Wednesday, April 28, 2010

For Jack, Again

I have been thinking about my dad a lot lately. I've been sort of wondering how he would deal with the kinds of teenage things - natural situations, I'm sure - that Heidi and I are dealing with. We have two teenage boys. They are such wonderful people. Challenging to be sure in their individual ways.

My folks had 7 kids. They would have had more too but for some serious physical issues for my mom when they were young. 7 kids. That's a lot by today's standards. I know that when I was a kid I dished out a lot of grief to my parents. So I guess I've got it coming.

Anyway, Jack O'Keefe has been on my mind. Here is a memoir about him I wrote a while back. He died in January of 1989. I was teaching a grad class at USC. This was my family story written just a couple weeks after Jack died.

For Jack

When we got to the hospital, my dad was in a coma. I heard the news before I left home that day, making my way to the Chicago hospital where he lay dying. I reached his room around 9:30. My mom and most of my brothers and sisters were already there and even some nieces and nephews, most of whom were too young to understand what was going on, that their grandpa was dying. I knew that he was going soon. It was inevitable. Soon.

In my mind I knew that a quick end would be better for him and for my mom and for all of us who loved him. In my heart I wanted to see him just one last time, to look into his eyes and make contact, to tell him just once more how much he meant to me. To tell him once again that I loved him. I hadn’t said that often enough.

As I pushed open the door of the hospital room, my family’s sadness hit me like a wave. I cried. The man I knew as my dad was no longer there, or if he was, he was so deep inside that communication wasn’t possible. I cried – more for myself than him. I cried. He was no longer in pain, no more aware of the body that had betrayed him after just a little more than 64 years. He’d never hear me say that I loved him ever again. I never told him that enough. I cried for all those times I never told him. I cried the selfish tears of one who realizes too late the power of words never spoken. I cried at the realization of how fleeting life is. I cried for opportunities lost, for conversations cut short, for him never seeing the family that Heidi would have some day.

I sat by his bed and my tears fell into the sheets. I stroked his soft brown hair, something I had never done before. I looked into his eyes that were open, but didn’t look back.

Memories emerged as they still do, all these years later. Images of my childhood and young adulthood. Pictures of my parents as the younger, energetic couple they were when I was a kid. I remembered.

My two older brothers and me wrestling with my dad on his warm Saturday morning bed. He was the biggest, strongest man in the world. If he could take us on, he could beat an army. Shrieks of laugher as one of the “Three Stooges” fell out of bed.

“You snore like a lion!”

“I’ve never heard myself snore.”

“How could you?”

My father driving the boat with my little brother Danny skiing behind. “Hang on, Danny!” Dan couldn’t have more than five or six that summer he learned to ski. He had the most incredible mixture of fear and joy on his face. That old yellow boat rode low in the water. My dad’s back and arms were hairy and freckled. Dan, whose nose was covered in summertime freckles did hang on. For miles. My dad beamed with pride. I was a little jealous.

My dad drove the boat like a crazy man at times. We loved it if someone else was skiing. We were a little afraid when we were the ones behind the boat. The sun sparkled on those Lake Michigan waves and the sun was hot on our feet on the beach. My dad’s sunglasses were horn-rimmed. The hair on his arms was golden, I remember. His hair was wavy when it was long. His hair was brown and never really turned gray. His eyes were pale, watery blue.

One summer when I was about 11 my father and I built a porch on that old summerhouse. It was pretty amazing. We used scraps of wood and some used windows he had scavenged somewhere. He could have asked my brothers to help. It would have made the project go much faster. But that didn’t bother us. He was on vacation and he was spending it with me building a porch on that old wet basement. We took plenty of breaks and drank cold root beer on those sweltering summer days. I pretended it was real beer like he used to drink. He made me feel like a man doing a man's work.

