Thursday, August 6, 2009
I didn’t really get to know my father until pretty late in the game.
It was like watching Paul Molitor get his three-thousandth hit in a Minnesota uniform. People cheered, but it wasn’t how they would remember him.
The metaphor is appropriate, I think, because even when we had nothing to talk about, we could talk about sports. My Dad and I stuck to the locals, mostly: Twins, Timberwolves, trade rumors.
When I’d visit his clean, unadorned room at the care home, he’d run through the usual series of questions. How’s the job? How’s the car running? Have any girlfriends? He liked that last one best—especially when I had a story to tell. How’d you meet this one? he’d ask. And when they’d change, or I’d go weeks (months) without a new name to share, he didn’t mind. He’d just suggest I try the bars around town.
My Dad was consistent, like a sideline reporter interviewing a key player after a win. There was a script, an expected call and response, and we nailed it. We had it down. We could have worked for ESPN. Okay. Fox Sports.
There was a time when I didn’t think I could handle it, hearing those same questions again and again. When it depressed me to run through the same answers, recount the same basic facts. But eventually, I realized how much they mattered. The questions. Because even if he forgot the answers a week or an hour later, he wanted to know. He wanted to know enough to ask every time. And he always listened.
Once we exhausted the interview portion of my visits, my Dad and I would settle in for some Monday Night Football or a Sunday afternoon snoozer between the Yankees and the Angels. We even watched golf. Sure, we didn’t always watch sports. There’s a reason I consider myself a Wheel Watcher.
But in the end, it came down to sports, even though I’m not entirely certain how much we each even liked them. Sure, he was a high school and college athlete, and I have a deep appreciation for Joe Mauer’s swing. But I don’t feel about Kevin Garnett quite the way I do about F Scott Fitzgerald. And my Dad? I’m not sure what his dreams were, what he aspired to be, to do.
That’s the thing about knowing my Dad. I don’t, really. I’ve heard stories of his humor, his kindness, his easygoing nature. And in the past few years, I’ve seen flashes of those things, hints of a person that I never got to meet.
Parents aren’t people when you’re a kid. They’re heroes, villains, legends. They’re Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio. They make the rules, feed you, pick you up when you fall. But it’s not until you’re older and on the way to becoming some kind of grownup that you really get it. That they stumble. That they are not always right. That they might not be around forever like you always thought they would be. That they’re human. Like you.
I won’t have a father to help finish the basement of that future home in South Minneapolis. I won’t have a father to phone for financial advice and support, both solicited and not. I won’t have a father to say, don’t worry, son, I have a good feeling about this one, while I’m nervously adjusting my tux.
I won’t have those things, but that’s okay. My Dad left me something else: he left me his sloppy, beaming, ear-to-ear grin. He left the smile that spilled across his face every time I popped my head through the door to his room. The smile I can’t deny every time I see my reflection in the mirror. The smile that was like a late-inning catch at the wall, the kind that Kirby Puckett made again and again to rob the opposing team of a go-ahead home run. It was the kind of smile that made you think, sure, maybe things have been bad, but we have a chance. We can do this. It’s gonna be all right.
That much I know.