catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 18 :: 2005.10.07 — 2005.10.20


Fragments of a sort of Midwestern hagiography

I?m wary of heroes. That doesn?t mean I don?t have any?I feel like I regularly look up from a page in wonder, amazed at the doors somebody else?s words have broken down in my head, feeling, at least at that moment, that I?d follow that person anywhere. And I?m not even going to mention songwriters and other people who, just by being themselves, made me feel like they saved my life. But no matter how grateful or awestruck or humbled I feel, my inner Mr. Cynic is always holding something back, convinced that someday I?m going to find out that this person gets sloppy drunk and tries to pick up women not his wife in the produce section of the local supermarket, or has buried a corpse or two in the crawl space, or stubbornly refuses to consider rewriting her clunkiest poems, or is secretly mean and petty with secretaries and cab-drivers and store clerks and students and anybody else who?s basically powerless and underpaid, or believes it?s O.K. to lie down in the political bed with that icon of orthodoxy Reverend Moon and his fabulous Unification Church.

In her book Operating Instructions, the story of her experience as a single mother with a new-born baby, Anne Lamott writes about a night when, as she?s feeling as though her faith in God is a rosy delusion, a friend from church knocks on her door and asks her to give him a job around the house she?d be too embarrassed to ask anyone else to do. After equivocating, Lamott sets him to work scrubbing the bathroom and writes:

it made me feel sure of Christ again, of that kind of love. This, a man scrubbing a new mother?s bathtub, is what Jesus means to me. As Bill Rankin, my priest friend, once said, spare me the earnest Christians.

Which leads me to my father.

He spent his life driving trucks. Before he got married, he drove moving vans around the country; a few months after I was born, he started driving a dump truck and spent the rest of his life hauling sand and gravel from one end of the county to the other. After I was married, a conversation at the dinner table at my parents? house turned to careers, and Dad?s comment was, ?I?ve had a pretty good career. I got to drive just about everything I wanted to drive.? Later, Vicki told me, ?I?ll never understand your family.?
At church, he was rarely the person who got up to talk in front of people. He was more comfortable behind the scenes: taking attendance for Sunday School, collecting the offering, passing out take-home papers. At his funeral, the pastor said that before every Sunday morning service, somebody put a glass of ice water behind the pulpit?it stopped showing up when Dad got too sick to come to church. He also seems to have always found time to stop by the church nursery?he liked to hold babies, even before he had any of his own, and had a reputation for being able to calm the fussy ones.

At home, he blurred the distinction between men?s and women?s work. Saturday nights would find him on his hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor, or sitting at the kitchen table, peeling carrots and potatoes for the Sunday roast. On school mornings, he?d get up before dark to cook us scrambled eggs; on Awana campouts, he was the designated breakfast chef. He didn?t change many diapers when we were babies, Mom tells me, but when he got home from work he?d sit on the couch and read us book after book while she worked on dinner.

Whenever people from church needed to move, he was the one they called on, and he always seemed to throw himself into the work. He?d walk through the rooms, making a mental inventory, and then load the truck piece by piece, as though he were putting together an intricate, three-dimensional mosaic, fitting the furniture together in the van so carefully that, top to bottom, back to front, there was no wasted space. Whenever I help friends move today, we can never live up to that ideal?the load inevitably strikes me as slovenly and loose, made up mostly of gaps and air. And I could never match his deft maneuvering of even the bulkiest pieces of furniture, pirouetting bloated sofas and massive cabinets through the narrowest doorways and down the tightest stairs. Whenever it seemed like getting something out of a room or past a tight landing was against the laws of physics, he?d hunker down and brainstorm, then take the door off its hinges, remove the feet from the couch, somehow coerce success out of the impossible.

