Today, August 24, is my father’s birthday. He was born in 1909 and died in 2013. Somehow my love and respect for him continues to grow. It happened over time but it is much like what Mark Twain said:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.“
Imagine how “astonished” I was by “the old man” after I had continued to witness his learning as he passed 100. He set the standard. He told me one time, “I love you, but I don’t respect you.” He was right. He was always razor sharp and I grew to want his respect.
He had been first in his class in everything he had ever done and could cut through the fog to get to the heart of an issue with a single lightning bolt comment, but the real reason I thought so highly of him was I saw him choose to live with determined integrity.
During the last 15 years of his life, he lived in a retirement home near where I worked. The other old men on his floor gave up shaving for weeks but I would always shave him before he would leave his room as my show of love and respect. I would visit him every afternoon and wheel him into dinner unless I was in a case or out of town.
In the mid-1990s, in yet another effort to win his respect, I enthusiastically informed him that this new Internet thing would open us to world peace. He smiled and said, “probably not that easy.” He was right and I was flat on my face again. I could only think of what he must have thought of me in my teens during the “don’t trust anybody over 30” period.
I was the worst kid ever. I had undiscovered learning issues back then, and well-developed disciplinary problems. I kept getting thrown out of school and — to make things worse — I would disappear to hitchhike through at least 40 of the states.
One time when I was heading back to Maryland, I called home from a payphone in a Howard Johnson’s south of the Chicago because a driver who picked me up bribed me with food if I would call my parents to tell them that I was coming home. My mother answered the phone and could not stop crying because she said she had been so worried. Despite my misspent youth, my father and mother never gave up on me. I was their son despite my failures. They would do the right thing. That determined integrity was a commitment to love. I wanted to learn that.
One afternoon when he was 94, he complained of pains in his lower abdomen and after an ambulance ride to the hospital he was admitted to surgery.
As I prayed in an empty waiting room very late at night, I thought I was never going to see him alive again. On scratch paper I sketched out a sonnet of remembrance. I wrote it after they wheeled him out of the operating room.
In the end it’s touch that holds memory.
The other senses are immediate
And defend the present territory.
The other four are there to navigate.
Tonight my father went under the knife
And I waited alone with my cell phone
To see what would become of this one life;
Together, separate, and both alone.
For an hour in the last waiting room,
I remembered him as sound and insight,
Too perspicacious for the cool boxed room
That would contain him in this, his last night.
At ninety-four how could he have survived?
I kissed the forehead of a man, alive.
As he approached his 100th birthday, we were talking and he, almost as an afterthought, said, “I admire what you have accomplish with your life. I’m not sure I could have done what you have done.” I don’t think he ever realized that was the one thing I had always hoped to hear from him. Our last years together we’re perfect. He had never withheld love. I just had refused to accept its responsibilities.
Shaving My Father
(From a draft I wrote the day after my father’s death at 104.)
This is the last small room in which he will rest.
Every day I visit him at four o’clock.
We balloon the room with our forgiveness.
“Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”
Two men knock on his door then wait like guests.
“Not funny for a man this close to death.”
We share what only dark humor can express.
The Marx brothers, for both of us, are the best.
The electric razor hums in my hand
As it cuts along the cheekbone and the neck.
Like a harvester on pre-winter land
I harvest thistle from earth’s intellect
Across a snow bank of thin paper skin.
They zip their bag shut and leave me without him.
Ever since I was a little boy I dreamed that some day I would have the opportunity to write professionally full time, so I practiced.
Twenty years ago, I decided, for practice, to write a sonnet a week for a year and to exchange them with a friend every Monday morning for 52 weeks to keep this discipline alive. After that year I forgot about them. They were just another exercise like calisthenics or running laps. It was just practice.
Recently, I rediscovered the sonnets but they were different. I was surprised to find that because I was forced to write every week I had accomplished something I’d never expected. I had written an accidental diary.
What was wonderful about this accidental diary was that it never was designed to see the light of day. It was whimsical and nakedly honest. In hindsight, each sonnet turned out to be a snapshot of a random thought happening at the given moment that I had to write.
Most were finished late on Sunday nights, written from scratch. One I added latter. A few were reshaped from old stuff if I was short on time.
Each sonnet covered every subject imaginable but together they were a subjective scrapbook of a year of my life. They were little stories written in 14 lines which ended in rhymes and a rhyming couplet to tie it all up.
Now as I turn the pages of that year, I can see how unconsciously I developed confidence and a sense of humor and I found my voice.
It is so wonderful to take the time to look back over your shoulder and accidentally discover what you didn’t know you were. Practice makes pluperfect.
Apologies in advance. I am going to use the “N word.”
On August 16, 1845, 27-year-old Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave at the risk of recapture, left the United States for a speaking tour of Ireland and the British Isles to promote his antislavery mission. When he reached Dublin, Douglas first saw Daniel O’Connell the famous Irish patriot and, that afternoon, went to hear him speak on Catholic emancipation, self-government for Ireland and his hatred of slavery in America. After O’Connell spoke, he was introduced to Douglass. O’Connell had just turned 70 and was more than twice Douglass’ age. They shared their mutual hatred of slavery, and then unexpectedly, O’Connell introduced Douglass to the remaining crowd as “the Black O’Connell.”
Hats off to Robert Manson, who introduced me to this subject.