That porch looked a little rough. None of the lines were straight and the angles were far from ninety degrees but it was functional and when we painted it, the little walled off porch didn’t look half bad. It was my dad’s vacation project and I was proud that he had spent so much time with me. I should have told him how I felt about that time; how happy I was and how much I enjoyed laughing with him and watching him measure and draw lines with the flat red carpenter’s pencil. I should have told him that it was the best part of that summer for me. But I never did. Maybe when he thought back on that time, he remembered it the way I did and wished that he had told me how much it meant to him.

When I was in junior high, my family gave my dad a beat up Model A Ford for his birthday. We thought that restoring that it would make another nice project for him. He seemed pleased with the car and began restoring it right away. We hauled it to the summerhouse and stored it in the garage. That old timey garage was too small to hold a real car anyway. It had a wooden floor and I was always a bit afraid that the car would fall through. It never did.

I remember going with my dad to pick up an engine that someone had rebuilt. He paid the man $35 for it. My dad pinched the bills as he plucked them from his wallet. He always did that to make sure that there weren’t any bills stuck together. He never did get around to completely finishing the Model A project. We kept it for a few years but he did finally get it to run. I don’t think I ever saw him more pleased than when he finally got it going. It sputtered, backfired and shook as he drove it around the block. I can still see him in a grungy old t-shirt, gray-blue smoke billowing out the back, that big old Irish grin on his ruddy face, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

One time I went on a business trip with my father when I was a junior in high school. It was during my spring break. My dad did a lot of driving for his job. He was really good at it. He was a representative for a big steel mill in northwest Indiana, Inland Steel Company. He made lot of calls to deal with concerns about the steel. When I was younger I thought my dad drove for a living. In a way I guess he did. He had the most amazing sense of direction. He rarely looked at a map and seemed to feel his way around new places. He was one of those guys who never asked for directions, even if it was probably just the right thing to do. A matter of pride I suppose.

We were on a dusty Indiana country road in LaPort County when my dad recognized the area. I’m not sure why we were country roading, surely there was a more direct way home. Maybe he just wanted to spend more time with me. I like to think that’s what it was. I was bored from riding in the car all day. But it had been fun – just the two of us. He took me out to lunch at some greasy spoon out in the country. I felt very adult, very special. As we left the restaurant, he put some dinner mints in his pocket for my brothers. He often did that.

I perked up a little and looked away from my book when I saw him becoming enthusiastic. “Somewhere around here,” he mumbled as we drove by farmhouses in the hazy Indiana evening. “There!” he said with excitement. “I knew I’d been here before. That’s where my father was born. This is the farm where he grew up!”

I didn’t realize at the time just how important that moment was. I didn’t know all these years later that I would remember that sunset, that dusty road, his ruddy face and wind blown hair. It was one of the few times he ever talked about his family. But he did talk that evening. It was as if a door to some part of him had been opened. He told me about his grandfather who was killed on that farm, kicked in the head by a mule. He told me about going there when he was a kid. He hadn’t been that way for so many years that he couldn’t even remember. There was a light in his eyes, a sparkle. I wish I had tapped into his energy more, asked him more questions.

My father dropped me off at college my freshman year. I was exited about leaving home. And more than a little scared. One of my best friends from high school was living in the same dorm. So was my girlfriend. It was the independence I had dreamed of. But I was frightened as well. I grew up in a big family. Seven kids. There was always someone to hang around with, someone to tease. I was used to being surrounded by siblings and my boys from the neighborhood. It was scary to think of living hours away from home. To talk to my mom and my little brother it would be long distance. Long distance.

We talked about the old days on the four-hour trip. It’s funny how there could even be “old days” when you’re 18 and starting out on your own. I sensed that he was sad at seeing me leave home. I would be back of course. I planned on working in his steel mill the next summer, but this was the first real step toward my being on my own. He helped me move my few possessions to the sweaty dormitory room.

“You’ve got your meal ticket, right?”

“Sure,” I said, starting to get choked up.

“You’ve got some spending money?”

“A little. I don’t need much.” I was trying to act brave but on the inside I was falling apart. I was missing my dad already.

