In my early teens I smoked grass and hash every chance I got. It was a career. With my mind a euphoric vapor, I nodded along to The Grateful Dead and shared laughing fits with my cronies over freaky, pot-hazed perceptions. But then rather suddenly my hash-pipe went cold; those rushes that came from a deep toke made me sick to remember, and I forgot all my secret nickel-bag stashes. What happened? The change had to do with my father. I saw him when he was down — a humiliating thing for a son. When he rose to his feet again, he wasn’t the only one who received a new life.
One morning during my eighth-grade year my mother woke me early. Something was the matter with Dad, he could not get out of bed. When he tried to move his left leg excruciating pain shot from his lower back and paralyzed him. My mother could not afford to miss work that morning, so I would have to miss school and figure out a way to get him out of bed and walking. It was no use lifting him. I decided to remove books from the nearby bookcase and to pile them on top of each other until they formed a tower as high as the bed. He could rest his leg on top of the pile. At intervals I would withdraw one book from this tower and gradually bring his foot a few inches closer to the floor.
They happened to be the tomes he had collected during years of graduate work in sociology, from courses he had taken at night after his day job as an accountant. I would learn later my father’s quitting his doctoral program preceded his back attack.
“I don’t have to take this,” he had barked to the dumfounded chairman of the department, and walked out. He had been the only ‘30s-style radical in a department that did not appreciate his point of view. In a fit of angry pride he turned his back on the hopes of a professorship that he had built up for a decade. And now I had his leg balanced on the same volumes he’d pored over every weekend of my childhood: Weber, Durkheim, Marx.
Every few minutes I removed one of these worthies from under his trembling foot, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, all right?”
“Ooch, I can take it.”
“The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life?”
“I feel less pain, go ahead.”
“Here’s a skinny one coming up.”
“Good, which book?”
“Lazarsfeld, Statistics in Social Research.”
“Owwww! It’s unbearable!”…until his foot finally touched the floor.
I was 13 and I was humiliated. Our worst humiliations are not felt for ourselves directly, but on behalf of someone else.
I’d watched as an ambulance team lifted my father like a thing and strapped him into a stretcher. I sat in the taxi and overheard him, coming back from 10 days in traction at the hospital, cut himself down: “I am a sissy.” And I had walked on the side of his cane as he hobbled to a psychiatrist’s office. It would be a year before he would walk his steady way without a cane or special apparatus, a metal-hooked corset for the lower back.
And yet it was at this very time, when he had to construct a new future for himself, and I was beginning to find books more stimulating than bongs, that I came to know my father in a new way. He introduced me to the weapon of the Word.