“Christ, you look like shit.”
Those were my exact words over seven years ago when my dad arrived early on a Sunday morning to help renovate my basement. And he really did look like shit. His face was white as a ghost. “I’m fine,” my dad replied, “just must’ve eaten something funny last night.”
If only that had been the problem. Of course, neither of us knew there was a problem. But as the morning wore on, my father’s strength ebbed. I remember him huffing and puffing as we carried a panel of Sheetrock down the stairs, and I can still feel the pangs of my initial reaction – my heart simply sank. I kept a poker face, but it was the first time in my life that I realized my dad was getting older. It hurt.
I never wanted my dad to age. I never had him around much when he was young. My father worked grueling hours – typically three in the morning until nearly four if not later into the afternoon – as a partner in our family’s waste management business. It doesn’t get any more stereotypical than that; an Italian Jersey boy in the garbage business. My father worked insane hours even as a child. His skills were self-taught; he learned to repair gas & diesel engines by going to the junkyard, taking them apart & putting them back together again. By the time he was a teenager, he was repairing trucks for real. That was in addition to driving the trucks, running the yard, going to school & being involved in wrestling and football. Just think for a moment what the kids of today do to pass time.
My father always needed to know how something worked. Like those engines, he started by taking it apart. I guess you’d call it “reverse engineering.” I used to joke that he missed his calling from NASA. For some people, magic works through their hands, like a musician or surgeon. A writer. My dad offered his help to anyone in need of a repair or a project too big to handle on their own. He made the time, too, even after working a long day or on a weekend when he could’ve been relaxing. He installed new siding on a neighbor’s house once. That’s right – siding on a complete house. My father owned a garbage business, not a siding company. He rented the necessary equipment and off he went. You would never have known a professional didn’t do it. When I questioned how he achieved such a thing, my father answered quite simply, “I just watched a company doing it down the block and figured the rest out.”
Figured it out. It was that simple, that easy. My father figured everything out. He was the modern-day MacGyver. And with that, I’ve always held one belief – the day my dad stopped using his hands would be the day he’d die.
Years after renovating his own house and swearing he’d never go through something like that again, my dad was now toiling with mine. I asked for help, but here he was, basically doing it on his own. I was left watching…until he’d send me on a coffee run lol. “But I wanna do it,” I’d complain as he hustled about with my current house repair of the week. “You can watch. I’ll get done quicker that way,” he’d reply, a smirk across his face.
Watching my dad work was like watching James Brown perform. Sure, he’d share the soul, but he was the only one capable of conjuring it. I watched my dad many, many hours over in my lifetime. And I still hadn’t “figured it out.”
So… I never wanted my dad to age. Even as I became a man, I still felt like a child in his presence. He was larger than life. My father stood all of 5 foot five, and yet he loomed over me like a giant. A superhero. It’s hard to adequately describe the feeling; to this day, I can’t quite put a finger on it. Was it due to immaturity on my behalf, or some mystical aura my dad possessed? Do all fathers make their children feel that way? Will I do so for my own daughter? Like the elusiveness of Santa Claus, I suppose that’s part of the magic…
My father could barely walk up the stairs after taking that panel of Sheetrock down into the basement. He told me he needed a few seconds to catch his breath. About ten minutes later, he was no better. That’s when I told him to go home and get some rest. My father agreed; that alone was a rarity. “Probably food poisoning,” he muttered and walked slowly to his truck.
In life, intersecting points sometimes build to a crescendo, but you never see them. You’re completely unaware. If read in a book or seen in a movie, the foreshadowing might appear clearer.
Probably food poisoning.
A few weeks later, my mother called and told me they received news from my father’s doctor…
(Part Two: Phone Booths and Four Words coming soon)