The Memoirist
Published in

The Memoirist

To My Father

An elegy in prose and poetry

Me and my dad circa 1989 (Author’s photo)

My father was diagnosed as terminally ill when I was an 18-year-old freshman away at college. It was a heart condition. Cardiomyopathy. And it was a fluke.

A virus attacked dad’s heart, his cardiologist determined. And now his heart functioned at 17 percent capacity. Because of his weight and other health issues, he wasn’t eligible for a heart transplant.

Doctors gave him less than three years to live.

It turned out that dad lived six more years. He died on November 28, 2002. It was Thanksgiving Day. He was 44-years-old. I was 25.

My dad worked in the scrap business, as had his family. Eventually, he became the head foreman of a large scrapyard for many years. It’s not far from where I live now.

Then he became the manager of a small scrapyard in a rural community that primarily served farmers, collectors, and part-time scrappers for many more years.

I grew up going to the scrapyard with him on Saturdays. As a little kid, I used to play scrapyard and I’d build model scrapyards, complete with toy cars I smashed with a hammer and piles of “scrap” consisting of Legos, paper clips, rolled up bits of tin foil, and anything else I could find that seemed like imaginary scrap.

On the Left: My dad playing in the scrapyard as a boy. On the right, Me circa 1986. (Author’s photo)

Later, I worked for dad. Most Saturdays throughout my adolescence and also summers were spent working at the scrapyard.

I essentially ran the metal room every summer by the time I was heading into my junior and senior years of high school. This was the place where customers brought their aluminum cans and other scrap aluminum, copper, and brass.

I also learned to work the front counter for the yard, weighing customers in, directing them where to distribute their scrap, getting their tare weight, and then paying them.

Thinking back, I had no other real ambitions in life other than running the scrapyard.

I remember dad looking into getting this Aljon baler that had a small crane attached to it to feed scrap into the baler. The baler compressed the scrap into cubes called a bundle. Then those bundles are sold to a foundry and melted down to make other products.

I thought, what an awesome job! I can sit in this crane feeding the baler all day and listening to music on my headphones. (This was before iPods, Smartphones, and earbuds).

Could life get any better? My 17-year-old self sincerely doubted it.

But my parents had other plans.

Two things were pounded into my head growing up. First, we were Christians and also Jews. Well, my dad was Jewish by heritage and nationality, which meant I was sort of too (but not really, because the mother has to be Jewish for you to be considered a “real” Jew).

The second thing was that I was going to college.

And going to college meant going away to college.

I was one of those kids that was a star athlete, made the honor roll every term, was in National Honor Society, made Academic All-State, and blah, blah, blah.

I also did other things like swing choir (which I loved!), and learned to play guitar (also loved!).

But the truth is, I never took academics seriously. I had no idea how to cultivate a life of the mind and wasn’t remotely interested in doing so. That wasn’t on my radar.

It wasn’t really on my parent’s radar either. Both of them came from dysfunctional homes. My dad barely made it through high school and my mom attended one year of nursing school before she left college to marry dad.

What they knew (or thought they knew) was that you had to go away to college and get a good education to have a good life.

So when I proposed that I’d rather stay home and get a job, maybe go to community college, that was rejected out of hand by my parents. No way in hell that was happening. I was going to go away to a real college. I was going to have the college experience (whatever that meant). End of discussion.

So I went.

I packed up my things in the fall of 1996 and moved to a suburb of Cleveland, five hours from home, to go away to college and figure out life.

It was only a few weeks later that I got the call that dad was sick and was going to die.

Some people believe everything happens for a reason. I’m not one of them.

Why did my dad die at age 44? Why did he get a “fluke” of a virus that attacked his heart and led to other complications that caused significant suffering?

Why has my mom been alone since that terrible day in 2002?

Why am I left without a father while other kids I grew up with played on softball teams with their dads in adulthood and share holidays and other special occasions together with their wives and children and grandpa?

But let’s not focus on me.

Think about this rape. That genocide. This instance of abuse. That terrible loss.

To believe that everything happens for a reason is a comforting thought, perhaps, until you think about all the horrific suffering that happens every day all over the world.

I find no comfort in the idea that God ordained it. What kind of God ordains that kind of suffering? What kind of God inflicts or even allows that kind of pain and suffering?

The biblical book of Job wrestled with the same questions, only to get essentially no answer.

“You are too small and puny-minded to understand,” was the gist of God’s response to Job’s protests.

Oh okay. I will bow down and worship you, Job says.

Yeah, right.

I find more comfort in the biblical psalms of lament. They ring truer to me:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1–2, NIV).

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I’d never received that call about dad’s terminal illness.

Not better or worse. Just different.

For one, I probably wouldn’t have left college with a few weeks left in the spring semester of my junior year to come home and help take care of dad. In fact, I may have never moved back to my home area.

Instead, I suspect I would have lived in the Cleveland metro area or some other large city. My parents were really big on the whole “get out of here and make a great life” thing.

I also would have probably graduated on schedule in 2000 with my bachelor’s degree in English, rather than spending my 20s floundering around and not going back to school until age 25 as a non-traditional student. I may have never earned multiple graduate degrees in theology. Or went back to school at age 44 to get a degree in business management after everything I had worked for fell apart.

I probably would have never become a pastor and spent a decade of my life in full-time vocational ministry in contexts that were terrible fits for me intellectually and spiritually. The last five years in particular that I was a pastor were a soul-crushing experience from which I’m still recovering and trying to figure out.

I may never have spent 10 years battling addiction and the self-destructive tendencies that I have to work daily — one day at a time — to overcome.

I definitely would have never met my wife and been married to her 19 years as of this writing. This means I would have never have had our cute little house nestled in the northern corner of our city right by Notre Dame and all the recreation trails, our Newfoundland puppy Newton, and the beautiful, quiet, peaceful life we live.

I sincerely doubt I would be working in manufacturing as a quality engineer. That was never on my radar or part of my plan.

Holidays and family get-togethers would be so much better with my dad. My mom’s life would be so much better with my dad. My life would be so much better with my dad.

I miss him.

One thing my parents got right was the stubborn insistence that I go to college. It was at college in Cleveland that I caught glimpses of a different way to be in the world. Although I didn’t have language for it at the time, I think now that it all comes down to the idea of cultivating a life of the mind. This was a gift.

In 1998 I got college credit for a class called Seminar to Europe. The first half of this class was spent in classroom instruction about things like art, art history, literature, etc. And then the second half of the class was literally traveling all around Europe for about 8 weeks.

I have no idea how my parents paid for me to do this, but they did.

Later my dad would say, “You went to Europe as a boy and came home a man.”

What I learned on that trip was that there was a whole world that I knew nothing about. There was an entire way of being in the world that I knew nothing about. There was an entire way of thinking that I knew nothing about. And whatever it was, I wanted to be part of it.

I’ve been reinventing myself ever since.

I came across a poem during my studies at college in Cleveland that wrecks me to this day. It’s “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden:

Sundays too my got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking,

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

What did I know, indeed?

I miss you, dad. I love you.



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Sam Ochstein

Sam Ochstein

Former Pastor | Reader | Writer | Walker | Whiskey Lover | Contemplative Extrovert | MMin, MATS, MDiv (unfinished)