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I Missed My Dad Today

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Today seems like a good day to publish this reflection. Blogging about my family has involved fleshing out pieces I had written in years past and adding a few in between. But the discipline of writing and editing is stirring up old feelings and awakening some I didn’t know were there. Focusing so much on my father and our relationship made me miss him so much earlier this week that I just wanted to climb into bed and hug myself.

March 17, 2013

I missed my Dad today.

Driving home from Charlottesville, after dropping our daughter Bec off at a friend’s house to catch her ride back to school, I saw two vintage Buick LeSabres just like the one my Dad used to drive. I became so lost in thought I missed my exit. The car was one of the few models which could accommodate his height. I suspect some odd synchronicity at work, as my drive had gotten me thinking about a road trip I took with my Dad during my senior year of high school.

I can see my father’s hands on the wheel. He’s in the taupe zip-up sweater he wore all the time back then. I remember the way he used to warm up the car and lay his puffy winter coat on the back seat. After my father’s death from stomach cancer in 1990, my Mom sold his perfectly-kept car for a song to an overjoyed fellow who turned it into a city cab.

I had begun hearing from schools interested in me because of my running stats. The University of Virginia was not one of them. I pursued UVA, and the school’s athletic department tolerated my interest. I knew it was a good school, and its running program was strong. In the end, I rejected the school because it rejected me.

I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned I hadn’t made UVA’s cut for academic admission but the coach said he’d pull some strings if I wanted to come and run for them. His lukewarm attitude should have tipped me off but, given the reputation of the program, a campus tour and a meet-and-greet were in order. My Dad and I scheduled some other visits for the same week, packed up, and headed out of town.

I might have been able to swallow my academic pride but I couldn’t overcome the coach’s inconvenienced air and his underwhelming faith in my athletic potential. In one breath, he held out the offer of a 1/4 scholarship. In the next, he took it back: He made a point of letting me know he had a talent pool so deep I might not get to race.

Sayonara, UVA! Hello, University of the Free Ride! Let’s just call it UFR for now.

These were the early days of Title IX and athletic scholarships for women. UFR felt too close to home, and back then it was a popular “safety school.” I nearly wrote it off. The scholarship offer made me take a second look. That and the UVA snub. The program at UFR was coming along well enough to challenge and develop me, yet it was small enough that I would get to be a contributor at the Division I level. As a parent of three young ladies, I have developed a massive appreciation for the generosity my father displayed in squiring me around to several other schools without ever complaining. He was the sole breadwinner, and I had two younger siblings. We were comfortable but not rich. He never pressured me to take the money.

We had visited the University of Delaware (Great school but the program was not far enough along. To be honest, the thought of being a Blue Hen didn’t sit quite right either.). We had also visited Wake Forest (Gorgeous and welcoming but it felt too small.). McGill had been recruiting me but we never made that visit. The coach seemed like such a great guy but it was too far, too cold, and too much for me. I knew in my heart I was not mature enough to manage it. There were a few other offers here and there but nothing I considered a serious contender. So Dad and I visited UFR twice, just to be sure.

I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about while we were on the road. Nothing deep, certainly. Of the trip to UVA, I mostly just remember the nauseous smell of paper pulp and the effort involved in trying to damp down and hide my nervous energy. Those who know me well recognize that when I become unnaturally calm and rational, I am close to panic.

Were the college visits fun? That would be a resounding “NO.” A stoic young woman, I don’t think I came across as friendly or likeable. I looked good on paper but the real-life girl was distant and stiff. I had trouble connecting with other people because I had trouble connecting with myself. At this point in my life I am able to put words to the experience but I would not have been able to do so at the time.

Feeling scared and awkward was a dominant and recurring theme for me. It felt both exhilarating and alarming to have attracted notice. On the one hand, I felt sweet joy and power in my developing gifts. On the other hand, I was sure I would be discovered as an imposter–so much so that I feared failure to a paralyzing degree. I was my own worst enemy. I learned much later from my UFR coach that I had been branded a “head case,” which had discouraged some coaches from taking a chance on me. This assessment had some basis in fact.

