catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 24 :: 2013.12.27 — 2014.01.09


A beautiful mess

The winter weather arrived last night. The freezing rain turned to ice sometime during the early morning hours, coating everything. Our kids woke us up early, calling our sleepy-eyed attention to the shrubs bent to half their height, the trees bowed low under the weight, and the fallen branches blanketing our driveway and yard. It was one of those freezes that makes a mess, but you know it’s good because of how many dead branches you find on the ground. Yet, the sheer beauty of the silvery coat draped over trees and houses, driveways and cars was reason enough to want to walk around in the middle of the mess. And so, it was not long before we found ourselves outside, simply listening to the trees heaving and creaking under the ice.

As we enter the beautiful mess, we cannot help but marvel at everything we are discovering. Our son finds a completely encased thistle and presents it to my wife as a “flower.” I give him a playful push on the shoulder and, as I do, I remember my dad pushing my shoulder with that same playfulness.

His hands were always part of his affection. When I was younger, he’d bend me into a headlock, his knuckles rubbing back and forth with that affectionate roughness across the top my head. As I grew older, he would grab my shoulder from the side, thumb in front, fingers in back, when teasing me. A wink and a smirk would always follow. In the last few years we had together, when I would stoop to hug him in his wheel chair, he would cup the back of my head, his left thumb and forefinger resting just above the nape of my neck and he’d kiss my cheek.

An hour into clearing debris out back, I pause to put on a fresh pair of work gloves. My dry skin catches on the fuzzy inside. I’m not accustomed to this type of work anymore. I tend to be enamored with the life of the mind, preferring to play with ideas, doing most of my thinking and creating through a keyboard or with a notepad and colored markers. Dad was on the other end of the spectrum. Oh, he certainly thought a lot. But for him, thinking was best done while doing something else, something productive. He always seemed to have dirt under his fingernails or paint on his forearms. His rough hands were often nicked. I wonder how many times one of his fingernails turned purple from him hitting it in the repair shop. It seemed like almost every month, though that’s probably more my impression than an actual memory. But I am certain that Dad wasn’t afraid of hard work; for better or worse, he embraced it as a way of life.   

We decide to create a few piles of debris. As our daughter and I drag over a much larger branch, I notice the tracks being left in the melting snow. It’s as if each icy branch has become an oversized broom, etching curious patterns behind us. How many times didn’t my dad and I do the same thing? The Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family would go to some tree farm he’d seen advertised in the paper to cut down that year’s Christmas tree. Inevitably, we’d end up in the last grove of trees and then have to drag the tree back, sometimes pulling it together, sometimes taking turns.

Even on these family excursions, he’d find some way of teaching me. “If you lie down and hold the saw blade like this so it’s parallel to the ground, it’ll go much easier. Now you try.” He’d cup his hand around mine at first, showing me what he meant and then scoot back. He loved teaching with his hands, whether showing me how to hold my hands flat to feed a horse, or how to position my thumb when throwing a curve ball, or even how to change out a flat on my first car, his hands would envelop mine and then slowly pull back.

My gloves are soaked and pretty much useless at this point. We head inside for a break — hot chocolate and a warm cookie, just a little something to take the chill out.

If there is one thing my friends knew about my Dad, it was his hospitality. I remember going through the pictures with my mom and sisters after Dad died. I could not believe how many of them involved Dad wearing an apron and holding a spatula of some sort in his hands. There were the Fourth of July picnics that he and Uncle Mike would put together — two or three picnic tables lined up and Dad standing there cooking pancakes on an oversized griddle. There were pictures from camping, with Dad flipping burgers on a charcoal grill. And there were those Sunday lunches, when Dad would spend most of the time in the kitchen working on a turkey or a roast or mashed potatoes to feed us and the friends we brought home weekly.  

When we head back out for our third round of gathering debris from the yard, I think of Dad’s determination. What was it like for him to fight the prolonged decline that accompanied his MS? I remember him talking once about how having this disease forced him to relearn what it meant to be a man, and more importantly, what it meant to be God’s child. He wasn’t always graceful at the transitions, but he remained determined. I remember the last time he went golfing with us. He used his cane to balance himself, while swinging his 3 wood. He still had enough spunk in him to beat me that day. I recall his playfulness in pushing a few of his grandkids around in his walker. Another time, he stretched out his hands as I walked in the door just to show off his new fingerless “racing” gloves, for moving himself around in his wheelchair. Near the end, I watched him take nearly a minute to move his left hand onto his right wrist, all because he wanted to hold his hand steady while he scrawled a one-sentence note on a card.

Having cleaned up enough debris for today, we go back inside. As my fingers tingle with the returning warmth, I remember holding Dad’s hand for the last time. How his hands grew cold and the color left them. How I leaned over after he passed, cupping his head in my hand and kissed his forehead. How I stayed with the hospice nurse and Mom to undress him and wash him and dress him again. And in this beautiful mess, I remember again, how much I miss my dad.

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