Cindy told me to stay home. Put my feet up. Watch daytime television. Rest. But I insisted on going to work.
“I have too much work to do.”
I was teaching Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the novel chronicles a father-son relationship and argues a father’s chief duty, no matter how dire the circumstance, is to show his son how act with character and dignity.
I don’t recall my father ever taking a sick day from work. Ever.
I can picture my mother leaning against the kitchen counter, arms crossed, trying to convince my father to take a sick day as he coughed, sneezed, and packed up his lunch box.
Fathers are large mysteries to their children. Fathers leave the house early, come home late. Sometimes they wear funny uniforms. Sometimes they’re tired and quiet. Sometimes they’re anger and terse. Always something on their mind. Almost always hesitant to share.
I still remember my father coming home from work. The electric garage door chugging up. The laundry room door opening, closing, the electric garage door chugging down. As I tell you this, I see him easing down on the unpainted bench that no one ever painted. He unlaces his work boots and rubs his hand. He lines his boots alongside the oil furnace, drags himself across the living room, stretches out on the floor and sleeps until dinner is hot on the table.
My father went to work because his father went to work. In sickness and in health, the patriarchs of my family married the responsibility to their work. In my family, divorce has never been an option.
My brain is doing funny things now.
I’m enduring quick striking migraines that only last for few a minutes but hurt like hell, blur my vision, disrupt my balance and drain my energy.
Doctors don’t know if the migraines are permanent or indicate a worsening condition.
Fortunately, I come from a family of workers. Lunch pail people. And even though I’m not swinging a hammer like my father, I have the taxing responsibility of teaching students how to read and write. I wear khakis and my classroom is carpeted and air-conditioned. But my father approves of my work. If my grandfather were alive I believe he would as well. And their laboring, their unromantic heroism of going to work everyday afforded me the opportunity to earn a college degree to be a teacher, to be a writer and taught me valuable lessons about real, everyday toughness.
In subtle ways, going to work is both a tribute to my father, my grandfather and an example I want my own children to follow.
Working is all I know. Lace up your boots, punch the time clock, honor your responsibilities and labor though your illness because your a blue collar patient, kid.
But still, part of me wants to stay home and not return to work until I’m healed. And the other part, the one who still feels the familiar calloused hands of the past on his shoulder, the one who brings his Spiderman lunch box to work everyday, the one who works through the pain everyday.
Because, thankfully, working is all I know.