“Here.” He pinched out two twenties. “Don’t tell your mother I gave you this.” It was funny. My mom was by far the more generous one. “And call us if you need anything. Anything at all. Person-to-person for yourself and we’ll call you back.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I wasn’t going to cry in front of him. It was hard.

“C’mon, Bub,” he said. Then he hugged me. Tight. He wasn’t a very hugging guy. I didn’t ever remember him hugging me. Maybe that’s why it meant so much. Maybe that’s why I still remember it. I walked him back to his car. When his car turned the corner I cried.

A few months before he was diagnosed with cancer, my mom and dad visited the first grade classroom at R. Earle Davis Elementary in Cayce, SC where I taught. He was very sick and didn’t know it yet. His hips were sore and his appetite was down. He was looking thin but his color was good. “Just feeling my age,” he said, almost apologetically.

I can see him now, sitting in one of the tiny first grade chairs with the children gathered around my mom and him asking questions. “What kind of naughty things did Mr. O’Keefe do when he was little?”

“Mr. O’Keefe was a pretty good little boy,” my dad answered. “He’s a good son.” There were times I had not been such a good son, such a good little boy. I knew. By then we had grown to love each other in the quiet way that grown-ups do. In the way that fathers and sons do when they can forget the arguments and the angst, the disobedience and the lack of respect.

I am so thankful that he forgave me for my teenage transgressions. When I think of him in that little tiny chair, I am so proud of him. He had just retired from the mill and looking ahead to a long and happy retirement.

At Christmastime we knew that my dad had cancer. We knew that he didn’t have much more time with us. We knew that the end would not be pleasant. He came home from the hospital for Christmas. It might have been because my sister Ruthie would be there and that she was a doctor and could deal with the IV that he had to keep in the whole time. Or his doctor might just have had the good sense to see that what this man needed most was his last few days at home surrounded by his family. We played cards. We laughed precious laughs. We exchanged gifts. We looked into each other’s eyes.

He and I watched a movie together in his bedroom. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And we laughed. My big brother Pat was asleep in my dad’s leather easy chair. He was snoring lightly. I was on the floor at the foot of the bed. My dad was in his bed, the IV on a pole next to the bed. We laughed. I’m glad that it was just the two of us awake. For a while, reality was suspended and we gave ourselves up to the movie. When it was over reality came crashing back over us. We didn’t have much time left.

That night I told my dad that I loved him. It was probably the first time since I was a little kid. I said that I was sorry for the ugly way I had treated him when I was younger and that he had to know how I felt. He said he was sorry for some things too. I think it was then that we admitted to ourselves that the end was close.

The evening before my dad went into the final coma I spoke with him on the phone. We talked of all the tests he had to have and he joked weakly about the awful hospital food. He had no appetite. My mom told me that he wasn’t eating. He sounded tired. The last thing I said to him before we hung up the phone was, “I really love you, Dad.”

“You too, Bub.”

I still picture him on that rickety old porch, a glass of wine in his hand. I remember sneaking into the house as a teenager and walking up the stairs in the dead of night. My father in his leather easy chair, asleep, snoring like a lion. Now when I look at my hands I see my father’s hands and in the mirror my father’s eyes. I am so blessed to have known this big, gentle man. I hope that some of his goodness has been passed down to me.

He died with relative peace and dignity. His pain was blessedly short. Most of his family was at his side. He never gave up. He was a strong man.

My dad was a simple guy. I think he had realistic expectations for us. Though he never said them quite this way, I think they were these: Do the best you can with what you have. Be honest. Earn your pay. Be as happy as you can be. I hope that I have lived up to his expectations.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Professional Tears

Yesterday was one of the most powerful literacy experiences my 3rd grade students have ever had in school. It was the last day to discuss a really cool little book by John Reynolds Gardiner called Stone Fox.

Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner: Book Cover

I can’t help but give away the story if I am going to tell this one. But if you like to read great elementary level fiction, go ahead and read it anyway. You’ll like how Gardiner gets you there…

Our student teacher, Kristin, is finishing up her time with us. Next year she’ll have a class of her own. And they’ll be lucky children indeed. But with only a week or so left, Kristin was reading the final chapter of a book they started together for literature study. When I came in, Kristin was reading the last chapter aloud. Every child was reading along in a quiet circle on the floor. Some were stretched out prone, others sat cross-legged. A few were on their backs. When I say quiet, you couldn’t hear a whisper in the room other than Kristin’s voice. It was magic. If you are a classroom teacher, you know that moments like these are rare. Precious.

When I entered Kristin was just getting to the climax. Little Willy and his faithful dog Searchlight are in a sled dog race. This is a race that will seal their fate. If they don’t win the prize money, the family farm will be lost. They are neck and neck with a mighty opponent, Stone Fox. Stone Fox is a stoic Indian who hasn’t said a word in the story so far but his presence is massive. He is legendary. He has never lost this race. Willie and Searchlight are giving him a real contest. Kristin’s voice was breathless with anticipation…

Searchlight was a hundred feet from the finish line when her heart burst. She died instantly. There was no suffering.

Kristin started to cry. As her tears fell she paused and caught her breath and read on…

It had started to snow – white snowflakes landed on Searchlight’s fur as she lay motionless on the ground.

It took a long time to read those last two or three pages. At one point I scooted over a box of tissues. Kristin paused, wiped, kept on reading. The children were absolutely glued to the text.

Stone Fox brought his sled to a stop alongside little Willie. He stood tall in the icy wind and looked down at the young challenger, and at the dog that lay limp in his arms.

Kristin apologized for her tears. Paused to catch her breath and gamely read on…

Little Willie squeezed Searchlight with all his might. “You did real good, girl. Real good. I’m real proud of you. You just rest now. Just rest.”

The children looked up at Kristin when she paused. They were patient, respectful, kind. They understood how she felt. Many of them were misting up as well. I know I was.

With the heel of his moccasin Stone Fox drew a long line in the snow. Then he walked back to his sled and pulled out his rifle… “Anyone crosses this line – I shoot.” And there wasn’t anyone who didn’t believe him. Stone Fox nodded to the boy. The town looked on in silence as little Willy, carrying Searchlight, walked the last ten feet and across the finish line.

There was a collective sigh as the book was finished. It was a satisfied sigh. A sigh of pleasure and a feeling of completion. Kristin asked an open-ended question to start the discussion. August was the first to respond. “Well, I really liked the book. It had a lot of feelings in it. It made me think of my great aunt from Charleston.” August started to cry then. “And I really miss her.” Her aunt passed away some months ago. August had missed a couple days of school to attend the funeral and to grieve with her family. We nodded in sympathy, remembering how sad she was. August buried her head in her hands and we could see her tears leaking out.

Next was Hayden. “Well, like August, I really liked the book too. It was really sad at the end and it had a lot of emotions in it just like August said. And it makes me think of my grandmothers who died before I was born.” Hayden started to tear up. “I never even got the chance to meet them.” He put his head down and put his hand over his eyes. His shoulders heaved as he cried silently.

We were all a little amazed. Others made personal connections about people who had passed on and their own sadness. We talked about the story too, but the personal connections were what really mattered in this conversation. There were few dry eyes in the room by the time we finished talking about Stone Fox. The thing is, I don’t think it was the story that made the difference. While Stone Fox is a masterpiece, there are lots of well written books for kids. It wasn’t the questions we asked or the written reflections the children did with each reading assignment. To my way of thinking, it was the talk.

I don’t think many children would have cried or made those personal connections if there wasn’t a lot of conversation around the story. Throughout their reading they spoke of writer’s craft, character development, of the setting and conflict. They covered lots of standards but they uncovered and celebrated a love of literature by being a close group of friends sharing a great book. That is great literacy instruction.

