When I think of my father, I find myself seventeen years old and back in our garage. I stand underneath the fluorescent lights while an oscillating fan blows some cool air my way – a welcome relief on a hot and humid Florida night. The radio is of course tuned to the oldies station and he sings out of tune along to ‘brown-eyed girl.’
It’s after dinner and he’s going to teach me how to work out.
I lost my father nearly six years ago, so when every shop in town displays their father’s day wares, my heart breaks a little. I don’t talk about him much, sometimes prompting emotional queries from my mother. She never travels without a photo of him. Her love is resolute.
It’s not lost on me that in dedicating my life in a way to physical culture, each yoga class I teach would not have been possible without his lessons in the garage. Those nights, my father, and the man I am now are all mixed up in the jumble of memory. As he comes alive again in my thoughts he is as much me as he was him. Mirror images of each other distorted by time and death. A partial memory. A story unfinished. As I piece it back together again it becomes something new. I teach and my words are coloured with his.
As with all men, my relationship with my father was not without its moments of difficulty. Stubborn stand-offs that eventually dissolved under his unending capacity to surprise. Just when you thought you could be mad at him forever, he’d envelop you in his generous heart. I loved him.
I know childhood was different for him. I don’t think he loved his father – a man I never met. “The only nice thing he ever did,” my aunt once told me, “was brush his cigarette ash out of my eye.” That was all she could come up with. Dad never said a word.
He was a drunk. He beat up my grandmother. He drank away the family’s meager income.
In a climactic and life-altering evening, somehow Dad had to find the strength of will and body to punch him out to shield his mother. A punch that said I want this to change. How do you move on from that? Does that fist clinched in primal anger ever fully release? But Dad was never violent again.
Grandfather was a professional baseball player and ruthlessly drilled Dad in sport. Because of or in spite of it, he became the high-school football star. After graduating and with Vietnam looming, Dad left home and joined the U.S. Coast Guard.
He was soon the star football player on base, so his commanding officers were loath to give him a combat assignment. He and my mother started their lives together in New Jersey free from the terrors of war. Free, they hoped, from the patterns of the past. Change, coming up again, as a need, a drive, a force that he had to use to brighten his path. After his service ended he educated himself, started a business, and raised a family.
Our house was filled with music, theatre, and art. Deprived financially and emotionally as a child, Dad was going to live. There was little he didn’t try. Stock-car racing, windsurfing, and folk-art making to name a few.
But out in the sweat and heat of the garage, it was our time alone. He was going to teach me about being a man. About being tough.
I think, but I don’t know for sure, that he needed to feel strong in his body to feel strong in his heart. Likewise, I will never really know all that he must have suffered quietly as a boy. He was always on me to “toughen up” and “be a man.” Complicated statements filled with their own gender-bias drama, but sincere in intention. He was a sensitive man who knew darkness and pain, but he was never brought down by it.
Our home gym was an assemblage of store bought machinery, free-weights, and contraptions self-made with home-welding and duct tape.
Even though I didn’t feel very strong he never gave up on me, no matter how much adolescent attitude I threw his way. He made me believe in myself and my own strength. No matter what sort of wimpy weight I could barely hold, he made me feel like I could carry it. Did he know about my depression? Did he know I would need a way to face my own struggles?
Was that what he was trying to teach me? Is that what I’m trying to teach? It’s hard to say. But as I sit, and breathe, and try to bring him alive in my heart, I hear his voice strong and deep: “Come on. One more time. You can do it. Don’t give up.”
His hand, unclinched, rests open on my back.