I never knew you as a man, as a person. I was three years old when you got sick and ten when you died. You were still a giant, an idol, a figure larger than life. I know only of your heroics, your stories of great triumph, and the limited number of lessons I was able to learn from you at such a young age. You are not a person in my memories; you are a mythical figure I hopelessly try to live up to every day.
I remember you running the Chicago marathon 6 months after your first bone marrow transplant just because you wanted to prove that you could. I don’t remember you pacing in the den writing six figure checks to hospitals for the treatment that had kept you alive, worrying when you could go back to work to make sure that your family would not be poor.
I remember the grueling exercise trips that you loved so much. 30 mile bike rides in the mountains, shouting words of encouragement to me trying to push me to get up the hill without stopping. The two girls were already walking, but I was still going because you were still going. “Grind it out. Push, push, push. You’re more than halfway there, don’t quit now. No pain no gain. Dig deep.” You pushed me to prove to myself that I could do more than I thought I was capable of doing. I pushed myself to prove to you that I could do it too.
I remember running the annual 5 miler at age 7. I loved to run almost as much as I loved to play basketball, and this was the first time I would be running on my own. Mom wanted me to do the 1 mile fun run, but you said I could run the 5 mile race, and I agreed. I was the youngest runner out of the thousand people running. I ran in basketball sneakers because you and Mom were afraid I would roll my ankle. “Don’t start too fast, never walk, and finish strong,” you said, as you had always said when it came to my long distance running. As always, I started way too fast sprinting to the front of the pack for the first quarter mile insisting that I could keep up with the adults; I couldn’t. Over the course of the race, I wanted to walk many times, but I refused. Never walk. Adults would shout encouraging words to me as they ran past me. My lungs were on fire; I could taste blood in my throat; I was crying in pain; but I never walked. I turned onto the final straight, the last 400 meters, with the big clock and the crowds of people yelling and cheering, and I started to sprint. The crowd was roaring as I, a little 7 year old boy in basketball sneakers, sprinted the last 400 meters of the race. I raced across the line in 48 minutes and 46 seconds. Dig deep and finish strong.
I remember visiting you in the hospital every weekend near the end. You were unconscious, stuffed with tubes and IVs; bald, sallow, and frail. You had survived so much for so long, and I believed you would survive this too. I could not imagine that you would leave me alone with the girls; you did.
I lost a father, but one word does not do justice to what a father does. I lost the steady hand on my shoulder pushing me forward with words of encouragement, with action, proving that I could do more than I thought I was capable of doing. I lost a role model who showed what it meant to be a good man every day. I lost direction and affection.
I lost the light that guides the way. For years I groped around in the darkness, refusing to admit that losing you had an impact on me. I was fine; I could handle myself. I didn’t have any mentors to step in, but I didn’t need them because I was 10, 11, 13, 15 years old; I could take care of myself. I couldn’t. I became listless because I didn’t have someone pushing me to do more, be more, succeed more. I became deceitful because I had no one to show me integrity. I became timid because I had no one to show me courage. I became weak because I had no one to show me strength.
I lost you, but I did not lose the lessons you taught me. I was too young to understand that then, but I am not now. I have always thought about the emptiness that your absence has left; I have never thought about the foundation that your presence built. I have lost but what is lost can always be found.
I found an appreciation for what I had and what I lost. I found the lessons you left for me to learn and the foundation of the man you hoped I would become. I have found the father that I thought lost forever; you were right there in my heart.
—Photo credit: leduardo/Flickr