I went to bed late every night, my mind too preoccupied to allow me the pleasure of decent sleep. Old Dad’s age may have called for him to get proper rest, but I knew he stayed up well past sundown. From my room window I would watch him sit for a long time. When he threw a paper airplane, I knew he was ready to go to bed. It was until I heard his heavy feet coming up the stairs that I would crawl into my sheets and force my eyes shut.
The most unfortunate side effect of my changing character was that my perception of my father had also changed . I no longer saw him as this hero with ethereal wisdom. My brain had learned to fall in line with the society I was in. What the townspeople saw was a pathetic old man who sat at home all day collecting government money and letting paper airplanes collect in his yard. Due to my relationship to the man, my view was even worse. I saw a foolish, old father. A man who lived to make his son ashamed. A man who couldn’t let go of his wife.
One night broke me. Kids from school were riding their bikes by to laugh and point, they would even stomp onto our property just to demolish some of the fragile structures. My Old Dad would watch in silence from the porch as they’d taunt him, yelling profanities and cursing my father to hell. Old Dad said nothing, did nothing. I wanted to scream at him, to tell him to fight back. Yet, I could not find it in myself to do anything at all.
He waited for them to leave, went inside, then came back out with a box in his arms. I watched from the window as he silently, calmly picked up each plane. It wasn’t until he turned around to go to bed that I saw tear streaks on his cheeks in the pale moonlight. Old Dad looked up at me in the window, and I knew in that moment that my father hadn’t failed me, I’d been failing my father.
That next morning, I went to school with the intent of getting revenge. I stomped into the building and down the halls like a soldier on his way to battle. My heart thumped rapidly in my chest when I saw the boys who had caused Old Dad’s dejection. Stepping right up into the taller boy’s personal space, I delivered a punch to his cheek.
I lost miserably. I got away with bruised arms and a headache, but no disciplinary action. To this day I think the principal let me get away with it out of pity, not because he didn’t want to burden my father with my lapse of judgement, as he had said.
I was embarrassed, ashamed. I’d failed again. When I arrived home, I immediately located my father in our kitchen.
“How do I win a fight?” I asked him.
“Fights? You don’t need to be getting in fights, son. There’s enough violence in our world that makes the autumn leaves fall to the ground and die. Be the crisp air that sets them down gently.”
“Old Dad, please. I need to know.”
He sighed. “Alright. The best wisdom I can give is to want it more. No matter what or who the fight is for. Want the victory more than your opponent does. You’ll never lose.”
I took in what he had told me, nodding slowly. It wasn’t the advice I was looking for, but it was better than anything I would have gotten from anyone else. I did want it more. I just needed to remember who I was fighting for in my upcoming brawl.
The next time I confronted one of my father’s tormentors, I was ready. I stepped up to him. Swing first. Think of Old Dad holding you as small child. Take a hit. Think of Old Dad telling you war stories. Punch. Think of Old Dad’s picture of mom that he keeps close. Block. Think of Old Dad making paper airplanes.
Swing first, take a hit, punch, block. Think of Old Dad.
Think of paper airplanes.