NOTE: I wrote this story a few years ago – in May 2003, to be exact – after wrestling with the thoughts expressed here. Troubled, I did what any writer would do in the circumstances – I wrote about it. Instant catharsis? I wish.
“Remember Him Kindly in the Hour of his Taking Away!”
By: Anthony J. (Tony) Sacco. © Copyright, May 2003.
TIMONIUM, MD. May 10, 2003 – A gentle spring breeze sweeps the courtyard in front of my two-bedroom apartment. Inside, light from a small table lamp casts long shadows on the living room walls. I’m alone. The television is on, but the screen, full of wavy black and white lines after the video I’d been watching had ended, is now unnoticed.
I’m sprawled on the couch, my mind racing, strain showing on my face. That evening I’d been wrestling with a recurring problem; a feeling of great tenderness for my father that had gradually been growing stronger. I don’t know when it began; hadn’t really noticed it until recently. But now the feeling was so strong, so unbearably sad, that I could not deny it.
I miss him. He died in 1974. He was sixty-four. I was thirty-seven. Lately, it is his face I see in the mirror when I shave; his nose and cheekbones, his wavy hair and deep brown eyes, often twinkling with happiness, but sometimes sad, puzzled, wounded.
A harsh father can damage his children. My father was a harsh man at times during his life. But he was also a kind, gentle man. I saw all of those qualities often as I grew up. In addition he had faith in God, courage and an inner toughness.
The harshness he occasionally displayed did not rub off on his male children. His toughness did. There’s a difference. When my turn came to be a father, I tried never to be harsh with my children, spanking them only when they deserved to be spanked, and never when I was angry. I learned that from him.
Since I’m not a psychiatrist I don’t know how to measure the damaging effects of a mother who will not nurture. However, I believe that a father who loves his children and makes that known to them in some way, even in the worst of circumstances, lifts the children to a privileged place from which they can never be expelled.
My father never told me he loved me. But looking back, I’ve been convinced for a long time that he did. The way he glanced at me conveyed his feelings. That was the only way he knew how to do it. In recent years it has become clear to me that during our lives together, despite his problems and his many faults, my father showed me I was loved and that he approved of me.
Tonight, my thoughts go back in time to a three-story tenement house in East Boston where I spent the first several years of my life. Images flood my mind. Chairs grouped around a white porcelain-topped table; a crucifix above the door in the entrance hall; the kitchen filled at different times with wonderful aromas − pasta sauce, roast beef, home-made bread, cookies. A picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus displayed on a wall; my father in a chair, visible from where I often sat on the floor next to the stove, my legs crossed yoga-fashion. My mother in front of the stove, preparing dinner.
I remember sometimes catching him as he looked at me; looks of love, pride, acceptance. Lacking the words, he made me aware of his love, so that at some point in my life there was no doubt in my mind.
This night my feeling of sadness is so intense that it hurts physically. Deep in thought, I take in a breath, expelling the air slowly. My hand rubs the stubble on my chin once, twice, and then again.
I think back to my early years with them. My mother, a very pretty woman, on the small side, had only gone to the sixth grade in school. She was a strong-willed woman. There were serious problems between her and my father, which began early in their marriage. At times, bewildered by the fast-moving events of life, she seemed to have problems nurturing and relating to all three of us kids.
My father was a short, wiry man, with wavy black hair parted in the middle. It was he who made certain we attended Sunday Mass as a family and that each of us kids placed a portion of our allowances in the collection basket or in the poor box. “It’s a justice issue,” he would say. “We owe it to God for all the good things He does for us.” Again, I learned from him.
For long periods of time he was quietly angry because of his problems. Occasionally he vented that anger on me, my brother and my sister by spanking us. These were not so severe as to be mistaken for beatings. There were none of those. And when he did spank us, we usually understood that it was because we had done something for which we deserved . . . a spanking.
But because of his anger, he was unable to develop a close relationship with his children when we were young; to speak of or about himself and to express his feelings about many things. As I grew up I wanted him to tell me stories about himself so that I could get to know him as a person, not just as my father. He did not. In those early years he seldom spent much time with us or encouraged our interests and talents. Fathers in his generation didn’t do that sort of thing. Later, he was different. I learned from this too.
It is obvious that I do have self-esteem. How much? I don’t know. Enough? Is there a certain level of the stuff? Just how much of it is needed to live a healthy, happy, productive life? I know some people seem to have more of it than others and that some parents impart more of it to their children than other parents. Also, the less failure a child has to deal with as he or she grows up, the more that child develops his or her own measure of self-esteem.