The added component was that the children saw and heard an adult cry about a book; an adult who they respect and care deeply about. If Kristin hadn’t put herself into the story, if she had read it in a bland non-affected way, those children would not have felt the magic of falling in love with the characters. They wouldn’t have felt the sadness at Searchlight’s passing, the compassion of little Willie hugging his best friend and understanding her sacrifice and that she just needed to rest.

At the point that I walked into the classroom, and the class was reading along with Kristin, no one was sounding out words. There were no comprehension issues. The class was way beyond merely understanding this story. They were feeling the joy and dread of the characters; they were experiencing the snow on their faces and the wind in their ears. There was no distance between the ink on the page and their imaginations. Simply, they were there in that story. They were reading.

It occurred to me that I rarely let myself cry in front of my students. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and real men don’t cry. Maybe it does not seem “professional”. But my idea of professional changed yesterday when I saw how Kristin and the children felt about Stone Fox. If the children remember anything about that day, they will remember really connecting with that book and those characters. They’ll remember Kristin’s brave reading and the conversation that followed. They’ll remember how safe it was to speak about their emotions, and making personal connections to literature. They’ll remember professional tears.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Christmas Again

OK, here we are in pollen season. Tax day is approaching. Mother’s day is not so far off. So why am I going to publish another piece about Christmas? Why not? Somehow it seems healthier to me to consider the Christmas spirit when I don’t have to worry about presents, or decorations or Christmas music or any of the other seasonal essentials that really have nothing to do with Christmas. Because underneath the wrapping and packages, underneath Santa and Rudolph, completely apart from a beautiful tree and wreaths and lights there is simply… Christmas. It means different things to all of us. It grows and changes as we mature.

Most of us early on, think about what we are getting for Christmas. We can barely sleep because of the packages waiting to be opened. Christ is in there too, and church (I was an altar boy for 6 years. I served at Christmas time…) but for me, it was the presents. As I got older, I become more aware of the gift giving part. It’s better to give than receive.” So my efforts shifted toward making the best of my limited resources to make sure everyone in my sphere got something from me. In high school and college when I had no money, I would make presents. In some ways those hippie beads and jewelry items may have been the purest of the presents I have ever given. Of course, I remembered the birth of Christ too. And church.

See full size image

For years I was not a part of any church (except at Christmas and Easter) and it was all about the trappings. When our kids were little and I found my faith again, the focus was on making them happy. I had managed to pass the “tearing into presents” aspect of Christmas on to them. And of course church and pageants and our Christmas feasts all came with the wish to keep “Christ in Christmas” and to remember the “real reason for the season”.

Now, as I keep Christ in my mind, I try to consider at that joyous time of year what he would do, what he would think is important, how he would spend his resources, his time, who he would serve – and he WOULD be serving.

Heidi got this great little bookmark at church this Christmas with the following poem on it. It’s not long. But it says a lot.

The Christmas Spirit – E. C. Baird

I am the Christmas spirit.

I enter the home of poverty,

causing pale-faced children to

open their eyes wide, in pleased

wonder. I cause the miser’s

clutched hand to relax and thus

paint a bright spot on his soul.

I cause the aged to renew their

youth and to laugh in

the old glad way.

I keep romance alive in the heart

of childhood, and brighten the sleep

with dreams woven of magic.

I cause eager feet to climb dark

stairways with filled baskets –

leaving behind hearts amazed at

the goodness of the world.

I cause the prodigal to pause a

moment on his wild, wasteful way

and send to anxious love some

little token that releases glad

tears – tears which wash away the

hard lines of sorrow.

I enter dark prison cells,

reminding scarred manhood of

what might have been and

pointing forward to good days yet to be.

I come softly into the still white

home of pain, and lips that are too

weak to speak – just tremble in

silent, eloquent gratitude.

In a thousand ways, I cause the

weary world to look up into the

face of God, and forget the things

that are small and wretched.

