A Failure of Sorts

A Good Home-Run Swing

A Morning Stroll

A Small Stream


Chamber of Commerce

Close Observation of a Plant

Die, Bambi, Die!

Edith Schrantz, Pedant

Happy Birthday to You

Mission Accomplished

My Garden

Pale Yellow Light

Recycle? Sure.

Sailing to Somewhere


The Death of Zane Grey



            It was over forty years ago, but I remember the moment clearly.  My father was standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes from the breakfast he had cooked for us kids, my brother, sister, and me.  It must have been a Saturday because he was home and my mother was probably at work.  His lit cigarette sat in an ash tray on the windowsill above the sink.  Like so many other times, I liked to sit and listen to my father tell his stories, or sing.  He loved to sing, and he must have known every song from the 1930s and 40s.  This time he was telling me about when we lived in the countryside in Western Pennsylvania, about 7 miles from the bus company where he worked as a driver.    He was telling me about having to hitchhike to work, or walk if need be, whenever one of our succession of very used cars wasn’t running, which was all too frequent.

            “Let me tell, you, Mark, at 5 a.m., there ain’t too many cars out there, and the ones that are ain’t too anxious to stop for anybody.”

            “How often did that happen?” I remember asking.

            “More often than I wanted, that’s for sure,” he said with a laugh.  Maybe it was the distance from those days that allowed him to joke about it, but I think that was just my dad.  If he minded, you never knew it.  He had moved 5 miles farther away from work so our mom could be near her friend and my brother and I could go to Catholic school, even though it meant he’d have to get up about an hour earlier each day in case the car wouldn’t start.  And when it didn’t, and he had to be at work at 6 a.m. on a cold, snowy, January day, he just bundled up and walked out into the early morning darkness.  As a child, naturally I took no notice of such things.  As I grew older, though, I began to understand more fully just who my father was, especially after I got my own family.  And the more I learned, the more I saw his strength.  Even though he faced a lot of hardships in his life, still my father would reproach himself for what he hadn’t done or who he hadn’t become, even into his later years, as if someone were judging him.  In my eyes, he was just my dad, a man who faced life with great responsibility and courage.

            Growing up without a father can’t be easy, but I don’t know how much it affected my father’s character.  He told me he only had one memory of the man.  My father was about 4 or 5, standing on a street corner with his maternal grandfather, when a tall stranger in a dark overcoat approached and gave him 50 cents.  That man was his father, and that was the only time my father ever saw him, as the man abandoned his wife and family soon after his second child, my dad’s younger sister, was born.  If young boys need fathers, my dad never had one.  Instead he had his maternal grandfather, since his mother had to move back home for support.  The family told him his father had died, and he believed that until sometime in his late teens when an aunt told him the truth. 

            So without a father of his own, with his mother working full-time to support them and living with his maternal grandparents, and several unmarried aunts and uncles in a large, three story house near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my father received a kind of benign neglect.  As long as he wasn’t in trouble at school or in the neighborhood, everyone left him alone.  So he never heard “How’s school going?  Did you do your homework?  What do you want to be when you grow up?”   And though he was a straight-A student in elementary school, and loved to read, by the time he entered middle school, he did only enough to pass and stay out of trouble.             Part of that was due to the times.  My dad began middle school in 1934, the middle of the Depression.   As soon as he was old enough to work, he did—delivering ice door-to-door for people’s iceboxes (before refrigeration was invented), and later, when he turned 16, working over 20 hours/week at a local ice-cream plant.  So he had little time for homework, but no one pushed him to do it anyway.  He was a good kid, though, staying out of trouble and putting all of his weekly pay into the family’s kitty every Friday night, keeping just a couple dollars for cigarettes and a movie.  No shopping for clothes, no nights out with his friends, no poker games or drinking.  As my father told me many times, “In those days, everyone did what they could to help out.”  And you were glad to contribute, I imagine, especially if you were living with relatives and feeling beholden.

            So when he finished high school in June of 1940, he went to work full-time at the ice-cream plant, just another working class kid glad to have a job.  Six months later came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and like most other men, my dad enlisted.  In a blue collar area like Pittsburgh, people looked up to Roosevelt, and when he said “your country needs you,” my dad went.  He told me, “Hitler had to be defeated.  There was no other way.”  For my dad, duty was paramount.  He saw fatherhood the same way.  “When you’re single, you come first; when you get married, your wife comes first, and when you have a family, your kids come first.” So when he returned from the war, he and my mother got married, and my dad went to work right away doing the only thing he knew how—driving.  He had been a motor pool staff sergeant in the war, and he could drive anything, so when he returned to Pittsburgh, he went to work driving a city bus.  And he stayed with bus driving for the next 24 years, struggling to raise three kids on $1000 a month, a decision he regretted many times.  He had had a chance after the war to go to college on the GI Bill, but he didn’t think he could do it.  Besides, he said, he had a family to take care of, and they came first. 

            That’s why, though he may have felt inadequate about his education, his sense of responsibility was clear and strong.  Rain or shine, he went to work every day of my life, quite a few times when a doctor would’ve told him to stay in bed.  As time passed, though, he saw the limits of his education and skills, and he regretted what he hadn’t done, what he hadn’t become.  Many times he told me of his regret that we never could afford to take a vacation, never had a car we didn’t worry about, and always worried about getting sick.  He never let go of a sense of self-reproach, of not having “done better,” as he said, and it hurt me to see him think less of himself for that. 

