*A version of this post is published on Elephant Journal. I would be so grateful if you gave it a read & comment if it resonates with you!
My dad would have turned 60-years-old today. It’s fitting this milestone falls on Labor Day. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever known.
Before retiring early due to disability, he put in nearly 40 long years at a steel mill in Detroit. He started working there before he was even legally old enough. I guess he wanted to join the workforce so badly (or more than likely needed to), that he faked his age on the application and instead of going to high school, he went to work in the factory.
Working a “double” and “overtime” were common words in our household growing up, usually the answer to “when will dad be home?” We celebrated many holidays without him as he labored to provide for our family. In my memories, he’s almost always wearing those light moss green denim work uniforms.
He put me through college, an opportunity and privilege never afforded to him, and when I left my secure job in 2011 to start a business, a card and check came in the mail days later, “just in case.” And even though I told him I was doing just fine, the truth was, I was grateful for that couple thousand dollars that helped me get by until those first invoices were paid.
This kindness wasn’t surprising. He was generous with the money he earned to support the people he loved.
He was that uncle that filled Christmas cards with cash, gave US Mint coin sets for birthdays, and gave loans to friends in need, with no intention of a payback. Once when we were going out to brunch, I noticed his van was full of bags of dog food. It was for the strays he would feed on his way to work.
Going through boxes of his paperwork the other night, I sifted through mounds of evidence of a life devoted to hard and literally, back-breaking work: endless pay stubs, safety manuals, a 35-year service award, paperwork from when he was injured in an explosion (a workplace accident that put him and his coworkers in the hospital, broke bones and left shards of steel embedded in his eye), warning letters for a round of impending, temporary lay offs– and then when the lay offs came, the rough drafts of a resume created by a nervous man who never once in his life needed one.
I can piece together this timeline and the impact it had on our family- missed visits and long periods of phone tag because he was working his 18th day in a row, or that rare trip to visit Uncle Jerry in Texas when he was laid-off.
And when he wasn’t laboring at work, he labored out of love- changing my car’s oil and replacing the brakes during visits home from college, helping a neighbor move furniture, or building trampolines, pools and swing sets for my brother Nick. The dedication he gave to raising an adult son with autism was the truest essence of labor and love.
The way he approached his work with such loyalty, commitment and sacrifice, has shaped my entire life.
I’m certain my dad never started a workday sipping Starbucks and leisurely responding to emails.
He used his brain and his body to its fullest, day in, day out. He plowed through sick days, grief and exhaustion. He traded vacation days for more paydays. He navigated the scary, nerve-wracking and unfair circumstances of business mergers, lay-offs, and new ownership.
His livelihood, his family’s future, and the safety of those working around him depended on it.
I’m grateful for the sacrifices he made so that I could choose how I want to make a living and to do it in a way that brings me joy.
Thank you, dad, for the many privileges I enjoy today. And happy birthday to the greatest laborer I’ve ever known.