When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
– Mark Twain
Today would have been Dad’s 82nd birthday.
Dad was never a runner per se, though that’s hardly surprising – he grew up in an era when few people identified themselves as “runners”. Running was a means to an end – how else to steal a base, score a touchdown or start a fast break? – rather than an end in itself. For most of society running was a fringe activity, certainly not a legitimate sport and something that really only happened (much less mattered) once every four years under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee.
So Dad didn’t run. But he was definitely athletic. At different stages in his life he tackled baseball, racquetball, handball and golf. His two (or was it three?) career holes-in-one testified to his skill and comfort with a 7-iron, and though he might feign modesty, he’d be happy to share the details if you asked. Likewise he married Mom and tackled the rugged terrain of fatherhood, that most contact of all sports. In this arena his three children – an older daughter and two younger sons – testified to his skill, if not always his comfort, with being a father. Here too, though, he’d gladly share the details when asked.
Even after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and another 3+ decades in suburban Texas, Dad’s distinctive accent remained as thick as New England clam chowder. Service to his country may have taken the boy out of Boston, but no one was taking Boston out of the boy. Accordingly, Dad was a firm adherent to what we wannabe linguists termed the “Law of Conservation of R’s” – any “r” that vanished inexplicably from the end of one word would soon reappear at the tail of another. We rarely passed up an opportunity to offer up our best Dad impression, parading around the house wondering out loud where we’d pahked the cah or asking Mom whether she’d be making tuner fish casserole for dinnah.
Needless to say we cracked ourselves up. Even better, Dad never understood what was so funny – we sounded perfectly normal to his New England-trained ear.
We teased Dad too for being (in his own words) a “cheapskate.” Granted his post-military career as an auditor for the Department of Defense, together with a mortgage and three kids, wasn’t the most lucrative lifestyle. But he took great pride in his cheapskatedness, regularly extolling the virtues of Sam’s Club and purchasing most of his wardrobe from the Air Force Exchange Service, the headquarters for which was conveniently located in nearby Dallas. And true to form, when faced with a nerve-wracking diagnosis of prostate cancer, Dad scheduled his surgery at the military base hospital to take advantage of the veterans discount.
Despite his 20 years in the military, Dad wasn’t much of a disciplinarian. Any vestige of draconian rule had been vanquished by my older siblings by the time I entered the picture, 8½ years after Chuck and nearly 10 years after Sandy. Though neither parent ruled with an iron fist, hearing the words “Wait until your father gets home” was enough to scare me straight for a couple of hours. At the top of their parenting game, he and Mom made a formidable tag team.
In school I was the kid who always looked forward to bringing home his report card… to unfolding it noisily in front of the parents, laying it out with great pomp and circumstance on the kitchen table, and hearing Dad say – after several seconds spent appraising its value as a jeweler would a diamond – “Can’t do any bettah than that.” More often than not he was right. Though never a stickler for details anyway (Santa’s handwriting, for example, always looked so familiar), Dad recognized early on that any external motivation on his part wouldn’t compare to the pressure I put on myself.
My early success at reading, writing and arithmetic evolved into high school success evolved into graduating summa cum laude from Rice University evolved into earning my PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University. Each step of the way, even if he wasn’t always sure what I was studying or why I was studying it, Dad would smile and offer up his own fatherly appraisal: “Can’t do any bettah than that.”
There were times when Dad could live up to his name and be brutally Frank. When I’d say or do something that didn’t pass muster, he’d counter by taking the name of my alma mater in vain – “For someone who went to Rice, you sure are dumb.” After I finished my PhD, that jab evolved to incorporate Stanford as well. Though not so much in the moment, eventually I grew to appreciate his willingness to call me out, and his honest assessment still echoes in my brain whenever – well, let’s just say I hear it a lot.
But Dad could also be incredibly generous. With the launch of every holiday season he and Sandy would head straight to the shopping mall, where they’d buy Christmas presents for underprivileged children whose names adorned the Salvation Army Angel Tree. Some years, undoubtedly, they were the only gifts those kids received, and hearing him talk about his young charges (whom he never actually met) was a far better start to the holidays than Black Friday. He took his annual responsibility to the Angel Tree very seriously. Mom and Sandy still do.
Sometimes it seemed those kids were the only residents of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex Dad didn’t know. In a family of textbook introverts – including a younger son who was perfectly happy reading his comic books, or practicing the guitar, or shooting baskets in an empty gym – Dad stood out like a zebra with spots. One summer evening, en route to a little league baseball game I was scheduled to umpire, we found ourselves lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Pulling over to ask a random pedestrian for directions, Dad leaned out the window and called to her, “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to – hey, Linder! How ya been? Haven’t seen you in a while!” By the time he and long-lost Linda concluded their chat, we barely made it to the baseball field in time for first pitch.
Dad and I enjoyed several father-son road trips/vacations over the years – my first visit to Boston and Fenway Pahk in 1987; New Orleans for the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair; Washington D.C. the summer before that; and an early 80s road trip from Dallas to Orlando FL, over 1,000 miles of driving in each direction and all in the name of – what else? – Mickey Mouse. We got around, me and Dad.
But father-son (or in this case father-sons) bonding was nevah bettah than in 1998. That April, Dad flew the three of us out to the East Coast to watch Chuck run in the Boston Marathon. At that point I was still a basketball player for whom “off-court running” generally meant sprinting through airports. And the only races I had under my belt wing were a couple of turkey trots in which I’d taken the “trot” label to heart, and where I’d functioned mainly as a human drop bag for Chuck’s street clothes while he ran.
But whether you’re running, trotting, walking or crawling, the ‘wow’ factor of Boston on Patriots Day can’t be denied. Dad himself seemed stunned by the sheer magnitude of an event he hadn’t witnessed in nearly 50 years, this formerly provincial footrace of fewer than 200 runners that passed within a strong snowball’s throw of his childhood home in Newton Lower Falls.
He and I jockeyed for position with the hordes of fervent spectators near mile 12, until I hopped in to join Chuck for the next five miles. My timing was no coincidence. Those five miles were without question the LOUDEST stretch I’ve ever run, courtesy of Wellesley’s tireless spectators and especially the celebrated Wellesley College Scream Tunnel (though I left the hard-earned kisses to the real runners). Even without a medal to show for my effort, those remain five of the most memorable miles of my running life. So technically I have run in the Boston Marathon, all thanks to Dad the non-runner. And to Chuck for being fast enough to qualify in the first place.
Dad also used that weekend to don his tour guide hat. As if in homage to his city’s iconic Dunkin’ Donuts, Dad’s childhood memories of Boston were dipped in nostalgia and sprinkled with absurdity. He shared (tall?) tales of sneaking over the chain-link fence around Fenway Park to watch Ted Williams play. He introduced us the house where he, together with his Polish immigrant parents, sister and four brothers, hunkered down to escape the ruthless Northeast winters. And he showed us the spot near his home where he and his reckless buddies would dive into the Charles River: “Jimmy cracked his head open down theah” he said matter-of-factly, indicating the concrete embankment sloping down to the river. Seeing the horrified looks on our faces, he followed up with a dismissive wave and an assurance of “Ah, he was fine.” Hazarding one last downward glance to check for faded blood spatter, I wondered whether Jimmy would be so quick to agree.
As I transitioned into adulthood, chinks appeared in his impenetrable Dad armor. Successful prostate cancer surgery was followed by in situ carcinoma of the bladder, and by the usual spectrum of age-related maladies. Not that he’d ever complain, at least not in front of us kids – he was solidly of the “Rub some dirt on it” era. In fact, Chuck and I later learned that during our visits home to Texas, Dad would sneak off to the oncologist’s office for radiation therapy without a word to either of us. Why bother your own kids with something as trivial as cancer treatments? Never mind that one of those kids had his graduate degree in Cancer Biology.
But as tough as a man must be to endure 20 Boston winters, 20 years in the military and two cancer diagnoses, Father Time will always be tougher. As the years accelerated, so too did the aging process. Not that he’d ever complain, at least not in front of us kids.
But frailty and weakness are never so jarring as when they appear somewhere you’ve never seen them. Most striking was the weight loss, which he would dismiss in typical Dad fashion – I began to feel like an NFL linebacker standing next to him. Then came more time spent “resting his eyes” in front of the television and, when we’d walk together, increasingly frequent respites to catch his breath. Finally and most alarmingly, he stopped playing golf altogether, although that decision he attributed more to the arthritis that had robbed his knee of its flexibility. After he retired in 1993, Dad eschewing a round of golf would have been like a Kardashian eschewing the spotlight. It just didn’t happen. So his sudden lack of interest in the sport was troubling. And telling.
In October 2009 came the phone call I’d been dreading silently for years: Dad had suffered a heart attack and been rushed to the hospital. Fortunately Sandy had been with him at the time – nobody took better care of Dad than Sandy, and nobody took better care of Sandy than Dad. But this second “episode” (doctor’s words) in seven months had been more severe than the first. And over the next three months, as doctors fought to prove otherwise, his heart made it gut-wrenchingly clear it was no longer in the game. With Dad in the hospital and Katie, Chuck and I staggering our trips home to help Mom and Sandy as much as possible, 2009 quickly became a very un-merry Christmas.
One month after his 78th birthday, in January 2010, Dad passed away from congestive heart failure. He’d been married to Mom for 51 years, served his country for 20 more, fathered three (by my estimate) beautiful kids, and tallied two (or was it three?) aces on the golf course. He’d outlived the Great Depression, a World War, five siblings, two bouts with cancer and – unlike many of his contemporaries – 86 years of Red Sox futility. By all accounts, for a self-professed “knucklehead” from Newton, it had been one hell of a ride.
Admittedly I’ve forgotten the exact date he left us… who wants to remember the worst day of their life? I’d rather remember today, and the decades worth of todays our family celebrated together. In reading other blogs, I see jubilant finish-line photos of runners posing with their own dads; my favorite photos show both generations sporting a bib number and running shoes. I don’t write this blog to dish out advice, but my advice to other runners would be to snap that photo, whenever you can.
And though I know it’s not really him, I do still make it a point when I’m home to visit Dad at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, where he is appropriately honored alongside his fellow veterans. Why I visit him there, I’m not quite sure – maybe to assure him we’re all taking good care of Mom (though we don’t have the 51 years of practice he had). Or to share the news that whereas the Celtics now suck, the Red Sox have suddenly become a baseball dynasty. Or maybe, in a regrettably selfish moment, to chastise him for not listening to others and taking better care of himself. Death is such a high price to pay for living.
Then again, standing in respectful silence among the granite and marble headstones, I realize exactly why I visit – to let him know he’s not alone. To let him know I still hear him, I’m still listening, and that his legacy is in part my own determination to take care of those close to me, and those who can’t take care of themselves. He is, after all, the reason I donate every year on this day to The American Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NAFC), whose mission is to broaden access to affordable health care for the nation’s medically underserved.
I’ve yet to qualify for the Boston Marathon. But one Patriots Day soon, when I’m lining up among the compression-clad masses in Hopkinton, or maybe when I’m struggling through the hills in his hometown Newton late in the race, I’ll hear Dad’s voice slice loud and clear through the controlled chaos all around me. Not for its volume, or its intensity, or even its strict adherence to the law of conservation of R’s… but for its simple and well-timed message, a six-word anthem from father to son:
Can’t do any bettah than that.
Happy birthday, Dad.