Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Last and Everything

Our tent was one of those green canvas jobs, a relic from a past war I imagined, eventually donated to the Boy Scouts of America.  Or perhaps it was purchased in a bulk buyout at the local Sunny Surplus.  The tent housed two canvas cots, supported by wooden legs, very roomy for the camper under six feet who sleeps on his side.  My dad was six-two.  The cots were up off the ground, its legs positioned on the wide slats of the wooden skid that was to be our floor.  The corners of the tent folded around each other and never fully closed, so there was a generous flow of crisp air during the nights, just a few degrees above freezing.  Our breath across the lantern’s light created quite a billowing little cloud.  But no matter, it was camping, a father-son weekend with the Boy Scouts.  A little roughing-it to test our mettle was just the spirit of the scouts, build boys into men and all that.
Our sleeping bags were these wide, airy quilted and nylon bags, bought at the local mega-thrift store, probably more suited for novice camping in the late Spring or early Autumn.   We had been smart enough to pack extra blankets to keep good and toasty.  But I hadn’t the foresight to pack everything I needed, already breaking the time-honored credo—Be prepared.  During the night I couldn’t fully fall asleep.  What I had neglected to pack was a pillow.  Or maybe I thought, I’m camping, and mountain men don’t need pillows.  I don’t recall Grisly Adams needing a pillow.  However, this mountain man was more restless than the princess on the pea.  I just couldn’t get into a deep sleep.  My dad hadn’t packed a pillow, but he was warm enough and was able to use his blanket as a pillow.  I could have just used my blanket, too, but it was too cold to forfeit that layer from inside my sleeping bag.  Nonetheless, somewhere in the night, I finally fell into a cozy slumber.  And it wasn’t from sheer exhaustion.
When I awoke in the morning, my head was nestled atop a thick, soft blanket, folded and folded again to create a make-shift pillow.  I looked over and saw that my father, whose eyes seemed half opened, was lying on his side, with his head on one of his opened palms.  Somewhere in the night he took his blanket/pillow and slid it under my head. 
When I thanked him and asked him if he needed it, he said he was fine.  However, throughout the day I’d see him dragging, looking to sit on a stump or a log or any other natural seat he could find around the camp.  And there he’d plop down, and then arc and bend his neck side to side, trying to ply it back into a full range of motion.  He was so stiff and tired.  But he wouldn’t admit it.
And that’s how I often remember my father (not stretching his neck), giving up what he had, everything he had, for me and my sister, and then never letting on he was going without.
It’s that selflessness that Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians, 2:4.  Paul writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  Paul is not asking us merely to be considerate of the wants and needs of others; he says to “look to” them.  That connotes a focus and attentiveness to the interests of others, a vigilance toward them.  And if need be, do whatever it takes to aid those in need, especially putting yourself last.  Granted, that may seem easy enough, especially if it means just giving up a blanket for a night or two to a whining child to get at least a peaceful night of sleepless sleep; but it’s when we’re really “up against it” that Paul is including.  When it really costs us, not a little, not some, but everything.  That’s what’s so hard.  It’s hard for me, too hard.  But it wasn’t for my father.
When I was eight, I awoke one morning, a Wednesday morning, my favorite day, gym day, and dressed myself in a navy blue tee, blue jeans, and Chuck Taylors.  I opened my bedroom and was about to bound out, but I froze there in the doorway—all of our belongings were stuffed in bulging boxes, stacked higher than me, in the hallway.  We were leaving, or rather escaping.  I came to find that my stepfather had been abusive and threatening toward my mother, and we were escaping while he was at work.  My mother had no real money of her own, and my father and my stepmother had a little savings.  The quick, easy way to handle it would have been for my dad to scoop up us kids and set my mother adrift.  But that wasn't my father’s way.  Instead, my father put into action a plan that all but wiped him and my stepmother out over the next several years.
My father and stepmother, who shared my father’s Christian ethic, took us kids while he hid my mother in an apartment in a nearby town until he could get an apartment for my mother and my sister and me.  It was all very cloak and dagger.  Once a place was secured, we moved within the month.  The problem was, my mother didn’t work, and except for our boxes, the place was empty.  We could have gone into camp mode, but again my father wouldn’t have it.  They completely depleted their savings, which would take years of struggling rebuild, and furnished the apartment.  And it wasn’t until two years after did my mother finally find work, all the while my father and step mother paying our rent, bills, and child support, as well as their own expenses, a financial burden that would take its toll for years to follow.  Of course I didn’t know any of this at the time. 
It wasn’t until years later that I pieced the puzzle together through prying and gathering snippets of related stories.  And not once did he ever complained to us, nor let on what a burden it was to his finances.  He was, as Paul instructs, looking to our interests, putting himself last, costing him everything. 
I must admit that my dad’s selflessness actually irked me sometimes, not because he was
self-righteous or anything like that, because he wasn’t; nor was it because his example was a standard too difficult to reach, which I find it is.  It was because I couldn’t bear to see just how much he withheld from himself.  While he would account for his life with nothing but gratitude, I would see it as one long continuous sacrifice.  It wasn’t until my sister and I were both on our own did I see him actually spend a few bucks on himself for something he wanted, not just needed.  And he would really fret over buying a certain Mills Brothers album, or an “expensive” table-top illusion for his magic routine, or even a half-decent pair of shoes.  And as far as any dream vacation, forget it.  He’d see something on TV or read a piece in the Travel section and wish aloud, “Man, I’d love to go to Chicago.”  “Boy, I’d love to see Vegas.”  Yet, he may as well have been saying, “Man, I’d like to see the moon.”  My sister and I would say, “Go!  Just go.  Hop on a train and go.”  “Aaaahhhhh one day, maybe,” he’d answer, but as soon as the words left his lips, I’m sure he had already 10 reasons not to go.  He had the money already spent on scenarios that would never occur, but could, and they probably all benefitted someone else.  I think in many ways my sister and I tried to make up for that.

One Spring my father was reading the paper and suddenly shared, “Says here that Tony Bennett’s gonna play The Hippodrome,” and in the same breath added, “but I don’t want to go.”  He knew that by merely saying something that smacked of a wish that we could fulfill, we would conspire to do so.  My sister and I saw it as our personal duty to make our father experience something of what he desired but of which he would refuse himself.  So knowing he wouldn’t spring for the tickets himself, we’d say, “C’mon, you know you want to go.  We’ll make it a birthday gift.”  And then he would convince us he had no interest.

A few weeks later, my car broke down on the side of the road and needed an alternator, and I called my dad later from the service station to see if he could run some money up to me.  He instructed me to go into my trunk and look under the spare tire.  Hidden there was a white legal-sized envelope with $200 tucked inside and a note in my father’s all-caps hand-writing that only read, “IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY.”