To many people, my father seemed hard to get to know. He was quiet, and quiet has a way of making people uncomfortable. His reserved demeanor often times made people believe he was unapproachable. My father never intended for people to feel apprehension; he held a great deal of love in his heart, but he chose to keep his feelings and thoughts to himself most of the time. Nevertheless, there were times when his emotions would surface.
In 1994, our family received horrible news. My Uncle Jim was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis. Uncle Jim was my father’s youngest brother, and he held a very big place in my father’s heart, whether he told him or not. My father was devastated that his brother, nine years his junior, had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. He decided he needed to do something for him to make it all better.
Without a way to cure an incurable disease, my dad decided he would do the next best thing; he would build my uncle a picnic table. You have to understand, my father was the type of man who wanted to fix a problem. Obviously, however, all problems cannot be fixed. My father would not be brought to his knees; he would find a way to mitigate the situation and bring some form of relief to the hurt parties. Thus, my father, a self-taught master craftsman decided he wanted to give my uncle one of his new projects, a picnic table. Really, it was more than just a picnic table; it was a piece of himself, his time and his talents, as well as a way to let his brother know that he loved him and that he would do everything within his power to help my uncle enjoy every day.
My father went to Home Depot and purchased all of the wood, screws, and washers that he needed. He spent three days in our garage preparing the pieces of the table. When it was ready to be assembled, he called my uncle and told him that he was bringing over a picnic table that he had made. I do not think Uncle Jim was surprised because he was very similar to my father. He was a composed, taciturn man, too, but he also showed people how much he loved them. Thus, he understood that this gesture was a sign of their brotherly bond and a way for my father to say ‘I love you.’
When my father arrived, he got right to work. Realizing that the task was time-consuming, my aunt told Chris, my 19-year-old cousin, to go outside and offer to help my father. Chris was home from college. Chris expected to go outside, help my father, and have a basic conversation about college, and then follow picnic table-making instructions. You see, Chris was one of the many who knew my dad as an unsentimental, reserved man. He believed my father was all business, and he always believed his stoic personality was impenetrable.
However, he learned that afternoon that my father had a warm heart and felt emotion. For the entire two hours it took to put the picnic table together, my father silently wept. He wept tears of sorrow because it was not 1959 and he could not be the big brother fighting off the neighborhood bully; MS was a bully from which he could not offer protection. He wept because he could not offer any words to quell the situation. My father wept because he had nothing to offer my uncle but a picnic table and his love.
My uncle’s MS was severe. Within a few years, he and my aunt decided that they needed to move into a condo so that they would have wider halls to accommodate his wheelchair, and so they could design rooms that could accommodate lifts to help my uncle function. My three cousins were old enough to stay in the house by themselves, and Marta, Chris’s sister, eventually purchased the house from her parents. When my aunt and uncle moved, they left the picnic table for the kids– they no longer would have a backyard.
Sadly, my uncle passed away in 2008. This past June, Marta sold the house, the house she lived in her entire life, so that she could move into a bigger house in a better school district to accommodate her family. As she and her husband were cleaning, pitching, donating, and giving away, they realized they could not bring the picnic table with them. However, because my father made it, they wanted to give it to a family member. They called Chris.
Last week, Chris decided to power wash the picnic table to clean it up. When he flipped it over, the day he and my father built it came rushing back to him. He had forgotten about it all together, but then he saw my dad’s trademark– he signed and dated every table he made. It said Rich, 1994 on the underneath. Chris wept. He wept for his father who was diagnosed with MS in 1994. He wept because he passed away four years ago. Chris wept for my father who wept for his brother. He wept because my father was an exceptional, caring man who wanted nothing more than to relieve others of pain and hurt. He wept because he felt blessed he got to know my father for who he truly was.
My father built picnic tables that last. I know he is sitting in heaven with his brother. They are smiling down on Chris because they know he will cherish it, but also because Chris helped build it; his sweat, love, and now tears are part of its creation, too.