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My Father's Hand

by R. Prosapio, an On-the-Road Coyote

This article appeared in the June 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


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I remember looking at the back of my hand a few months ago and I was surprised that I didn't know it anymore. This sun-browned hand with all the darker spots on it wasn't the hand I remembered. It looked more like my father's hand … and yet not. My fingers are longer than his were and the veins on my hand more prominent. But my hand looked as old as I remembered his to be.

I know that I'm getting older, of course; my 60th has come, been celebrated and is now another memory. The birthday itself seemed meaningless at the time, but biology will not be denied. The lines in my face deepen, my hair continues to thin, and I don't recover from eating big as quickly as I used to. I don't wake up with an erection every morning. I play computer games more often and want to work less, and in this regard I am much more aware of how tired I am of working for a living. It's been 44 years now and I've been responsible for supporting a family most of that time. My eyesight is beyond drugstore correction, and I've got to wear a partial denture on one side.

I am less tolerant of irresponsibility. Funny, I thought that as I got older, I'd get mellower. In some areas of my life that's true, but in others I am less understanding than I used to be.

I find I've begun to favor the death penalty in some cases. I accept that and am dismayed by the fact that things go in cycles, and the same miseries occur over and over again on the individual, national and international political levels. These days, it seems to be politically incorrect to fully describe history so that we can learn from it. We have to lie about what we have gone through so no one will be offended by what was true at the time.

I have no patience for those who deny the worth of men and what we as a gender have sacrificed in behalf of everyone in all the wars we have been through.

And I wonder if we have really solved anything much in the realm of human relations, when there are best-selling authors claiming males are by nature rapists and are not to be trusted with their children and the future of the country.

I took solace in music once. But now I find all my heroes are dying or retiring. Ellington and Basie are long gone, of course. But Miles leaving? That was tough. I played everything I had of his in my collection of 33s the day he died. He took a lot of my memories with him. And now Gerry Mulligan. I'm going to miss Gerry.

And Frank done? Was that mumbling Dylan serenade at Sinatra's 80th the best the music industry could do to top off Sinatra's farewell? As Gary Cooper used to say, "Yup!" Yup. That's what it's come to. The world's going to schlock.

Ah, I know, I'm rambling. I know what it's really about, this dull, gray mood that hangs over me like a long, cold, slushy Chicago winter.

I miss my dad. He died this past September on the morning of that blue-collar holiday, Labor Day.

At his memorial service, I heard people say of him that he was a simple man, and I felt insulted and embarrassed because I thought of "simple" as a diminishment of him. It was only later, after my sorrow had abated some, that I heard the tone in their voices and now I know how they meant it. They meant it the same loving way Studs Terkel means it when he talks of the little people of this land. Little-known, but never little in spirit.

Studs would have loved my father, because he was the kind of down-to-earth guy who built cities like Chicago. Studs wouldn't have called him "Mr." After a few minutes he would have called him "Tony," just as all his friends did, because my father drew people to him. As soon as you started talking to him, you began to feel he'd be easy to be around.

My father wasn't a philosopher; he'd be more likely to build the bookshelves to hold the philosopher's books. And it wouldn't be an ornate bookshelf, it would be like him: sturdy, dependable, and strong. It would hold up under stress and not fall over.

His tools were a sense of humor, a kind heart, a hammer, a saw, a ratchet wrench, a guitar, and drums. With these, and a sometimes stubborn determination to know just what he had to know, he fashioned a living for his family through the Depression, WW II, and beyond, as a guy who fixed his own car (and mine), built end tables, peeled layers of wallpaper for my mother, built a house for his family, fixed plumbing for his sister, and was a working musician-the guy who played in the lounge where you waited for your name to be called for dinner. And because you liked his fine tenor voice, maybe you hired him to play at your daughter's wedding reception. And maybe at your New Year's Eve party.

He drove a bread truck when the music business was slow, and delivered bridgework for a dental lab when rock bands and disc jockeys took over the lounges.

He finally retired when he found himself chasing a guy who had cut him off in traffic and given him the finger. "When I let some jerk like that get to me, I knew it was time to quit," he said at the time.

He never spoke of love to me; those words only escaped his lips in song, or once in a spontaneous moment on the phone with me. We were both shocked and hurried on to other subjects. Like most of the men of his generation and the generations before him, his expressions of affection were in his "doing," and his love came from his handiwork. There are signs of it everywhere in my mother's home and in my own. If you needed it, you just mentioned it to my father and it would appear from his workshop in the next week or so.

I taught him to hug in the '60s and he became a hugging legend in our family. We came from miles around to get his hugs, especially the children. He had a way with children that I hope to cultivate in myself. Not that he doted on them or continually bounced them on his knee, he didn't. But they trusted him, they sensed that he was kind.

