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.

 

 

 

 

16 Comments

  1. jessica handler on April 27, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Lee, moments like these in your writing make me want to stop what I’m doing – or planning to do next, and next after that – and go outside and do my version of prayer, which is silence and awe.

    • Lee Martin on April 28, 2015 at 8:12 pm

      Thank you for those kind words, dear Jessica. I hope you know that I feel the same about your work. All best wishes. . .

  2. Wendy Beckman on April 27, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Fantastic piece, Lee. Although my parents’ trials were not as bad as your father’s, you made me take a moment to think about what emotional prostheses my parents might have borne, and how they affected the people my parents became toward the end of their lives. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on May 20, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      Thanks, Wendy. Your term, emotional prostheses, takes me further in my thinking.

  3. Jude Whelley on April 27, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Thank you Lee, this broke open my heart today.

    • Lee Martin on May 20, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      Thanks, Jude. In a good way, I hope.

  4. Merrill Sunderland on April 27, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Beautiful!

    • Lee Martin on May 20, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      Thank you, Merrill.

  5. Cathy Essinger on April 27, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Lee, thank you. I was needing this. My brother and I are currently caring for both of our parents at home. They are 93. It’s good to know that you have written this and that someday, somehow, our burdens will become our strengths.

    • Lee Martin on May 20, 2015 at 1:36 pm

      Cathy, I wish you strength and courage along the way.

  6. Lisa on April 27, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Lee, Your writing is so honest and moving… I love how you let us know you, and your father, through your words. This is just lovely.

    • Lee Martin on May 20, 2015 at 1:36 pm

      Thank you so much, Lisa.

  7. Katherine on April 29, 2015 at 9:35 am

    This is a beautiful piece, Lee. It brings tears to my eyes each time I read it. I feel like I can understand, in a small way, how it felt to be your father, and also how it felt to be you, his son. Thanks for sharing it on your blog.

    • Lee Martin on May 20, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      Thank you, Katherine. I think all writing is, at its heart, and act of love and empathy. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  8. Roy Bentley on April 30, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Lee,

    Quincy Troupe introduced me to the word “errance” in a You Tube video the other day. I looked it up, and found it to mean “restless wandering.” In your work, Lee, there is that restless wandering–you’re rooted to place, sure, but mostly to the people who have shared the air around you. That shared “air” of experience is here; it imbues this. Yikes-good. (I always love to hear about another Roy in the world…)

    • Lee Martin on May 3, 2015 at 4:50 pm

      Hey, Roy. I love that term “errance.” I think that sort of restless wandering is essential to the work that we do. I hope you’re doing well, my friend.

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