It’s called gastroenteritis. I was never really sure what this word meant. I was very young and very sick with this. I think gastroenteritis has something to do with the inflammation of the muscles in the stomach and intestines, causing terrible vomiting and a list of other problems. To me, gastroenteritis was just a really long grown-up word that made no sense and kept me sick.
I do not have too much memory of this bout of mine. The memories I have though have lasted with me throughout the decades. Aside from the hospital stays and the needles they poked me with; aside fromthe doctors and all the tests, or the nurses that came into check my temperature whenever I fell asleep—I remember my Mom and Dad the most.
I cannot say what medications the doctors gave me. I cannot tell you what was in the bag hanging from my I.V. stand or how gastroenteritis is treated. I cannot recall what they gave me to ease the discomfort so I could sleep or even if it worked. What I do recall is the way my Mother’s hand felt as she rubbed the side of my head to calm me down. She gently moved her hand through my hair on the side of my head. All the while going, “Sshhhh,” in a long, soft, whispering sound. I recall the sound of her hand as it slowly moved passed my edges of my ear and how while in a hospital, which is no place anyone ever wants to be, the touch of Mom’s hand was better than any of the medications the doctors prescribed.
I used to call The Old Man, “Pop.” Maybe we called him Pop because this is what The Old Man called his father before him. Pop worked long, hard hours. He was not the tallest man around. To me though; The Old Man was larger than life. His hands were strong. In fact, Pop’s hands were the strongest I had ever seen. There was no one else in the world like him. And yes, whenever the argument came up in the classroom; I always swore, “My Old Man can beat up your Old Man!”
As it is with youth, our definitions are very different than when we grow and become adults. Our versions of strength will change with age. As a boy, I thought being strong meant you never cried. I thought the definition of a man meant, if something was in your way—you move it. End of story. I thought a man worked hard. He works with his hands and eats everything on his plate. A real man drinks beer and blackberry brandy when cold in wintertime. Man is rough—like a hardened piece of machinery. As a boy, this was my version of manhood.
One night, I recall Mom was at her wit’s end. Stricken again with gastroenteritis, I was recently sent home from the hospital, but the nausea had not gone away. I could not eat, sleep, or find a comfortable spot on the bed and pillow. I cried all day. Even Mom’s secret weapon of running her hand on the side of my head and whispering, “Sshhhhh,” all seemed to fall short. Then The Old Man came home.
Pop worked long hard hours. His daily outfit was never any different. A pair of jeans, beige Timberland work boots, a t-shirt and a flannel shirt over it with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow.
The Old Man worked on oil burners. He worked in pump rooms and machine rooms, which caused his hands to be rough to the touch. He would wash up before coming home; however, dirt like this does not wash off easily, which is why I could smell the mixture of the machine rooms and cleaner he used to wash his hands. On its own; I suppose this is not a smell anyone would enjoy. But if I were to smell this smell now, it would immediately remind me of good a memory with The Old Man.
When Pop came home, I heard him come through the front door of our two-story home. I heard Mom tell him about her day and how I couldn’t sit still or hold down any food. She was emotional and frustrated. Above all, Mom was exhausted.
The Old Man decided to come up the stairs before sitting down for dinner. “Let me go check on him,” said The Old Man.
I could hear his footsteps as he climbed the stairs. Each time his boot touched the carpeted step, I could hear The Old Man’s weight transfer to the next as he climbed higher.
The light was on in the small hallway, which led between mine and my parent’s room. Pop slowly opened the door and poked his head in to see me. I was uncomfortable and crying. “Whadaya say, kid?” asked The Old Man in a soft voice.
I cannot recall what I said or if I answered. I also can’t remember much about my early boyhood room, except for the table lamp I had near my bed on the nightstand. As I recall, it was a small lamp with a regular lampshade on top. On the body of the lamp was a small nightlight in the ribbed shell of a green and red glass. The glass shell looked as if it were from a ship or a large boat, and the nightlight shone through sending a soft dimmed shade of red and green throughout the room. Aside from this lamp and feeling sick; my only other memory of this time is about The Old Man.
Pop sat down on the bed next to me. He tried to hush me from crying, but I was too sickly and too uncomfortable. I was always very thin—thin enough so that my ribs showed through the sides of my body. The Old Man saw my ribs exposed because my pajama shirt rode up on me because of all my tossing and turning.
“Look at these ribs,” said The Old Man.
“I bet I could play piano on these ribs,” he said.
Then as gently as The Old Man could, he poked my rib as if he were poking a key on a piano. Next is an event that I never forgot.
The Old Man softly began to sing to me while using my ribs as piano keys. He sung, “Just Tea for two, and two for tea. Me for you and you for me.”
I believe this song was made famous from Doris Day in the movie, “Tea for Two,” back in 1950. I never saw the movie or heard much about the play it came from, which was written in 1927. I couldn’t tell you the rest of the words to the sing either. All I could tell you about is the sound of The Old Man quietly singing as he played piano on my skinny little ribs. Somehow, in the sickest, most uncomfortable time—The Old Man’s magic worked well enough that I was able to fall asleep.
This memory has survived the decades and the worst of times. It survives because this memory explains what strength truly is. Strength is when a man possesses the ability to be so gentle that it helps his sick child feel better. That above any other definition is exactly what strength is. Strength is to overcome something powerful by any method—even if it requires softly singing an old Doris Day song while gently tapping on your child’s ribs.
On the day when The Old Man passed, I knelt at his bedside. He did not look like the same strong man I grew up with. He was the shell of himself, or better, his body was the shell of the strong hero he was to me. He was sick and uncomfortable.
In appreciation for how The Old Man helped me rest back when I was very sick—well, let’s just say I played the same song for him the same way that he did for me. And just like that—The Old Man was gone.
I write this not to recount the sad, unfair aspects of life, or my loss in any way. Instead, I write this to express that you my friend, possess this very same strength. It is your strength and your loving ability to be so incredibly gentle that will help your little girl feel better as she overcomes something so terribly powerful.
And believe me when I tell you; this is something she will never forget.
Trust me on this . . .