            But that was his great strength, his unshakeable sense of duty and responsibility, and I wish he could have seen it that way.  When my mother took a part-time job to help make ends meet, on those days she worked, he cooked dinner and washed dishes, and on weekends he did laundry and vacuumed the house, in addition to cutting the grass.  No moaning.  No complaints.  He used to sing while he did the dishes, and he told me again and again, “There’s no woman’s work or man’s work.  There’s just work, and if a job needs done, you do it.”  My dad was liberated before they used the word.  And though no one ever pushed him to make anything of himself, he made sure I didn’t repeat his mistake.  “Get that education, Mark,” he told me a million times.  “It’s the only thing the money man can’t take away from you.”  And he gave me the attention for my schooling, for my future hopes and dreams, that no one ever gave him.  I went to college, and I went as far as I could go. 

            There’s one more thing no one can take away from you, and my dad showed me that, too.  Besides the deep sense of duty, my father also showed me what courage is.  Yes, he served in WWII, but he was young and almost everyone was in uniform.  “It was our duty, and we just had to do it,” he said.  He also stood up to the financial pressures of a low-paying job without complaint and without flinching.  He told me once that even when we were living literally paycheck to paycheck, and he and my mother were juggling bills from week to week, he never once considered leaving us.  “The thought just never entered my head.”  He saw that simply as his duty, and to him, duty didn’t require courage.  Even later, in his 60s, when he was diagnosed with advanced arteriosclerosis and faced multiple operations, open heart surgery twice, and years of a regiment of strict diet, exercise, and pills, he took it as just another job he had to do.  He never complained about it; he just did it.

            Then in March of 2003, after fighting the disease to a standstill, the doctors discovered the small spot in his lungs.  It was cancer, and it was spreading.  And at his age, 81, and with his heart condition, they told him they were sorry but could do nothing.  The operation alone could easily have killed him.  And so he picked up the last and heaviest burden of his life, the sure knowledge of his own mortality, and carried it to the end with a dignity that I cannot fathom.  “Okay, doc.  How long?”  was all he asked.  They told him maybe six months.  And so, like few of us are asked to do, he faced his end, knowing that he probably wouldn’t see another year.  And despite this crushing burden, he didn’t complain, didn’t bemoan his fate, even as the cancer steadily eroded his body and drained his strength.  I know that no action can express the essence of a person, yet a couple of moments during those final months come close to summing up my father. 

            Early on in his final months, shortly after we learned he had cancer, I was raging against the injustice of fighting the good fight against heart disease and stroke only to be blindsided by cancer, complaining bitterly of what seemed the stupidity of it all.  Of course, it was just my shock, my sorrow, my anger.  And he said to me, very calmly, with a conviction I could sense was genuine, “It’s just my turn, Mark, that’s all.”   He spoke as if not just dying, which we all must do, but having to watch it slowly coming toward you was simply the final job he had to do.  And like every other day of his life, my dad got up and went to work.  No complaints.  Just duty.  It was, as he said, just his turn.

            A few months later, after he had been confined to bed and had lost a lot of weight, the enormity of what was happening to him finally hit me.  In my mind I had understood what the cancer was doing and what it meant, but emotionally I hadn’t yet accepted it.  When it finally sank in, I felt crushed, weak, and powerless to do anything even to ease his suffering (though by that time he was on pain medication so he felt no physical pain).  I knew how stoically he had been bearing it all, and seeing him slowly dying and not being able to do a single thing to stop it was just too much.  His bed had long been moved into the living room, and there were just the three of us quietly talking on a Sunday afternoon in September.  Choking back tears, I suddenly turned to him and said, “I hate this!  You have to go through this, suffer like this, and all I can give you are words.”

            For some time then, his voice had been growing progressively weaker and fainter, sounding less and less like he used to, but at that moment, somehow he found strength and said to me almost in the same voice I had known all my life, “Mark, words have changed the world.”  And just like that, my pain, not his, seemed to lessen, and I knew then why he said it—to help me, to lift the burden a bit from my shoulders.        

            The last moment came sometime in the final weeks.  It was a warm, late October Sunday in Charlottesville, and we were sitting outside.  I had just taken him for the first and only wheelchair ride of his life around the neighborhood, and when we got back to the house, he and I and my mother and sister sat outside for a while and talked.  My sister told me how she had gone with my mother to pick him up from the hospital where he had spent the weekend on doctor’s orders--just to give my mother some relief from the round-the-clock care she had been giving for weeks on end, care that included lifting him in and out of bed.  My sister told us how, as he sat in his wheelchair while she signed him out at the nurses’ station on the hospice floor, she asked him, “So, Dad, did you make any friends while you were here?”  In a clear voice he said, “No, they’re all comatose.”  We all chuckled, and then he made a face as if he were comatose, eyes half closed, mouth open, and head lolling to the side.  We laughed so hard the tears rolled down our cheeks.  I don’t know how he found the strength of character to joke about his last days on earth, yet that was my father.  He never complained.  “Just do what you gotta do,” he always said.

            He died on November 3, 2003, at home.  And though it has been five years, a week doesn’t go by that I don’t think of him.  Over the years I’ve come to see how he has influenced me, how his beliefs about life and people, his values, are also very much mine.  I hope I have some of his strength, his sense of duty, his generosity and compassion.  And I have come to believe that whenever someone does see such things in me, they’re really seeing him.  You see, although he never had a father, I did.

 Copyright ©  Mark McTague, 2009