REFLECTIONS IN THE RIVER OF LIFE
by Kurt J. Kolka
It was 1:30 a.m. when we received the phone call. Dad had passed away, with Mom in a chair by his side.
End of another era.
A few weeks earlier, my daughter had graduated high school. Now, this. Change can happen so fast.
The nursing home staff had told us it was coming. We had spent two days at his bed side watching him simply breathe. Labored breathing to be sure. Waiting for the uncertain.
Mere days before that, we had celebrated his and Mom's 65th anniversary and Father's Day. Both times he had been awake, smiled and even laughed with us. He seemed to know who each of us was. With dementia, that is not always the case. But, it felt good to able to call up those recent happy memories.
The next day, I joined my two sisters and Mom at the funeral home making arrangements. Their pastor was there, asking about memories we had about Dad. It was interesting to hear my sisters' stories since they had been around for four and five years longer than me.
Of the earliest days, I mostly remember him being gone during the week. He drove a route for an industrial laundry company called Cadillac Overall. He worked very hard, leaving the house before I was up and getting back late when I was in bed. But he did make time for us on the weekends.
Some of my most enjoyable memories from that time were Sunday mornings. We went to Sunday school and then church. When we came home he picked a newspaper, usually the Bay City Times. Then, I would crawl up into his lap and he would read the color comics section to me. “Peanuts,” “Pogo” and “Alley Oop” were among my favorites. I wanted to have a pet dinosaur too.
The comics were special to him, because they were one of the few sources of entertainment available to his family growing up. He spent his childhood during the Great Depression in poverty. His father didn't have a steady job. So, he went around getting work wherever he could, but there was little money to go around. They raised their own food and hunted for meat.
You wouldn't think his childhood was that bad to hear him talk about it though. He was filled with stories he shared with us over and over again. These even included riding the rails with friends to nearby towns, like West Branch, or even further, then jumping aboard another train to return home.
Sometime in early adulthood, he made a decision he would get a steady job, so his children would not have to spend their childhood in poverty. Originally, he wanted to be a math teacher, but that didn't quite work out. Instead he became a driver for Cadillac Overall, traveling around the state.
Childhood memories of Dad for me are filled with Tiger Baseball games (on TV and at Tiger Stadium), playing catch, following the canoe marathon, watching old black and white Tarzan movies and traveling down the back roads of Crawford County. He took me all around and showed me where roads led to. We visited old ghost towns and took me around to people he knew who could tell me about life there back in the day. My love of history came from him.
It wasn't always easy to remember those times however. Some days I could more easily recount the times we disagreed. There were times when I went in directions he was against and we wouldn't speak to each other for a while.
It's a funny thing between sons and fathers. In the early years, a boy wants to be just like his dad. He's the boy's hero. Then, during the teen years, they can't seem to agree on anything. You'd swear they weren't even related.
Then, I became a father. Suddenly, I could so identify with what he had said and done when I was young. The differences just didn’t seem to matter so much anymore.
Once again, I realized that deep inside myself was still that little boy who wants to be like his hero. And I wondered, am I even half the man he is? Sure, Dad wasn't perfect, but there is still something heroic about him.
As we sat there at that table in the funeral home, memories flowed through my mind. Times we laughed together. Times we yelled.
During his young adult years, Dad had been a boxer in the Golden Gloves. A champion, to be more exact. Being a fighter was part of who he was. Even out of the ring, if he saw an injustice, he would stand for what was right. It was like some burning deep within him that would make him stand up and do the right thing, even if it cost him friends.
By contrast, I preferred to settle matters with words rather than fists. Writing was my reaction to injustice in the world.
I was a writer. He was a boxer. It had always seemed to have been a wall between us.
Then, a revelation hit me. Perhaps whatever he felt deep inside when he saw injustice was akin to what I felt when I saw kids being hurt or bullied. That need to get up and take a stand. In my case, it was through words — articles I wrote for this newspaper; creating a book about bullying to help kids; and giving presentations to children in schools about bullying.
Perhaps, we weren't so different as we seemed during those rough times. Maybe the legacy he passed on wasn't just about reading newspaper comics, Tiger games and watching Tarzan. Maybe it was his fighting spirit.
Now in the morning, as I see the reflection in the mirror, of the man who raised me, I can smile. A boxer and a writer may not be so different after all. They are both fighters.