I’ve always had a strong intuitive side, my inner antennae compulsively tuned to pick up others’ subtle signals. When friends and family, or even strangers, are smiling yet underneath they’re tense or sad, I just feel it. “I’m fine” is almost always a white lie. Dining with a couple recently, despite the smiles and jokes, I felt certain one would happily smother the other with a pillow given the chance.
When others need help, even if they don’t realize it themselves, it’s usually not the kind I can give or even what’s wanted; this for me is a lifelong lesson. My father’s years of hoarding confounded me; the desperate need to cling unsafely to an independent life is a common challenge for adult children of elderly parents. Knowing that my father routinely drove in well in excess of the speed limit at 90 years old while listening to Big Band music at max volume scared me to death. I worried about him and the people he might harm. I knew his reflexes had slowed considerably, despite his denials. Instead of calling an exterminator to deal with the massive colony of yellow jackets he found in his living room ceiling, he hauled in a ladder from the garage, climbed up and shot an entire can of Raid into the hole in the ceiling. “You could have gotten killed!” I yelled. “I’m very careful,” he replied. A 91 year old climbing a ladder—alone—is reckless; but to kill yellow jackets?! He could have fallen, broken a hip, or been stung to death, and (since he refused an emergency call service) nobody would have known for days. Despite these risks, he carried on.
People don’t want to be helped, at least not in the way you want to help them. This for me is a hard lesson. As Norman MacLean said in A River Runs Through It, “So it is that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.” With deep love and compassion for family and friends, I want to prevent their suffering, which in the end may bring us both more distress.
It was only when I stopped trying so hard to help my father that he needed me. We still battled, especially when I had to say or do things that reduced his independence, like taking away the car keys and convincing him to move out of his five bedroom two story house when he could no longer climb the stairs. I stood at his bedside and held his hand while witnessing his abject terror during his admission to a nursing home; I was there for every doctor’s appointment, regardless of the time of day, to ensure that the doctor’s orders where translated accurately to the nursing home staff. I think my father finally accepted my help because he recognized it for what it was: love.
Truly helping someone you love rarely makes you feel good about yourself if it upsets them. Telling a loved one a truth they need to hear is often much harder than remaining silent. While both of you can remain in a bubble of denial, neither of you will benefit; you are simply delaying the inevitable. Love requires compassion and kindness but also courage and risk. Taking a leap of faith and love, we give of ourselves because it’s the right thing to do; not because it’s easy.
When I was small enough to have to raise my arm to hold my father’s hand, we would walk around the block on summer evenings while he smoked a cigar. Half way round, he’d stop, take the cigar out of his mouth, slide off the ring and hand it to me. I’d slip it carefully onto my index finger as if it were a diamond and then we’d resume our walk, hand-in-hand. Looking back, I know he was happy then. He was young, he had a beautiful wife and a growing family; his future looked bright and uncomplicated. He loved his job too; his technical skills, experience and “figure-it-out” nature were a perfect fit for his job as a supervising machinist at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Immersing myself in my father’s model railroad hobby has made me realize how much we have in common; just yesterday I actually repaired a locomotive; it wasn’t running, so I took it apart and fixed it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured it out; I’m sort of fearless when it comes to this kind of problem-solving. Recently, I decided to refinish and reupholster an armchair that belonged to my parents. That I’ve never refinished or reupholstered anything before is irrelevant; I can’t resist the challenge of figuring out how to do something I’ve never done before, even if I risk ruining a really nice chair. In this way I’m like my father; he too was unable to resist the allure of an unsolved technical problem, a malfunctioning machine, or a task requiring expertise he lacked. If he required a tool that did not exist, he created one; if he couldn’t figure out how to fix something, he jerry-rigged a way to make it work well enough.
Like me, he was also a researcher. “Look it up,” he’d order. In those days this meant pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf or perusing the card catalog at the library. Tasks others left to experienced tradesmen were no obstacle to a father armed with a good book and the proper tools; laying tile, repairing plumbing, refinishing wood floors, fixing cars, refrigerators and washing machines all became part of his handyman repertoire. While today I can Google “chair reupholstery,” for a plethora of how-to articles and videos, the drive is the same; I will figure it out because I believe I can.
My father was also a reader; he ate a book a day; he fostered my hunger for books by denying my access to them. Each year he bought every single book listed in my school-issued Scholastic catalog. After laboring to carry home my enormous pile of literary treasures, he forced me to surrender them, stripping me of a library of wonders to stow high up on his closet shelf. He tantalized me with the possibility of earning a story; if I got an A on a test or completed a chore, he slipped a book into my impatient hands as a reward. I developed a Pavlovian response to the scent of old volumes; to the thrill of opening a new book; to reading titles sideways in the library stacks; to the bitter sweetness of a final page turned.
During one visit with him in the nursing home the year he passed away, I noticed that the pressure wraps on his legs had been applied incorrectly. A physical therapy intern was available to help us out; he agreed that the wraps were a mess and set to work fixing them.
My father said, “How come you knew that?”
“Because you taught me, Dad,” I replied.
“But I didn’t teach you that,” he said.
“Oh yes you did,” I said, “What did you always teach me to do?”
Dad looked down at the intern, looked up at me and then slowly, he smiled.
“I know. Ask!”
“Yes, Dad, that’s right. You taught me to ask.”
Looking up at me, grinning, he said, “But I thought all I gave you was the ring from my cigar.”
Every now and then I hear it; a low, muted whistle; faint from under the floor boards. Then, the sound of the hard working shifter, pushing and pulling rolling stock into place behind the locomotive, pulsing impatient steam as it waits to release the brake and hurl itself into the sunrise. I open the door and pause at the top of my subway stairs. A rush of warm wind hits me, breezing through my hair as a train passes underneath with a whoosh! followed by the cuchuck, cuchuck, cuchuck, cuchuck of the wheels as they fade into a nearby tunnel. My Dad is calling to me from my cellar railroad.
Or, am I calling to him? It’s been many months since I posted on this blog. Instead of Selling Dads Trains, I went back to school full-time, which is no easy feat in midlife. I’m surrounded by 20-somethings whose life experience is very different; they are welcoming, yet I feel like an alien. I don’t feel old; instead I feel incomprehensible, like the world of civics lessons, rotary-dial phones, 13 TV channels and carburators. And steam locomotives, and fathers who worked as machinists.
These days, when the whistle gets loud enough or when I feel the rumbling underground, I go down the basement stairs, and immerse myself in my father’s world. The trains carry my memories in boxcars and Pullman coaches; they know where I came from and who I am. My hands assemble a locomotive, or test a motor on a multi-meter. I wonder how a New York Central caboose ended up in a box labeled “Baltimore & Ohio”. Standing on my station platform, I realize that I miss myself; a woman who can write a pretty good academic essay but finds resolution and joy in the simplicity of a basement full of railroad mysteries.