My Dad had never been involved in athletics. My father found sports dull and had never watched them on TV or bonded over them with other men. He was afraid of water. He couldn’t throw or catch a baseball. With apologies to 50% of the human race, I am going to use an expression I know you will understand even though its prejudice will infuriate you: My 6′ 4″ father threw like a girl. He was a high-order nerd, a hot house plant, and he didn’t understand the culture at all. A few years earlier he had told me I should stop running because it would permanently damage my reproductive organs. He eventually started to come around to the fact that this running thing was here to stay. The one time he came out to support me at a high school meet, he became panicked when I vomited after the race.

My Dad wasn’t well equipped to champion me through the college selection process, and he hadn’t figured this out. I held the angst and self consciousness for us both. There was my father, only 46 at the time: tall, pasty, his upper body already permanently wilted like one of the giant sunflowers we used to grow in our back yard, making his way through terra incognita like Albert Einstein at a cocktail party. Witnessing his interactions with the UVA athletic department staff made me want to crawl under a rock. But remembering him now, I feel such affection. He was determined to care for me the best way he knew how. He was clueless. He was weird. He was difficult. He was my Dad, and he would have taken a bullet for me. I never thought about the fact that he’d be gone one day.

So there we were, two intimately-related, emotionally-disconnected individuals cruising down the highway in his pimped-out white Buick LeSabre with the blue vinyl top. It had baby-blue velour upholstery, and it’s ride was so soft we barely felt the road. We said little. The engine purred a comforting “ticka ticka ticka ticka.” I think I knew him. He thought he knew me. Yes, I can see his hands on the steering wheel. I drive the same way.

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Rule # 12: The Perfect Gift Is Something You Would Like For Yourself

gift FutUndBeidl

Image courtesy of FutUndBeidl

Again, a rule my father actually articulated. The problems with this rule should be immediately apparent. I am ashamed to admit how old I was before I realized this probably wasn’t the best guideline for gift giving.

One Christmas I had my eye on a small brandy snifter. It was a clever gag gift—exactly the kind of thing I loved during my tween years. The “brandy” was sandwiched between thin layers of glass. From the side, it looked like a glass of brandy but if you tried to drink it, of course, nothing came out. I bought it for myself but convinced myself I was buying it for my father. It sat on a shelf in our living room until it disappeared one day.

In my early 20’s, I gave my mother a navy blue Nike sweatshirt. I got it when she decided it wasn’t for her.

Dad was the kind of husband who might use Mom’s birthday as a good excuse to replace a major household appliance. On the other hand, he was not the kind of Dad who would ruin a perfectly good birthday or holiday with clothing. When I was little, my heart would sink when my grandparents presented Gwen and me with those lightweight boxes which indicated right up front we’d be getting something “useless.” Whatever small element of surprise remained was quickly dashed since we generally got the same item in different colors.

I guess Dad did not follow the rule 100%. One time I begged and begged for a Cub Scout pocketknife and actually got it—even before I reached the age of majority. This was a real stretch for my father. He tended to anticipate danger at every turn. My mother swears my first word was “dangerous.” I thanked him by not slicing off any body parts. Another time I got the Barbie Camper and accessories I thought I wanted but didn’t. They just sat there stupidly. Something about them annoyed me.

My father was a true nerd, pocket protector and all. Some of his nerd gifts were right up my alley. He gave me a super cool Audubon bird call. He bought me experiments and kits from Edmund Scientifics. I made noise and messes! I wrote secret notes on dissolvable paper! I learned how metal expands and contracts with heat! An electronics buff, Dad gave me a small white transistor radio. It even had a wrist strap! I took it outside and hid in my favorite spots listening to Simon and Garfunkel.

Dad wasn’t one to martyr himself. He did not spend his energy on matters which didn’t interest him. He had a very active mind and was quick to become bored and impatient. My father was definitely not the kind of parent who liked spending time on the floor playing games or on the couch reading the same stories again and again. All I can say is Thank God for Mom.

Instead, Dad showed me how to build a solenoid radio, make rock candy, knit, crochet, garden organically, and program in BASIC. I wonder how many of my interests started as a way to connect with my father.

I hope the times he spent with me were gifts he wanted for himself.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

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