June 19, 1992

Article at newsday.com

My first Father's Day without a father

My father died two years ago. People told me that during the grieving process (which has lasted most of these two years) its not uncommon to remember a great deal you thought you had forgotten. And I have.

Little things like watching a particular basketball game together or going to a certain restaurant. A figure of speech he frequently used. The velocity with which he ate pizza. The day, right before I left for college, when he taught me how to make chili. The camping trip we took in the rain. The way I felt whenever he called me Jimbo. The sight of him on the sidelines during my junior high football games, waving with one hand and aiming a shaky 8 mm camera with the other. 

These memories still interrupt me several times each day. I can no more stop them than I can stop him from being dead. This constant remembering must be the minds way of cataloging a relationship while its still fresh, of saving it like a computer saves a document, character by character. The process is a remarkable one alternately painful and sweet, nostalgic and devastating.

Scattered among the little memories are a few big, defining moments. They sit there in a landscape of pebbles and stones like boulders. You approach them cautiously, not quite sure you can bear the weight of lifting them. But finally you exert a little force, and the boulder gives. It isnt nearly as heavy as you imagined.

Notice I used the general as you imagined, not the personal as I imagined. I did that unconsciously, but I think I know the reason: Its the same reason its easier to say, Losing a father is hard than it is to say, Losing my father has been hard. Without the my, there seems to be a perverse bit of hope. Of course hes dead, but as long as you keep it general, he isnt quite gone. Insert the my, and it becomes so final.

During this time of grieving, this time of lifting boulders, my father has remained very much alive. He scampers out from under every rock I lift and sits there until I put it back. The one I keep lifting over and over again is one that says a lot about my father but also about fathers and sons in general. It goes like this:

I am 17 years old. It is summer, and football practice is about to begin. I am supposed to be the starting quarterback in this my senior year, having worked all winter and spring with my coach, reviewing films, reading defenses, diagraming formations and plays. Actually, I have worked my entire life for this chance, throwing 150 passes a day through a tire my father rigged in the opening of our garage, lifting thousands of pounds of weights in our damp basement, running wind sprints by myself late on summer nights before two-a-day practices began.

It is summer. I am 17. I am about to realize a dream, and I am in my room trying to figure out how to tell my father that I want to quit. I know too well the Lombardi-ism that adorns the locker room wall A quitter never wins and a winner never quits. I know the depth of belief many men have invested in this slogan. And I know how fathers live through their sons accomplishments on the athletic field. I can hear the reasons my father will surely give why I should stick it out the regrets I might feel later. I know because I have told them to myself.

And now he is there in my room, and I tell him. He smiles and says, Im proud of you. Youve learned something it took me 40 years to learn, something most people never learn to follow your heart, not other peoples expectations. Of course Im not disappointed Im proud to have a son like you.

In that moment, my father gave more to me than many fathers give their sons in a lifetime. He gave me the truth: that following other peoples expectations your teachers, friends, even your parents is not the way to happiness. At the same time he was telling me that no ones approval really mattered, he gave me his. And it mattered a lot.

Now I am the father of three young children, and sometimes after their batteries have run down for the day, after they are finally asleep, I wonder, What did I teach them today? I berate myself for not working with Zack on his lay-ups. I feel bad that I didnt teach Max how to tie his shoes. Or take Zoey out on her tricycle.

And then I lift the boulder and out comes my father to stand there and remind me that if all I can teach them is a little truth, if all I can show them is a little approval, it will be enough.