Memories of a time long ago
Today I was cleaning up a closet in my basement and came across an old medicine bag; its leather-beaten and worn edges soft from age brought back an indelible flash of memories. It was my dad's medicine bag. He had it for emergencies. I have memories of him rushing out in the middle of the night to help a friend or neighbor with this bag. It had everything in it from a first aid kit with bandages antiseptics, BP kit stethoscope, even surgical scalpels, pain killers, and a sutures kit.
Growing up, I was attracted to loud, brash men. As any naive teenager, I liked the shiny objects better than the subtle worn ones. I remember my uncle and I had many worldly conversations; he was charismatic, jovial and talkative, quite the opposite of my father. I confided in him about my school friends and celebrity crushes; he was never judgemental and always kept my secrets. He taught me not to drink the punch from the punch bowl or take drinks from strangers. To be the designated sober companion but never the drunk friend who needs help. To be aware and vigilant always. Have fun, but stay cautious. I may have been 16 or so at the time. He gently reminded me during one of his long talks, "you are growing up, going places alone. I'm not saying you shouldn't go - but if you do, then you need to protect yourself, be smart, and don't tell your parents you have this they won't approve". He handed me a pepper spray contraption with a key chain at the end of it; his expression was that of dealer whipping up a dime bag in the parking lot. This was our little secret.
The Right of Passage
I was excited. It was a little like a right of passage. I immediately remembered scenes from some movie I'd watched with a beautiful woman clicking in stilettos down a marble lobby with her car keys and pepper spray dangling from her keychain as she confidently faced the world. I too, would be this worldly woman one day, so I carried that pepper spray with me everywhere. In my school bag, my back jean pocket, my pocketbook. Wherever I went, my trusted friend went with me. I would curiously stare at it, wondering if it would do the job in the event I did need to use it. I wasn't sure, and I needed to be sure. I was in my room after dinner one day and mustered up enough courage to test it out. I stood in the middle of my bedroom and pointed the spray away from me and pushed the lever down slightly. Nothing. Then I tried again this time I pushed harder. I heard a swish sound like that from a spray of air in an empty canister. But then nothing. I moved a little closer and smelled nothing. How was I to know if this thing worked? I wrinkled my nose in frustration. It was not going as I imagined. So I moved still closer and then it happened. There was no scent at all, but I felt something sting my eyes, I stepped away quickly, but it was too late. I rubbed my eyes, and the sting turned to a slow harsh burn now my mouth my nose and my eyes were all impossibly on fire. I tried to open my eyes, but that made it even worse, I could feel my throat burning, my skin was hot and flaming. It felt like I was going to melt and die. But I didn't realize I was screaming flailing my arms running around my room, banging into things trying to go somewhere. Anywhere I could feel better. I heard loud steps, dad calling my name and mom's voice behind him, the door slammed open, and two strong hands grabbed my shoulders and jerked me forward. It was my dad. I'm sure he assessed the situation quickly with the pepper spray lying on the bed. He yelled at mom to stay out of the room and grab his bag. He took my hand and led me out into the hallway, checked my eyes, which were still closed tears streaming down them. I was now sobbing like a baby from the pain of course but mostly from embarrassment at what an idiot I was. Who sprays a high-pressure canister of potent pepper in a closed room anyway. The answer is teenagers. Even the smartest teens do some dumb things. It's not their fault blame it on their curiosity and their growing brain. Mom was back now angry and yelling at me. Even with my eyes closed, I could sense panic and fear in her voice. I must have looked a site to them. Swollen faced and snot-nosed. I was terrified, will I lose my eyesight, do I have burns on my face? I didn't dare ask any of this. Dad gently shushed her and spoke to me. "I'm going to clean your eyes now Mom will help you wash your face after, then we are going to put some ointment on your eyes to soothe them. I need you to take this pill; it will make you sleepy. Go to sleep. You are going to be just fine," he said and placed a small pill and a glass of water in my hands. I followed his instructions. I remember drifting to sleep in our guest room where mom tucked me in. They cleaned my bedroom and aired it out for a couple of days before I was allowed to sleep there.
We never spoke of the pepper spray again. It had mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again, and in its place, I found a shiny new bright pink personal sound alarm with an LED light dangling from my key chain. A harmless item that made a mean sound. I had been reduced from a stiletto-wearing woman in a marble lobby to a helmet-wearing kid on her pink bike. I was ok with that. I never wanted to see that angry-looking pepper spray again.
The Silent Warrior
I have many memories of my father. None of them were typical of many other fathers. He wasn't the friendly neighbor flipping burgers at our backyard parties, or the soccer dad screaming encouragement from the sidelines. He wasn't like my husband teaching his girls to ride their bikes or playing basketball with them, polishing a handcrafted project in his woodshop.
My dad was different. I remember my father and his medicine bag. He was a healer, a thinker. He was a man of few words but a man of action. I saw my father clearly always. He was the one who picked me up effortlessly swarmed by bees and ran down a flight of steps as the bees stung us, both never flinching or hesitating for a moment. He wrestled with me less and played chess with me more. He never let me win because I was young, but he let me lose for years until I finally won on my own accord. He taught me persistence pays and love is coming back for more even if it meant you would lose every game but win the ultimate prize. The life lesson was that respect is hard-earned. He nurtured in me my ability to withstand intense pain and disappointment because where cuts happen, the skin grows thicker. You are better for your failures and get stronger from the pain of your loss and failures. It is from him I get my love of reading and writing. He stifled many dreams to give mom and me the life we wanted. I didn't know any of his dreams because he never wallowed in his sacrifice, only his accomplishment. That was us. Mom was the love of his life, and I was his only child; we were his life's work along with the hundreds of veterans he saved for his 46 years of service at the VA. This quiet thinking man who spoke with an accent never wavered from his responsibilities.
The Real Heroes
We praise so many who do amazing things in their lives, the noble prize winners, the Oscar winners, but we tend to forget those on whose shoulders these famous men and women stand. Those who work everyday head down nose to the ground for a singular purpose. These men build the backbone of America. Their daily values and spiritual strength still stand long after they are gone. We, their children, are their legacy. I choose every day to live the life that will make him proud. Some days I fail, but I start the next day again because like chess one day I will win. I will always remember my father and his medicine bag and am grateful to have had the time to learn the many lessons he taught me. I hope he is looking down now and then and approves of what he sees.
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