My father died more than 30 years ago from heart disease at the age of 50. I was 25 at the time. If I were able to talk to him today, here is what I would say.
It’s been awhile since I talked with you, so I thought I’d just kinda check in. When I first heard that Rickie Lee Jones song, I thought of you when she sang,
“I remember you too clearly, but I’ll survive another day. Conversations to share. When there’s no one there, I’d imagine what you’d say.”
Every time something good happens to me, I want to call you and tell you about it so you’ll be proud of me. Of course, you wouldn’t let on that you were proud, but I’d know. Remember when I got my first real job and I called to tell you about it? Remember what you said? “Your mother will be pleased.”
I found that less than satisfying as a response, I want you to know. You taught me how to play golf right before you died, but I didn’t get any good at it until much later. When I broke 80 for the first time, I really wanted to call you, but I didn’t have your number. You taught me a lot about sports. I think you changed over the years. You were a wonderful athlete when you were young. The way I remember it, you had about 2 million trophies: bowling trophies, basketball, softball, golf. You even had a trophy from the time you and Mom were in that round robin bridge league. A bridge trophy! Now that was quite a trophy. A figure of this Grecian looking guy with a loincloth, a laurel wreath, no shirt, and washboard abs, holding his arm out with a handful of playing cards, all fanned out. How heroic. I suspected that most bridge champions didn’t really have washboard abs. I think most of them probably had washtub abs, actually. You had so many trophies that there was a special shelf just for them. Well, what else are you gonna do with trophies but put them on a shelf? That way, when people come over, you can ask, “Would you like to see my Shrine to Myself?” Not that you would have ever said that. I think those trophies made you a little self conscious; I don’t ever remember you looking at them or talking about them. I’ll never forget the day I came home from college and all the trophies were gone. The shelf was full of family pictures. I said, “What happened to your trophies?”
“I threw them away.”
“After a game is over, it’s over. A trophy is a way of pretending that it‘s not over.”
And I realized that you were right. There’s something about the present tense in sports. Watching a game on videotape just isn’t very interesting. It has to be happening now. And I realized that a lot of professional sports is mostly just a big pile of bullshit: retired jerseys, Stanley Cups, old timer’s games, championship rings, halls of fame- –all so old guys can pretend they’re not really old, and so the rest of us can pretend we’re not getting old either.
They always say, “Game 7 of the World Series will be played on Sunday, if necessary.” Is any ball game really necessary? You didn’t think so when you got a little older. It’s the same with me. Don’t get me wrong. I still love sports. I love to watch; I still love to play. But I try and keep them in some sort of context. I try not to get depressed when the Orioles lose. Sports just aren’t that important anymore, and that’s a good thing. I haven’t gone so far as to throw my trophies away, though—either of them. A lot has happened since you left. I got my Ph.D.; I’m a professor at a small college. I’m not getting rich, but it’s a good job. When people ask, “What do you do for a living?”
I can say, “I share my thoughts.” Nice work if you can get it. I get to live in the world of ideas. Thinking back, maybe that’s what you had in mind when you got that master’s degree in English lit. There’s three great reasons to be a college professor— June, July, and August. Golf, golf, and golf. But the money’s okay. I’m making six figures now. Two of them come after the decimal point, but … . I bought a nice house a couple years ago. And I live with a wonderful woman.
You taught me a lot about being a man. Some of it was right; some of it wasn’t, but then, you didn’t know. I didn’t know it at the time, but you were still trying to work it out for yourself. You kept your feelings to yourself most of the time. That didn’t turn out to be good for you or for us. We wanted to know you better. I’m learning that most of this masculinity stuff is a bunch of bullshit. It’s a much richer life when you can just be who you are—sometimes emotional, connected to other people, sometimes afraid, wanting to take care of your health, having a balanced life. Now I know you were learning those same things, too. The last few years before you died, you were just starting to soften and open up a little bit. I try to imagine what it would be like if you were still alive. I like to think we’d be really close. We’d spend a lot of time together, you’d be interested in my work, you’d help me do my taxes every year; I’d get to watch you grow old. You were 20 years and 6 months short of the average life expectancy. I feel pretty cheated about that. But then, I can imagine how you must feel about it. You owe me about 500 rounds of golf, about 10,000 conversations, and a whole lot of advice that I would pay no attention to whatsoever. I still have those conversations with you anyway. I can’t help it. I carry you around with me, and you still help me all the time. So here’s your son—a decent man, nothing spectacular, a little bit of a show off. But you’d like him. I mean, what’s not to like? You were a great man, dad, and I’m glad I got to know you. Take care … . Oh!, by the way, remember that time you gave me and Matt boxing gloves for Christmas? What the hell were you thinking? –
Dr. Christopher Killmartin