From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

A Handful of Blackberries

Just as I began a new job in New York, I had to learn another important job: fatherhood. At the office, we had three new projects in the works, and at home I had a young son who was growing fast and needed me. To say I felt stretched is an understatement. This was never more clear than one Thursday when, for the second time in a week, I was packing for a business trip.

“I know how important your job is,” my wife, Ellen, said. “But it would be nice if you could be home more often.”

I knew she was right. My son, Luke, was turning three, and I didn’t like being away so much either.

“Yesterday,” Ellen said, “Luke wandered around the house saying, ‘Where is my daddy? Where is he?’”

Ellen wanted to discuss this further, but there wasn’t time. “Honey, I really have to make this plane,” I said. “Let’s talk tomorrow when I get back.”

In Chicago my meeting ended early, and I suddenly had a couple of hours to kill. So I called on Dan, an old family friend who had retired to the area to be near his grandchildren.

Dan had once farmed in Indiana, where my father was a country doctor. Now, as we sat at his kitchen table, he began to reminisce about what a fine man my dad had been.

“He’d get you well no matter what it took,” Dan said. “I don’t think there was a soul in that county who didn’t love your father.”

Then, to my surprise, Dan confided that after he’d recovered from prostate cancer, he had developed a serious depression that he just couldn’t shake.

“I didn’t care about getting better,” he said. “But your daddy got me through it.”

His remembrance touched me, and I put my hand on his shoulder. “He cared about his patients a lot,” I agreed.

Indeed, I knew how devoted my father was to his patients. But I also knew that his devotion and hard work came with a price—a price that seemed high to his family.

Dad was a tall, lean man whose sky-blue eyes could see straight through anything. But despite his no-nonsense gaze and way of speaking, he was always easy to talk to.

We lived on a farm, not because we were farmers but because many of Dad’s patients were. They often paid in livestock instead of cash, so he found a farm to put his fees out to graze.

There was no denying my father’s love of hunting, however, and he always kept bird dogs. I would train them until they were ready to hunt. He left that chore to me, he said, because he didn’t have the patience. Yet what he did or did not want to do often seemed to hinge on what I might learn from doing it myself. My dad taught me everything. He showed me how to use a handsaw and mark a right angle, for instance—skills that enabled me to cobble together a raft for the pond beyond our meadow. One corner ended up out of line, but Dad helped me launch it without comment on its fault. His best way of helping was to ask questions that allowed me to realize things myself. When I was afraid I’d have to fight a guy at school he asked, “Can you take him?”

“I think so.”

“Then you don’t have to. Here, stand up and give me a shove.”

He made me push him until I nearly knocked him down. “See, you just have to give him an idea of how strong you are. What if you try that and see if he doesn’t back off?” I did, and it worked.

That was the kind of help I needed from Dad. But the summer I turned thirteen, he virtually disappeared from my life, and I didn’t know what to do.

So many people were sick, and Dad was gone most of the time seeing patients. He was also building a new office and trying to earn enough to pay for an X-ray machine. Often the phone rang while we were at supper and I’d hear him say, “Be right there.” Then Mom would cover his plate with a pie tin and put it in the oven to wait.

Many times he’d be gone for an hour or more. Then his car would crunch on the gravel drive, and I’d run downstairs to sit with him while he ate. He’d ask about my day and give me whatever advice I had to have about the farm. But that was about all he had energy for.

As that year went on, I worried about him, and I worried about me. I missed his help. I missed joking around and just being together. Maybe he doesn’t like me as much as he did, I thought. Maybe I’ve done some thing to disappoint him. He’d been helping me become a man, and I didn’t think I had a prayer of getting that done without his guidance.

The pond beyond the meadow was ringed with reeds and cattails. I liked to fish there. I’d never caught a big one, hooking only sunnies and a few catfish. But big fish were in there. I’d seen them jump, making a glistening turbulence in the mist of early morning. Sometimes the ripples would carry so far they’d reach the shore.

That summer I used to sit on my raft and think of ways to lure my father back. My mother wanted us to take a vacation, but he nixed that because he had so much work.

One day my mother and I stood in the kitchen and talked about him.

“See if you can get him to go fishing,” she finally said. “Even just one evening off will help.”

The next day I began my campaign to get Dad down to our pond. I planned to make a fire, roast ears of corn and fry up whatever we could catch. The problem was getting my father to change into old clothes and take off a few hours.

Finally, one Friday, I simply bullied him into it. I met his car when he came home and pulled him into the mudroom, where we changed our work clothes.

“We’re going fishing,” I said. “And that is that.”

And we did! As we stood on the pond’s edge casting into the fading sunlight, I was still amazed that I’d persuaded him to do it. Soon I went to gather wood for a fire. We hadn’t had any luck yet, but we could still roast the corn and talk.

While I worked, I watched him cast into a deep hole near a fallen red oak. “Please let him catch a fish,” I whispered to myself. “Any fish—just let him catch something.”

Almost as if my thought had raised the fish to the lure, a bass struck his line.

“Whoa, boss!” he yelled, and the moss-colored fish took to the air. It looked humongous and put up a good fight as Dad expertly reeled it into his net, then brought it to me by the fire.

“Hey, Dad,” I said. “How about that!”

He looked young, happy and proud. I dredged his fish in cornmeal and fried it over the fire. We sat on a stone eating our supper.

“That was some meal,” he said when finished. “I don’t know when I’ve liked anything more.”

My father made a pot of coffee while I went to the edge of the meadow where the briers were borne down with ripe blackberries. I picked our dessert and carried it back in my baseball cap. We had the berries with our coffee and watched the sun make dazzling colors in the western sky. My father ate slowly, one berry at a time, savoring each. Then out of the blue he began telling me how much he cared about me.

“You know, Son, you’re going to be a success in life,” he said. “I know that because I never have to ask you to do something twice. But more than that, you’re a good kid.”

The expression on his face was of such warmth and pride that I felt utterly blessed.

Times like this were all too rare as my father’s practice grew ever larger. But whenever I needed to, I’d reach back to that moment by the pond, remembering how good it felt when Dad was with me.

“Yes, sir,” Dan said, interrupting my memories. “Your father was some fine man. And his medicine wasn’t just pills and shots. He thought a lot about people. He could always understand what someone was going through.”

“Yes. Sometimes he did,” I said, looking momentarily away.

Then Dan said, “When I was at my worst, I said to him, ‘Doc, give me one reason to beat this depression.’ And do you know what he said?”

Dan stared across the table until I reestablished eye contact. “He said, ‘Blackberries. Think of a handful of blackberries and how wonderful that is. To pick a handful of blackberries, sit down with someone you love very much and eat them. Think of that and tell me life’s not worth the fight. You have a wonderful wife and three fine kids. Take some time with them. It’s family we live for— not just ourselves.’

“That’s what he said, and I’ve never forgotten it,” Dan finished. “I think it saved my life.”

My hands were quivering. All I could do was stare back at him. I felt so many emotions that I could muster not one word.

On the plane home, I closed my eyes and thought about me and my dad. I knew what that day by the pond had meant to me. But I had never known what it meant to him. Now, in my mind’s eye, I saw him standing at the edge of the water, the bass on his line, so full of joy. How wide the ripples spread, I thought. How far they reach.

Suddenly I found myself staring out the airplane window, hoping that the flight would get in on time. I planned to be home before dark for a change—to play in the yard with my son in the fading light of day.

W. W. Meade

Reprinted by permission of Dave Carpenter. ©1998 Dave Carpenter.

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