Lou Gehrig, My Dad and Me

by Richard Littell on Wed, 2009-04-01 09:16
Pictured in the foreground at a ballgame in the summer of 1940 are the author, at age 9, and his father at 33.

I’ll never forget July 4, 1939. I was 8 years old, living with my parents in a New England town. Sitting next to the Philco console radio on the floor of my parents’ kitchen, I was listening to the broadcast of Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day from Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were honoring the 36-year-old Hall of Fame player, who had contracted a rare and fatal disease that forced him to retire after playing in 2,130 games.

When Gehrig was coaxed to address the 62,000 fans at the Stadium and the millions listening to their radios, he sought to minimize his illness. Recalling his happy years and friendships in baseball, Gehrig insisted that “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” As I listened to Gehrig speak, I cried — unaware that years later I would learn much more about that disease.

Author and dad on the beach in 1949.

But that day in 1939, I’d had to conceal my tears when I heard my father coming into the room. Dad was a good man but, like many men in those days, he had rigid views about the traits of manliness. Dad believed that a man should never complain or show weakness, and he believed it was his duty to teach those precepts to me. So he’d instructed me again and again, whenever I’d hurt myself, that a man of any age should never cry. I adored my father and tried never to cry, though I cried again in 1941 when Gehrig died.

By 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II, my sadness over Lou Gehrig’s fate was replaced by dismay over a disruption in my own life: My father had to leave our family. As a reserve officer in the Army, he was called to active duty and immediately shipped overseas. By the time he returned to civilian life in 1946, both he and I had changed. Relieved of his disciplinary oversight, I had become a rebellious adolescent.

Accustomed to obedience from his Army subordinates and respect from his peers, Dad was unprepared for his only child’s disrespect and insubordination. He and I clashed regularly. During our arguments at the dinner table, we shouted at each other and threatened worse until my mother’s sobs shamed us to stop.

We seemed unable to recognize how much alike we were and how much we truly loved each other.

Our worst clash happened during the last semester of my senior year in high school, when I was expelled for repeated truancy. The school principal promised to reinstate me if my father would bring me to the principal’s office.

But Dad was furious with me and refused to go to the school. Instead, he told me to forget school, get a full-time job and begin paying rent and board at our house. I was just as stiff-necked and belligerent as he was, and rejected his demands. Instead, I left home, got a job at a factory in a nearby city, and moved into a rooming house.

Naturally, the rest of the family tried to make us be reasonable. But my father and I remained stubborn until it was too late for me to go back to school or to graduate from high school.

After that, Dad and I observed an undeclared truce, especially after I managed to get accepted by a respectable college despite my lack of a high school diploma. For the next seven years, until 1956, I was away at college and then at law school and, during the summers, I worked at jobs distant from my family’s home. Next, I spent several years as a fledgling lawyer in Los Angeles and finally settled in Washington, D.C., where I married, began raising my own children, and began to overcome my past antagonism toward my father.

One night in 1965, when I was 34 years old and my father was 58, my mother telephoned to tell me that Dad had been diagnosed as having ALS. Now I cried for my father, as I had 26 years before for Gehrig. And so I began traveling regularly to my parents’ home, trying with some success to re-establish the affection that had flourished between Dad and me during my childhood. I felt terrible guilt as I watched my father, once so strong and handsome and proud, lose his physical skills — the ability to write, to speak, to walk unaided, to feed himself, even to sleep at night without an assisted-breathing apparatus at his side.

The end began in 1967, when my mother called to tell me that my father had a gun and said he was going to commit suicide. His reason, he’d told my mother, was that he’d become too great a burden for her. When my mother handed the telephone to me, I told Dad that I accepted his right to commit suicide, if that’s what he wanted to do. But, I said, I could be at his home in two hours and then he and I could talk about it.

Littell family
Author, in the background, is pictured with his mother, father, and son in 1970. His dad, in advanced stage of ALS, died a few months later.

When I arrived at my parents’ home, Dad and I embraced and he never mentioned his suicide threat. He hadn’t wanted to die. He just needed to know that my mother and I still loved him and wanted him to live a while longer.

Later that night, my father awoke in extreme respiratory distress. He gave my mother permission to telephone for an ambulance and at the hospital was placed on a respirator. He went into a coma and we all knew this was the end. For the next two days, until he died, my mother and I and our family sat in the hospital lobby, waiting. I think that I was the only one who actually went into Dad’s hospital room.

Although I don’t remember what I said to him on those visits, I do know that I was often in tears. I’d like to think that, if my father could have heard me, he wouldn’t have wanted to tell me that a grown man shouldn’t cry.

Richard Littell, 78, of Alexandria, Va., is an attorney, writer and former senior official in federal government agencies. His Web site is www.richardlittell.com. Littell wrote the above article for his daughter, Susan, 40, who has always been “fascinated” by stories about her grandfather and learning more about ALS.

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