Psychiatrists say the problem of lack of or damage to self-esteem in childhood can come from a mother who fails to nurture adequately or long enough. There is much truth in this. But they also say that a father’s love and affection, and his acceptance of the child are a necessary component if a child is to develop a healthy personality.
Earlier, alone in this room, I had watched “Field of Dreams,” a movie about second chances. Each person portrayed in the film was given another opportunity to do something he had wanted to do but never did before. One character gets a chance to do something right that he had done wrong before.
The film starred Kevin Costner. Relatively new to acting when this movie was made, he has been a sensation for the past several years. “Field of Dreams” is based on a book by Ray Kinsella. If Kinsella never writes another novel, he will have done enough. Nothing more thoughtful could ever be written about the problem of dutiful parent and rebellious child.
That was one of several themes in the movie. It involved only one character, the author himself. But it turned out to have been the driving force behind the actions he later took. It seems that his relationship with his father had not been all it could have been. A product of the ’60’s, Ray constantly bridled at his father’s attempts to train and discipline. Finally, at the age of 17, he ran away from home after a stormy session in which he had apparently said some things to his father which indicated his own lack of respect and his immaturity.
The viewers are told this. We do not see it. We are also told that the greatest regret Ray had – he’s now approaching 40 himself – was that he once refused to play a game of catch with his father. The viewer has no doubt that Ray wishes things had been better between him and his father; that he wishes he had handled things differently so they could have been closer.
Ray’s father had loved the game of baseball. He loved it so much that after returning from soldiering in the First World War he traveled around the countryside playing it. Many young men in that era did the same. They’d go from town to town, hooking up with an existing team or forming one, to play a few games before moving on. For lodging, they’d stay a few nights with anyone who would put them up. To eat, they’d pass a hat at the games. Some attracted the attention of big league teams and went on to careers in organized ball. Most did not make the “big show” as it was called. After a few years of this life they would settle down somewhere, pursue other careers, their dream left, gathering dust in the recesses of memory, quietly fading as time passed and new burdens of job and family were taken on.
That’s what happened to Kinsella’s father, John. His dream to play professional baseball lived for a time. As he played the game, he passed through small towns, moving eastward. But the dream was eventually put aside for a job in a shipyard in Queens, New York.
Survival. Work. A wife and kids. Responsibility. He lived without his dream, grew old without it and died. In the movie a touching scene is shown; Ray is allowed to see his father as he once was, a young man at the height of his physical prowess, a tall, sturdy catcher, playing and living the game he loved.
Suddenly Ray realized that his father, whom he had only known as an older, tired and somewhat beaten down man, had dreamed dreams just as he did. Ray then understood the sacrifice his father had made when he put his dream aside and assumed the burdens of life, lovingly caring for his wife and raising his children. His father had never expressed regret. A simple, uncomplicated man, the satisfaction he experienced from job, wife and children was more than enough.
As the scene in the movie unfolds, Ray’s father is removing his catching gear after a game. He is about to leave. Ray approaches him and asks if he would like to play a game of catch. With this act Ray comes close to his father, eliminating the emotional distance between them. The two men toss a baseball back and forth, and in those moments Ray redeems himself, rights the wrong he had done and forgives his father for not being as much as Ray thought he should have been. By doing this he frees himself from the guilt which he had been carrying around.
Watching this scene, I suddenly understand that my father also had dreamed a dream and put it aside. He had wanted a career as an architect. He had studied nights at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning his degree while married and working to support a wife and family toward the end of the great Depression. That in and of itself required a great deal of courage, determination, and self-discipline.
His first job was as a Junior Draftsman with an Architectural firm in Boston. In those days he was doing what he apparently loved. Early photographs of him in the family scrapbook confirm this, showing him smiling, contented and healthy, standing tall beside his wife and children, full of vibrant life.
Then World War II came along and with it the end to his dream. No one was building anything. I was a young child then. For at least four years the economy was geared to winning the war. There was money for nothing but the war effort. The firm my father worked for obtained some defense work. The early warning radar bases in Greenland, referred to in those days as “the DEW line,” had to be built. Architects and engineers were needed. My father spent more than six months in Greenland. When he returned there was no architectural work, so he took a job in the paper box business with Container Corporation of America, as an executive, possibly Plant Manager. I know he performed duties with a great deal of responsibility. At that time he was not well-trained for this new career. He had no experience. Consequently, he found this new work difficult. For him, the dream was over.
