On the Shoulders of a Hero 12/06/2011
By Parade Hank Whittemore
My father went into intensive care , his heart not working right . As word went out, each of his six grown children sped toward Venice Hospital in Florida , where he lay attached to various machines . Late that night ,we stood around him with our mother , holding his hands and speaking close to his face as he strained against some powerful force that kept on pulling him away .
"Good-bye,Dad," we said . "We love you .Thank you ,Dad . Oh, no ...."
A breath left his body under our hands ,and we turned to watch the numbers on the machines .Then we made an invol-untary,collective groan, and he was gone . He was 75 years old.
With his passing, I was abruptly stripped of any illusions about my own immortality ; no longer might I comfort myself with the thought that he was in line ahead of me . I was newly alone and vulnerable and ,more than ever ,responsible for my life .
Then I remembered one morning when I was five years old .After a snowstorm, Dad carried me on his shoulders for the mile from our apartment into town. As he marched bravely through the snowdrifts, I put my hands around his head to hold on , inadvertently covering his eyes with my mittens ."I can 't see ,"my father said ,but he walked on nevertheless, a blind hero making his way with me on his back through a strange ,magical landseape of untrodden snow. He had returned from World War II ,and this ride would become my first experience with him to take hold as a genuine , lasting memory .
As he was buried ,other memories flooded in ,and I found myself trying to put my feetings about him into perspective. How much of a father ,really,had he been? Why hadn't I grieved more over losing him? Had I ener forgiven him for his shortcomings?
From my teen-age years onward ,I had expeeted a great deal of encouragement from my dad ,but it seldom came . I told him , after senior year of high school ,that I wanted to beecome an actor . He launched into a speech about the instability of such a career:" The odds are you'd wind up holding a tin cup on the corner."
On time , after we had argued over my decision to take acting lessons in New York, he stormed up to my room . I met him at the doorway . We stood toe-to-toe,and I held up my fist and glared at him, trembling ,and said the issue was settled unless he wanted to fight . The red fury drained from his face, and he turned ,shoulders slumped ,to walk away.A rite of passage had taken place in a second, leaving me on my own without his resistance.
But his general air of caution continued . After I did become a professional actor , he came to see me in a Broadway show and later remarked : "Of course ,it would he wise to have something else to fall back on ."
I fell back ,so to speak, on newspaper work ,only to quit when my first book was published ." Now ," he said , " is the perfect time ,with this credential , for you to apply to a corporation." When I told him I intended to remain self-employed for as long as possible ,he fell silent .
As the years went by,his expressions of doubt in response to my unspoken pleas for a father's blind faith became predictable. And I came to realize that my father's warnings were his way of relating to me . In earlier years I had thought he didn't care, but I came to understand that he was offering what he could .
I also realized that he had even inspired me--not by words ,but by what he had done . He had come home from a terrifying war to raise six kids in a house with a yard . He had returned ,with so many other men of his generation ,to create stability and safety for those in his care and to give them a future .
He spent two decades in advertising and longers in real estate, meanwhile always taking us on vacations and sending us through colleho . By providing a foundation, he enabled his children to feel strong enough to go their individual ways. As we scattered, he wrote frequent letters and planned our reunions.
Just two weeks befor he died, my father held a birthday celebration for Mom . We flew from our separate homes to Florida and, during our stay ,joine him on a fishing trip. Dad did not look well.
We had no idea then how perilous his condition had become . As I look back ,it's clear that he had deliberately kept all of that hidden us to avoid sporling our fun.
The morning we went to leave Florida ,he pulled me aside and pointed to a mysterious box about there feet long and two feet deep .Inside ,to my astonishmentl were hundreds of clippings relating to almost everything I had done in my life ."I figured you might like to have this ," Dad said.
We hugged each other, not knowning it would be for the last time ,but my father must have sensed that he would not be around much longer.
Lifting the heavy box, I suddenly understood that no matter how negative his conerete act of filling the box. All that time ,it turned out ,he had been there----sharing my life.
Then came word that he was dying ,and then came the months of thinking about him .Now a full year and a half have gone by without him ,and I miss him beyond words .What I miss most ,ironically, is that time long ago when I was a boy through life and to protect him . The security lay in simply knowing he was there.
One day I found myself walking along with my own son,Benjimin, who was five years old .When I lifed him onto my shoulders, he reached his hands around my head so they covered my eyes. "I can't see," I said ,but his little fingers maintained their grip. I walked on in the sudden darkness, groping ,feeling his weight above me ,the way my father had done for me when I was the same age. I felt, then, the first surge of hot tears since Dad died, and found myself becoming a new blind hero in the strange,magical land of fatherhood , where the journey always begins,in hope and uncertainty,over again.