I will write to you of my father, for his own words no longer do him justice.
I will write to you because, when describing the man I call “Dad”, my own spoken words do little better and the blinking cursor before me seems suddenly a mountain both craggy and steep.
But I am nothing, if not a writer and I am nothing without my father.
So, on a weekend that is dedicated to the men who steer our course, I feel compelled to try.
My father loved sports. Loves them still. He gave that to me, like sparks give to flame, and I have been forever grateful to him for it. Ever the deft touch, my father didn’t force me into sports. He didn’t use our relationship as a battering ram to SWAT team open the door, he simply put the key in my hand and went through first.
It didn’t take long before the lock was open and, much as young children do, I followed my Dad.
I still remember the feel of the carpet on my elbows, the navy blue, military buzzcut of fiber resting in the small lines where my elbows turned to right angles, geometrically precarious pile of youth and shaggy bowl-cut hair. We were watching the team. We were watching our team. It was the 1994 Orange Bowl, I had just turned 8 a few days prior, and I was now gleefully revelling in 2 facts:
1) It was now past my bed time and no one seemed to give a single bit of a damn
2) Warren Sapp was on the sidelines, sucking oxygen from a mask like one of those melodramatic victims on a re-run of ER.
I watched my father watch the game.
I understood football well enough, at least in the two-hand touch at the park kind of way, but I didn’t understand exactly what was happening — my notion of the tribally tight knit, fiercely proud Nebraska Cornhusker tradition as fuzzy as the standard def images of Dr. Tom Osborne, the Alpha and Omega in the goofy hat — except that I could read my Dad’s reaction.
He was fully alive in that moment and in my mind now, even as I stare blankly from my office cubicle some 22 years later towards the . His messy black hair still dark, bearing none silver threading that would eventually weave all the way through, he stared intently at the TV, sparing only fond glances for us, smiling at me from within the wilderness of his dark beard and mustache as we giggled in hysterics at the size of Warren Sapp’s “tummy”.
He loved the game, that much you could tell. But it was secondary; merely a room in his heart, not the architect.
I knew what those proud, grinning looks meant even if he didn’t say anything in the moment. I felt them, the way that you feel the current when it finally grabs hold of your canoe. I felt them even as we leapt to our feet howling for Cory Schlesinger to never stop running until his feet landed in the salty end zone of the Atlantic Ocean.
That was my first memory of watching sports, feeling the electric current of togetherness that they provide to parent and child as we turned conduits for the best parts of the game.
I still remember the all-caps font of his sloppy, Sharpied message, that he slid into the front pocket of my battered red track bag.
Snuck into the bag on his way out the door, the yellow stationary that my Mom always kept in stacks underneath our phone was folded up with my name on the front. My Dad had left me a message. He was going to miss the first track meet of my young career, his job calling him to adventure on the tiny Aleutian islands of Alaska, but he didn’t want to let it pass without letting me know that, though his body may have been damn near in Russia, his heart was still back in Geneva, Nebraska with me on that sweltering 8-lane home straightaway.
I read his note, my Mother smiled at me, and I went out and ran and ran and ran.
I don’t remember how I did that day, but I do know that I had that note in my track bag the day I signed my national letter of intent to run for Wichita State and it was in my bag when I raced until I nearly collapsed in the battles of the Missouri Valley, and I still had that note the day I hung up my spikes with the sulfuric taste of resignation sizzling in my mouth and walked away from the sport that I had competed in since I was 9.
Those words may have faded and been lost in the shuffle of growing up and moving on, but their meaning might as well have been chiseled in stone.
They were his words. And mine. Tattooed, indelible, in whatever portion of the cerebral cortex is the human version of Fort Knox.
I still remember the way his hand felt in mine, still seeming bigger than it actually was, as he squeezed it to show me he knew I was there because the tiny pieces of his clogged arteries had sent a missile directly towards the part of his brain that allowed him to say the little things that were suddenly looming large in the auditory shadows of silence.
I still remember the way I sat next to his bed, stomach tightening into acidic fisherman’s knots as I tried to figure out exactly what the hell was supposed to happen next. And I still remember turning on the TV, that blissful flashing placebo and landing on the Winter Olympics. On sports.
Sports. Hallelujah. Sports. Amen.
We watched the United States play Canada in a hockey game that suddenly meant entirely more to me than it should have, and I remember the way he looked over at me, lips still unable to curve up into that signature beard-shrouded smirk. I said something about how I hoped we would smash Sidney Crosby into the glass and probably something disparaging about Canadian beer. His eyes flashed back then, a glimmer of 1995 and we time traveled together, as sure as if we’d just stepped out of a DeLorean coasting down from 88 MPH.
I still remember his face when we told him we were going to have our first child. It was on a Saturday in November and he had learned to speak a few more words. His speech was still limited. But his smile? His eyes? They held a thesaurus. We told my Mother and Father moments after picking up our tickets to a Nebraska Football game against Northwestern and I remember the way he vigorously shook my hand.
I remember that bearded, sardonic smile as he watched me wrestle 8 4-year-olds onto a baseball field and try to get them to run and hit and field and — oh, God, please stop hitting each other teammates don’t hit each other — and reached over to let my daughter wrap his thumb in her tiny fist from the stands.
On a day for Fathers, it’s not lost on me just how lucky I am to have had one at all, let alone have one still.
On a day for Fathers, I want to tell anyone out there that is lucky enough to have one in their lives on this day: tell them thank you. Tell them you love them. Tell them exactly what you mean and say it three times or four because your father would probably tell you if you ever played a sport: repetition matters.
On a day for Fathers, I want to tell my Dad exactly what he means to me and how appreciative of him I am.
On a day for Fathers, I want to be just like mine.
(*Author’s note: Happy Father’s Day, everyone!)