My grandpa has a vanity plate on his car. It’s his initials, four letters, followed by the number 57 — the year he and my grandmother were married. I didn’t dream of the future much when I was little, couldn’t think of anything to imagine. I never even really thought of driving, but wanted more than anything to someday have a dumb vanity plate that mirrored his. The four letters of my initials and a number that mattered. Maybe the year I was married or did something important.
I got my car when I was 23; I’d done nothing important. My license plate is my initials and the number 32.
When I was 19, I walked into a tattoo parlour and handed a stranger a little piece of paper with Roy Halladay’s autograph on it. I was not a certain kid and was constantly trying to reassure myself that it was okay to be unsure of things. I didn’t know much. I only know a bit more now. I was serious and sensitive and I took every slight to heart. There was just one thing about which I had no doubts, one person in whom I had unwavering faith, and his name was signed on that scrap of paper.
Over the years, people would ask me about the tattoo and the ones who knew about how often athletes weren’t heroes would hesitate for a moment in commenting further. I could see on their faces that they wanted to remind me of all the various ways in which a stranger who excelled at a sport could let me down. I could see them thinking, fairly so, of all the times these professionals have been revealed to be embarrassing or infuriating or heartbreaking. I would mark the question in their eyes and smile, an unsure kid who was certain of one thing.
The years I loved Roy Halladay most were not easy ones for me. I was lonely and sad, which for someone with a quiet disposition can be a struggle. I was sensitive and having trouble, but I was wary of passing those troubles along to anyone. I wasn’t many years away from being treated for depression. Sports were more a respite for me then than they have been before or since, and watching Roy always felt like a privilege. He made an unlucky kid feel fortunate and he made an always worried girl feel occasionally fearless. Above all else, he made someone who was scared and unsure feel like it was okay to fail. His truest example to me was always that something comes after the disaster, as well as the knowledge that if you worked hard what came next could be something truly great.
I loved him when he was good and when he was bad. I loved him when I was good and when I was bad. I’m a little less uncertain these days; not particularly lonely or sad. Life is different and I don’t need sports the way I used to. Having said that… I think the reason this is so hard is that if we’re being honest, I never stopped needing Roy Halladay in the exact same way I needed him as a teenager. Harder still is the notion that in hundreds of opportunities over more than a dozen years, he never once let me down. Not one time, not even for a second. What an impossible thing, to never be disappointed by your hero. I’ll never see anyone like that again in my life.
Last night I found something I’d written what feels like a lifetime ago, after he’d retired and I was saying a goodbye that was supposed to stay little and has now become enormous:
I am sorry to have assigned you so much responsibility. I’m sorry I so often looked to you to correct unrelated courses in my life. I’m sorry that I needed you to be great because I felt like I’d never be good.
It’s unwise to deify athletes. It’s childish, it’s simple, it’s a relic of a time when we didn’t know everything about everyone. It’s unlike me. It’s also the best part of me — that in some little, tiny way I am able to believe in someone. In spite of everything else, there is still a part of me able to think something can be great as well as good.
I thanked him, then, for keeping me sentimental and reminding me it was okay to believe in magic. For being great as well as good.
The truth is, I could’ve written those same words about him at any time of any day since I was 15 years old. It was true then and if anything, it’s truer now. I am grateful for this man and I am especially grateful for the many beautiful friends I’ve made because of him. I will spend the rest of my life looking at the inside of my pitching arm and being reminded it’s okay to struggle; that on the other side of immense difficulty can be impossible joy.
After the apologies, then, come the thanks. Thank you for my sincerity and for my strength. Thank you for being steadfast in the face of every hardship. Thank you for being a storybook hero writ large and thank you for just being someone’s coach dad from Colorado. Thank you for always being great when I felt like I’d never be good. Thank you for everything. I know now that there is something on the other side of this immense difficulty. Love you forever.
Work hard and be kind. People see your decency.