Shoes. We all have them and we all walk a unique path in life wearing a variety of shoes. My dad’s shoes were a bit different, both literally and metaphorically. I have many stories of how I have learned empathy over the course of my life, but when I think of the most impactful and continuous lesson of empathy, I think of my dad. In his youth and early adulthood, Dad was a man who played football, who served in the Navy, and who was a strong-willed husband and father. I never knew that man. I only saw that man in pictures because I was born long after my father contracted Polio when he was 30. I’m the youngest of four sisters. When Polio struck the family, two of my older sisters were three and five and my mother was pregnant with my sister who is closest to me in age. I was born three years after my father’s fight with polio. It was a long battle. My mother was told multiple times he wouldn’t make it, but true to my dad’s fighter instincts, he did. The man always saw the world and the glass as overflowing, never even half-full. He survived and went on to walk on crutches for most of his life. That was how his shoes were different. He had braces on his shoes and crutches became his other two “shoes” as he walked through life.
I don’t know what that struggle looked like as he regained enough strength to learn to walk, but I can tell you that in the years that I was blessed to have him as my father, I never saw the man act like he was handicapped. He was a talented engineer who led the construction of the Eisenhower Tunnel and went on to become a well-known expert witness in the field of civil engineering. He never complained, he never displayed frustration with his disability, and I honestly never saw him as anything but the strongest man I’ve ever known. To me he never appeared to be handicapped. He loved sports, but could never play them. We took back road driving adventures because he couldn’t hike. We were his feet and workers when he needed something done that he couldn’t do, and he turned it into a game. I never felt sorry for him, because he wouldn’t have it. If anyone called him “crippled” he would win them over with his positivity and charismatic nature. Everyone loved him, believed in him, and respected him. The day he was laid to rest in 2011 at the age of 85, the church overflowed and couldn’t contain the people who came to pay tribute to him.
The story above alone demonstrates an ongoing lesson in empathy, but there was even something stronger that my father taught me about empathy, and it explains why people came from all over the country to say goodbye. My father was overjoyed to learn about and celebrate everyone’s unique path in life. Regardless of who they were, each got my father’s amazing smile, inquisitive nature, true interest in their story, and sense of humor. Dad was funny, smart, and completely engaging. I remember many times he took me to a construction site to meet and talk with the guys in the field and other times to have dinner with a high-flying CEO. He was the same man with both, completely authentic and genuine in his ability to care about others. He cared so much that as he became weakened by post-polio syndrome later in life, he didn’t want to shut down his business and let down his staff. Unfortunately, the business was built on his expert witness skills, so the business eventually struggled to survive.
The last three years of my dad’s life he was penniless, but he didn’t care. Even when he had lost the ability to do anything but talk and lay in bed, he still sang to us and told jokes and stories from the past. Even on his last day of life as he lay in a coma, he cracked a tiny smile when we told him a funny story. He never lost hope and he never complained. The world could be crashing down around him and he would find the silver lining. That day I knew I had lost the physical presence of one of my greatest teachers. I miss him every day, but he lives on each time I remember to walk in his shoes. While I have served many roles in my life, daughter, wife, mother, teacher, I always try to remember that I am my best when I fall back to my true self because of the authenticity and positivity I learned from my father. He taught me to walk humbly and proudly on the path to empathy.
Karen Brofft- Daughter. Mother.