When I was growing up, I was embarrassed to be seen with my father. He was severely crippled and very short, and when we would walk together, his hand on my arm for balance, people would stare. I would inwardly squirm at the unwanted attention. If he ever noticed or was bothered, he never let on.
It was difficult to coordinate our steps — his halting, mine impatient — and because of that, we didn’t say much as we went along. But as we started out, he always said, “You set the pace. I will try to adjust to you. “
Our usual walk was to or from the subway, which was how he got to work. He went to work sick, and despite nasty weather. He almost never missed a day, and would make it to the office even if others could not. A matter of pride.
When snow or ice was on the ground, it was impossible for him to walk, even with help. At such times my sisters or I would pull him through the streets of Brooklyn, NY, on a child’s sleigh to the subway entrance. Once there, he would cling to the handrail until he reached the lower steps that the warmer tunnel air kept ice-free. In Manhattan the subway station was the basement of his office building, and he would not have to go outside again until we met him in Brooklyn’ on his way home.
When I think of it now, I marvel at how much courage it must have taken for a grown man to subject himself to such indignity and stress. And at how he did it — without bitterness or complaint .
He never talked about himself as an object of pity, nor did he show any envy of the more fortunate or able. What he looked for in others was a “good heart”, and if he found one, the owner was good enough for him.
Now that I am older, I believe that is a proper standard by which to judge people, even though I still don’ t know precisely what a “good heart” is. But I know the times I don’t have one myself.
Unable to engage in many activities, my father still tried to participate in some way. When a local sandlot baseball team found itself |without a manager, he kept it going. He was a knowledgeable baseball fan and often took me to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play. He liked to go to dances and parties, where he could have a good time just sitting and watching.
On one memorable occasion a fight broke out at a beach party, with everyone punching and shoving. He wasn’t content to sit and watch, but he couldn’t stand unaided on the soft sand. In frustration he began to shout, “I’ ll fight anyone who will tit down with me!”
Nobody did. But the next day people kidded him by saying it was the first time any fighter was urged to take a dive even before the bout began.
I now know he participated in some things vicariously through me, his only son. When I played ball (poorly), he “played” too. When I joined the Navy he “joined” too. And when I came home on leave, he saw to it that ” I visited his office. Introducing me, he was really saying, “This is my son, but it is also me, and I could have done this, too, if things had been different.” Those words were never said aloud.
He has been gone many years now, but I think of him often. I wonder if he sensed my reluctance to be seen with him during our walks. If he did, I am sorry I never told him how sorry I was, how unworthy I was, how I regretted it. I think of him when I complain about trifles, when I am envious of another’s good fortune, when I don’t have a “good heart”.
At such times I put my hand on his arm to regain my balance, and say, “You set the pace, I will try to adjust to you.”