Mom told me recently that he preferred to leave discipline to her?he didn?t want to lose his temper with any of us. One Saturday morning when I was around seven, I was busy with a project at the kitchen counter and ignored him calling me to come to the table for breakfast?he yanked me off the stool and scolded me; he may have given me a swat. Then he saw what I was working on: a blocky, listing drawing with ?I love Dad? printed at the top. He sat down and started to give thanks for the food, but in the middle of the prayer his voice started to break. He ended the prayer and came over to hug me and say he was sorry.

I wish I didn?t think this was remarkable. I know from experience, though, that it?s easier for parents to justify their punishments than to apologize. What good are professions of love from a child who can?t bother to obey? It?s hard to avoid this kind of self-righteousness. How often is a parent going to admit that what motivates him to punish his child isn?t a desire for the child?s ultimate good but impatience and arrogance and irritation? And fear?how can I raise a decent kid if I apologize when I have every right to discipline, if I slip down from my pedestal and lower myself to?no, below?the child?s level? I know, I know, there?s a lot more to parenting than apologizing. But I don?t know if I?d ever consider breaking through the fa?ade of parental omnipotence and admitting to my selfish motives if I hadn?t been raised by a father who cared less about appearance and more about reality, who let me know that he loved me even more than he loved my good behavior.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer at sixty-three, thirty years after he?d given up smoking. When they got home from the doctor?s office with the bad news, Mom suggested somebody call the pastor and tell him what had happened, but everybody in the house was too distraught, so Dad made the call himself: ?Steve, we?ve got some bad news.? He stayed calm and reliable through biopsies and chemotherapy, hair loss, radiation, a few days in the hospital to drain fluid that had built up in his lungs. He focused on making sure Mom would be able to get by without him: he arranged for his pension and made sure it would continue as long as she was alive, moved out of their house to an apartment close to my sister?s, looked for a more reliable car. On the day of their move, I went to the house to find that dozens of people from his church and work were swarming in and out of the house, carrying furniture to trucks, sorting items for the auction they?d have later in the fall. I helped a couple of people I?d never met before carry a few pieces of furniture and then went to Dad and Mom?s new apartment?they had more help than they really needed. I tried to tell Dad how many people were helping with the move, and he seemed kind of stunned. What had he ever done, he said, that would make so many people want to help him out?

He died a little less than three months before Emilie was born. Here?s the closest he ever got to seeing my first child?one day Vicki and I were at the clinic for the monthly pregnancy check-up, and on the way out we ran into my parents coming out of the oncology wing. Vicki had the brilliant idea of going back to the obstetrics technician and asking if Mom and Dad could listen to the baby?s heartbeat. We crowded into the little examination room, Dad in his wheelchair, huddled over his portable oxygen tank, and listened as the technician slid the gel-slicked receptor over Vicki?s abdomen, picking up the whoosha whoosha whoosha of the baby?s hidden heart, sounding like a far-off train. I watched Dad while he was listening and thought he looked sad. Was he thinking that this was as close as he was going to get to the new baby? Or that, without a miracle, he wasn?t going to see any of his grandchildren grow up? But I don?t even know if I was right to think he looked sad.

This past summer, Emilie, who had just turned 13, went on a mission trip to Florida with the church youth group. The mission part of the trip involved repairing roofs that had been damaged during the previous hurricane season: Emilie went to the Goodwill store to buy used jeans that would stand up to the wear and tear of such hot, filthy, gritty work. During the week they were gone, I kept expecting a call saying my daughter had slipped and tumbled off a roof or suffered sunstroke in the Florida heat or was injured in a nasty incident involving a nailgun. Instead, the calls I actually received from the adults who coordinated the trip said Emilie was one of the best workers in the group: she?d do any job they?d ask her to do, from ripping off old shingles to picking up trash, without complaining or slowing down before she was finished. Emilie called a couple of days before the trip was over to say the group had awarded her the title of Servant of the Day. I tried to tell her, holding back tears, why the news made me more proud of her than just about anything else she?d done, but I?m not sure she understood. What it meant to me was that somehow, despite the vast differences between the man my father was and the man I am, something of his character had passed through me to my daughter, and I felt grateful and unworthy and abashed.

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