I am eleven years old, sitting on our back porch surrounded by five pairs of my father’s leather work shoes. Next to me is a box, filled with various jars of polish, soft brushes, leather conditioners, and clean rags.
This is one of my regular monthly chores: to clean the oil and grease from his shoes, then condition and polish them to his standards. His unfair high standards, I fume. And when I am done with all his shoes, I do my soccer cleats, which are expected to be cleaned and buffed with a new coat of polish after each and every Saturday game.
+ + + +
I am at my father’s Mercedes-Benz repair shop. Over a meal of In-N-Out Double Doubles and fries, we are talking soccer and hockey. The usual father-son stuff.
But mostly, I am telling him about my recent five week backpacking trip to Australia. He seems greatly intrigued, interested, and eager to hear about it. When I finish telling him about my down under adventures, he gets a curious smile on his face. I don’t know why.
We hug, and pledge to speak again next week.
Once again, I am sitting upon a back porch. The requisite shoe polishes and conditioners are on the step to my left, on my right is the very brush I used to polish Dad’s shoes. Today, I am enjoying a mild SoCal spring morning while giving some much-needed attention to my Forma Adventure boots. After 4500 miles of South American travel, they need a good cleaning; I don’t want them to crack and wither. They are an integral part of my trip memories, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever owned. I want to extend their lifespan as much as possible.
Taking care of my belongings was pounded into me by my father; I suspect he would have been bewildered by today’s disposable society. The notion of producing something that wasn’t meant to last would have utterly confused him. You had to take meticulous care of your belongings so that said belongings would endure a long time. Like those 60s-70s era Mercedes that he repaired, built to go a half million miles and stay on the road for 30-40 years. Televisions that lasted 20 years. Refrigerators, ovens, vacuum cleaners that lasted 20 years.
Shoes, properly cared for, that lasted 20 years.
Menial labors despised in childhood, such as cleaning and polishing your cleats, are not always such bad chores once an adult. Rather like being on a solo motorcycle journey in a distant land, these tasks allow for long periods of uninterrupted reflection.
I’ve been home a little while now, and it’s been great to see my friends and family, to hug my Blonde. My flight from Santiago to Los Angeles arrived on a Saturday morning, just in time to spend the weekend on the couch with her, relax and watch some games from two (of many) of our shared passions: soccer and hockey. The usual husband-wife stuff. I am beyond grateful that she was so supportive of my trip. As a good friend pointed out, my Blonde’s full, generous endorsement of my misadventure was the only opinion that truly mattered.
Related… I’ve been a bit surprised to learn that some of my friends were so very worried about me while I was gone. Yes, yes, not coincidentally, they’re the same people who helped write Top 15 Reasons Why A Solo Motorcycle Trip to Patagonia Is Ill-Advised.
What they don’t know is how much I worry about THEM almost every day. How much I worry about the anchors (some real, many imagined) in their lives that keep them from doing what they love or dream about. I worry about their bottomless Excuse Bags.
I try to remind them, sometimes gently, other times with the sledgehammer, that the annoying problem with clichés is that there’s frequently a shred or even a mountain of truth to them. We’re only here once. Live each day to its fullest. After all, you could die tomorrow in a motorcycle versus banana truck accident. Your brother or sister, husband or wife, could contract a terminal illness. You could be sitting in a college class and get handed a note that says your father has died suddenly.
That’s what I learned from Dad’s unexpected passing. Certain clichés are true. There isn’t always a tomorrow, or next week, next month or next year to start living the life we want. You don’t get endless opportunities to embrace your dreams, or to embrace your loved ones.
Brushing dried mud out of one of the Forma’s buckles, I think back to that curious look of Dad’s, on that day when I’d recounted my Australian trip. It was the last time we spoke. He died less than a week later.
For almost 20 years, every time I’d reflect upon our final afternoon together, I’d wondered what that look had meant. This slight smile and pensive knowing nod that he’d given me. It was only recently that I think I finally figured it out.
It was pride. His pride in me.
I wipe my eyes. I put the polishes and shoe brush back into the box. The Formas look good, not brand new, but restored, refreshed, ready for the next adventure into an unknown place with an uncertain outcome.
And so am I.