Sunday, December 9, 2007

December 9, 1987

My dad as a kid, enjoying the day at Saylor's Lake.

I remember standing in the kitchen in the late afternoon that day in December. I was 13 years old and had just spent the last several hours in the orthodontist's office, going through a painful rite of passage: getting braces. There I stood, with an aching mouth full of metal and a bag full of homework I wanted to toss in the fire place.

It was unusual that my dad had taken several days off of work that week, uncharacteristically playing Mr. Mom, carting my brother and me off to activities and appointments in between helping my mother decorate the house for Christmas.

My face was forlorn, my attitude was everything you'd expect from a cranky teen who was feeling the burn-out effects of being a year-round competitive swimmer. I begged my dad to let me skip practice that afternoon. While I was learning how to play every bit the part of a daddy's girl, there were definitely limits. For one, whining was strictly prohibited in the Strout household. The guy--though fun-loving with an insanely smart, dry sense of humor--had a strong will and his own clear sense of right and wrong. Even for his only daughter, there was rarely room for compromise. And he had a bullshit detector like nobody's business. I don't know anybody, really, who ever defeated it.

“You’re going,” he said firmly, as we stood in the kitchen. “You made a commitment, you're part of a team, and you have to stick to it.”

As I trudged out the door, defeated, I had no idea those would be his last words to me. While I was swimming, he died of a heart attack during his own daily workout in our basement.
This morning I woke up to a cold, rainy day and decided instead of pulling the warm covers over my head, I'd head out to meet some friends and run a 10K. I haven't run a step in the last month, but knew the combination of paying for a race and meeting people would be enough incentive to get me out the door.

I'm not big on anniversaries. Truth be told, I typically forget them or choose not to acknowledge them at all. For some reason, however, today I find it hard to believe that it's been 20 years since my dad died. It seems like that number is too big, that it's simply not possible that so much time has passed. There are days when I still feel like that moody young girl who doesn't want to go to swim practice.

I thought about my dad this morning as I started the race. The two of us biked together, skied together, he took me golfing (that one didn't stick), he came to all of my swimming and cross country meets, enthusiastically cheering and congratulating me after every race, even when I came in last (which was more often than not).

And we ran together.

I'm not sure when it started, but there came a time, obviously at a young age, when I'd jump at the opportunity to tag along on one of his jogs. He was my very first running buddy. Our house, situated on what seemed like a mountain at the time, was surrounded by long country roads. I'd follow him up the hill, out to an old barn, and back home. I look back and wonder where his incredible patience came from, now knowing full well that my pace had to be slower than slow.

To me, it seemed as though we must be running at least 100 miles. In reality, it was less than three. We'd come back into the house and drop to the floor of the family room, where there were push-ups and sit-ups to do.

My dad knew a daughter who always tried really hard but was never the fastest one on the team. Not even close. He still found a way to make me feel like it was just as important and just as much of an accomplishment to be passionate, dedicated, and committed to whatever it was I chose to do and to the people relying on me to do it. As an adult, I realize that those values are deeply instilled in my very being and I take serious heart in the fact that they came directly from him.

And along the way, he also showed me that life isn't full--just not nearly complete--unless it includes a healthy dose of fun. And so today I ran because after not running for four weeks, there was no choice but to do it for pure enjoyment. I floated through 6.2 miles, cheering for my friends on the out-and-backs, and thinking how cool it would've been if my dad had been around to do marathons and triathlons with me. That, I know, would've been fun. I crossed the finish line and much to my amazement, I had clocked a 10K best time of 46:37.

Certainly everybody has those dividing (and defining) lines of "before" and "after" in their lives. I never really thought of my dad's death as that, though I suppose it might be. I prefer to think of what he was able to give me in just 13 years: blue eyes, a strong will, an intolerance of whining, an inability to sit still, a sense of responsibility and adventure, high expectations, an exceptional capacity to overcome, an above-average appreciation for sarcasm, a deep love of genuine laughter, and fearlessness.

Oh, and the bullshit detector? I got that, too. Thanks, dad.



Javier said...

WOW Such an impact in just 13 years. In just that amount of time he managed to instill such great values in you. Your dad would be so proud of you.

th said...

sorry about your father