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My Father’s hands

 

Ralph Thomas

Columnist

  The following article was written in 1998. Now, 16 years later, time has altered my perspective on many things. At age 80 though, I still think about my father’s hands and ... about mine. I know I have mellowed over the years, just as my father did. Hopefully, my children and grandchildren will sense this about me as I did about my father. This is the best I can hope for. If  I achieve this, I will rest in peace.

 

   The phone call was from my mother, well really my stepmother, the sweetest, kindest and gentlest person I have ever known, other than my wife.

  “I think your father would like to see you,” had an ominous ring to it.

  Perhaps, it was because dad was closing in on his ninety-fourth birthday and, as can be expected, his body was beginning to show the signs of aging. He had recently lost most of his vision and had voluntarily turned in his driver’s license. He was also a little unsteady on his feet and, on occasion, used a cane to steady his way as he continued to do the many tasks he had always done. The amplifier in the telephone handset and a couple of hearing aids allowed him to communicate. His mind was still sharp, but he spoke with a knowingness that comes from having lived so long and seen so much. He was a good man.

  It was after midnight when I arrived at the little airport about fifteen miles from home. As I came through the gate I was met by a big, gruff guy, who identified himself as a taxi driver, and who said he had been hired to meet me and take me home. Now that mom can’t drive safely at night anymore this was dad’s way of solving the problem, even though I had already arranged, or so I thought, for my sister to leave a car for me at the airport.

  “Nope,” the taxi driver said, “Your dad said you are to come with me. He came to the taxi station a couple of days ago and gave me strict instructions about making sure I was here at least ten minutes before your flight arrived. He didn’t want you to have to wait. He paid me in advance and also gave me a healthy tip to make certain I did the job right.”

  That’s my dad.

  He wasn’t waiting up for me as he used to do, but the porch light was on and mom was standing at the window watching for the headlights to come down the driveway. We hugged each other and then she quickly explained that dad had wanted to stay up, but he needed a little more rest now than he used to. He would see me in the morning.

  Because of the three-hour time difference I was up early according to their time. I quietly dressed and tiptoed downstairs so as to not wake anyone. Dad was already in the study, fully dressed, sitting in his usual chair and looking out over the fields and toward the snow-capped mountains as he used to do when he could see them clearly. I slipped up behind him and gently put my hands on his shoulders to let him know I was there. Startled, he swiveled around and looked up at me, trying to see clearly, even though he knew it was I. He struggled to rise out of his chair, trying to keep me from knowing he could no longer do it easily. We hugged each other tightly. I had to bend down a little this time to hug him properly. I don’t remember having to do so before. My hands felt the bones in his back and shoulders and wondered at the slight hump that was new to me. We exchanged greetings as two men do, even though they are father and son. And then…we reverted to our father-son roles.

  It is strange how our roles change as we age; yet, some remain the same. I understand some of this now. I am chasing seventy-four myself and have five children of my own and seven grandchildren. I think I have been a good father and, if effort means anything, a good grandfather. But, here on this morning, I was the son and he was the father, and I knew he loved me.

  Over the next few days I patiently listened to some of the same stories I had heard many times before, never tiring of them, because they were a glimpse of my past, our past ... together. This time though, I listened more intently, wanting to burn them into my memory so that perhaps some day, I could pass then on to my grandchildren. Some of the events he recounted were a little different from how I remembered them, but it was no longer important to argue the point. I suspect we all color the facts a little as memories dim and we subconsciously omit any pain associated with them. As we talked we skirted the painful issues, as we always did. There was no longer anything to be gained by asking “why?” It is no longer important and we can’t change the past anyway.

  Because of his poor eyesight and difficulty hearing clearly, I always sat facing him so he could at least have a sense of where I was and could better hear what I was saying. His ninety-four year-old hands remained folded in his lap most of the time. They were big hands, with big thick fingers and they were strong hands. I had not paid particular attention to his hands before, perhaps because they brought up painful memories I would just as soon forget. But, they were there, and I could not take my eyes from them. I thought of the history of those hands, the experiences they had had, those hands that, with fingers intertwined, would invoke God’s blessing before meals, those hands that could fix anything and do anything. It was those same hands that were quick to punish a small boy even for the smallest infraction. Those same hands represented a demand that I obey the rules, or else. And then ... he told a story.

   He appeared to have a far-away look in his eyes, as he seemed to gaze into the distant past ... our past. Perhaps he was seeing the story he was telling, as if it were happening right then. His facial features relaxed and a look of melancholy came over him as he talked. I felt as though he was seeing what he was talking about, as if it had occurred just yesterday. He told me about my first few months of life ... how my mother was unable to care for me. He told me about walking to my grandparent’s home each evening after work and carrying me home with him for the night. He told me about changing my diapers and feeding me. He also told me about laundering my clothes and walking the floor with me in the middle of the night, as I cried with the colic, and about holding me until I became quiet. Those hands ... those same hands.

  I wondered how my children would see my hands in a few years. They have not always been gentle. Sometimes, they were harsh while trying to teach a lesson or to meet some other objective. But, they have always been caring hands. My father’s hands are much the same, I suspect. We do the best we can and then someone else will judge if it was proper or enough.

  I looked at my own hands. While they were not as large as my father’s, they, too, had held babies and changed diapers. They, too, had been folded in prayer. They, too, had blessed and comforted and, at times, had been too harsh. Perhaps, our hands were not so different after all. Most of us try to do the best we can. But, the important thing in the closing days of his life was ... that he loved me. And I loved him.

 

  Ralph Thomas is a Locust Grove resident and the author of Doing Great, but Getting Better and Getting Old Can be Fun. ralph_thomas@bellsouth.net

 

 

 

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