When I was a little boy, somewhere around the age of six or seven, The Old Man bundled me up in a bunch of warm clothes, took me out into his big blue bronco truck, which I remember in my mind’s eye and can see this clearly.
I remember the way the bench seat looked and how the motor rumbled. I remember the long black handle for the stick shift. I remember the coldness of the morning, but more importantly, I remember the reason for this trip. This was the time we began the yearly tradition on New Year’s Day.
This was our day to be Father and son. Nothing ever stopped this day between us. No matter how badly things turned, we always held our New Year’s tradition.
I suppose I was hoping for one more trip to the beach at Point Lookout. I suppose I was just hoping The Old Man would make it through until then.
Then again, I suppose, I just hoped God heard my prayers and decided to let The Old Man stay with us for a while longer.
Mom was at the hospital the entire time. She would not leave. She would not go home. She stayed there with him, my Father, and the love of her life.
I saw Mom very differently then. She was vulnerable. I knew that Mom was strong but I also knew that she was scared. The family business was in full swing. There was much to do in the office but Mom had not been there since the first attack.
My guess is she had her conversations with God as well. And my assumptions tell me the last thing on Mom’s mind was business or money. She would have given all of it up just for another day with her husband. I know this because she told me so.
We were never very wealthy but business was about to blossom. Things were moving along nicely. I was gone away and doing my time in different treatment facilities.
My brother Dave was at school (they were always proud of Dave —and truth be told, so was I).
This was their time as husband and wife to enjoy life; however, that life changed the day my Father went down for the first time. He didn’t even know there was a problem.
As a matter of fact, it seems to be this way with so many of us in this world—we never seem to realize there’s a problem, until it’s too late.
Everyone came to see The Old Man in the hospital. My family rallied the way family is supposed to.
The Old Man waited to say goodbye to everyone. I feel this was a gracious thing. There was something in me that believed there was grace and love; although sad, there was something redeeming about this because before he left, my Father settled his affairs with the people he loved before he died and passed away.
There was hope though. He was supposed to be transferred to Columbia Presbyterian. He just needed to pull through the night and they would transfer him the next day. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
The last coherent words The Old Man said to me was, “I want you to stay this way.”
He meant sober.
Before he slipped into an incoherent ramble, The Old Man looked at me and said, “Take care of your mother.”
Mom and I left the hospital once they put The Old Man on a machine. He passed away during the early morning hours on December 29th, 1989. The nurse came out and told my cousin Craig and handed him The Old Man’s wedding band. The nurse handed Craig the ring and simply said, “I’m sorry.”
We were just a few days short of making it to New Year’s Day.
Traditionally speaking, this was the day when The Old Man and I washed the slate clean.
Clean: to be free from dirt; to be unsoiled or bathed and become unstained.
In my case, to be clean meant to wash away my past; to rid myself of who I was, to be clean meant to rid myself of my stained life, which it was, and to redeem myself, as if almost to be baptized and washed from my sins and the way I lived.
With all of my heart, I wanted to stay the way my Father saw me. I wanted to be clean.
My Old Man was always good with stories. He told several of them and most of them were repeated often. He did this enough to make a person roll their eyes and think, “I know. You told me this one already.”
Still, The Old Man had a talent for telling stories. I suppose this is what I loved most about the walks on the beach on New Year’s Day.
He told me this story, which I am about to share. The story is not mine but I have adapted this to my life. In fairness, I think it is necessary to explain this story does not even belong to The Old Man. I know this is a famous story; however, I have adapted this to me. This was a story that he had heard. And I suppose the story meant so much to him that my Father passed this along to me.
I did not remember this story until I was older. And although this version is mine, I invite you to take this story and create your own version because this is the most valuable story I have to tell —and, well, since you’ve kept up with me this far, I hope you won’t mind going a little further.
Keep in mind; I do not own any rights to this story. No, I just keep this in my heart to make sense of troubled times and to inspire me when I feel lost or hopeless.
This story takes place in high school, on a high school football team. There was a young man that played on the team. He was mainly third string. He was mostly unremarkable and unnoticed. He was this way in school too. Not good looking or bad, not cool or uncool—just flat, and basically unnoticeable. His talents on the football field were underwhelming at best. He never saw much playing time. He was as I felt my entire life, unnoticed, unworthy, and unwanted.
The young man would come to every practice and suit up for every game. His Father was there for all of this —only, the young man’s father was blind. He could not see. He never saw his son play, he just cheered.
Before each game, the father and son walked around the track of the football field to discuss the team, the game, and the boy would tell his father his plans on what he would do if he had any playing time.
After the game, the two would walk around the track that surrounded the football field once more. Only this time, the boy was hard on himself. He told his Father about his efforts. The boy would try so hard, only to come up short and feel unremarkable again.
