When I think of my father, it’s always a series of images. On his cell phone driving home from Boston. Bending down for a bear hug from my sister and I, both of us in oversized t-shirts and bare feet. Head ducked over a cookbook at the kitchen counter. Busy hands on a cutting board.
He’s like a Polaroid: the meaning develops slowly but surely until, at the end, it seems like it should’ve been obvious all along.
Ten years before I was born, someone took a snapshot of him. What they saw, I can only imagine. From what I’m told, he was a man riding the train each day at South Amboy to commute to school and work. Just a few crumpled bills in his pocket.
Back then, maybe he was already imagining a family. Maybe he was already gearing up to provide for two little girls and the woman he fell in love with in tenth grade.
I used to tell the kids with divorced parents that they didn’t understand. Semantics didn’t matter; they saw their fathers more than me.
He spent Monday through Friday at an apartment in Connecticut every week for years. We visited once. It didn’t feel much like home.
There was a full bed and you could literally do your laundry and wash dishes in the same room. He had a mini world up there, but it wasn’t home. Everything was the same shade of tan, like God had dumped a bucket of sand on top of it and hadn’t bothered to clean up the mess.
And yet it was spotless. Not even lived in, really. At the time, I’d expected there to be more. More decorations. More colors. More life. I think I was relieved there wasn’t, that he didn’t have this whole new life waiting for him.
That’s the first time I understood: this apartment, it wasn’t important. It was like a holding tank for the man who had to work four hours from home to support his family. He didn’t live there because he wanted to; he did it because he had to.
When Connecticut became Boston, and four hours became six, he started living in a hotel. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine him sitting at the empty bar on a Tuesday night, watching a post-season MLB game and nursing a glass bowl of mixed nuts. He told us he became friends with the bartender and the concierge and I wondered what it must feel like to befriend hotel staff; to make a life inside a place others were always passing through on the route to somewhere better.
Lots of fathers commute. Of that, I am sure. But there is a world of difference between the hour-long commute and the six-hour commute.
I wouldn’t say my dad is a man of few words; he certainly speaks his mind when necessary. But even without saying it, I know what kept him pushing through the fatigue at 3 a.m. on a desolate highway every Monday morning for years:
His three girls, sleeping in their beds at home as he backed quietly down the driveway and sped toward to main road.
I cannot be sure if the tenth grader knew he’d do that. He almost certainly didn’t. But he fell in love and never looked back. He took a simple task, one that many people find a way to fail—providing for a family—and dedicated his life to it.
I can only hope to someday have the same strength.
Note: John Mackey, Chairman and CEO of Whole Foods, shared a similar feeling today on LifeByMe.com. He believes that everything he does should be rooted in love–consciously or otherwise.