Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Between Two Pictures

The day after we moved into this apartment two years ago I set up a bookcase in the living room. My family and I were fresh off an extended European vacation, and most of our material world, such that it was, still sat packed in boxes at my in-laws’ house thirty minutes away. We had no table to eat on. We had one bath towel to share. My son wanted his CDs. And with the chill of winter hanging in the March air the kerosene heater would have come in handy.

Naturally, all this would be addressed in due time.

‘We need more blankets,’ my wife yelled from the top of our new staircase as I was grabbing the car keys.

Blankets and books, I said to myself. I need a few good books.

I imagined the warm sun coming in through our sliding glass doors as I flipped through picture books of Iceland and Hokkaido and a dozen US National Parks. I had a couple of kids’ adventure books from Germany. I had a series of books on learning Mandarin, along with a variety of books on Japan – the language, the culture and a smattering of literature in the Japanese original. My wife kept handy a stock of travel magazines; I would add a few tomes on the world’s major religions. Together, these rows of printed and bound treasures would serve as the catalyst of my aspirations.
The bookcase filled up quickly, lending an immediate touch of character to the mostly-bare rooms of our new home. My son had his space too, for Clifford the Big Red Dog and Mickey Mouse and a score of characters whose names I’d soon learn. To finish the job my wife set a few framed snapshots and knick-knacks on top.

And in one corner of one shelf, I placed two pictures.

In the course of two years I’ve spent precious little time reading in the warmth of the benevolent sun. Some books I’ve cracked open with the best of intentions, only to have to put them away again. Others have yet to be touched, except by the feather duster. Children’s books have taken over the lion’s share of shelf space. And those two pictures ended up pressed to the side and forgotten, until this past week.

I pulled them out, wiping off the residue of two years of neglect and wondering where all the time had gone. Then I hung them on my wall, next to the window of the small room where I write.

Now I look at them and wonder where I am going with my time.

One picture, from October 2000, is of a mountain bike race in Moab, Utah. Against a backdrop of deep blue sky and burnt orange earth a guy who looks like me is barreling downhill, fire in his posture as he keeps two fingers poised on the brake levers of the bike he borrowed from a friend. The water in the Camelback slung over his shoulders will go untouched. Who needs water for a measly two-hour ride in the desert? Next to a racer clad in bright, showy lycra, this kid sports a gray t-shirt with the sleeves cut off; his arms are sheathed in muscles that have since shied away.

I always meant to go back and do that race again.

Next to this kid I once knew hangs a wooden frame, my Mom and Dad looking out at me from behind the glass. For my Mom, this is one among thousands from a life that continues to be filled with love and family.

For my Dad, this photo was his last.

I compare myself to my Dad sometimes. There’s no conscious thought involved; the process is spontaneous and pure. I’ll see a group of kids in their baseball uniforms, gloves and bats in tow, and I’m reminded of the three years of practices and games my Dad found time for as coach of my Little League team. He gave us his Saturday mornings so we could learn how to be better ball players and better kids. He made sure every one of us played in every game. He took us out for ice cream after a 22-1 drubbing. He never gave up on me, no matter how many times I struck out. And he left it up to me to figure out the lesson in it all.

My family was never starving though we certainly weren’t rich. While my Mom chose home over working for pay, my Dad provided as best he could with what life and his choices had bestowed. And then he celebrated our shared blessings by taking us to the beach for a week each summer, to Florida for two weeks during many winters, and out for pizza on extra special Fridays, or on Fridays that he decided to make special. None of this helped eradicate the financial reality of having a house full of children to love. But I’d bet that love was what helped them overcome the causes of what I imagine were a lot of sleepless nights.

When my Dad was not much older than I am now he quit driving trucks and began selling houses, the best of the few options he saw before him. The work would keep him out past dinnertime. It would not bring him riches. The rewards were respect for his honesty, a collection of modest newspaper clippings and the longest Christmas card list I have ever seen, along with a tenuous freedom that I have just recently begun to comprehend.

On the basement wall above his overcrowded desk was a photocopy of a story of a man who ferried people back and forth across a river for a living. My memory of the details of this story have yellowed along with that paper, but the last line I will never forget. When asked why the man kept at it, day after day, he replied, simply, ‘If I don’t go, I don’t get.’ Motivation to keep after the almighty dollar I suppose, but I think my Dad saw more than money in that sentiment. Which is why he took us out of school for a week to extend our Florida vacations. Which is why, many years later, the guys I once played town baseball with still asked how my Dad was doing. And why, in January 1998, faces I knew well or barely or not at all spoke in quiet reverence about the streams of people flowing in to pay my father their last respects.

True wealth is not measured in numbers. This was one of the many lessons my Dad taught without words.

Still, I know that given the chance he would do a few things differently.

My Dad would have been 77 today. In Japan, this is considered a special year as the character 喜 (‘yorokobi’, or ‘happiness’) can also in the written tradition be comprised of three sevens. From this the Japanese attach significance to one’s 77th birthday. So today, although my Dad only made it to sixty-four, I will celebrate the happiness he found on this Earth.

And I will ponder the line he walked between the freedoms he allowed himself and the burdens that came from the choices he made.

I compare myself to my Dad as I stand between the two pictures on my wall. The inexhaustible spirit of that kid on the mountain bike still lives, although I’ve let him grow dormant under the perceived weight of my own responsibility. Next to him, in my father’s eyes, I see there are lessons I’ve still yet to learn.

Lessons for the time that still stands before me.

Yes, today I will celebrate my dad’s happiness. The happiness he shared on a kid-sized baseball field all those years ago. The laughs he created in the car on the two-day drive from New Jersey to Florida. The smiles and the memories in the houses that all those people on his Christmas card list came to call home.

I will celebrate the happiness he found in his sixty-four years.

A happiness that can live on long after you take your last picture.