I didn’t cry when my father died. A kind man but a mean drunk, I judged him only by his limitations. That is, until my limitations as a distance runner cast him in a new light.
It happened at 5 AM on a two lane blacktop during the Texas Independence Relay. Eight runners…200 miles…33 hours straight, retracing the 1836 route of the Mexican army between victory at the Alamo and defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. From Gonzales, population 350, to Houston, population 3,500,000, the race is a running tour of rural Texas, through farming towns like those where my dad grew up.
After three daylight 10-k’s with no sleep, I navigated my fourth rotation by the light of a headlamp. Farm houses with sleeping families floated by like ghosts in the pre-dawn chill. As boundaries of time and space merged in the darkness, I felt closer to my father’s world than ever before. I imagined him as a boy on one of those farms, before life took its toll.
He had simple values forged by the Great Depression and World War II….work hard, play fair, look for the best in people. They endeared him to everyone, but protected him from no one. A trusting soul, he was no match for the brave new world of the ‘60’s.
Dad was a college football player and a better athlete than me. If running had been in vogue, he’d at least have had a choice of addictions. But athletics were for kids. Real men didn’t run, they drank. So he did.
By age thirty-five running had supplanted booze as my drug of choice….just in time to save me from my father’s fate. I wasn’t a better person, I just had better options.
As my father’s generation morphed from the New Deal to the New Age, money became the benchmark for success. He lost this contest and, along the way, his self esteem. We boomers tried to dodge that bullet by advocating insight over income. We thought we had the answers…that who we were would be revealed by the questions we asked ourselves.
We were only half right. It took more than musing to learn the truth. It took painful introspection. For me, the questions could only be asked by pushing beyond my physical limits…looking into the abyss. I thought the answers would materialize when I achieved my goals. Personal records were the Holy Grail so I ignored my failures and soldered on in quest of ever more medals…and enlightenment.
Blinded by my own ambition, I judged others by their missteps. Someone else’s defeat made me feel superior by comparison. No one paid a higher price than my father. When he lost his battle against alcoholism, I hated him as a man.
But on that cold Texas night, the pace I promised my team in shambles along with my pride, I finally felt my father’s pain. As I hobbled through the darkness I saw us standing together in a gas station forty years ago, his head bowed, too drunk to drive, waiting for me to take him home…crying. I didn’t encourage him, only judged him. When he needed love the most, I answered with distain. We never spoke about that night, and within a month he was dead.
Now it was my turn, an old runner whose journey had taken me to a place where the trails followed by others died away……left to find my own way home. For the first time in forty years I needed my father.
When I saw the lights of the transition area in the distance, I felt a sense of sadness. Although physically exhausted, my mind was clear and focused. I knew my teammates were straining to see my headlamp bobbing in the distance, a tiny point of light like a ship on the horizon. Although the glare from the gasoline powered generators bathed the hand-off area, it would be impossible for them to distinguish me from any other runners until we had approached to within twenty yards.
It was then that I heard the foot steps of another runner behind me. He maintained my pace, never drawing too close. Struggling with me through the final mile, his presence helped push me along ….an exchange of special energy…a bond only athletes know. As we neared the finish a burnt orange sunrise crested the final hill. My companion had drawn close enough to speak, and through our shared fatigue I heard him chuckle and say in a west Texas twang…. “Well, thank you sun”. But, when I looked around, there was no one there.
I didn’t report this mystery to my friends. Nor did I check for my comrade’s name on the finishers list. Because, you see, as I stood alone looking down the highway, the true meaning of his words came to me … “Thank you son”.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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