Now that I’m on twitter and accepting the fact that putting myself out there is a must in this day and age, if I wish to attain my dream, I figured this was a perfect time to introduce those of you as yet unaware of him to my grandfather, Richard Kenbok.
I was born a month and a half premature, at four pounds, eleven ounces. The doctors gave me a fifty-fifty chance of surviving my first night.
“You were a fighter,” my dad has always said. I made it!
What did this mean? It meant I was ticketed for a whole heck of a lot of painful physical therapy, foot braces, and kids asking me dumb questions like, “Are you retarded or something?”
Short answer to that question: No. Long answer: If you ask me that, you’re being ignorant, and I don’t think I want to know you. That long answer got me a lot of funny looks, since most kids didn’t know what the word ignorant meant and had to go home and ask their parents. (Thanks, Dad!)
Life wasn’t easy in those first few years. (Is life ever easy?) It turned out I had cerebral palsy and terrible eyesight. But one of the pluses of my life: In my corner was a kind, loving, sarcastic, and downright wonderful man. We called him Papa. Papa Dick.
In my childhood, it was easy to let people wait on me, or do things for me. They wanted to, some might have felt obligated because of the poor hand I’d been dealt, and I wasn’t going to complain. The more they did for me, the less I had to do. Good deal.
It was Papa who told me I was looking at life all wrong.
“I don’t mind helping you,” he said. “I’ll never mind helping you, if you need help. But if you can do something, do it.”
“But I have palsy,” I whined. With everyone else, this reminder earned me favor, a sad look, a hug. (Sad looks became not so great to see, as I aged. People often give me sad or mournful looks instead of coming up to get to know me, and it makes me fume inside.)
But with Papa it got me nothing but a scoff. “Your grandmother has arthritis,” he said. “Hell, she has trouble opening doors. Can you open doors?”
“Yes.” I felt triumphant.
“Then I don’t want to hear any more about what you can’t do.”
I kept this conversation in the back of my mind always. And when I needed a good talking-to, when I was subscribing too heavily to the “victim frame of mind”, pop was there to put me back in line.
In third grade, my teacher told my dad, “Derek will be published someday.” Whereas math and numbers and, later, geometric shapes, felt almost impossible to grasp, words came easily to me and flowed from my computer keyboard like… hot apple cider at Christmas. (Yeah, let’s go with that. That’s some good stuff.) Papa was one of my biggest fans and my “first reader”. All writers have “first reader(s)”.
He wasn’t a writer himself. No, but he loved to read, and whenever he came over to watch my brother and me, which felt like about once a month while my dad was out of town for work, he’d ask, “Any new stories this time, D?” There were always new stories for him.
He would read them eagerly, and he would always give his honest opinion of the work. He didn’t pull any punches. You need to fix this or You need to work some more on developing that character. I know what you’re going for, because I know you, but it’s not on the page yet. Only once or twice in all his reading did I get: It’s good. I wouldn’t change anything. That felt like winning a prestigious literary award.
As I grew older, my writing grew in sophistication (I hope). By the time his dreaded lung cancer returned for its second time (he’d beaten it once before, losing a lung to the fight), I had a collection of poems ready to share with him. It was called Prose From A Grandson To A Senior Fellow, the title inspired by a suggestion from my dad. I was going to self-publish it, I decided, so that pop might have a chance to read the book. He did, and he loved it. The two of us grace its cover, the photo from the early ’90s when I was young, and he was on the younger side of old. (He’d give me hell for saying that, but I’m right, and he’d know I’m right, so then he’d laugh.)
We all have challenges in life. The key to overcoming them, besides believing in yourself and striving for dreams, is having someone like Papa in your corner. Someone who sees the special-ness within you even when you can’t, because there will be times when you can’t.
I only wish Pop could have read my current manuscript. I think he would have been proud. I like to think he has read it, wherever he is, and he is proud.