Seeing that now, I am given a gift; an insight into the man whom I had called Dad for so long, but really did not know very well until later.
Alone in my quiet apartment I listen to sounds from the blank television screen as I sprawl across the couch. In the distance a siren wails briefly and is gone. My thoughts move forward in my father’s journey through time, to a hospital in Baltimore during 1970. Dad had suffered another heart attack. I remember walking down a long corridor; the floor is linoleum, its black and white squares stained with the yellowish brown spots of droppings from full bedpans being carried to disposal. In his room, a curved track on the ceiling surrounds the bed and a fresh but blandly colored curtain hangs from it, partly drawn around the bed. A television on a shelf on the opposite wall from his bed has been turned on; there’s a picture but no volume. No one is watching it. A blanket, the same color as the curtain, lies folded across the foot of his bed.
I sit beside the bed, watching my father and listening to the hospital noises. A lunch cart clatters outside the door. A portable X-ray machine on rubber wheels glides by. Two young surgeons in green pass the open door on their way to a coffee break.
His eyes are closed, his breathing quiet, regular. At times he appears to be asleep, but I know he’s awake. In one hand he loosely holds a Rosary. I don’t force him to speak. He is simply too tired.
Then the most wonderful thing occurs. It is something that moves us beyond all the years in which he has kept me at a distance; past the frustration, anger and hurt. It takes us to a point in our relationship which, from then on, makes it better, closer than it has ever been. As I recall it, tears begin flowing. But I know I have to endure this emotional pain to think this through. Did I, years ago, in that hospital room, like Ray Kinsella in the movie, free myself from some unacknowledged guilt?
He opens his eyes and looks at the window behind me, slatted blinds partially closed. It is late in the day. Voices can be heard as the nursing shift changes. I stand to leave. My shadow falls across the bed. “Can I do anything for you before I go, Dad?” I ask. “Bring you anything?”
He moves his arm slightly toward me. “Hold my hand,” he says. Surprised, I quickly sit and reach for his hand. “Sure,” I say. He grasps my fingers tightly and closes his eyes again. But I’ve seen pain and fear in those eyes, and I am stunned. This man whom I had looked up to as my strength, whom I had always thought of as above fear, courageous beyond limit. My father is afraid! He wants – needs – to be comforted.
We remain that way for some time. I don’t know how long. What is left of the afternoon and early evening spins away. Shadows crawl up the wall behind his bed and disappear. The room grows dark except for the television and a bare light bulb – a night-light above the door. His monitor continues its parade of white lines across a green background, tracking his vital signs. The passing time doesn’t matter. I would have sat there the entire night rather than remove my hand from his.
A nurse enters with his dinner tray. Nothing is said. She looks, puts down the tray and leaves us alone, shutting the door quietly behind her. I hold his hand tightly. I am his son, he is my father.
It grows dark in the room. I look at my father. This man along with the woman he’d loved, and by the grace of God in whom they fervently believed, had given me life. For that alone, I owed him a debt of gratitude. The strong, regular features of his face are now tired and drawn in pain. A line from James Agee’s novel comes to mind: “May God bless my people … my good father, oh, remember him kindly in his time of trouble; and in the hour of his taking away.”
With one hand still in his as he sleeps, I pray the Rosary silently, asking the Blessed Mother to intercede for healing, and asking God to restore my father to his family for a few more years. It is very late when I arrive home that night.
My father recovered from this heart attack, left the hospital and lived another four years. Our relationship became much better than it had ever been. He was more open with me, more willing to extend himself. Now eager to be a father, he talked of his childhood, his own mother and father, his school and work experiences. I was more respectful, more understanding, more forgiving and less demanding of him.
During those last few years he came daily to the law office I maintained in a small two story, asbestos-sided house converted long ago into office space. Slowly, so as not to overtax his damaged heart, he’d climb the stairs and take his seat in one of the chairs in front of my desk. If I was on the phone he’d wait quietly, sipping the coffee I usually had ready, his eyes roving the office, from me to the books and papers scattered about. He was visiting his son. And while he was there, it didn’t matter who was waiting to see me or what pressing chore went unattended. I was visiting my father. This was his time. Our time together.
Our visits were good ones. We talked about many things and never quarreled again during his life. It was as if we both knew that we had been given a second chance to improve on what had gone before. Like in the movie a chance to get it right this time.