Arm Wrestling with My Father

 

In this essay written for his freshman composition course, Manning explores his physical contact with his father over the years, perceiving gradual changes that are, he realizes, inevitable.  For Manning, description provides a way to express his feelings about his father and to comment on relations between sons and fathers.  In the essay after Manning’s, Itabari Njeri uses description for similar ends, but her subject is a daughter and her father.

 

            “Now you say when” is what he always said before an arm-wrestling match.  He liked to put the responsibility on me, knowing that he would always control the outcome.  “When!”  I’d shout, and it would start.  And I would tense up, concentrating and straining and trying to push his wrist down to the carpet with all my weight and strength.  But Dad would always win; I always had to lose.  “Want to try it again?” he would ask, grinning.  He would see my downcast eyes, my reddened, sweating face, and sense my intensity. And with squinting eyes he would laugh at me, a high laugh, through his perfect white teeth.  Too bitter to smile, I would not answer or look at him, but I would just roll over on my back and frown at the ceiling.  I never thought it was funny at all.

            That was the way I felt for a number of years during my teens, after I had lost my enjoyment of arm wrestling and before I had given up that same intense desire to beat my father.  Ours had always been a physical relationship, I suppose, one determined by athleticism and strength.  We never communicated as well in speech or in writing as in a strong hug, battling to make the other gasp for breath.  I could never find him at one of my orchestra concerts.  But as my lacrosse games, he would be there in the stands, with an angry look, ready to coach me after the game on how I could do better.  He never helped me write a paper or a poem.  Instead, he would take me outside and show me a new move for my game, in the hope that I would score a couple of goals and gain confidence in my ability.  Dad knew almost nothing about lacrosse and his movements were all wrong and sad to watch.  But at those times I could just feel how hard he was trying to communicate, to help me, to show the love he had for me, the love I could only assume was there.

            His words were physical.  The truth is, I have never read a card or a letter written in his hand because he never wrote to me.  Never.  Mom wrote me all the cards and letters when I was away from home.  The closest my father ever came, that I recall, was in a newspaper clipping Mom had sent with a letter.  He had gone through and underlined all the important words about the dangers of not wearing a bicycle helmet.  Our communication was physical, and that is why we did things like arm wrestle.  To get down on the floor and grapple, arm against arm, was like having a conversation.

            This ritual of father-son competition in fact had started early in my life, back when Dad started the matches with his arm almost horizontal, his wrist an inch from defeat, and still won.  I remember in those battles how my tiny shoulders would press over our locked hands, my whole upper body pushing down in hope of winning that single inch from his calm, unmoving forearm.  “Say when,” he’d repeat, killing my concentration and causing me to squeal, “I did, I did!”  And so he’d grin with his eyes fixed on me, not seeming to notice his own arm, which would begin to rise slowly from its starting position.  My greatest efforts could not slow it down.  As soon as my hopes had disappeared I’d start to cheat and use both hands.  But the arm would continue to move steadily along its arc toward the carpet.  My brother, if he was watching, would sometimes join in against the arm.  He once even wrapped his little legs around our embattled wrists and pulled back with everything he had.  But he did not have much and, regardless of the opposition, the man would win.  My arm would lie at rest, pressed into the carpet beneath a solid, immovable arm.  In that pinned position, I could only giggle, happy to have such a strong father.

            My feelings have changed, though.  I don’t giggle anymore, at least not around my father.  And I don’t fell pressured to compete with him the way I thought necessary for years.  Now my father is not really so strong as he used to be and I am getting stronger.  This change in strength comes at a time when I am growing faster mentally than at any time before.  I am becoming less my father and more myself.  And as a result, there is less of a need to be set apart from him and his command.  I am no longer a rebel in the household, wanting to stand up against the master with clenched fists and tensing jaws, trying to impress him with my education or my views on religion.  I am no longer a challenger, quick to correct his verbal mistakes, determined to beat him whenever possible in physical competition.

            I am not sure when it was that I began to feel less competitive with my father, but it all became clearer to me one day this past January.  I was home in Virginia for a week between exams, and Dad had stayed home from work because the house was snowed in deep.  It was then that I learned something I never could have guessed.

            I don’t recall who suggested arm wrestling that day.  We hadn’t done it for a long time, for months.  But there we were, lying flat on the carpet, face to face, extending our right arms.  Our arms were different.  His still resembled a fat tree branch, one which had leveled my wrist to the ground countless times before.  It was hairy and white with some pink moles scattered about.  It looked strong, to be sure, though not so strong as it had in past years.  I expect that back in his youth it had looked even stronger.  In high school he had played halfback and had been voted “best-built body” of the senior class.  Between college semesters he had worked on road crews and on Louisiana dredges.  I admired him for that.  I had begun to row crew in college and that accounted for some small buildup along the muscle lines, but it did not seem to be enough.  The arm I extended was lanky and featureless.  Even so, he insisted that he would lose the match, that he was certain I’d win.  I had to ignore this, however, because it was something he always said, whether or not he believed it himself.

