Friday, January 17, 2014

In Memory of My Father...

Work Hard, Play Hard

            Once, my father broke his ankle.  He didn’t just break it though—he so completely obliterated the bones, that the doctor who ended up examining him in the hospital demanded to know if he had broken it sky diving.  Being a construction worker, he was out of work for several months thereafter, so not only was he suffering from a broken ankle, but I also believe he was living in fear that my mother might kill him.

            My mother and father did love each other, but their marriage was always a strained one, and a few years after the ankle episode, they finally ended up getting a divorce.  Mom certainly wasn’t angry that dad had injured himself, and while I know that his being out of work changed her life completely for that trying time period, that wasn’t really the reason she was so frustrated, I don’t think.

            She was at her wits end because my father had broken his ankle rollerblading.

            My father believed in working hard, but he believed in playing harder.  He loved skating, and had stopped at nothing to make sure my brothers and I were the best equipped kids in the state to succeed in roller hockey, our sport of choice.  Every few years, he lavished us with expensive, top-of-the-line inline skates.  We traveled at least thirty minutes first once and then twice a week for practice; he provided us with pads, helmets, hockey sticks, and, more often than we actually asked for it, one-on-one training time with him.  (Once, a stray slap shot of my father’s hit me so hard in the leg while I was standing by watching him work with my brother that I had to be carried into the house, sobbing).  Most middle schoolers I knew spent their Saturdays sleeping in, but my brothers and I were up at 7:30, being herded into our station wagon, dragging our hockey bags and sticks behind us as we climbed in for the trip to the skating rink.

            So one fateful Saturday, he had taken one of my brothers to one of his favorite finds for some informal, one-on-one scrimmaging.  They’d traveled a good thirty to forty minutes away to skate upon several unused tennis courts in a sprawling residential development, since the wooded coastal area we lived in wasn’t exactly crowded with paved streets or parks suitable for roller hockey.  The way Johnny had described it later, he and Dad had been racing for the puck, each determined not to let the other beat him as they flew toward the short wooden wall where the puck had bounced.  They were going so fast they were unable to stop in time, both of them smashing into the wall.  When my father’s lanky, six-foot-two frame had collided with the wood, he’d instantly dropped to the ground.  He had shattered several bones in his ankle upon impact.

            Dad was slowed down for a bit in the weeks and months that followed.  Though he did eventually skate again, he never even walked quite the same after the accident (though, don’t get me wrong, he continued to remain physically active right up until the day he passed away).  But his rollerblading incident occurred well into his fifties, and as this was before the time of cell phones, he had to drive himself home, using his left foot to work the gas and brake pedals, at which point he then had Mom take him to the hospital.  The doctors had been amazed that he’d been able to function enough through the pain to make that forty minute commute without losing consciousness.

            He continued to drive with his left foot all throughout the time his right foot was encased in a cast, and, surprisingly, eventually began driving with both feet, something I have yet to see another human being do.

            We were back at practice less than two weeks later, missing only the single hockey practice that took place the day of his surgery. The following Saturday, Dad simply tossed his crutches into the back of the station wagon and we were on our way, him driving us all the way with his left foot, intently watching us practice from the sidelines, calling instructions at my brothers and I:  “Shoot it!  Stay with him!  Defense!”

            The coach had warily watched my father hobbling in, and before scrimmage, he’d blown the whistle, barking, “Anybody that hits Mr. Meister with the puck owes me twenty laps!”

             I understand that this was an incredibly difficult time for my mother.  With Dad out of work, all the sudden she was working as hard as she could to feed herself and four other mouths, having never been the sole provider before.  Dad had injured himself playing a game rather than working on a job, and apparently, all his insurance would cover in the way of accidents was work place liabilities.  Since rollerblading into a wall could hardly be related to dry wall or metal studding, we were also faced with staggering medical bills from dad’s surgeries and treatments.  All because he was too stubborn to let his thirteen year old son beat him to the puck!

            Still, regardless of how Mom was feeling, I learned some things from my Dad based on this experience.

1)       Never give up.  Even if your dignity takes a hit later, at least you’ll know that, in the moment, you did everything you could in that instant to be the best you that you could be.

2)      Accept no limitations.  After the accident, I think most men my father’s age would have called it quits on sporting endeavors.  Not my dad.  He continued to jog, bike, and even skate, after the doctor cleared him to do so.  For that, I will forever admire him.

3)      Don’t forget what’s really important in life.  My dad changed his life by playing a game with his son.  At great cost to him—financially, physically, and emotionally—he endured suffering and ribbing from friends for years to come because of his intensely competitive nature, which had led to the accident in the first place.  But I believe, more than his desire to win that game with my brother, was the desire to show him what’s most important in life:  Try your best.  Give everything one hundred percent.  Find something that you love, and don’t lose your passion, no matter what anybody else says.  And above all, find a way to connect with your children.  Family is what matters most.  Years later, it’s not the lack of Christmas presents under the tree that they’ll recall, or the fancy vacation destinations you couldn’t afford.  That’s not what’s remembered; not at all… it’s the everyday moments and smiles.  The time spent together.  The hockey games you played with your kids, the times you chased them through the house and threw them onto the couch, the trips to the beach, when you were the only adult willing to brave the freezing Atlantic because your kids begged you to… that’s what they’ll remember.

I love you, Dad, and I sure do miss you.  I hope they have roller hockey in heaven.  If so, I’ll see you on the court.  I’ll be playing defense like I always did, so don’t go easy on me.  I don’t think we have to worry about breaking our bones in the afterlife, so I’ll be ready for your A game.