PIECES OF MY FATHER
My father had a scar on his thumb, a dent really, from a childhood accident. His brother Moon was using the ax outside their small house to chop firewood. My father reached for something as the ax came down and a chunk of his thumb was lost. Ever the optimist, his telling of the story concluded with his belief that he was very lucky — he could, after all, have lost his thumb. In the last years of my father’s life, as he lay bedridden, I would look at his hands — much thinner, frail by then, almost delicate — and the sight of his scarred thumb would take me back to a childhood of reaching for his hand as we trudged up a hill to go kite-flying, or relying on his hands to tighten the girth on my horse’s saddle so I wouldn’t fall off. His hands gripped tools to do ranch work, and held paint brushes and glue to help me with science projects. In his last years, they lay gently on white sheets. They didn’t have any jobs to do anymore.
When I was young, my father would toss me above his head in the swimming pool while I tucked my legs up so I could make a huge splash when I came down into the water. His shoulders were tan and strong and I believed he could lift five times my weight if he needed to. I would watch his shoulders from behind when we went horseback riding; I always rode behind him and I could read his communication with his horse through the set of his shoulders. If they were wide and firm, he was exerting control. If they relaxed, he was giving his horse her head and they were in sinc on how they should be walking along the trail.
Once, when he was deep into Alzheimer’s, I looked at the back of his neck and I almost started crying. It looked so vulnerable to me, so much older. I realized that for so much of my life, I’d assumed that my father would always be vital and strong, that nothing would fell him or conquer him. Time works on all of us but sometimes our eyes don’t catch up to what our brains know.
This is how we remember people, I think — in the prism of memory, choosing the shiniest images from the stream of time, and letting them brush up against the inevitable sorrows that rest in the shadows of loss and regret. I would like to think that my father moves a little closer to me on this day, a day I mark in my heart. I would like to believe that the force of my thoughts and the resonance of my memories reach him through the mysterious distance between this world and the next.
One afternoon, when we climbed up the hill behind our house to fly kites, I let go of my father’s hand and stretched mine up toward the sky. “How high do I have to reach to touch God?” I asked him. “You don’t need to reach up at all,” he told me. “God’s always with you. He’s never far away.” On many days, but on this day particularly, I hope that’s true about my father as well.