Monday, May 7, 2012

How to eat an elephant

Please excuse the seriousness.

The running joke is that I have no heart.  Or if there is any organ in my body with some sort of emotional root it is likely made of stone or coal.  This idea is generally held by my students and sometimes by my wife.  The students get it from my ability to separate the personal and emotional from the observable evidence present in a work of art.  This simply means that in my world it doesn’t matter if the student stayed up for 72 hours working on the project that was designed to be a memorial for their grandmother if the project itself is poor quality.  We’ll look at the elements and principles of design and the handling of the media and if it measures up, great.  But if it’s bad, it’s bad….granny or no granny.  I also may come across as heartless when I generally avoid questions about my family or personal life.  I’m a hermit, what can I say?
I’ve also been accused of repressing any real feelings or emotions.  Of course, most of my accusers are simply transferring their own issues over to me, but that’s another story altogether.  The thing is, this may be a bit more accurate but I’m still going to reject the use of the word “repressing”.  I like to think of it as postponing.  Eventually something big happens and you really don’t have time to think about it properly at that exact moment.  And sometimes that big something is just too big to take on all at once.  My approach is to take in the event and postpone my reaction to it as much as possible until the event can be processed and my reactions can be productive.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time, right?

At the end of March, my dad died pretty suddenly.  He was 73 and he’d racked up a rather impressive list of surgeries and ailments in those 73 years.  Open heart surgery, mitral valve replacement, back surgery, all sorts of things removed, all sorts of things repaired and while these all seemed huge to me, the youngest son, to him they were only speed bumps.  Each ailment was promptly tackled and beaten into submission.  He’d use the time in the hospital to rest up before heading back to the shop to work.  Hospital stays were like power naps to him. 
I’m describing him this way not to mislead you or exaggerate the truth, but because my dad was a champion among men.  He was wise, he was charming, he was hilarious and he was an excellent father and grandfather.  
When he was admitted to the hospital this last time we all thought this would be just another speed bump.  When things took a more serious turn I had to fall back on my strategy of postponing.  That last day he was with us there were all sorts of things that needed to be processed.  I wondered what would happen if he didn’t get over this one.  It was tough to imagine a world without my dad in it.  It was also tough to see him near the end.  There were computers and machines and alarms.  It didn’t help that half our family is made up of registered nurses and we all know what the machines do and what the alarms mean.   
I didn’t want to see him like that but I was lucky enough to be in the room with him during his final hours here.  My mind was racing with questions and worries while my eyes studied the face and hands of my dad.  The hands were familiar in the way that your drive to work is familiar.  You know the next curve and hill before you really see it.  And when you do lay eyes on it, it is just as you expected.  These were the hands that taught me how to hold a welding lead when I was seven.  The hands that wrapped around mine to teach me the slow and steady motions that create a beautiful welding bead.  They were the hands that tickled me until I couldn’t breathe when I was a kid.  They were the hands that deflected sparks as they held steel in place for me to weld.  They were big hands because they could handle anything.
His face was familiar too but in a different way.  Maybe it was like the way you remember your elementary school.  It’s all right there in your memory and it’s definitely accurate until you go back and walk the halls.  When you are there again the scale of everything is off because you are full size now and you can never really see it like you did when you were a child.  His face was just as I remembered and yet somehow different.  I found myself focusing on the things that seemed different.  The form of his nose, the curves of his mouth, the form of his chin.  I knew those were the final moments and I somehow felt compelled to memorize his face.  As if there’d be a test later. 

The week after the funeral I shaved my face completely smooth for the first time in almost 20 years.  The goatee was too long and it was time for a change.  (You people with hair can get a new do or a new cut, but my choices are much more limited)  When the dust cleared after shaving I looked in the mirror and saw the nose, mouth and chin of my dad.  I walked downstairs and the first thing my wife said was “Dang, you look just like your dad.”  It’s not a moment I can describe using the limitations of words but it was quite significant for me.  Maybe I’ll get the guts to grow it back soon, but that’s a bite I’ll take another day. 
I’m sure this elephant is going to take me a while anyway.

His friends and students always called him "Mac".  This was a wire from a rose on his casket...twisted nervously while talking to people after the graveside service.


BJM said...

What a lovely remembrance. I love the hands of my parents, too; this brought tears to my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Doug.