I think it was around this time that I started to slow down a bit, wait for him.
He could still drive—he just needed help starting the ignition. But now, once we’d get to where we were going, I’d try not to walk too fast. It had begun to occur to me that maybe walking ahead of him was kind of disrespectful or insensitive. In a way, I think that I just didn’t want him to know that my legs worked better than his. So, I’d help him out of the car, offer to carry his fanny pack, and try to walk casually next to him, as if I’d always kept that pace.
I got pretty good at doing other stuff for him, too; we all did. He couldn’t really reach above shoulder height anymore, so aside from just procuring cereal boxes from high shelves we’d take turns combing his hair, helping him shave, or changing his shirt. I never minded helping out. I had spent so many years being my dad’s shadow and copying him in every aspect that I possibly could; helping him out like this just made me feel useful, like I was finally a worthy sidekick. I pictured Robin combing Batman’s hair. That probably happened from time to time, right?
Once I got to high school, our relationship began to change a bit. I still helped him out, but we had started to grow apart. I now held my own opinions about things, and like most kids in the throes of rebellion, I felt the need to make this known at every chance I got. I rejected his music, politics, TV shows, sports, you name it. Instead of being his shadow we became more like reflections in a mirror; we looked the same, but everything was opposite, and I wasted no opportunity to demonstrate this.
We argued constantly. Once in particular, while fighting about something to do with me not respecting his authority, he came at me with his arms crossed in front of him and shoved me. I was taller than him by this point, and his push felt akin to someone not paying attention and accidentally bumping into me while wandering the aisles at the supermarket. It was nothing. But it was also the first time he’d ever done anything like that, and I was incredulous—eager, even—at the invitation to assert myself physically. I shoved him back. He lost his footing and flailed backwards. If the refrigerator hadn’t been there to catch him he would have fallen. I still remember the wild look in his eyes as he stared at me in disbelief. I felt ashamed of myself, truly ashamed, maybe for the first time ever. I offered no apology, though, just retreated to my room.
VIn those years, with all the arguing, I just thought of my dad as having an angry heart. It seemed that he wasn’t just mad at me: he was mad at the world. But to his credit, as he continued to shrink, as his joints became more fused and his extremities more gnarled, he never complained, and never stopped trying to contribute. And no matter how much of an entitled teenaged brat I was, he never stopped being there when I needed him, so I tried my best to return the favor.
It wasn’t until I moved out of my parents’ house that I was able to really reflect on my dad’s lot in life. His body had started to betray him in his mid-20s and continued to work against him for the rest of his life. He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, the worst case that his specialists had seen, and eventually had surgery on both knees, ankles, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Not that they helped much. He had an Easter-sized basket full of pills he had to take every day. When I was younger I had naively thought that those pills were supposed to help him get better.
But now that I was older I finally realized that their only purpose was to mitigate pain. I decided that if I were him, I’d be pretty pissed off too.
I was 24 and living in Portland the morning that I got the call. I was wrong about his heart being angry. Turned out it was just weak. With all of those pills he took, I should have known that it was only a matter of time before it would give out; I’m pretty sure he did.
When I think back on it, my dad had a lot of reasons to be angry. Aside from he himself being shortchanged, he had us to consider. I know it weighed on him that he couldn’t do normal “dad” stuff with us. And then there was my mom. Their story had started out so wild and perfect, a couple of beautiful longhaired kids that met and fell in love while hitchhiking in Canada. She had moved across the country to marry him. The unfairness that life didn’t go as they’d planned, that she’d be a young widow— these are things I know he thought about. But he never mentioned them. He never complained. He never talked about the pain he was in, even though I know now it was constant. I guess at some point he became like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water. That, or he just made his peace with it somehow.
It took me a long time to find my own peace in his situation. Our situation. I was angry for myself and my family, but mostly I was angry for him. I was pissed that he had to spend the last twenty something years of his life in that prison he called a body. Eventually though, that anger gave way to other feelings. Gratitude, mostly. I don’t think that my dad could have lived a hundred healthy years and taught me the same lessons that I learned from watching him suffer. He taught me about personal sacrifice, the brevity of life, how it can be both a blessing and a curse. All kids are egocentric (I know I definitely was), but he was the first one to make me think outside of myself, without having to ask me to do it. He taught me what compassion and patience looked like. He taught me to slow down.
Teacher take away: This essay uses deft narration. However the mix of simple past tense with simple future situates both the reader and narrator in the past. This means we don’t get across the diegetic gap until the last two paragraphs. It is a good example of weaving however.