Take from this what you will.
There came a time, toward the end of my father’s life—though we had no way of knowing the days were running out—when I had to bathe him. My mother, his caretaker ever since the farming accident that cost him his hands, was in the hospital, and so I did what she had faithfully done for twenty-six years. I helped him out of the canvas harness that held his prostheses—his hooks, he always called them. I undid the safety pins from his tee-shirt sleeves, the pins that fastened his arm socks to those sleeves and kept them from drooping. I pulled the tee-shirt over his head. The skin on his neck was red from sun, his chest and stomach were white. I helped him out of his trousers, and then I tugged down his boxer shorts.
We didn’t speak while I washed him. The silence was so odd because there had always been words between us and so many of them had been angry ones. My gruff father, with whom I’d butted heads time and time again, was now shy. I bathed him, and then I dressed him in his pajamas for bed.
We were on the other side of our anger by this time. He was worried about my mother and frightened that he might lose her. That night, he had a dream that she needed him; something was wrong. He woke me, saying we had to go to the hospital. I told him there was no need. It was just a bad dream. If anything were truly wrong, the hospital would have called. It took a while, but finally he went back to sleep.
I sit here now, remembering how urgently he told me we had to go to the hospital and how I kept trying to reason with him. The next morning, we went and my mother was fine. I can’t get this memory out of my head, though, because I regret that I didn’t take him in the middle of the night just so he would have known my mother was all right, that she hadn’t left him. I was selfish. I was living too much in my head. My father’s heart said my mother was calling him. I should have listened.
If anyone deserved peace, it was him. The accident marked him the rest of his life. The man with the hooks. In many ways, it made him an angry man, but it also gave him a fierceness that he passed on to me. I recall so many times when I told him I couldn’t do something, and he said, “Can’t never did nothing.” It’s what I know. When things are hard, you put your head down and keep going. The alternative, a surrender, isn’t acceptable. My father fought long and hard to maintain the life that had been his before the accident. He continued to farm. He continued to find joy in the things that pleased him. He didn’t back down from the challenges his accident gave him. Such effort, day after day. So many days. He was sixty-nine when he died. The heart, no matter how valiant, finally stops.
“When I die,” he used to say, “people will come to my funeral just to see if you bury me with my hooks.”
Of course we did. They were his. Those curved pincers of tempered steel, the flesh-colored plastic holsters, the cables, the canvas straps, the thick rubber bands at the base of each hook. I can’t even bring myself to imagine the minutes he stood with his hands being mangled by the spinning rollers of the corn picker’s shucking box. He lost so much that day. My mother and I did, too. But something else got made—a man with a gigantic heart and an endless reserve of perseverance.
Despite the years of trouble between us, there was never a time when I didn’t admire and respect my father. Yes, we buried him with his hooks, but I can close my eyes and recall every detail: the smooth interior of one pincer, the gridded surface of the other; the smell of those thick rubber bands; the silver filaments of those cables; the creak of the harness and the weight of it. I remember it all, as if I hold those hooks now in my hands, and this I know: to let those straps settle across your back, to slip your stumps down into those holsters, to contract the muscles in your shoulder every time you want to grasp something, to wear blisters on your stumps, to bear the weight of those hooks day after day after day, to go out into the world and to invite people’s curiosity, or worse their pity—to do all that, you can’t be just anybody; you have to be a special kind of man.