Columns The Unfit Father

My Father’s Hands

My father’s hands are much like my own. We share the same stubby fingers, the same thick thumbs. Our smallest digits, the pinky fingers, spin off at an alarming angle at the last knuckle although my father’s are more pronounced than my own.

They are good hands and ones that have served us both well.

I have no memory of the first time I saw my father’s hands but as a boy they were a constant presence. They held me as an infant. They rocked me to sleep. They carried me as a toddler up to my bed at night until I became too large and his hands became too small.

My father’s hands were kind. I can recall the number of times they struck me with the digits on one hand. I’m not sure if I deserved it but there are some lessons a child can only learn through physical force.

For a few months at the age of nine or ten I suffered agonizing muscle cramps that precluded any sort of peace or sleep. To this day I still do. When the growing pains became to great I would walk up and down the stairs in the late hours of the night and stretch as my father had taught me.

More often than not my footsteps would wake my father.

“Breathe. Take a deep breath and breathe,” my father would say before showing me how to, again, perform a runner’s stretch.

At times those words and his instruction would be enough to calm my angry muscles but, on occasion, the seizing pain would be more than I could bear. It wasn’t often but when the spasms struck and I was brought to tears my father would take his hands and knead my calves and then my thighs until I finally found some measure of peace.

I’ve performed the same ritual with my hands when my daughter, all of seven, ached and cried as her muscles stretched and groaned and I massaged her tiny legs as best as I was able until she fell into a restless sleep.

My hands, in many ways, are my father’s hands but they are also my own.

When he was seventeen my father worked at a lumber yard.

When I was twenty I wielded shovels and an axe and broke sharp, heavy stones to render landscapes.

I imagine that both of our hands looked similar as we worked our way through college at that time; calloused and rough and able to take a splinter or a shard of of rock without a shrug.

In the army as he prepared for Vietnam my father’s hands lost their callouses from hauling lumber but gained new ones in boot stripping down and building back an M1. As a Staff Sergeant his hands learned to do the same with an M79 grenade launcher and a 1911 Colt .45. In the field his hands pounded down tent stakes with rocks, his helmet and even his palms. They signaled his men and wrote letters to his mother, his father and his brothers.

My father’s hands remember those drills and, while I haven’t seen it, I’ll wager that they still remember how to break down and build those weapons.

Hands remember and while mine have never been to war they bear witness to another life, my life. My fists and knuckles have borne the brunt of fights fought and lost as a mouthy teen. They have written the stories and pieces that had me expelled from high school. My hands have held the woman that I love and became my wife as we pledged ourselves to each other.

These are the hands that held my infant daughter not more than two days old as a nurse drove a needle into her heel and milked it for blood.

These hands have pulled the woman I love from a car that flipped over as well as the child we made. They remained deliberate and steady in their actions as I carried them both to lay by the side of the road until an ambulance arrived.

These are the hands that pulled the hair back from my daughter’s brow in the hospital as I smiled with the false confidence that parents must have to reassure children that everything, everything would be all right.

These were the same hands that shook like leaves on a windswept tree once my wife and daughter were safely asleep in bed and cradled my face as I wept in relief and terror and what could have been.

These hands, my hands, have held back my mother’s slap when I was an impertinent and hurtful teen.

These hands have pinned my sister down in a fit of mania as she gnashed and bit at the nurses until they were able to push Haldol into her veins.

These hands have held my daughter when she woke and screamed in the middle of the night and fed her, bathed her and clapped with resounding joy when she turned her first clumsy yet perfect cartwheel.

These hands have held my daughter’s hands and she has held mine. As my hands have borne witness to my father’s hands my daughter’s will bear witness to my own hands.

These are my hands. My hands are my father’s hands. My hands are my daughter’s hands. My hands are my own hands and so it will go and go and go.