On a good night, when the wine was flowing and we were gathered as a family around the dinner table, my father told jokes. My brother Bruce and I were given to puns of the worst sort, and for a time I specialized in the foul humor I picked up from the ad agency where I worked, but Dad was the family story teller. One of us usually handed him a cue, a short sidelong reference like, “There’s a pony in there.” Off to the races he’d go.
He straightened, there at the head of the table, and made eye contact with his audience as if to ask if we really wanted to hear that old story. His pause, his expectant look, was all he needed to gather us in.
There was one about the boy who found a strange spotted creature he called a “rarey” that began to grow so fast it threatened hearth and home, prompting the boy to load it in a truck and attempt to drop it over the edge of a cliff on a high mountain peak. The punch line? “That’s a long, long way to tip a Rarey.” (Insert groan here.)
But my favorite was the one about the optimist and the pessimist.
He avoided the usual start. No “once upon a time.” My father launched right into the action of the story, setting the stage. In the setup for the optimist and the pessimist, he described a family’s problem with a pair of twins. One looked on the bright side of everything, so much so that he could imagine no problem that could not be surmounted or that wouldn’t dissipate all by itself. The other saw only gloom and doom, and no matter what wonderful opportunities arose, he felt he was sure to fail. The parents decide to engineer a resolution by giving the optimist truly terrible Christmas presents and the pessimist, truly wonderful ones. The story ends with the parents standing by, confounded, while their optimist son gleefully digs in a huge pile of horse manure, exclaiming, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!”
My father loved to tell stories, but in the end, he left me a riddle. My father, who was doled out more than his fair share of dung in life, never gave up, never became bitter, never stopped believing in the possibility that things would get better. While many people become curmudgeonly as they age, he became gentler. Why? What drove him?
If my mother had her druthers, the answer would be faith. Her faith sustained her through the loss of her father while still in her twenties, the war, the loss of her daughter to leukemia, the death of her mother, and the long frightening years of my father’s struggle with heart disease. Resting on the levee of the river during one of our many walks, I asked my father if he believed in God. I wanted to hear him say yes. I wanted that little bit of reassurance that, when the time came, he would be welcomed into heaven to join my mother, even as the little doubter in my own mind wondered if that’s what really happens after we die. “I wish I could believe,” he told me. He just couldn’t make the leap from concrete reality to ephemeral faith. The closest he ever came to saying he believed in an afterlife was to say he looked forward to seeing my mother again.
Perhaps it was love that fueled him. Love, to my father, wasn’t about what you said, it was what you did. His place in the middle of three sons, with an emotionally abusive father and a bully for an older brother, had a lasting effect on his dedication to others. My grandmother lived out her last years in a convalescent home in our community. After he ate with us, my father took her dinner every night. I’ll be honest. I didn’t like my grandmother, and she didn’t like me (she thought I was entirely too outspoken, my father confirmed much later). Why my father would want to spend time with such a sour old woman I couldn’t understand. But in his last years, I saw my grandmother as my father saw her: she was a gentle woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering egotist. I remember how her face softened, how something flickered across her features, when my father spoke to her. His nightly visits were driven by more than filial duty. They were borne out of love.
Or maybe it was hope that kept him going. Within a week of his death, he still believed he could recover his strength, if he just got out there and started walking again. Anthony Scioli, a professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, has been investigating the link between hope and health. Writing in Spirituality & Health magazine, Louise Danielle Palmer summarized his conclusion, that “…hopeful people tend to be more resilient, more trusting, more open, and more motivated than those less hopeful, so they are likely to receive more from the world, which in turn makes them more hopeful.”
I’ve used a lot of trite quips to explain my father to others. “Like a Timex, he took a licking and kept on ticking.” His health challenges alone would have flattened most men: three heart attacks, three open heart surgeries and three strokes.” While we were growing up and he still had our college educations on the horizon, I know he felt he had to recover. He had to provide. That was duty. But how do you explain his dedication to come back from strokes after my mother died, after his duty was discharged?
He did it a step at a time. With the help of a physical therapist, he learned to concentrate on swinging his weaker left leg and striking with his heel. He had to think about each step to avoid stumbling. When he was in acute rehab at the UW Medical Center, I remember how proud of himself he was when he demonstrated the new skill he had relearned with the occupational therapist: he made me a cup of instant hot cocoa. Even now, when I write about it, I cry. To be so reduced by a stroke that completing the steps – take out a cup, fill it with water, microwave it, pour in the cocoa and stir – was an accomplishment. It could have been humiliating, but it wasn’t. It was a milestone. A good day. The medical professionals predicted he would be wheelchair bound; then they revised it to “he’ll never walk independently without a walker.” But he did. For years, he just used a cane.
Every day on our walk, he set a goal. Sometimes it was to make it no farther than the third driveway down. He felt the load in his chest, was breathing hard, but he rarely stopped short of his goal. When I said that most people would quit when they started to feel the strain, he simply said, “Every day I try to go a little farther.”
My father went the distance.