It was one of the most shocking moments of my young life. On a late spring evening, my sister, father and I were playing catch with a football. I was about 11, my father, 52. For as long as I could remember, he’d had the white hair of a grandfather and the executive paunch of someone who enjoyed a highball and a good meal far more than an hour’s exercise in the backyard. In fact, to the best of my recollection, this was the only time in my life I played anything with him outdoors.
We were in Waterloo, Belgium back in the late Seventies. My Dad had moved us over there as part of his dogged climb up the corporate ladder of ITT. From a Depression era kid that grew up on a fireman’s salary, he’d found his way to Notre Dame and Harvard Business School. Riding on scholarships derived from hard work and undeniable intelligence, my father was the first in his family to go to college. Over a couple of decades, he parlayed that education into university teaching positions before ultimately jumping into Big Business. He was a serious man with no weekend clothes. That night he played with my sister and me, he wore a white t-shirt, suit pants and an old pair of winged tips. Dad didn’t do “sneakers.”
And Dad didn’t do much exercising. At 43, a two-pack-a-day smoker, he’d had a major heart attack on a work trip to Puerto Rico. It cost him over a month in the hospital. Given the best ideas of medicine at the time, he was encouraged to not push things physically and he mostly followed orders.
On that evening in Waterloo, as the sun refused to yield to even the 10 o’clock hour, I was running pass patterns and Dad was chucking sister Mary and I the ball. We had a big yard that backed up to a cow pasture and hitting us in full stride took some effort given the lengths we could run. My white haired father was getting red faced and sweat was starting to stain his T shirt.
I’m not sure of my siblings’ experience but I always got nervous when Dad showed any sign of exertion. For my imagination, it was a short trip from “effort” to “deathbed” where my father was concerned. Some kids grow up in fear of their Dad taking a drink or beating their Mom, or running off with another woman, I grew up scared that my father’s heart would explode.
That very idea crossed my mind as I watched him clearly enjoying himself but breathing hard. Sometimes, with yard work, I’d seen him break into a sweat but this was entirely new. Dad was playing. Something about the evening, maybe it was the wet smell of the grass or the warm last licks of the sun but my serious old man was playing like a boy more my age than his.
When I sent a return pass well over his head, he turned on his heel to retrieve the ball and treated me to that shocking moment. My Dad started to run.
I read somewhere that nothing says “panic” quite as forcefully as a middle aged man in full flight. If that individual happens to be in winged tips, the effect is even more profound. Believe me, I panicked when I saw my Dad’s sprint to the ball. In all of my eleven years, I’d never seen him run. Until that evening, I probably didn’t know that he could run. Seeing him do so, I immediately wanted him to stop to safeguard his heart. But I also wanted him to run like this on every night. My Dad and I had a contentious relationship, but in that moment he ran away from me, he seemed more human. I felt closer to him in the few brief seconds the distance between us grew.
Four years later, my Dad died in his sleep from a massive coronary. I never saw him run again. That evening in the Belgian spring was the only time we ever tossed the ball around.
A month ago, I turned fifty. I run almost every day. On many of those days, I think of him. In the dash of our time together there wasn’t a lot of play. But what there was made a difference for me. And the older I get, the more I appreciate that night and that man.