Short Tempers and What They Earn You
as told by Al Turtle
There was once a man named Jack. (Now, this is a true story, as I remember it. Its spirit is intact even if some of the details have been slightly altered and the names have been changed.) I knew Jack.
Jack was a short, wiry fellow. Quick of eye, he loved hunting and fishing. He also loved his wife and daughters. He had three. A hard worker, he spent most of his life in the forest driving a cat and wrestling trees for a lumber company. I gather this is one of the most dangerous of all professions, next to professional fishing off the coasts of Alaska or New England. Jack was generally cheerful, full of stories, and helpful. In his later years he lived near a fishing lake and helped people rent rowboats and catch their limit.
Jack had a short temper. He learned, as a boy, to meet adversity with anger. He got angry at things that wouldn’t work “right.” He got angry when things broke down. He got angry when things were late or slow. But mostly he got angry with people who did not do things his way. Jack was, in the best sense of the word, a classic bully. Not that he would have called himself that, but when people disagreed with his way, his anger would flare.
As a youth his anger was expressed in fist fights, physical violence, and throwing things as well as yelling. But as he mellowed, Jack learned to use more gentle means of getting his point across. A glance, a stare, a sudden getting up and walking away and finally a snapping gesture with is right hand and click of his tongue were all he needed when I met him near his 70th birthday. Of course his family had mellowed with him. His wife had always been quiet even before she met Jack. His actions were similar to her father’s. She had proceeded to teach their daughters to hold themselves in and to avoid “upsetting Jack.” That glare or that hand gesture and tongue click was all Jack needed within his family.
Loving the outdoors, his greatest fear was getting old and being put in a nursing home, physically helpless, and so in his senior life he lived with his wife in a trailer near a lake. Moving to an assisted living home when he was 80 and his eyesight was failing was a great trial for Jack.
Then one day in his 80s, Jack had a mild stroke. Rushed to the local hospital, the doctors did what they could, but mostly recovery was up to Jack. He lay in a hospital bed, immobile. He could not even get his eyes to move down to see the TV on the wall. I guess this is pretty normal after a stroke.
Two of his daughters came in to visit. They spoke to him. They adjusted his pillow. Jack said and did nothing. They ran out of things to say. After a while they began talking to each other in front of Jack. Realizing that this was the first time in their lives they had ever spoken freely in his presence, surprised them. They began talking more and more about what it was and had been like to have to be on guard in front of “dad”.
They talked of their fear of him and how it was to grow up with a father that had rages at them, their dog or whatever that wasn’t pleasing him. One daughter remembered him telling how he would “fling the thick frosting from his cake into the woods when he was at work because he didn’t like that gooey stuff”. This was especially hurtful to her since she had learned to work hard to please him all the time, cooking for him, baking what she thought were his favorite desserts.
They spoke of their memories of how he had dragged their third sister downstairs to the basement to give her a spanking, and how they still remembered her yelling and their crying in fear. They discussed how nice he was in between these rages. They said that when they were little they never knew when “it would come”, his being displeased with things.
Their talk got them to look over at their father, not responding to their conversation. One sister remarked how angry he would have been to just be lying there, not being able to control the situation with his body or even to stop them talking like this. She said aloud how it would be easy to just slip some air into the intravenous tube and then he wouldn’t wake up mad. She then suggested there might be other ways to help him along. Their thoughts scared them. They became silent to calm themselves and withdrew.
Later that afternoon, the two daughters brought in Jack’s wife, Peggy. Peggy was in a wheel chair and sat looking a Jack for some time. Finally she asked, “Can he do anything?” They said, “No.” She asked again and they confirmed that he could not move. Then she, with all her resentment suddenly surfacing, said, “Get me away from that disgusting thing.” And they all left.
Now you might want to know something that Jack’s wife and daughters did not. A person recovering from a stroke may not be able to move, but often their hearing works perfectly. Jack had heard everything. And it was the first time in his life he had gotten to hear what his “loved ones” thought of him. It was the first time his displays of temper had not kept them quiet.
