Knowing a father's amazing strengths - and his frailties

December 8, 2010 

All I remember is it was hot, and I was wearing my dad's shirt.

At the time, my head barely came up to his shoulders, and his striped polo must have gone down past my knees. I gaped at myself in the mirror. The fabric cocooning my small body rippled in a way that clothing shouldn’t. I was wearing a sail.

I hated getting all dressed up. My dad insisted, though, because of his then-exasperating belief that my favorite Star Wars T-shirt was not, in fact, appropriate for all occasions.

He and I were attending the formal closing ceremony to a summer workshop for teachers, at which he’d been an instructor for some time. This particular year, I had served as his official assistant. I was there when the camp director told him that the VIP guest had missed a connecting flight, and my dad would have to make the closing speech. I was there when he brainstormed on a wad of napkins during lunch.

I piped up frequently and offered ideas, because I had given some very serious and important speeches in school by then, and I felt my expertise could help him out. He nodded, but I was a little miffed that he didn’t seem to be writing down my suggestions.

Later, when they called him up to that podium, and he raised his eyebrows at me to say, here goes – my world imploded. It was the best speech I had ever heard. He told simple stories about a few important lessons he had learned during his years as a teacher, and he used language like it was sorcery, and he was spellbinding. More than a few of the audience members had tears in their eyes when he finished, and that standing ovation was the first moment in my life when I recall being explicitly proud of my father.

As I grew up, more and more people began to tell me that I had my dad’s face. That we talked the same. That I was his spitting image. I took these comments as a collective premonition that someday, perhaps, I could possess the same talents as he did.

And then, this past September, my dad hurt his back. One of the discs in his spine had slipped or herniated, and he was plunged into what appeared to be an unbelievable amount of pain. He stayed in bed all day, every day. Sometimes I would hear shrieking or bawling from behind his closed door.

He seems to be improving now, albeit slowly. The thing is, I only just realized the full, blunt agony of what he’s been enduring.

You see, last night I accidentally read something I shouldn’t have. There was a file on the desktop of our computer titled, “THINGS I DON’T WANT TO FORGET.” What did that mean? Curious but not expecting much, I clicked on it. It was like that closed door had been ripped open; I was flooded by my father’s personal record of every awful sensation he had experienced since his injury. It was stark and, for me, profoundly affecting.

It occurred to me that a certain amount of finding yourself, as a parent, has to do with concealing yourself, as a person. Your children can never know that you are afraid. That you cry – or at least the extent of it. You’ve got to shoulder your burdens in secret, lest your kids lose their faith.

It was uncomfortable for me to get so far inside my dad’s head. But in an odd way, it was comforting how familiar it felt. So I know that, in one way or another, I’ll always be wearing his shirts.

Emerson Hardebeck, junior class president at Timberline High School and an editor of Timberline’s student newspaper “The Blazer,” is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at turnwrite@gmail.com.

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