My Dad held my hand and pointed to the stars.
He told me the distance to the moon, and how many galaxies there are, and about infinity.
He taught me to play chess.
And (even whilst squirming at the defeat) reveled in my victories.
He played games and told jokes.
And then one day he wasn’t there anymore.
The light went out of his eyes. Suddenly. Or at least, I didn’t see it coming. I was perhaps too caught up in my own adolescent problems.
But one day he was gone. A poof of smoke would have been something but no. He just…wasn’t there anymore.
His body climbed out of bed in the morning.
It even stood under the tree by the garage, and after sweeping the ground clear, practiced Tai Chi, as it had done for over a decade before that.
It got in the car. Drove an hour into the city, early. Did what always seemed to me to be a very long day’s work. Drove an hour back, late.
Still the same routine, movements, action.
But the life was gone from his eyes. Those eyes that used to twinkle starlight when I was a child.
He’d forgotten about infinity. Only squirmed at the defeats (going to bed without saying goodnight, face like thunder). The games and jokes became slightly sarcastic and, dare I say “bitter?”
And I started begging him to come back.
I pleaded. (Pled?)
And then the universe started pleading with him too. No matter how hard he worked, or how much he worried, his business started this slow decline.
He lost part of his pension (the very thing he’d been slowly killing himself for) when a bank went under (or something. I don’t know).
But he wouldn’t listen. He was very stubborn like that.
After about seven years of that he got a disease that just pulled the switch. The communication between his brain and his muscles stopped working, muscle by muscle. And there was this slow fade.
In the end, the last time I saw him, he was trying not to fall off the toilet. Skeletal, in physical pain and, I’m certain, a terrible emotional anguish.
I’m sorry, deeply, to say that I didn’t sit with him and prop him up and tell him some old jokes and just f*cking stay with him while he died.
I didn’t have the courage then and that’s the truth.
One of the last things he ever said to me was that he felt like a failure.
This mountain of a man, this giant of giants and hero of heroes, felt like a failure!
He suppressed his nature and drowned his own dreams, loved and was faithful to one woman all his life, raised three good men—two his own, one adopted: as he said to me at the time—and it was when there was still life in him:
“The way I see it, if this was a village, and one of the tribe had lost his parents, you’d just take him in. You wouldn’t think about it.”
He was sober and honest and good. He taught me that the most important thing, “the only thing,” was honesty.
He owned his own business and paid his employees both a good salary and shares in the company.
So what is failure then?
I’ll tell you. It’s compromising with life.
We have to take life by the horns, with both hands. Every moment. Every day.
“This is my life,” we have to growl, reminding ourselves again and again that no matter what old programming, no matter how many lies we were told and shown, we simply refuse to believe that we don’t know, in our blood and our bones and our DNA…how to live.
This is my life. I know how to live it. In every moment I know exactly how to live it.
And there are no rules.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Ben Ralston
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: courtesy of the author