Da Yu


This is the story of Da Yu, who we saw walking along a roadside on the early evening of one Sunday – Easter Sunday of all Sundays – and a child asked “What’s that man’s story?”

So this is Da’s story.

Yu the Great was the founder of the Xia Dynasty over four thousand years ago. Yu’s father attempted to control a great flood that threatened land and life. He built dikes and damns of soil and rock to hold back and contain the waters. He failed.

The great flood continued. Yu was conscripted to do what his father could not. Instead of restraining the great flood, Yu dredged deeper channels in rivers and valleys to carry the great flood to distant rivers and distant seas.

He opened waterways, unearthed damns and removed dikes with hard labor in long days. He was covered with the same dirt and mud his father struggled to amass, but Yu was washed clean in the rushing flood he did not resist. Yu succeeded in the task his father failed, and he was given the name Yu the Great – Da Yu.

Today Da wears his suit. The blue one He has just the one and he’s only ever had just the one. So, Da wears it. As dusk begins to cover this late April afternoon, along a road he’d built, Da Yu walks in his blue suit and white shirt – his shirt as white as his full head of thick hair – he walks home, alone.

As a young man Da Yu was pushed in one direction and pulled in another – he didn’t want what his father demanded for him and yet would not refuse what he must do.

Mr. Yu – Da’s father – insisted, “You will not be like me.” The hard life of manual labor had strengthened the father’s back and his resolve as well, and he was determined that his son would not live such a hard life because he didn’t have to live like his father had to: “I work so you can learn to do better work; not so hard work, and you will be happy and not tired like me.”

On his eighteenth birthday Da received just one gift from his parents – a blue suit. It was as expensive for Mr. Yu as it was important, “You will wear a suit and not dungarees.”

But this changed the day Mr. Yu came home lame.

Mr. Yu would not cry in front of his wife and son – he would yell and stomp and curse, but Da knew his father cried when Da was forced to give up on his father’s plans and dreams. The boss of the road crew Mr. Yu worked said that Da could have the work until Mr. Yu was healthy. Mr. Yu barked “Never!” but he never was healthy again. As a man of hard labor, he withered each day he was lame, and willed from his bed – fighting back the inevitable – the victory that eluded him. Mr. Yu never worked again and Da worked every day for forty years from that day.

Not long after Da wore the suit to his father’s funeral.

He wore it when he asked a sweet girl named Sarah to marry him, and he wore it when they married in her church.

He wore it when his boy Sun was christened for Sarah’s sake, and he wore it the Sunday he went to church each year on Easter. She didn’t ask much and he knew this was to please Sarah’s family because they were concerned about Da, and that Sarah was settling for a man who lacked dreams; a man who did not fight back, a man who simply nodded. All this Da knew but it was never spoken of – there was nothing to be gained and little that would change if he protested. He would work his hard work and wear his dungaree, and save his blue suit for special days to be remembered.

In his first years, Da’s skin became tanned and leathery from summers and winters, the cold, rain and heat of long, hard days. His hair was black and thick and covered his head, and a cap only made him sweat so he avoided his. The crew chided Da that he yellowed in the sun. Sarah worried that he worked too many hours, but a was happy to work and he was healthy and would do whatever was asked and he worked hard. When asked he would simply nod; he was glad to work. He did not refuse hard work.

Da didn’t get bigger or fatter or stooped like the others with whom he worked. Younger men took their places and the next generation took up the same lament – work is hard and the best work is no work.

But Da was healthy and quiet and bosses wished they had a dozen Yu’s but hired more of the others instead. Da’s hair did turn white; not gray – white and pure.

When his child, Sun was a young boy he would asked his father what he did, why his skin was so dark and rough, and why his hair was white like snow. Da always answered that he worked in the sun and rain and snow, so his skin showed he worked hard, and his hair just showed outside what was inside. But the boy didn’t understand.

Sarah was kind to Da; gentle and affectionate – she called him Yu-Yu, lovingly, and she was understanding of his labor. What he earned he gave his family and took little for himself. She worked herself when Sun started school, and she’d ask him to take a day to rest, but he’d always refuse, “What would I do if it wasn’t working?” he’d answer.

When they had time they’d take walks together, with Sun in a stroller, then the three on foot; always just walks that took different paths, along different roads and streets and returned them to their small home. It was the home Da’s father and mother had, the home Da had grown up in, the home Sarah and Da moved into after they were married to care for his mother, and the home she died in one night and their home since the day Da wore his suit to his mother’s funeral.

Da didn’t dream dreams of a different life, and he refused the nightmares of his own son’s life. There was only discontent in such dreams, and Da’s way was a nod and not a dream. He never bought Sun a suit – he could afford to, he had the money, but the thought never occurred to him.

When Sun grew, his mother and father helped when they could with clothes and books and papers that proved their modesty, but Sun grew embarrassed. The very things that showed their love were too modest for their son. Soon Sun was off to school, but Da and Sarah didn’t visit their son until his graduation when Da wore his suit and Sarah coughed through commencement. It was a cough that came one day and stayed, keeping her away from work, in bed eventually being cared for in the evenings by Da who stopped taking the walks.

The next time Da wore his suit it was to Sarah’s funeral.

Sun moved away and stayed away, but Da kept working, now less with shovel and more with a sign that read Stop and Slow. And he again walked at the end of each day, retracing the same paths and same roads and streets he’d walked with Sarah and Sun. He lived in the same home but it became more of a house. He washed his clothes, his own dungarees, made his rice and worked only his own hours until they told him he’d worked enough and not to come back tomorrow.

And then he’d wait each day until it was time to take the walk at the day’s end, walking the same paths and same roads and same streets he’d walked with his Sarah and Sun. And on Easter Sunday each year he’d put on his blue suit and leave it on all day, until the day’s end and he’d walk along the street he’d paved.


There’s always a comparison…

handHis Arm

The skin thinned as I grew older
and veins were easy to trace
my small finger along as if following
the invisible stream of blood
that must be coursing through them,
bruises and scrapes from
his weekend gardening lingered in
earthy hues of purple fading
into tanned greens into the sun
baked crust remembering
burns and deep cuts from times
before I was me and sitting
close to him mesmerized by the way
something so strong could
become so frail and languid, and I
wondered at the perfect
plumpness and muscle of my own
so ready to remain young.

Looking for elbow grease…

Elbow Grease

I spent hours one day when just a boy
searching through the shelves of cans
and tins and tubs, of liquids and oils and
paints and lubricants with numbers
and names of weights and uses from
maintenance to remedies for sticky,
stubborn and/or stuck things for something
called elbow grease which I had never seen
or heard of until my father told me that was
what I lacked to loosen or tighten or tinker
with my bicycle’s training wheels which
I desperately wanted to remove although
warned that I’d fall because I wasn’t ready.

June 28 will always be June 28…


William Blyer Callahan, 1941 – just 30 years before June 28, 1971

It was a Monday back in 1971 – a steamy, lazy summer’s Monday. My clock read 11:28 AM when I finally stirred to life, and I was left to sleep, I learned, because I would never awaken this way again.

That morning my father died down the hall from my bedroom. Mother, sister and brothers had all been quickly included in the whirlwind of emergency, hopelessness and death, and I turned on my bed like a door turns on its hinges.

So it took me some time to come to grips with the story – twenty, thirty or forty years to put together what had fallen apart, irreparably, that Monday morning, June 28, 1971.

I missed the moment – slept through it literally, like so much of my life it seems. Maybe sleepwalking through life is my best way of coping, maybe it’s just by chance that I was the only one not ‘there’ and maybe my penance is this writing.

William Blyer Callahan (d. June 28, 1971)

Not So Long Ago It Seems

I was just a boy, eleven,
and in so many ways I lost
my innocence that day;
rising after eleven
on my summer vacation
to a house filled
with crying friends
and family hiding their
tears from the boy in
his terrycloth bathrobe;
greeted by my Mom
as all eyes were on us,
on stage, every chin tucked
against chest, every arm
folded, all quiet until
interrupted by the gasp
of a sob; two chairs were
where they never were so
all could see her say that
Daddy was gone, and
I cried because I thought
she was going to say it
was Nana, but it wasn’t
and I didn’t even cry
about the right thing
at first; there were no
more words that I recall
or want to, just dry toast
and weak tea as my first
meal of the rest of my life
without him and I hate
that menu still; it was so
long ago and just like it
happened today because
it did and I’ve never tried to
do anything but remember
this anniversary but
I still don’t know how
to cry about it; I don’t.


It’s called ‘bonus’ or at least is should
because this wasn’t expected, nor
should have been; I’m Irish and male,
for the sake of Saint Patrick, and
I should be dead by now but I’m not
and that makes this a true bonus;
I’ve outlived my own father who
saintedly passed before fifty years,
and all his friends it seems, or so
I read in the obituaries in Sunday’s
Chicago Tribune as I scan the pages
in a sobering ritual of paying homage;
now it’s only a matter of what to do
with these extra days and years.

The Human Race

It’s been a long, long time
since I’ve heard the expression,
‘the human race’ like I once
did from my father who
invoked it in the ‘60’s
vernacular of our one,
global world, nations
united and east and west
divided so clearly
all was known, though
all wasn’t safe. In his own
way I was chided to
behave civilly and not
gad about as an unevolved
Neanderthal  breathing
through his mouth;
the future of the human
race depended upon my
sitting erect, listening
politely in a play at
détente, opening doors
for all types of women,
regardless, and not wasting
food because children
were starving elsewhere.
And there was, apparently,
a membership card to
this human race than
I was continually in
danger of forfeiting
through my mostly slovenly,
sometimes disrespectful,
manners which fell to
my father to supervise
as his role in bettering
said human race
inasmuch as he was able
and I was pliable.