IN FREEDOM’S NAME
“…I was born in exile from my native land,
Schooled with whips, and shackled by my fellow man,
Raised as chattel, alone, a slave and bastard,
As the property of my mother’s master
But not until I was free to come and go
Did I find the family I didn’t know
And not until the courthouse in County Cork
Did I discover O’Connell in my heart:
The two of us, as one, exiled from our faith
Our people and safety, by a nation state
“…Before I landed, after my weeks at sea,
(Free in a white country would be new for me)
The kind captain of our ship, the Cambria,
Asked that I speak upon my wild idea:
The granting of my country’s slaves their freedom.
The Americans on board came undone ‘n
Violent: ‘Down with the nigger! He shall not speak!’
Captain Judkins confronted them when they reached
Out to throw ‘the god damn nigger overboard’ —
Were there no boundaries to bondage and discord?…
“…Not until, in Dublin, near Sackville Street Bridge
When I saw him down by Trinity College
And heard him speak at Conciliation Hall:
Hating slavery, but nonviolence for all,
The temperance pledge, the failing potato crop
And the Irish servitude he’d try to stop:
Freed now, this Catholic beneath the English heel,
Of Peel, the P.M. he’d called ‘that Orange Peel’:
Freed now, fresh from prison for his English sins
I heard O’Connell turn Irish words to hymns…
“…Not ‘til County Cork, with the crowd before me,
When I said his name, they, as one, rose for me,
And from within, I heard my master curse him
And wondered what if O’Connell were my twin?
…Not until my heart asked me: ‘Why hesitate?
Trust him, he’s Irish. He’s born to agitate.
Weren’t you both born with bondage your argument?
And both born to harmonize as dissidents?’
…Only then, I was surprised to discover
In freedom’s name, I’d found my Irish brother…”
Until we realize that our individual freedoms are dependent on each other, we will repeat this servitude without end.
I want to share joy, appreciation, and an observation during this hardship on all graduating seniors, whether from high school, college, or any school, during this, our second COVID Graduation.
I don’t really remember that much about all the details of my high school graduation. But I do know that the friends I made and that school itself still shape my life with a respect for the arts and a respect for the uniqueness of the lives of the different people of that school.
My college graduation I do remember, but more because I have made new friends each year when I return to carry out my responsibilities on the “Happy Committee.” The alums on the Happy Committee put on and manage the graduation each year, so I relive the happiness of my graduation each year by helping others celebrate.
In both cases, my memories of graduation have been shaped over the years by the present more than the past.
For the last nine years, I have written a humorous, often self-mocking ode, which I read at the Spring meetings of my Alumni Association. Last year, there was no graduation because of COVID, so my ode had to be videoed outdoors and delivered by Zoom at the meeting.
This year that ritual had to be repeated again, as a “pandemic déjà vu. ..all over again.” But this time I compared the university’s response to the influenza of 1918 with its improved response to the present pandemic, in again a humorous, self-mocking effort to tell a story of joy and uniqueness.
This year, my advice to those graduating is to stay in touch with your classmates. You will find that those reunions and the evolving friendships will make these strange years even more precious even though you had to suffer through a Zoom graduation.
My guess is that you will share the humor from all of this with your classmates over time, and the bonds will grow stronger because of the uniqueness of this year—and because you survived all the craziness.
Over 15 years ago I jumped the gun and began training for the Senior Olympics.
I always had a plan. I had made my commitment, early in life, when I was in second grade. I committed the first moment that mandatory exercise was imposed at school.
I dutifully avoided strenuous exercise in order to have absolutely no injuries when I turn 90.
I always played goalie to avoid running laps. Hockey and soccer practice always ended with the coach talking shots on the goalie while the rest of the team ran endless laps… but not me.
No, I was strategically planning and waiting in order to let the great athletes of my generation destroy their bodies and knock themselves out of competing with me.
I decided at the age of 90 I would announce invulnerability with a big press release and maybe a huge parade.
There would be no Senior Olympic marathoners my age because by then they would all be broken down or dead and as the only competitor I could win all three medals in one race and even better, I could walk.
This was a perfect plan except I did not count on the mental error of premature delusions of grandeur.
Yeah. I made one big mistake. I started training too early.
The Marathon Man
In a world of educated guesses
About one’s loves, integrity and health
It is my custom to keep promises,
Even if they are only to myself.
Still being a tenth of a ton and all,
With sacred dictates of my religion
Requiring too much food and alcohol,
What made me train to run a marathon?
I trained on a treadmill, March to July.
Got my first “runners high” at fifty-five.
Depleted my life’s endorphin supply,
And blew out both knees and begged to die.
Ah yes, but to Hell with all of this fun;
Next year, for sure, I’ll be ready to run.
One of the things I love about spring is it offers a welcome contrast between my focused pursuit of heaven in a church with a fresh reminder that we live surrounded always by the accidental beauty of nature.
Sunday Accidentally Spent
I’m by the pool on this sunny Sunday
With my wife and two children off at church.
I’ve pulled the Bible off the shelf, on display,
From its front row center prominent perch.
I’ll read it after The New York Times.
Midway through “The Book Review” I half-see
A Monarch butterfly in the sunshine
Hold the Book like a Christian “wannabe.”
Once you hold the Times, its history.
Finished. Forgotten. Trash canned people’s dreams.
But the Bible and butterfly as extremes?
The Christian code and the fatally free?
Did the two of them touch by accident?
And was my Sunday accidentally spent?