I met Jack two days later in the Rehabilitation Unit where he had been transferred as he began to get control of his muscles. He looked at me and spoke. I could not hear, so I leaned close. His words were, “Does the woman I live with love me?”
I knew about the family fairly well. I had heard from one of the daughters about what had been said before him in that hospital bed. I knew of Jack’s temper and I knew of the family’s silence. I was also in the presence of a man, a person deserving of respect, a man who might meet his maker at any second. Did I give him my truth or did I say the expected thing? I made my decision. I said, “No, she fears you.”
A long sigh of recognition escaped Jack, he nodded his head, and then he wept. I sat with him for a long time.
As Jack recovered more and more he was moved to another rehabilitation unit connected to a nursing home. Jack wanted to go home. He wanted his wife. He wanted that trailer by the fishing lake. The medication the doctor prescribed for his stroke aggravated his temper, lowered his self-control. He began to physically and verbally strike out at people: staff, nurses, doctors.
I was there when his wife was brought in to visit him. He moved his wheelchair over next to hers, held on to her tightly. She looked frightened. The nurse moved them apart. He kicked at the nurse. He yelled, “I want to go home.” He threw things. The social worker, who was standing there, spoke to me shortly thereafter. “We can’t let him go home to his wife. She and he couldn’t handle it.”
At the advice of the doctor, Jack was given “calming” medication. He continued to struggle and fight for several weeks. He was even aggressive toward other patients. After more calming medication, Jack was moved to a nursing home that could “handle” his outbursts. One year later, Jack passed away, in bed, after a year living out the nightmare that he had wanted to avoid all his life.
And yet, I want to be clear, Jack had earned this. This was his retirement program. Every time he used his temper at someone, he invested in their resentment. Every time he interrupted, yelled, overruled, scared his wife and children, he was earning their future anger in return. That retirement program didn’t show until he badly needed caring from his “loved ones.” At that point, his account was empty. He got exactly what he had earned, day in day out, year in year out.
I have to look at these things. I am just that kind of guy. I hate to miss a lesson that is passed to me. What I had witnessed was a tragedy – a terrible one. How could it have been avoided? At first I thought about who could have done something different.
Could Jack? No, He didn’t know what his investment program was. When he was a kid, this behavior of his was normal. His dad did it. At work, many people acted that way. Many fathers, mothers, friends acted that way. Who could have told him what he was earning?
Could his wife or daughters? No. His wife was thoroughly intimidated long before she met him. Besides his behavior was familiar to her, being the same as her father. She didn’t know anything to say. His daughters were trained as children to “say nothing.” The whole family acted out the rule, “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing.” Thus Jack earned his “reward” daily and without contradiction.
So, could his friends have told him what he was earning? Well, what is a friend if not someone who will tell you when you are heading into trouble? Yes, I think his friends could have and should have warned him – and thus earned the name of “friend.” But they didn’t.
I liked Jack. In many ways he was a very nice guy. I am sorry I didn’t learn his lesson earlier, the one he would teach me with his life, until after his passing. And I hope I would have had the courage to tell him.
About a year after Jack’s passing, I was at a family dinner gathering. One of Jack’s daughters was there with her grown son and his daughter. Three generations, after Jack, sat at the table. At one point the little girl, about 8, said something to which her dad responded with a click of his fingers and a “sssttt” sound from his mouth – a warning. I immediately thought of Jack’s snap of the right hand and click of the tongue. The girl’s grandmother, Jack’s daughter, the young man’s mother, said, “Oh, let her be. She’s ok.” To which Jack’s grandson responded with the same click of his fingers and a “sssttt” sound. Everyone at the table was silent for a moment, and then dinner continued as if nothing had happened.
The next day, I told the young man the story of Jack. I think it was the best thing I could do to be a friend. And I think it was the best thing to do to honor the gift Jack had given me at such personal expense.
And so, I tell it to you, also – as a friend and in memory of Jack. ” Be careful what you are investing in.”