Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Not Just A Shirt

Tucked at the bottom of my shirts and shorts in the middle-side drawer of our chest bed is a white short sleeve cut-off sweatshirt that once belonged to my father. I am not sure how I acquired it. I doubt my father, who is 84 and lives in Florida with my stepmother, remembers either. I somehow took possession of it at least 40 years ago.

I do remember my father used to wear it, I think, when he went running early in the morning. He was 6'2'' back then and weighed 240 lbs. He went on a diet and ate fish for dinner, and iceberg lettuce salads with tomatoes and homemade thousand island dressing (ketchup and mayonnaise), and beet soup (borscht) with cucumbers floating on top like lily pads on the surface of a pond.

My father started jogging, even when he was working 60-80 hour weeks, before the running boom swept the United States in the mid-1970s, wearing his sweatshirt and low-top Converse sneakers. I imagine him rubbing his hands together in the chilly New England morning air, wisps of air curling past his face, before he started his run.

I don't know how long he ran for daily or for how long he kept up his daily regimen. I do know that he shed 60 lbs, mostly through an improved diet, but spoke of running as something that gave him athletic purpose. I imagine he also dwelled on his problems, and jogging helped him clear his mind and settle on solutions.

His active life changed forever when I was 12 in 1971. I was at Hebrew school, and my parents and brother, who is four years younger than I am, drove our old car to pick up our relatively new one at the dealership in Windsor, CT, where it was being serviced for a six-month tune-up.

My dad pulled into a construction site next to the dealership because it was a short cut. The car got stuck in the mud, so as my mother and brother went get help at the dealership my dad wedged a piece of plywood under the muddy tire. Under the wood, though, was a 15-foot sewer shaft that my father fell into, shattering his kneecap and severing ligaments and tendons.

He had two surgeries, including one that fused his leg permanently straight, wore full leg casts for a total of 16 months, endured months of rehab and later back problems, and saw his life (and ours) change irrevocably as he was unable to move normally.

Several years later, he opted to reverse the fusion and had a full-knee replacement that was initially successful, but ultimately failed when his leg became seriously infected and he spent nearly a year on antibiotics.

He sued the construction company, and went to court in 1978. But he lost because the law at the time defined my father as a trespasser for being on private property. The judge said he had no recourse. His surgeon excused the nearly $30,000 that my father owed him.

My father never complained or cried (that I know of) or yelled at us or lost his temper or treated anyone differently because of his situation. He never screamed when the itching on his leg was agony and he was forced to try and scratch it with a hanger or when he stumbled or when he could no longer run or walk without pain and serious effort.

Miguel's life was altered when he was 12, too. His mother died, and one of the people he'd been closest to for all his life was ripped from him forever.

About a year so ago he asked to borrow my tie-dye shirt, the one I made on a middle school retreat when I was a teacher in the late 1990s, for some sixties day event at school. He has never given it back. I asked for it a few times before I realized he might want the shirt. Just like I've kept my father's.

When I look at the sweatshirt, which is usually after I clean out the drawer and donate old t-shirts and re-fold the ones I am keeping, I think of my father and how he persevered through his troubles and how his positive nature has remained virtually unchanged for more than 80 years. How, even though his back is bent at close to a 90-degree angle and his left leg is scarred and swollen, he became a hero in my eyes (and others) for how he dealt with and triumphed through adversity.

I hope someday, when Miguel fingers the t-shirt and remembers how I coped with Verna's death and remained committed to being the best possible parent, that he will feel the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment