My father hurt his back in a work-related accident and spent the rest of his life in unremitting, searing pain. He tried doctors, surgeons and chiropractors to no avail. He hated what drugs did to his mind and yet they still only took the edge off. He felt absent from his own life.

Nothing worked until he discovered the power of his brain.

He learned that focusing on the pain only amplified it. But focusing on something else entirely left no room for the pain. Intense concentration brought him relief in large swaths of time yet left him with a life to live. A productive life.

He told me during one visit home that he was considering learning about computers. He was so computer illiterate from my engineering perspective that I thought he was talking about learning to use a word processor or a spread sheet. I encouraged him, not that he needed it.

The next trip home there was a new shelf in his office lined with huge, daunting books. I asked him about it and replied, “Oh, that’s the computer course I’m taking.”

I was confused. “Now, what are you doing?”

“That’s my computer course,” he answered offhandedly.


“I’m learning to build and repair computers.” he stated matter-of-factly.

“Oh,” I said, trying to reel my jaw back in. Dad was a few months shy of his 70th birthday.

Mom later told me that Dad had asked a thirty-something “kid” at church a question about computers and the guy had responded,”What do you want to know that for? You can’t learn computers!” The implication that he was too old remained barely unspoken. Later on the same young man was asking Dad questions.

It never crossed my mind that he would build a small computer business. Before long he was repairing the computers at church and updating software. Motherboards and memory sticks could be seen lying around. He helped me change out a hard drive on my Mac.

Strangers knocked on the door at odd times to see if Mr. Ritchie had finished building their new computer. He would patiently explain the latest technology to people half his age. He would pour through magazines and catalogs to find deals and keep up with new developments.

“It’s like a really complicated puzzle,” he explained. “It keeps my mind busy. My back doesn’t hurt for hours at a time.”

It was never about money. He just needed a challenge big enough to occupy his mind. He began assembling computers out of leftover parts to give to school children in need. He took the money and bought food and coats for total strangers.

He was looking at commercial business space by the time he finally got too sick to work. The crowd at his funeral was a thing to behold. I heard tales about my Dad from total strangers of the help he’d provided. Even his pastor was shocked at the reach of this quiet, unassuming man.

Of all the things he taught me, this lesson shines through: We are not limited by what we cannot do, but by what we can’t imagine doing.


Another post about my Dad: Showdown In The Sand

Photo from BotheredByBees via Flickr