Mine is not a family of storytellers. I don’t know what my father did in World War II. I don’t know if his heart skipped a beat the first time he saw his future wife, my mother. I don’t know if there was an instant he doubted he would live when his sailboat was torn to toothpicks in a hurricane a mile off the Florida coast. That was an event. But it’s not a story. I don’t know why he made it to shore across a mile of stormy seas, only that he did.
It might sound funny to wonder why he lived. But plenty of people wouldn’t have. Even people with the swimming skills and physical strength to make it. You also need a powerful will to live and the courage to face what look like insurmountable odds. He was sailing solo so there was no one else to help make the decision. No easier choice to just follow someone’s lead. Decisions don’t come any harder than the ones he had to make in his life. This was only foreshadowing what was to come. Did he quickly calculate his odds and swim for shore as soon as he saw the boat was foundering, or did he try to hold her together till there was no hope left, braving seas that were by that time dramatically worse to try and save the boat he built singlehandedly? Did he risk going down with the ship by groping frantically through rising waters in the below-deck cabin for one treasured belonging he couldn’t bear to leave behind? If he did, what was so valuable that he risked his life over retrieving it? And when he reached shore did he walk away unscathed, or were his nights haunted with nightmares of drowning? A sea of churning water stood between him and life on that…that what? I don’t even know if it was night or day. Either way, he lived to not tell about it.
As a child I one time skipped down barefoot onto a gnarl of fish hook cactus and it lodged deep in the sole of my foot. My father came toward me to take it out and I warned him away with screams and tears. He laughed and asked if I intended to leave it there forever. I really did have to think about it for a minute. If it had been me in that sinking boat, the smallest doubt of whether I could swim over raging seas and make it to land alive would have me clutching to the last bit of floating debris of that boat like it was God Himself, and only He could save me from being swallowed by the sea. My fate would rest on how buoyant my bit of detritus was. I would use all my strength trying to make that shard of timber float, trying to rescue my rescuer so the rescuer could save me.
No such complications for my father. All my life he whistled while he shaved, sang while he worked, and went about his business with good cheer. Each day was a new opportunity to enjoy life, and whatever stories his past held, that’s where they stayed. When I grew up and became interested in him as a person as well as a father, one day I asked how he had the sheer guts and strength to get up and go back to work shortly after breaking his back and being paralyzed (for life) at 26. All he said was, “I had to, I had a family to feed.” Those words are plenty to tell me who he was, but I wanted all the elements of plot. I wanted the how and the why. And yet I didn’t have the guts to ask.
I wasn’t born yet when he fell off the roof of their new home and into a wheelbarrow, but I hurt to even think of all the crashing of bones and nerves and hearts and hopes and dreams that started when his body came freefalling onto the edge of that wheelbarrow spine-first. I don’t want to know about the pain, how scared he must have been, how dashed his dreams, how fearful for his future, no less his pregnant wife’s and two sons’. Even thinking about those pains is too painful for me.
In the hospital after his injury doctors tickled his feet. They poked his calves and pressed their fingers into his thighs. Nothing. No feeling. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said it was no use. My grandmother stormed the hospital and they relented, slicing a 14-inch gash down his back. They poked around a bit, sewed him back up, and said, “Yep. He’ll never walk again.” He didn’t talk for a month. Then he dragged himself out of the hospital, stuffed his bodycasted self in the Jeep with my mother and brothers, and said goodbye to their new home in Denver. They couldn’t think clearly there. They needed to re-gather their lives within the familiarity of the house they still owned in California, among loving family and concerned friends. For the next six months he taught himself to walk with a complex series of movements that began with swinging his hips and legs forward with the strength of his glutes. When his uncle, Pappy we called him, told him it was time to saw off his body cast and see what he had, that’s what he did. After fits and starts he began walking with two canes, then one, then finally none. Still with no feeling below his hips. But it was something.
After the injury he developed other strengths. His arms could hold all us children at once. His calm could make any problem, however seemingly tragic at first, suddenly approachable. His courage could hold the weight of all our worlds on his shoulders. But part of that courage came by refusing to consider himself in any way but like everybody else. He simply refused to treat himself as paralyzed, and damned if anyone else would dare. So if I asked even the most innocuous question about his injury, would opening up and talking about it, satisfying his cherished daughter’s curiosity, open a hole that let all that long-ago pain come rushing back? I wouldn’t risk it.
That’s what I know. And I wouldn’t ask him for more. It wasn’t really lack of courage that stopped me from asking. I know that now. It was respect. Every day my father lived his life as a man with full use of his body would. He never gave in to physical limitations, never mind self-pity. He would not use handicap parking spaces. He coached and umpired Pony League baseball. He climbed on roofs and pounded them with sheets of shingles whenever that needed to be done, and I doubt he ever considered that irony.
He was a man of few words and was a firm believer that the value of a person’s life is in his deeds. That didn’t make him hard. Quite the opposite. He knew what a man is capable of. But he also knew how a man can suffer. Just seeing my father and what he did every day was enough to tell me the worth of the man. I didn’t need to know how he made it to shore to know he was strong. I didn’t need to know what he did in the war to know he was brave.
All this happened. And it affected our lives in unimaginable ways. In aggregate the consequences of that accident hurled our little family off orbit. He spent months at a time in the hospital because of internal injuries and infections and other complications. My mother tried to hold it all together, keeping house and feeding and caring for her three beloved children plus being a more intimate nurse to her husband than she could have ever dreamed of. But her struggles are a different story. The family is still trying to regain its balance now, a decade after he’s gone and well into his grandchildren’s adulthood. We’ll make it. In another generation the pain won’t even be a memory. But the family will be strong. Partly because he refused to let us be weak.
When he was late into his 70’s, on kidney dialysis for some kind of a record dozen years, his speech a little slurred from mini-strokes and body wasted by decades of the complications of paralysis, it finally occurred to me that he was not immortal. I asked him to write his life story. I wanted to know whatever stories he wished to share with me. He said he would, and so he spent his days at dialysis filling notebooks. His hands weakened and his handwriting deteriorated. We got him a dictation recorder, but he didn’t want to bother his fellow dialysees. So he went on with the notebooks, filling them with barely legible sentences and paragraphs and pages, pouring out his life with clearly apparent joy at what he had lived. He started with his grandparents, describing their lives, and four yellow-lined legal notebooks later he ended with his own early adulthood. That’s as far as he got before passing away on August 31, 1997, at 1:55 in the morning.