Today would have been my father's 78th birthday. He was only 75 when he died—too young, but then longevity was never a family trait. He started to become ill about ten years ago, although we didn't recognize the symptoms at the time. It started with falling down. Gradually, he developed symptoms—difficulties with muscular control, with speech–that suggested either Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. In fact, what he actually had is often confused with those two diseases. He was eventually diagnosed with a degenerative disease called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).
He was born on June 6, 1930, in the small central New York village of Meridian. His father was an English teacher and the principal of the Cato-Meridian high school; his mother was also an English teacher and a school guidance counselor. She eventually became the first female high school principal in Cayuga County, New York. In Meridian, my father was a big fish in a small pond—the son of two community leaders, a local football star, an Eagle Scout. In college, at Cornell University, he found himself in a big pond. He was smart and ambitious, but socially inept. He lived at home with his parents until he was in his early thirties. At the beginning of each new school year, he would tag along with my grandmother to check out the new teachers at the school. This is how he met my mother, who arrived in Cato as a new kindergarten one fall in the early 1960s.
My father worked for over thirty years as a lawyer for the State of New York, ending his career as an administrative law judge for the state Department of Labor. When workers were denied unemployment compensation, he heard their appeals. His job meant that he traveled all over central New York armed with a dictaphone and a briefcase full of files. He provided for his family, but his work left him with little time and energy for parenting. I remember him dozing in front of the television, eating vast quantities of food, occasionally perking up to say something embarrassing to our friends.
Here's the poem about my father that appears in my chapbook, The Collecting Jar. I read it at his memorial service at the First Presbyterian Church of Ulysses in Trumansburg, New York (the town where I grew up and graduated from high school), in June 2006:
"I went downtown last night with Mother and Ellen. We got you a pair of gray pants at Edwards. They are a gray check. You may think they look a bit loud when you first see them, but remember that clothes don’t look as loud when worn as when off. They are a fine pair of pants and I’m sure you will like them. We also got you a literal translation of the Aeneid. Let us know how it helps out." (Letter from my grandfather to my father at Cornell University, October 19, 1948)
You were never loud, only worn and gray,
something passed along to us at birth, incidental
article of parentage—or so we always thought
when we saw you translated into a dead language
in our midst. Your epic was a series of small
upstate towns—Ulysses, Hector—allusions
in the landscape to some heroic faithfulness,
some checkered fabric of loss and hopefulness,
something not always appreciated at first sight.
How often the miles bled from your heart,
the highway your martyrdom, the landscape
indifferent behind its scrim of rain, kept awake
by the self-flagellation of the windshield wipers.
You came home to an absence that grew
until your return no longer filled it.
Exhaustion rubbed the nap from your easy chair,
wore away all the surfaces where we touched—
we watched you erode. If you were Odysseus,
where were your stories? There was no Circe,
no suitors, no Sirens: only the radio turned up
loud enough to keep you awake behind the wheel.
There was no war. We never went out to find you.
We never understood your sacrifice, always
exchanging love for duty, that estrangement
which we could never see as the price of your
devotion. If we seem to turn away, it is only
because you have given us this road, far-flung
sparks of smouldering Troy’s self-consuming fire.
Copyright © 2005 by Rob Hardy
Another poem about my father will appear in an anthology titled Beyond Forgetting: Poems and Prose About Alzheimer's, edited by St. Olaf graduate Holly Hughes and due out from Kent State University Press early in 2009 (as part of their ongoing Literature and Medicine series).
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