            Our warm palms came together, much the same way we had shaken hands the day before at the airport.  Fingers twisted and wrapped about once again, testing for a better grip.  Elbows slid up and back making their little indentations on the itchy carpet.  My eyes pinched closed in concentration as I tried to center as much of my thought as possible on the match.  Arm wrestling, I knew, was competition that depended less on talent and experience than on one’s mental control and confidence.  I looked up into his eyes and was ready. He looked back, smiled at me, and said softly (did he sound nervous?), “You say when.”

            It was not a long match.  I had expected him to be stronger, faster.  I was conditioned to lose and would have accepted defeat easily.  However, after some struggle, his arm yielded to my effort and began to move unsteadily toward the carpet.  I worked against his arm with all the strength I could find.  He was working hard as well, straining, breathing heavily.  It seemed that this time was different, that I was going to win.  Then something occurred to me, something unexpected.  I discovered that I was feeling sorry for my father.  I wanted to win but I did not want to see him lose.

            It was like the thrill I had once experienced as a young boy at my grandfather’s lake house in Louisiana when I hooked my first big fish.  There was that sudden tug that made me leap.  The red bobber was sucked down beneath the surface and I pulled back against it, reeling it in excitedly.  But when my cousin caught sight of the fish and shouted out, “It’s a keeper,” I realized that I would be happier for the fish if it were let go rather than grilled for dinner.  Arm wrestling my father was now like this, like hooking “Big Joe,” the old fish that Lake Quachita holds but you can never catch, and when you finally think you’ve got him, you want to let him go, cut the line, keep the legend alive.

            Perhaps at that point I could have given up, letting my father win.  But it was so fast and absorbing.  How could I have learned so quickly how it would feel to have overpowered the arm that had protected and provided for me all of my life? His arms have always protected me and the family.  Whenever I am near him I am unafraid, knowing his arms are ready to catch me and keep me safe, the way they caught my mother one time when she fainted halfway across the room, the way he carried me, full grown, up and down the stairs when I had mononucleosis, the way he once held my feet as I stood on his shoulders to put up a new basketball net.  My mother may have had the words or the touch that sustained our family, but his were the arms that protected us.  And his were the arms now that I had pushed to the carpet, first the right arm, then the left.

            I might have preferred him to be always the stronger, the one who carries me.  But this wish is impossible now; our roles have begun to switch.  I do not know if I will ever physically carry my father as he has carried me, though I fear that someday I may have that responsibility.  More than once this year I have hesitated before answering the phone late at night, fearing my mother’s voice calling me back to help carry his wood coffin.  When I am home with him and he mentions a sharp pain in his chest, I imagine him collapsing onto the floor.  And in that second vision I see me rushing to him, lifting him onto my shoulders, and running.

            A week after our match, we parted at the airport.  The arm-wrestling match was by that time mostly forgotten.  My thoughts were on school.  I had been awake most of the night studying for my last exam, and by that morning I was already back into my college-student manner of reserve and detachment.  To say goodbye, I kissed and hugged my mother and I prepared to shake my father’s hand.  A handshake had always seemed easier to handle than a hug.  His hugs had always been powerful ones, intended I suppose to give me strength.  They made me suck in my breath and struggle for control, and the way he would pound his hand on my back made rumbles in my ears.  So I offered a handshake; but he offered a hug.  I accepted it, bracing myself for the impact.  Once our arms were wrapped around each other, however, I sensed a different message.  His embrace was softer, longer than before.  I remember how it surprised me and how I gave an embarrassed laugh as if to apologize to anyone watching.

            I got on the airplane and my father and mother were gone.  But as the plane lifted my throat was hurting with sadness.  I realized then that Dad must have learned something as well, and what he had said to me in that last hug was that he loved me.  Love was a rare expression between us, so I had denied it at first.  As the plane turned north, I had a sudden wish to go back to Dad and embrace his arms with all the love I felt for him.  I wanted to hold him for a long time and to speak with him silently, telling him how happy I was, telling him all my feelings, in that language we shared.

            In his hug, Dad had tried to tell me something he himself had discovered.  I hope he tries again.  Maybe this spring, when he sees his first crew match, he’ll advise me on how to improve my stroke.  Maybe he has started doing pushups to rebuild his strength and challenge me to another match—if this were true, I know I would feel less challenged than loved.  Or maybe, rather than any of this, he’ll just send me a card.