Thursday, January 31, 2008
A father's blessing
Twelve years ago this weekend, we buried my father.
He was unlike any man I have ever known. My father poured himself out like a sacrifice for his family, his church, his community. He worked two jobs, three jobs for years. All the while he was a scoutmaster, a church elder, a devoted father, a faithful son, a committed husband. I can say now, though I could not have said it then, that my father was not perfect. He had secrets and flaws - private blemishes. I have learned a lot about blemishes in my own life. I don't hold them against him.
Dad loved Pennsylvania. He would pack us into our Dodge van and pack off to pitch a tent in the woods to hear the sound of the forest at night -not a sound we heard alot in Pittsburgh. He taught us to fish, we would motor out on the foggy face of a lake as the sun rose and the herons preened in the shallows. We caught some fish, but the time we spent on the water with my father was worth more than any treasure we could have pulled out of that lake.
We were Steeler fans. He was not insane over the Steelers, but he was a patriotic Pittsburgher and loved the team out of a sense of honor. He was alive when our city really was, as a nineteenth century wag once quipped, "Hell with the lid off." We grew up watching comedians on our little black and white television using our home as a punchline. There was plenty to be proud of in our smoky town, but the world didn't know it - not until Franco Harris plucked that deflected pass out of the air on that chilly winter afternoon. Suddenly there was something about Pittsburgh that wasn't funny at all. We had always been proud, now the world could see some of the reasons. A team of black men and white men, Italians, Poles, Irish, Rednecks, Scholars - as diverse and tough as the city whose name they claimed spent a decade claiming a piece of history, even as the steel industry collapsed around us. Those of us who lived through that time know what a football team can mean to a community.
Once the 'Seventies were over, we waited a long time for the Steelers to make it back to the big game. The 1996 team was a powerhouse, but in order to claim that "one for the thumb" they would have to beat the great dynasty of that decade. We wanted to believe that the Cowboys could be had, but in our hearts, we had our doubts.
The afternoon of the game, I talked with my Dad on the phone. He had survived a heart attack the year before. Years of too many jobs, too many midnight bowls of ice cream and too many cigarettes had taken their toll. He was scheduled to go into the hospital the next morning for a procedure whose name I don't remember. We talked about how things were going. I asked how he was feeling. "Frankly, I feel like Hell." It wasn't the kind of thing he would say. The year of living with his own mortality had worn him down in a lot of ways. Projects went unfinished. He grew increasingly quiet and sad. The burdens of a lifetime - burdens he had heroically carried for years - were breaking his weak heart.
We talked about the game. Both of us had concerns, but we were confident that Our Team could beat the odds. As game time approached, we wrapped things up. Saying goodbye was always a little clumsy for us. Dad was not an "I love you" kind of guy. For years I had tried to wheedle one out of him. We would hug goodbye and I would whisper "I love you, Dad." Sometimes he would say "I love you, too." but it always felt as if I had cornered him. After a while, I stopped playing the game. I knew he loved me. I could hear it in his voice when we spent time together on my rare trips back home. I said goodbye and was about to hang up, when he said it...
"God bless you."
My father had never, ever said that to me. He was not being casual. He was giving me his blessing.
The Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX, obscenely. I don't remember much about the game. I remember my Dad's blessing. And I remember the nest night when I cam home from work. My sister had called. Dad's procedure had not gone well. By nine o'clock my father was dead.
We buried him under the snowy Pennsylvania mountains that he loved. It is a beautiful spot with a view of the valley and the smell of pine trees and hardwood all around. The last time I was up there, I saw deer tracks in the snow around his grave. He would love it. I go there every once in a while to catch him up with my life. I have carried his blessing through some rough times, but it stays with me intact. And when we say goodbye, I always tell him I love him. It's ok. He doesn't feel any pressure to respond. And somehow I think saying it doesn't bother him so much any more.
God bless you, Dad.
I love you.
The icon of St Joseph and Jesus is from Bridge Building Images.
Our favorite lake, Pymatuning.
Smoke over Three Rivers is from the web site of GASP, the Group Against Smog & Pollution. They've been fighting to clean up the 'Burgh since Joe Greene was a rookie.