Daddy and the One-Armed Man

Sunday, June 19, 2005

I lost my father to a prolonged terminal illness nearly five years ago. This fact makes Father's Day no less significant for me. Rather, it changes the significance. This is a day, for me, to stop for a moment and think of the man who helped bring me into the world, and whose advice and good example helped prepare me to face the world.

I could choose to spend each Father's Day mourning my loss or I could just put the day out of my mind entirely. I will do neither. For, although my readers already are probably quite aware that I do not believe in an afterlife, I see that my father is still with me in a sense: He's still teaching me lessons to this day.

I would, of course, much rather he were still alive. One of the great joys of having good parents, as I have learned from my dear mother, is that they become very good friends in your adulthood. This change, part of the normal transformation from childhood to adulthood, was occurring in my relationship with Dad near the end of college. I had always been closer to my mother, but Dad and I had some good conversations when, on the way to or from college, we'd make the hours-long drive between Mississippi and Texas.

After college, I went on to the Navy and to grad school. I didn't get to see Dad very much then and his condition worsened to the point that it was hard to have a good conversation with him when I did. He died around the end of my time in grad school. But such was the stuff this man was made of that his reach defies death. He teaches me something important every day. Classes began the day before his funeral and I don't see them ending any time soon.

Funerals, it is often said, are for the living. I completely agree with that sentiment, but until Dad's funeral, I saw this strictly as a way for the bereaved to pay their last respects, to achieve some measure of closure before beginning the process of recovery. With Dad's funeral, I learned otherwise. I saw that the work of a good parent can continue for the lifetime of his children. For that lesson, he had a little help from someone who, to me, was a mysterious stranger. He remains so to this day, but I will never forget him and I will always remain grateful that he stopped by for my father's memorial service the night before the funeral to pay his respects.

I saw, but did not meet, this man. I merely recall seeing, among the many familiar and unfamiliar faces at the memorial, a man with one arm entering the room where we'd gathered. He spoke briefly to my mother, who later told me about the conversation. Dad was a cop. He apparently knew the one-armed man from his youth, with the two growing up to become very different people. As a policeman, Dad encountered this man when he was on the verge of doing something that he did not elaborate upon, but which the man merely described as "very stupid," and as something that would have landed him in the state pen. Dad took this man into his police car for a little drive. Over the course of that drive, Dad gave him a good talking to and then let him go. Dad changed this man's mind. Whatever he was about to do, he didn't do it, and he wanted to make sure that we knew how Dad had helped him. Dad, perhaps literally saved his life, probably did better than save it, and, for all I know, saved some other lives in the process.

This simple act of justice and respect meant a lot to me then and it does now. I never knew that Dad had done this. Perhaps Dad didn't know himself whether he'd done this much good. Maybe he never saw the one-armed man again. But this story put a lot of things in perspective for me. It's too easy, from familiarity, to take things for granted, or at least to regard as ordinary that which really is a rare treasure. My own father was the only father I knew. It seemed perfectly normal to me, thank goodness, to have such a good man for a father. Until that story, I did not fully appreciate how lucky I was to be this man's son.

If one can gain some measure of a man by the friends he keeps, then one would know my father as a good man by those who attended his funeral. Would you attend a funeral if you were in great pain and had been told you had only months to live? It might depend on whose funeral it was. One of my father's friends did just that. Another friend of his, from his days in the police force, tearfully told us that Dad was "the last of the good guys." What moved these men to do what they did? And why were there so many other good people at my father's funeral?

The one-armed man gave me the answer the night before. Again, I did not know about this story, but it failed to surprise me. It sounded just like something Dad would do. In fact, my brothers and I laugh when we remember getting into trouble and having to sit through one of Dad's trademark, interminable lectures. You damn well knew the consequences of carrying on as you did and exactly why what you were doing was stupid by the time he'd finish one of those. What the one-armed man told me was that we were all damned lucky for this to be an everyday part of our lives. If there was a single constant refrain from Dad, it was, "Think!" Father didn't just say this. He was a good man day in and day out. The one-armed man and Dad's friends gave me a deeper appreciation for him by the act of attending his funeral and paying their respects. Their acts of justice to my father really meant a lot to me.

As I said, Dad was a cop. This meant that he was not a rich man. And I also said that he's still leading the way for me to this day. Among other things, he was always big on keeping one's priorities straight. For example, when my brothers and I were growing up, we were tearing up the back yard one day playing soccer when my mother complained to Dad about what the back yard was going to look like if we kept it up. Dad told her, "We're growing kids, not grass." This kind of thinking comes in handy at times like a recent trip home from work a month or so ago.

I do not, as a rule, blog about work. I will say, though, that I am not at all very happy with my current job. On top of that, personal circumstances have dictated that I put on hold my efforts to remedy the situation. Part of this is timing: I will likely have to leave Houston at some time in the next year or two. So it was that I recently had to end a job search. One day shortly afterwards, I was on the way home from work, feeling very unhappy about this. I work long hours, make little money, and derive little enjoyment in my current position. I got off at the parking lot from the shuttle bus I take to and from my work site. My car's old and on seeing it, I remembered that I'd have to take it in to get repaired soon, and for who knows how much money.

I was feeling close to forty and dead in the water.

Then I remembered Dad. Now that was a man who had to contend with car trouble and little money. And he had to support three kids to boot. That was also the same man who helped some stupid kid turn his life around, and whose funeral was attended by lots of good people who thought very highly of him.

Really. What's more important in life? A damned car or your character? What will get you farther in the long run?

Screw what kind of car I'm driving. There are more important things in life. And as for the job and my career, I'll figure that out.

Thanks again, Dad!

-- CAV


The General said...


Bravo! That was extremely well written and touching. Your father was obviously a great man, and very important to you.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, General, for the sentiment and for recommending this story on your own blog.