In my father’s uneven footsteps
Lessons from my father, a polio survivor, about living life with no regrets.
When I was 5 years old, my father taught me how to ride a two-wheeler, but it is only after his death, when I have the urge to call him, that it hits me: he never had the thrill of riding a bicycle himself.
When he was 5 years old, my father woke up one hot summer morning with polio, which left one leg stricken. He survived, hobbled to school with a heavy metal brace, and watched sandlot baseball games in the muggy Midwestern heat.
By the time he was 10, as his friends sailed around on their bikes tossing newspapers onto front porches, my father, too, had a paper route, but he walked, dragging the heavy bag of papers behind him. He could also be a wild boy. He would climb out the classroom window if he got bored, and once he picked flowers from his neighbors’ garden and then offered to sell a bouquet to those same neighbors.
Like many of his generation, he soldiered on, insisting on a full life. At college, without the brace, he became the sports editor of the student newspaper, though he never played sports himself. After graduation, when all his friends marched off to World War II, his leg prevented him from following them overseas. Instead he stayed stateside, writing articles for the troops in Stars and Stripes, which led to a career in radio and TV.
When he married my mother, she made it clear that she believed sports were a necessary ingredient of a healthy and well-rounded life. She taught her three kids to play tennis and to ski as soon as we were upright. I still have 16mm home movies that show my father hop-stepping around the tennis court and kneeling in the snow to tie the laces of my old-fashioned ski boots, making silly faces at the camera like Charlie Chaplin. What I don’t ever remember was hearing him complain about his leg. The word “handicap” was not in his vocabulary, and it was not anything I ever thought much about, although his closet, which smelled of Kiwi polish, was strewn with extra shoes because he always had to buy two different sizes to accommodate his different-size feet.
I have a dim picture in my mind, like a slide in an old projector shimmering on a screen, of watching him hoist a large bag of sand into a crooked wooden sandbox he’d built in the backyard. I longed to help him lift the bag, but I always knew not to offer him any assistance.
In fact, my father was rarely home because he was “providing for the family,” often on “the Coast,” as we called California, but I still hear the advice he gave from across the country as I stood tethered to the rotary phone in our suburban house back East. I had been offered my first job out of college, as what we then called a “secretary” for a movie star, and he said, “Don’t hitch yourself to a star or you’ll remain a wagon.” I heeded his counsel and took another job.
“The worst decision is indecision, kiddo,” he’d say. “You only regret what you don’t do.”
When my son turned 4, my father bought him a tiny two-wheeler. “Don’t bother with training wheels,” he insisted. “Life is short. Let him ride. Let him go.”
One icy winter morning when my father was 85, we took a walk in the park. His uneven hobble now mirrored the gait of many of the older people we passed. His second wife had just died, and he was weary with grief, while I had been widowed for some years. I longed to give him some sage advice. Instead I told him I was contemplating marrying a widower with sons of his own, but I was hesitant about patching together a new family.
My father stopped and looked me in the eye. “Clear the decks,” he said firmly. “Find love.” We started walking again, and for the first time in his life he let me take his arm.