On Turning 40
Most of the memories I have about my father are good ones. Him teaching me to throw a baseball in the backyard of our house in Lebanon, making me reach back behind me and touch the clothesline pole before bringing the ball forward. Him and my mom singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs in the front seat on long car drives. Him teaching me to tie my shoes with a hard candy in his mouth. Him coaching my soccer team long before anyone in America knew what soccer was. Taking me to my first baseball game. Taking me hunting in Michigan. And on the list goes on. He was a dad. A good dad. My early childhood was not idyllic, of course, no childhood is, but I always felt safe; I always felt loved.
Sure, there were hard times. Him yelling, me yelling, my grades letting him down. The two of us drifting apart as I got older. I remember my entire family waiting in the car while he was inside trying to convince me to go hiking with them. I didn’t go because I was 13 and there was television. It’s not a regret, just one of those sad childhood moments that sit in the bowels of your brain forever. But while those memories exist, they sit on the back-burner compared to the good ones. I may put him on a pedestal at times, but the rosy glow I allow to be cast on him is a good thing in the end, I think.
I also remember that dad smoked and drank a lot. A beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, they were his constant companions growing up. But as he grew into his mid-30s, he quit the smokes and started exercising. Running on the weekends with my mom. He still put the beers back and his “American” diet wasn’t the healthiest, but without the smokes I worried less and less about him dying. (As a kid I always worried about him dying — when he would go out with his work pals I would stay by the window and wait for him to get home, sometimes until well after midnight.)
And I remember my dad’s 40th birthday. It was just our little family: mom, dad, my sister, my brother and me. I don’t remember a lot about it. We were in the dining room of our house in Bloomington. I remember he wore a funny hat? Maybe? There was a card that made an over-the-hill joke, I think?
This was April of 1989.
The following autumn he and mom were to run in the Twin Cities Marathon. I don’t really remember them training. At least not him. He would get his long runs in on the weekends, but nothing close to what the marathon runners I am friends with now will do — even the most casual of them.
Looking back, on the Saturday before the race dad seemed nervous. He joked around with me when I told him I was going to a pal’s house to rake leaves. And then later that day we tossed the football in the front yard — something we never did anymore by that point. While we were doing so I told my dad that I had a girlfriend — a total lie — but he seemed so proud of me. Genuinely proud. Jokingly punching me in the arm like guys do and calling me “a chip off the old block.” Years later I am so happy I lied to him. Though I have no idea if he was actually proud, or even if he believed me at all. But I like to think that at that one moment in time — on the day before he died — that he was, that he did.
I’ve never told anyone that before.
That same Saturday, he would lay on his back in the front yard and take pictures of the sky.
The next day was a Sunday, race day. It’s all a blur, like the day moved really fast, but moments scream out at me. My mom calling and my sister talking to her: dad was not feeling well and they were going to stop at the hospital on the way home. My mom calling again and this time I answered and she said that Mrs. Conrad from next door was going to drive us kids to the hospital because dad wasn’t feeling well. I remember demanding more information from her, but she just kept saying that he just wasn’t feeling well.
I remember my sister grabbing crayons so my brother could color if we had to wait.
I remember the drive to the hospital. Regions in St. Paul all the way from Bloomington; looking out the window and thinking about how everything I was seeing reminded me of my dad and how it would all make me sad forever if he died.
I was right.
We were escorted to a small room off the ER at Regions called the “Family Consult Room” where my mother and a nurse (?) were waiting for us. Mom looked so small. And tired. I often forget that in that moment she had just finished running 26.2 miles.
She said bluntly and quickly that dad had “had a massive heart attack…and died.”
I have repeated that sentence in my mind countless times. Mostly at 3am when I can’t sleep. But also on bike rides, long walks with the dog, quiet moments at work.
“Kids, your father had a massive heart attack…and died.”
Mostly I don’t fixate on the words, but on that space between “attack” and “and.” That pause is where I have lived my life for the last 27 years. That second between when everything was okay and when everything wasn’t okay ever again.
We sat in that room for a while, I think. Maybe. It might have been 20 minutes, it might have been an hour. Mom asked us if we wanted to see him. We all said no.
Later two of the race doctors came in and talked to us.
I don’t remember what prompted me, but I asked one of them if us kids had to worry about heart attacks now. I don’t remember what his answer was, but later we received in the mail a four-page (front and back) hand-written letter from the doctor — which talked about what we should and we should not be worried about when it came to our health. I think that’s what it said. My memories of it are hazy. I remember being touched.
I probably should have paid better attention to it. For while those 20+ years of grieving were about what you would expect (I have written about those years before), it is has been my looming expiration date that has defined me, has worn me down, as well as my intense and all-consuming fixation on my own mortality — on the fact that I would, without a doubt, also drop dead young and without warning — a fixation that began not minutes after learning of my father’s death.
I was 13-years-old. I had 27 years to go. The clock had started.
I had a mid-life crisis at 24. To this day I lie awake at night and worry about my heart. I picture myself on the side of the road, bike over-turned, clutching my chest. Every weird beat, every strange chest pain that is probably just a muscle strain and is on the wrong side anyway, every waking moment is another step closer to my early death.
There’s a line in the Hamilton musical score that after all these years has finally put it better than I ever could:
“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory…”
In five days I will turn 40. The same age dad was when he died.
I will spend the day in London with my wife and one of my oldest friends.
It’s finally here. The day I have been dreading for well more than half my life. And I don’t even know what to think. My logical side says that, really, yeah, I have some bad genes, but I am generally healthy for the most part and while I have my vices, they aren’t as pronounced as they used to be. Still, though, the demons in my brain lurk like hyenas, and my fixation on this year has not ebbed, it has only grown more intense.
I am not sure how I feel when the day actually arrives. But I think I will be okay.
When Monday comes a new chapter will begin. A chapter where I will be older than my father ever was. A chapter where death will not be seven feet ahead of me (apologies, Lin) but walking lockstep with me. For the rest of my days. While that sounds horrible and morbid, I feel like this new chapter will be the chapter where — for reasons I cannot explain, and after all these years — I will finally be able to cast aside my fixation, and learn to live a life that isn’t under the constant shadow of October 1989, and is instead focused on tomorrow.
For two and a half decades I thought February 29th, 2016 would be the worst possible birthday ever.
But in the back of my head, oddly, I am kind of looking forward to it now. I feel like I am ready for this new chapter, and I am excited to face the challenge of being this age I have been dreading.
Here’s to tomorrow then. And to Monday. And to forty more years.
And here’s to you, dad. I still miss you every day.