Two and a half years ago, my dad suffered a major stroke. One day he was working in the garden, and the next day he couldn’t walk or talk. Having retired two months earlier, he and my mother (who was to retire in just two more months), had plans for the quality time together that they struggled to find while raising nine children. After more than forty years of marriage, they were finally empty-nesters and looking forward to the little things: a walk together, uninterrupted conversation, or a peaceful, quiet meal together. All that has changed now.
For this blog, I’m posting something I wrote for my dad while I was still in high school. (I’ve wanted to write ever since I could form words and this piece was among my earliest attempts). I like to remember my dad the way I described him in this tribute—strong. Disabled today, my dad may not appear strong anymore, but when he smiles at me and squeezes my hand—with his only working hand—I can still feel his strength.
So Dad…this one’s for you. Happy Father’s Day.
Prints of Dad
It’s that time of year again: time for Dad to turn over the garden. It’s an early summer ritual.
It starts with Dad breaking out the ancient, red rototiller—the same rototiller with handlebars that I could swing upside down from only a few years ago. Every year it needs a few more seals, nuts, and bolts. But somehow Dad always manages to bring the machine to life again.
With the rototiller revived, Dad heads toward the garden walking slowly behind the loud machine. Upon reaching the weed-infested garden, Dad pulls up on the handlebar of the rototiller, lifting the blades off the ground. Holding the machine up with one arm, he uses the other hand to move the big lever in the middle of the handlebars, putting the blades into motion. Carefully lowering the rotating blades into the dirt, Dad grips the handlebars tightly as the machine lurches forward.
Together, the man and machine turn the hard packed dirt into a sifted path—the only mark is Dad’s footprint. I step onto this freshly made trail and feel the cool, fluffy soil sink beneath my bare feet, the musty scent reaching my nose. Just then Dad reaches the end of the row, turns, and is ready to make the return trip. Now facing me at the opposite end of the garden, Dad gives me a reproachful look. He doesn’t want all the freshly tilled earth packed down again. If I want to walk in the garden, I will have to walk in Dad’s footprints to prevent making new and unnecessary prints.
Keeping a safe distance behind Dad and the machine, I carefully step into each freshly made print. Normally it would have been impossible for my short legs to match Dad’s long strides, but his strides were shortened by the slow-moving machine. Turning my toes outward to match Dad’s, I carefully trace his footsteps back and forth through the garden.
As spring turns into summer and the days become longer and warmer, I wear a swimsuit and shorts more, and jeans and a sweatshirt less. However, no matter how warm the weather gets, Dad always wears brown corduroy pants, and a long–sleeved plaid shirt bragging that it only cost him ten cents at Goodwill. On rare occasions, Dad ventures to put on his swimming trunks—the same blue polka-dotted swimming trunks I always remember him wearing. Half the fun of Dad’s swimming trunks is teasing him about his long white legs. “Oh man Dad,” I would say laughing, “you’re blinding me!”
Dad is even-tempered, mellow and he rarely gets angry even when I tease him. Often times, Dad laughs with me—even if he is laughing at himself. But when Dad is angry, it’s easy to tell. From behind the black-rimmed glasses, Dad’s blue eyes become twice their regular size and his eyebrows lift. With all the sternness he can muster, Dad says “You stop it right now!” I look back at Dad with the same wide–eyed look, doing my best Don Knotts imitation and say with a grin “Are you serious Dad?” Dad desperately tries to maintain his disciplinary mode, but ultimately fails throwing his head back and laughing.
When summer days begin to wane, the shorts are once again replaced with pants and Dad stores the rototiller away for yet another long winter’s nap. As the cool weather approaches and the first frost appears, I find myself already longing for spring and summer. I want to see the cold–packed winter earth turned over and rejuvenated by Dad and the old rototiller. I long to smell the fresh scent of the newly plowed garden and feel the soft earth between my toes. I long to hear the first roar of the ancient machine as the engine sputters into life. But most of all, I long to step into the prints of Dad.