His Father, on the other hand, was always supportive. He sat up front on the bleachers and cheered louder than any of the other parents. He clapped and he shouted and he would proudly claim, “That’s my boy out there on that team.”
Sadly, two weeks before homecoming, the blind father passed away. The boy was devastated to say the least.
On homecoming day, during the biggest game in high school football; on a day when college scouts took the stands to see the home team come to life, our boy decided to go to the school early. He went alone and he walked around the track, suited up, the same way he would have with his father when he was alive.
He thought about the times he was hard on himself. He thought about the words of encouragement, given to him by his Old Man.
He used to tell his Father his plans for the game but he was always so downhearted about himself. He had that middle of the room, unnoticed mindset.
His Father would say, “You just have to show them, son.”
He would tell his boy. “I know who you are. I know what you’re capable of.”
He would say, “I’m your Father. I created you. I know what you can do, son.”
“All you have to do is show them.”
Eventually, everyone else showed up for warm ups. And, eventually the stands filled with cheering parents. The high school band started to play their songs. The cheerleaders cheered their cheers. And all our boy could hear in his mind were the words of his Father. “It’s your turn to show them, son!”
The youngster approached his coach and simply told him “Coach, put me in.”
He told the coach, “I want to play.”
The coach thought about the importance of this game. This was not just any game. Aside from the college scouts in the stands, the away team had an eight year winning streak against the home team. He mentioned the dilemma to the assistant coach.
The assistant reminded the head coach, “That’s the kid with the blind father that just died. You have to put him in.”
“I know,” said the head coach. “But he’s just not that good and I don’t want to lose to this team again.”
“Put him in for the kick-off,” suggested the assistant coach.
“Good idea,” agreed the head coach.
There was an empty spot on the front bleacher, which the boy noticed. This is where his Father would sit. Everyone cheered. The band played. The away team won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball.
Our boy was on the end, awaiting the drum roll for the kick-off. To him, all the ambient noise was silent. He did not hear the cheers or the drum roll before the kicker kicked off the ball. No, all he heard where the encouraging words of his Father.
“Go get’em, kid!”
“It’s your turn, son.”
“You’re my son. I created you!”
“I know what you can do.”
“Now it’s your turn to show them!”
The drum roll pounded and when the kicker kicked the ball, high, and sent the football soaring deep towards the opposite end zone, our boy ran down and hit the ball carrier, dead-on. He punished the ball carrier to the point where he created a fumble and the home team recovered.
They left him in and he played defense. He played inside linebacker—only, he was no longer underwhelming. At last, he was remarkable.
He intercepted the ball during the fourth quarter and set up the winning touchdown.
After the game, everyone went on their way. They went to celebrate but our boy went to the track. He said to his father, wherever he was, “I did it, Pop.”
“I did just like you said.”
“I showed ’em.”
The head coach saw the boy walking around the field. He noticed the boy was not involved in the celebration with the rest of the team.
This boy was literally a winning factor in the game. He helped avenge an eight year loss in front of college scouts in the stands.
The coach ran out to the field to see the boy.
He apologized, “Kid, I’m sorry.”
He said, “I had you pegged all wrong.”
“I didn’t know you could play that way.”
The coach advised the boy, “I’m tellin ya, kid. There were scouts in the stands. They saw the way you played today! And they’re gonna wanna talk to you about this.”
The afternoon was bright and sunny, cool from the early autumn winds. The sunlight filtered down on the aftermath of victory ribbons strewn on an empty field. It was warm, suddenly, as if there was a presence.
There could be no other description of this moment, aside from picture perfect. The boy was never remarkable before until now —until the day when he listened to his Father, wherever he may have been.
The coach asked, “What happened, kid?”
He asked, “Where did that come from?”
Removing his helmet, our boy, with tears streaming down his face looked at his head coach and said, “I’ll tell you what happened coach.”
“For the first time in my life, my father got to see me play football.”
I did not recall this story until after my Father passed away. Maybe I needed it when he passed. Maybe this was a hint from the Old Man himself, telling me he is always behind me. Maybe this was him saying, “I know who you are son.”
And for the rest of my life, somehow, no matter how hard I am hit—no matter what, I have to show up, just like our boy did and say, “Coach, put me in, I want to play”
The middle of the room, the sides, the popularity count, the ideas of outside opinions are nothing more than illusions and distractions.
For me to be clean, I knew what I had to do. I had to get my head in the game and play.
Note: I am writing this to you now and it is somewhere around 4:30am. My eyes are leaking as I type this. I am crying, yes, but there is beauty to this story. Same as there was always beauty to me (and you). But now, finally, I can get to where my life began to turn around.