After you came back from the war, it took some time before your son and your country recognized you again, but she knew you right away. I've never heard you talk about what happened and never asked, but I'd steal into your room and open the dresser drawer to touch the shiny pieces of enameled metal kept in velvet boxes within, which would catch the late afternoon rays slanting in to flash the dust motes into tiny, floating pieces of sunlight. “Captain,” I’d whisper reverently, “artillery,” shaping my mouth carefully around the important words. Bronze star, silver star. Purple heart. You bore the injury as you did the experience, privately observing how it changed you, and continuing on.
In my rebellious years I’d condemn this as meekness, submissiveness, or pointless martyrdom, but you evinced no suffering, so I was confused.
I learned the normal things, but never how you showed me. I followed your finger across the page as you held a book opposite me and said the words aloud, learning how to read upside-down. I was frustrated at your simplistic explanations. I couldn’t discern an example, only perseverance. I figured you’d forgotten how to be young. It wasn’t until much later that I realized what you taught me was how to learn, and that you’d never pretended at being anything except yourself.
I watched your way: unprepossessing, self-effacing, quietly persistent, accepting condescension with tranquil dignity, impatient with nothing except yourself, owing to some innate ability to separate that which you could control from that which you couldn’t, and aligning yourself to the best advantage against the latter. What was its origin? Oldest son of an oldest son, you had four children by the time you were my age now, and I can’t remember you ever changing. When I feel as if my accomplishments somehow signify more than yours, I’m quickly humbled by recalling how effortlessly you accomplish that for which I continually struggle.
You endure affectionate ridicule from your kids as you search through your pile of coupons before ever leaving the house, take fifteen minutes to make a word in Scrabble, repeat the punchline to a joke years after it was told at the dinner table; but when your children grew up to take care of themselves, you regained the path to a goal with hope and ambition undimmed by three decades of dormancy, attesting to a subtle and methodical determination somehow simultaneously hidden by, yet consistent with, your idiosyncrasies.
I remember when I presented my undergraduate thesis to my seminar class, my professors and fellow students were a bit puzzled at your presence in the small classroom that night, you sitting alone in the front row, tan windbreaker and brown shoes, attentive (you’d insisted on coming). Wearing your tie, I spoke nervously about Galois theory, rings and fields and knapsack cryptosystems; you nodded and took notes. I scribbled Greek letters on the blackboard. I knew you understood none of it, but you smiled and took notes.
Afterward, sitting in the coffee shop, I watched you eat the rest of the dessert you bought me. “You’re not hungry?” you asked. “You deserve this.” I smiled and pushed the plate toward you because my throat was too dry to say anything. You’d taken notes. No, I deserve nothing. You deserve it, Dad, you deserve everything, happiness, peace, respect, more than I or anything in this world could ever give you.
Happy Father’s Day.