Next week’s Courier Herald column:
I miss my dad every day. Some days more than others. Today is one of those days.
Like most sons, I found my father to be a larger than life figure. He could fix anything. He could protect me from anything. He was often unconventional, but he was direct, pragmatic, and firm. He had clear lines of right and wrong. He had a stiff spine. He was significantly more concerned about being right rather than being liked.
He would give up his own time and his limited financial resources for good causes. And, above all, he protected his family as he prepared us to take on a world that he knew to offer unlimited opportunity but could also be cold, cruel, and unforgiving. Even on the worst days, he wouldn’t let us dwell on the negative. We had to move forward. Somehow, we would persevere to better days ahead. A hug from him, no matter how bad the situation, always told me it was going to be OK.
Life lessons about the road that would lie ahead of me came early. I remember one particular day dad and I were out cutting wood. This wasn’t a recreational activity for us. We frankly couldn’t afford to heat our house with electricity. We either fed the wood stove or we were cold.
Often this was a family activity, my mother and sisters included. On this particular day, it was just me and him. I, probably about age 6, wasn’t amused at the amount of work I was expected to do myself. It was hard, and some of the pieces I was unable to lift.
Dad noticed me struggling to push a particularly large piece up the hill to where he was splitting the pieces of the tree trunk. I noticed him notice me and I stopped, waiting for him to come help. He wouldn’t.
He instead told me to try again. I couldn’t.
This was repeated several times until I began to cry. I’m not sure if it was out of frustration or because my father – already being mean for making me spend a Saturday morning cutting wood when my sisters were at home – wouldn’t help. Instead, he began to chide me by saying “Get him log! Get him old log!”. That really made me mad. I was crying even louder when I finally managed to get the log to the top of the small hill.
Then, Dad finally came over, picked me up, and sat down on the tailgate of the truck. With me still wailing, he told me that he was proud of me, that he knew I could do it but was just giving up too soon, and I needed to know that I could do things I thought I couldn’t do. I managed to get out something like “…but you didn’t even TRY to help me!” and then the rest of the lesson came.
He continued in a measured frank and blunt tone with the explanation that he would always help me when I needed it and he could, but he wouldn’t be around forever. I had to learn to do some stuff for myself, even when it was hard. Especially when it was hard. He would help me any way he could, but I had to push myself to grow stronger so that one day, I could be the one helping others.
Dad and I had many talks like that in the woods, including several about his mortality. My grandfather had died just as he turned 50. That left Dad’s brother, my Uncle, without a father as a pre-teen. Dad wanted me to be prepared for that, just in case.
Uncle Lewis didn’t get as many years with his father as I had with mine, but he turned out OK. He spent his entire career with the College Park police department – starting their SWAT team and serving as their Deputy Chief at his retirement. I’m quite proud of him, and to have him as an uncle.
As I write these words five police officers in Dallas are dead. This week two individuals were killed under highly questionable circumstances in separate incidents by police officers, leading to protests across the country. It is a dark day for all of us.
It is hard to find solace in the bigger national picture. Our political parties have quit saying to “ask not what your country can do for you” but instead are competing for the votes of those who have the biggest grievances against their fellow countrymen. The world wide economy is teetering on the brink and we’re finding new ways to divide ourselves rather than even finding, much less focusing on, what unites us.
It’s the kind of day I want a hug from my Dad, but the last hug with him came sixteen years ago, and it was different. We both knew his days were short. I was one telling him it was going to be OK. He had done his job. I could take it from here.
The problems we now face, however, we stand here and face together. There are many logs scattered about, and we need to get them up the hill. They’re bigger than any of us can push ourselves, and it’s going to take a lot of help. This will require people that don’t look alike, and don’t often agree to decide that if we want to keep the fires that warm our country burning, we have to work together for a common purpose.
We have that ability, even if we don’t see it right now. Let’s get pushing.