Friday, June 13, 2014

He Was, After all, My Father

Carrying on with my thoughts about stories and why they are important, I want share this one in the hopes it will illustrate the life-sustaining power of stories. And the way hearing someone tell their life story can change how we perceive them--maybe even lead to forgiveness.

My father, Walter Stephen Hamm, was a complicated man, wounded by the circumstances of his childhood and then wounded again by a grenade that blew up in his hand during World War II. As a child, I believed that grenade had blown up in the hands of his unborn children as well. His mother died when he was six years old. His father descended into his alcoholism and his six small children were either farmed out to relatives or adopted. When my father entered the military, he was a carpenter. When he came out of the VA hospitals he'd spent more than three years inside, he was a carpenter who'd had most of his right hand blown off, who would wear a steel brace from thigh to ankle, and would battle osteomyelitis for the remainder of his life. The grenade exploded when my oldest brother was an infant, before I and my other brothers were born. My father was angry and when he drank that anger exploded in some pretty frightening ways.

Most of my life, I kept a safe distance from my dad. I loved him. And I thought I hated him. In his late sixties, he developed an aneurism that could not be repaired in the ordinary way because of his osteomyelitis. He needed an aortic transplant. I traveled from my life in Oregon to Baltimore where I sat by his bedside for weeks that changed my perception of him forever. I wrote something in my journal on the way home from that amazing time. Now that my father is dead, I wish I'd shared what that time with him meant to me. Each day, he told me a story from his life. I'd listen and then at night I'd return to the motel room I'd rented on the Johns Hopkins campus and write what he'd said that day. If my father cried the following morning when I read it to him, I knew I got the important things right. I wish he could have known how I changed as a result of hearing his life story. Perhaps understanding someones story is all we need to find forgiveness. This is what I wrote on the plane:

"From the other side of the country, the other side of my life, I came to that place--The Johns Hopkins Hospital--to be with my father. And each day, for more than five weeks, we greeted the morning together.

It was in those moments that I came to understand, I mean really understand, how far my father and I had journey together and how much I was able to reconcile the separate truths of that voyage. My father is a man I came to love in an intricate and irreversible way and I can no longer conceive of his absence from my life.

But if time could magically cease for my father and me, I know that is where I would stop it--in that place, at that unlikely time in both our lives. That time when our roles reversed and I became the parent of my father. It was a wondrous, unbelievable time, especially the way we were in the morning. And that is what I want to remember. To remember always. The two of us, father and daughter, shadowed by the first light. Momentarily alone together, our breath rising into the morning air and him, lying there, telling me for the first time, the story of his life. The story of the man who is, after all, my father."

And so, as Father's Day nears, I go back to that time, as I knew I would, and I remember him with love and respect for everything he endured. For how hard he tried, despite the wounds, to rise above his circumstances and love me and my brothers. My father taught me tenacity. And it has helped me in this elusive pursuit of the writing dream. My father never gave up and he became a pretty good one-handed carpenter.

This piece by Barbara Rudolph
is entitled "Tell Me A Story".
It hangs above the fireplace in
my bedroom and reminds me
how happy I am that I asked my father
to tell me his story. Ironically, he gave
me my first typewriter--a Smith-Corona portable
he'd won in a poker game

An afterthought: It occurs to me now I did stop time by writing about those weeks with my father. And I can go back to them whenever I want. Sometimes it's a wonderful thing to be a storyteller.  

Susan Clayton-Goldner’s fiction and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, Our Mothers/Ourselves, The Hawaii Pacific Review Best of a Decade and New Millennium Writings. She has twice won the National Writers’ Association Novel Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. in poetry. Her novel, Just Another Heartbeat : A Story of Loss and Reunion was a finalist for the Hemingway Award. Her first collection of poetry, A Question of Mortality, was just released by Wellstone Press, Ashland, Oregon. Visit my website: 


Peter Hogenkamp said...

Susan, that was a beautiful and courageous piece: I was moved by its honesty and maturity. I thank you for sharing it.

Sue Coletta said...

Susan, he does know how much that time meant to you. He's never left your side. When you miss him most, talk to him. It helps at times like these.

Unknown said...

Absolutely beautiful. I videotaped my father's account of his childhood and the years before I was born. It's a memory I treasure.