I miss his laughter. He would tell some of the same stories over and over again and would get so wrapped up in them, as would everyone else, that he would have tears in his eyes and be gasping for air from laughing so hard.

I have little left in the way of tangible memories of things shared. In 60 years he wrote me three notes, two of which I still have. One thanked me for a dub of "Lonesome Dove." The other was a birthday card for my 60th. "I never thought I'd get old enough to have a 60-year-old son," he said.

He just made it.

We did actually spend some time alone once. We took a trip in my '64 VW bug from Chicago to Moab, Utah, in about 1981. My mother set it up. She threw his bag in the back of the car and pushed him out the door. We traveled for four or five days and said maybe 150 words to each other, mostly about gas mileage and the weather. On the first night we camped somewhere outside of Des Moines, Iowa, in a campground. It was the first time he had been camping in about 40 years. After we got the tent set up, I noticed a cloud whiz by and then heard a siren go off in the town nearby. I thought it was just a test and ignored it. That night, the wind drove the rain horizontal and a tornado passed nearby. From then on, any wisp of a cloud anywhere in the sky and my father was set for a motel!

But on the last night of the trip, we camped at the edge of the Snake River canyon and watched a typically beautiful Western sunset after dinner, sitting side by side on our campstools. Suddenly, I felt an arm go around my shoulders. I thought someone had snuck into the camp! Then I heard him say, "I'm sorry."

Surprised, I stammered, "What do you mean?"

"Well, I wasn't there when you were growing up and..."

I stopped him. I didn't want him to go through any more pain about it. I knew he had been thinking about it for a long time.

"It's OK, dad. I understand."

And I did. And in that moment all was healed between us. I could hear his heart and I knew how he loved me after that day.

In April 1991, while on the road to co-lead a Wildman gathering, I wrote this to my father:

"Dear Dad; Wiping away tears while on the road to somewhere listening to the words of a song:

Did you ever know you were my hero,

everything I would like to be?

I can fly higher than an eagle,

you are the wind beneath my wings.

"I've never told you that, have I? In fact, I had forgotten that in my little-boy eyes, you were my hero. That in my heart I aspired to be just like you. My dad the musician.

"I loved hearing you play and thrilled to hear you sing.

"I heard your stories and saw how people laughed when you told them, and I wanted to be as funny and interesting as you.

"I saw the light in Mom's eyes when she was with you and wanted that kind of light in someone's eyes for me.

"And when I heard the applause people gave you when you helped them feel something with your gifts, I wanted that for me too.

"I wanted my skinny body to be as big and strong as yours. I wanted to be able to box the way I thought you could. I wanted to be as confident as you seemed to be.

"I wanted to be just like you.

"The years went by and our roads diverged. I didn't have the patience or the discipline to study music, but I wanted to be in a business that was like yours-by this time I had forgotten why-so I became a DJ.

"A wannabe musician.

"I was good at talking into a mike and got some of the applause I sought. But I knew it was all smoke and mirrors, and I didn't feel like the hero I saw in you. Inside, I felt like a fake. There was no applause inside, there was only silence, and inside the silence, emptiness.

"I went to school to become a 'professional.' Maybe if I got certified as a hero, I'd believe it too and then the emptiness would be filled. But when all was said and done, even that seemed to be accomplished with mental gymnastics and good verbal skills.

"More smoke and mirrors.

"I think I felt then that if I couldn't be like you, I would be very different, and then learn to love the difference. I began to think I had created my life all by myself.

"Alone in the world by necessity and choice.

"Now I find myself on the road to somewhere, weeping real tears, and crying out in real pain, and I see at last where I have come from.

"I am on the road to stand before an audience, to drum and sing and tell stories that bring laughter and tears, from them and from me, and I realize that I am now walking on the path you began years ago. And that who you really are is now fully expressed in who and what I am today.

"I have uncovered in myself a deeply passionate and compassionate man. A man with a good heart and a joyful spirit. And I know now that this is the essence of you that I so wanted for myself when I was a small, wondering boy.

"This knowing has become the wind beneath my wings ,which has lifted me higher than I could have ever attained alone; … and I want to tell you that you are still my hero."

Dick "Coyote" Prosapio is a ceremonialist, therapist, and co-leader of Wilderness Gatherings for Men. He lives in Sandia Park, MN, with his wife, Elizabeth, where he conducts The Long Dance, The Shadow Dance, and Vision Quests. He has a Web site at http://www.spiritpath.net/ He can be reached at (505) 292-8832. He is a member of MenWeb's International Advisory Board. E-mail: CoyoteCall@aol.com


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