When I think of Dad, I tend to think of his physicality, his big voice, his presence in the room, but mostly I think of his hands. He was an affectionate man, and he taught me to give big hugs and to shake hands like you mean it. And though he wasn’t “handy” like his own father (our family’s great mechanic), I remember him building things—some tangible, like the retaining wall that gave me my first backyard and the only toy chest I ever had. More often, I saw him use his hands to build intangible things—I saw him build organization out of scattered tables of people concerned about community issues, and I saw him build connections by using those hands to express his own feelings about insecurities other people would be afraid to admit.
In my mind, all those hands are builders’ hands, starting with what he built in me. Some of my earliest memories are nightly, violent asthma attacks. Someone would give me medicine and then, most often, Dad would sit with me and steadily rub my back until the coughing and wheezing calmed down, until I calmed down enough to lie back down and go to sleep. On those nights, Dad’s hands were never impatient, and they were never uncertain. Though the violence of my attacks probably scared him at least as much or more than than it scared me, his hand was steady assurance. We’d get through this, that hand said…and we always did.
I’ve been thinking about that hand a lot….in part because of the way it modeled how I wanted to be when Dad was suffering. Of course, Dad decided to be straightforward about death and wouldn’t let me pretend he was going to “get through it,” but I could assure him we would, his loved ones would get through this. I had to be present with him as he’d always been for me.
I’m not going to paint him as perfect. That’s important. Anybody who knew my dad knew he was a mess…..of contradictions. He advertised it. And if he was struggling with his own life as he had, periodically, throughout his life, you knew how it was going. He could get lost in his own thoughts, and sometimes, as a kid, I knew he wasn’t just going to snap out of it without a fight.
We fought, many times. There’s lots of good stories there, he and I yelling on some section road or out front of the KCK hovel where I lived after messing up my first marriage….. But one thing I can say about Dad is that we always fought through things. We always emerged from the fight with a better understanding of each other and, generally, of ourselves.
That’s because Dad was one of the most attentive people I’ve ever known. If he was listening to you, you thought about what you were saying…because he was listening hard. We wrote in the obituary that Dad put in a lot of work to overcome his own insecurities, and then he told everybody about it, offering a testimonial to the fact that a shy, pock-marked kid could find his way to make his own mark on the world. He did that very directly—by taking the job ahead of him seriously and working hard at it.
Not that he wasn’t funny. Dad had a big laugh and a great (if sometimes dense) sense of humor. Charlie Brown spoke profoundly for his sense of self. I being his bookish son, with an actual blue security blanket, got to play Linus to his Charlie from those early days when he read the Peanuts Treasury to me at bedtime. And though he learned how to tease from his own father, they were both benevolent in their approach, and most often Dad’s humor was rooted in his own failings—his inability to grasp what everyone else in the room seemed to understand or his own hurt feelings at some other inadequacy exposed. He loved such extremes as Don Rickles and Wile E. Coyote, whom he watched, respectively, late at night and early in the morning by my side. Even as a kid I got that humor was about empathy, human frailty, and figuring out ways to work through it.
So those back rubbing hands come back to me. Dad had a frail kid who couldn’t breathe right, and his response was to tell me, “You’re just fine, the way you are.” He taught that through his action, and it fit perfectly with the “You are accepted” of his theology. Each time, he kept rubbing my back until I believed him, his hands insisting on the value of love and dedication and service to others. Because he understood vulnerability, he could teach me to be strong.
I could go on and on about the ways Dad talked eye to eye with me about all of his philosophical, theological and political concerns, but I’d never do better than to say those back rubs when I was a child, they taught me how to face down my worst fears. I can never thank Dad enough for many things—his unconditional love, his passion for life and his hard fought solidity and overall sobriety—but that model for looking fear dead in the eye and facing it down with love and determination, that’s as important as all the rest put together.