My dad was a man of few words. Most of what he taught us kids was taught by example. Dad and I had the kind of relationship that did not require a lot of emotion or physical affection. I never once questioned his love for me — we just had an unspoken language.
He valued hard work and he passed that value down to Danny, Mary Ann and me. In addition to his day job at General Motors, he always had a garden and raised cattle on our small family farm. As kids, part of our daily chores included a hike out to the water pump to fill the water trough for the animals.
When we were young, we had to take turns because the old hand pump would wear our arms out pretty quickly. But because pumping water was part of our daily routine, it got easier with time… or we got stronger.
The monotony of pumping water did not take much concentration, so often I would use that time for dreaming, or working out new ideas, or trying to figure things out. After I went to college, and even after I had a family of my own, whenever I was back at home I often found myself out back, pumping water. There was a kind of solace in the simplicity of the task when the rest of the world seemed to get more and more complicated.
About a year after Danny died of cancer, my mom was in the hospital and her health was declining. It was becoming evident to our entire family that mom was probably not going to be coming home. One day, after Dad had been at the hospital with mom all night long, I stopped by and asked him if he would like to go home and rest for awhile. He nodded.
He rested in that quiet house for a little while, then went to the grocery store to get a few things. When he got back, the house seemed particularly dreary without mom so I asked him if he would like to go out back and check on his garden. He did. But after he checked the garden, I saw him go around the side of the barn and stop. I waited for a moment then decided to go check on him.
I’ll never forget the memory of walking up behind my dad next to that old barn and seeing his shoulders shaking. I had only seen him cry once or twice in my life. I wanted him to know that it was okay to cry. He had just buried his son a year earlier, and he would soon be saying goodbye to his wife of 67 years. So as I walked up behind him, I put my hands on his shoulders and said, “It’s okay, Dad. This is tough…”
He stood quietly for a moment, then said something I’ll never forget: “Wanna go pump some water?”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
That vivid memory of my dad reminds me often that when life gets tough… sometimes the only thing to do is to keep pumping.