I am the Christmas spirit.

I never managed to get out Christmas cards this year. I usually do. So, if you are a friend (or even if you're not). Merry Christmas. A little late.

In love and friendship, Tim

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Old Friends

Old Friends – Paul Simon

Old friends, old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends
A newspaper blowin' through the grass
Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends

Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a parkbench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy

Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences 

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph 

Preserve your memories; they're all that's left you

I’m not that great at making friends. Sure, I have my work folks – whom I love. I have my students, my current best friends. But they move on and, most of them don’t look back much. There are some friends at church – but more like acquaintances really. There are nice people I play with in the praise band at church. But we don’t really hang out.

And I’m not very good at keeping up with people. My intentions are good, but when someone moves away, I don’t write or call much. Usually I write a letter at Christmas, but this year I didn’t even pull that off. I don’t consciously avoid correspondence. And when I do write, I usually try to write a real letter. You remember: paper, pen, an envelope that you seal, a postage stamp, mailbox, flag, the real deal. The problem is, I don’t write very often.

Last week, I saw my old friend Pete. We met about 15 years ago when we lived in a condo, all of us poor as church mice. I walked by his ground floor place and saw him playing guitar and singing with his brother. I stopped. We talked guitars. The same evening he had me over and we shared songs. It was the beginning of a 10 year gig. We met once or twice a week. When we lived at the condos we met in a neutral place, the pool cabana, and played and sang and tossed back a few, until the wee hours of the morning. Howling at the moon. When it was cold, we’d burn a little wood in Pete’s little Smokey Joe grill, just enough to warm our hands so our fingers wouldn’t be too stiff to play. It was probably terrible for the guitars but good for our spirits.

When we played in their condo, Pete’s wife Kathy and young son Ian sang too. Sometimes we’d have four parts going. It may have not sounded that great to anyone else, but to us? It was magic. I got to watch Ian grow up. Kathy was pregnant with Joe when we met. I’ve had the chance to watch Ian grow to a man. Joseph is a freshman in high school now. Both of them have the same dry wit and easy laugh as Kathy and Pete.

As we moved on and our families graduated to real houses, we lived near enough to get to each other’s house every week. When the weather was nice we played on the back porch listening to frogs and insects and night sounds. We fell in love with each other’s families. We learned and taught each other a ton of songs. We had a lot of songs in common with slightly different versions that fit together with slight adjustments. Pete could pick out a harmony easily and he taught me to do the same.

We both come from large families (litters really). There are 8 kids in Pete’s family. I had just 7. Our families had some remarkable parallels which were fun to talk about. We were both raised Catholic and, in some ways, lost our faith along life’s journey. We ended up finding it again right around the same time. I credit Pete a lot with the reexamination of my faith.

When I couldn’t read the songs on the music stand anymore, I got glasses. My beard slowly turned white. So is Pete’s hair. Our kids are growing up fast. We were there to bear witness to all of life’s changes over those years. I guess that is the definition of Old Friend.

In some ways we are very different people. Politically we are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but we respect each others’ views and taught each other how others think and feel. We talked about everything. Nothing was unimportant. That’s the way it is with Old Friends.

So, last weekend, Pete and Kathy and Joe came up from Florida where they moved about 4 years ago. We got together at Ian’s house and sang some of the old songs, tossed back a few. And laughed. I played some new songs for them. And they listened. Hard. Harder than anyone. Joe is about three inches taller than the last time we saw each other. His hair is stiff curly. I met Ian’s girlfriend. I hugged Kath around the neck. She hugged me back. Hard.

It was coming home again. I got a little misty on the way home from Ian’s house. I miss my Pete and that beautiful family. But, how lucky I am for having had 10 years to hang around with them and to watch their garden grow, to share songs, to laugh so hard that my face hurt.

Like the Simon and Garfunkel song, I hope that if I do get to be an old man, that I can sit on a parkbench with an Old Friend like Pete.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences 

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph…