I’ve got the picture taped on the wall of my writing room. It was taken in 1971, and it shows my father pitching a Whiffle Ball to me with a three-day growth of beard and a half-burnt cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We’re on the beach in Maine. It was low tide and I’m 13 years old, holding my yellow Whiffle bat and ready to smoke the ball on the deserted beach.
When I look carefully at that picture I can almost fall back to that time. I can hear the sound of the waves crashing, the seagulls crying, and feel the ocean breeze blowing. My dad was a lot of fun, especially on our one-week Maine vacations. That’s when I got most of his attention. He always seemed busy back home. “I’m the first one in the office and the last to leave,” he used to say with pride.
He was only 38 years old in that picture, and I was still constantly worried that he was going to have a heart attack. He smoked over two packs of cigarettes a day, ate all the wrong foods, drank too much, and rarely exercised. On those days when we’d play Whiffle Ball I was the one who would run all over the beach retrieving the hit ball. “Don’t let your father run too much,” my mother would tell me.
“I’ll do all the running,” I’d say, just happy to have my father pitch to me on the beach for even 15 minutes.
As I entered high school I joined the cross-country and track team; my father continued to work too hard and smoke too much. My dad often came to my meets, and I’d feel a bit embarrassed seeing him in the bleachers, smoking and cheering, but I still loved it when he came and I seemed to run better when he was there.
My high school years brought our first major battles. We’d be sitting downstairs watching a game on television and I’d ask him to not smoke. “This is my house,” he’d say. “This is my castle. I can do what I want.”
“But I can’t breathe, and those cigarettes are going to kill you,” I’d grumble.
He’d laugh. “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse. That’s what I always say.”
As a junior in college I ran my first marathon, in New York City, and I asked my parents to come. My father knew I had been training hard and hoped to break three hours. “It would mean a lot to me if you came down. We could meet the day before and I could pick up my running number and then we could go out for lunch. I’ll tell you where to stand and watch me run on Sunday, and then we could meet at Central Park after the race.”
But my parents got a late start and never got to New York until late afternoon, and then stopped at a bar to have a few drinks. When they finally called it was after 5 p.m. “We’re here,” said my dad. “Get on the subway and we’ll take you out to dinner.”
It was a 45-minute subway ride from my college to where my parents were staying. “It’s too late,” I said. “Why did you get in so late? I already went down to get my number. I’m not coming back down. I have to wake up early to get to the starting line.”
“We came all the way down to see you run,” yelled my father. “We want to take you out to dinner.”
I could tell that he had been drinking. “I’m not coming down. I’m eating dinner here and going to bed early.” I then told my father where I wanted to have him and my mother see me during the race, and gave them directions to the 16-mile mark, where I would look for them.
He complained about coming all the way down to the city, paying all that money, and I didn’t even have the decency to come out to dinner with him. “I’ll see you at the Queensboro Bridge,” I said and then hung up the phone. After all these months of training I didn’t want this to ruin my race.
Running and watching
As I ran the first 15 miles the next morning I kept telling myself, “They’ll be there. They came all this way to see me run, and they’ll be there.” I searched the crowd from mile 16 to mile 18. I saw quite a few of my college friends, but there was no sign of my parents.
They had overslept after a late night of dinner and drinks, and my father forgot where I wanted him to watch, so they just took the train home and never saw me run that day, my first marathon, where I ran three hours and one minute.
My father had his first heart attack at 51. It was a wake-up call to him. He quit smoking, started eating better, retired from work six years later, and began playing golf at least three times a week from April through October. Maybe for the first time in his life he really began to appreciate how wonderful it is to live a healthy life. He loved his grandchildren and took them everywhere, and I hoped that maybe he’d live to a nice ripe old age.
He died at 64, when his heart gave out a few days after major surgery. “He’s lucky he lived that long with such a damaged heart,” one of the doctors told me the day he died, and at the wake so many people came up to me and said, “Your father looks so good.”
My father would have been happy to know that he had a good-looking corpse.
This past April I turned 50. My two kids never worry that I’ll have a heart attack. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I’ve been an avid runner since I was 14. I might not eat the best foods, but I don’t drink too much, and I try not to work too hard. I try to live a life of healthy balance between work and play. I want to be here to see my grandchildren grow up. I want to live to a nice, ripe old age.
Back in stride
This Memorial Day weekend I’ll run my first marathon in 22 years. I’m not running this marathon to break three hours. I’m not trying to do well in my age division. I’m running it for my dad.
I’ve been training since January, running usually five days a week, cold days, snowy days, hot days, mostly alone, and on each run I think about my dad and how I wish he had lived a healthier life. My dad would be 75 years old now, and I wish he could see me at the age of 50 finish this marathon. I’ll be looking for him in the crowd as I approach the finish, and even if I don’t see him I have a feeling that somewhere he’ll know I made it.
Jack Rightmyer lives in Burnt Hills. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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