My sophomore year of high school was one of the most miserable years of my life. Most of the problem had to do with basketball. I had made the junior varsity team at Calloway County High School, but I was desperately wanting to quit the team about halfway through the season. I was too thin, not strong or aggressive enough, and I was barely playing at all. On top of that, I didn’t realize when I tried out that the primary purpose of most of the JV team was to serve as whipping boys for the varsity team, a fact made even less enjoyable by a group of coaches who bullied, taunted, and teased you if you weren’t up to their standards.
I was an absolute basket case. My stomach was constantly upset, and I dreaded the start of practice each day after school. I used to try and think of illnesses I could fake just to get out of having to be there. When one of the varsity guys broke my nose about halfway through the year, I actually took it as a blessing. Sure, my face would turn yellow, purple, and, finally, black, and my nose would heal up a little crooked, but at least I could get some relief from what in my mind at the time was the closest thing I had ever experienced to Hell on Earth.
After one particularly embarrassing, humiliating, degrading, and disappointing day (I won’t even go into what happened. Guys that played with me know, and that day’s still probably all they remember me for.), I came home and told my mom I wanted to quit. No, wait, I didn’t tell her I wanted to quit; I wept it to her, as only a sophomore in high school could do. My dad hadn’t gotten home from work yet, so she said she would talk it over with him when he got home.
I remember later that night seeing the two of them sitting at our kitchen table (which wasn’t that hard to do, since we lived in an old-school, crackerbox, 1970’s mobile home at the time), presumably discussing my fate. For reasons I don’t quite remember, I was not allowed to take part in said discussion. I don’t really remember what I was doing; I just remember being told of the final verdict the next day by my mom.
“Your dad feels like since you started the season, you should go ahead and finish it out. You don’t have to play next year, but he wants you to go ahead and finish out this year.”
Even as a 36-year-old husband and father of four now, I still think I would have been happier and no less fulfilled in my life if I had just quit that next day. But that was just how my dad was: If you started something, you were going to stick with it until it was finished – even if you weren’t exactly sure what “being finished” actually meant.
I say that’s how my dad “was” because he passed away at around 2 a.m. Saturday morning. He had suffered a massive stroke about three weeks ago, his second such stroke in approximately the past three years. The first stroke had nearly killed him, but he hung on enough to wring three more years out of a life that was extremely difficult but fulfilling somehow in his own damaged mind. This last time, the paramedics who picked him up doubted he would make it through the night; he hung on for another three weeks, eventually being discharged from the hospital to a skilled care nursing home to begin rehab which never happened.
It was difficult during the past three years to figure out exactly what was going on in my dad’s head sometimes. He had lost virtually all of his speech skills, and his reasoning was more like that of a child than a man in his 60’s. He was able to stay by himself during the day while my mom worked prior to her retirement, but he mostly just sat in his favorite chair and watched old westerns and NASCAR races on TV. He would playfully pick at us whenever we came over, but anything in the way of serious and meaningful conversation had been lost.
One thing, though, was always evident whenever we thought of my dad: He was not ready to leave this world yet.
I’m not sure what his motives were in his final years for wanting to hang on so badly. Maybe it was the 40-plus years of marriage to my mom. Maybe it was the five grandchildren (My brother and his wife have a baby now, too. I didn’t forget how to count there all of a sudden.) he was able to enjoy. Maybe, as my mom often said, he didn’t realize there was anything wrong with him and was just enjoying life in his own peculiar way. Whatever the case, he hung on until his body finally just gave out, leaving me to wonder if he finally got to finish whatever it was he was hanging around to see through.
I often feel like a total failure as a son. When I was younger, my dad used to race dune buggies. It was a real passion for him. I don’t know that he ever made much (or any) money from doing it, but there was hardly a weekend when we weren’t at a dune buggy track somewhere enduring ridiculously hot temperatures and sucking obscene amounts of dust into our lungs. My dad knew dune buggies, and, in turn, he knew a whole lot about engines – any engines. There were times when he would be working on our cars (Man, I wish we still had that old Road Runner!), and my mom would send me out to “help” him. I didn’t know anything about engines; I didn’t care anything about engines. I would usually hand him a couple of the (wrong) tools and then go run off and play somewhere.
As I struggle now to even figure out where the oil cap even is on a car, I wish I could go back and listen to every word he said to me when his head was hanging over an engine. I wish I would have ridden with him on a tractor more often. I wish I would have cheered more as he was trying to win a dune buggy race. I wish I hadn’t quit on him.
As we get ready to bury him tomorrow, though, I just have this feeling he wouldn’t want me to sit around lamenting things I can’t change. To dive too deep into those types of feelings would mean stopping life entirely, and that’s a little too close to quitting for me right now. I mean, we will grieve, and I will look back on those kinds of things a lot for the rest of my life. What I will also do, though, is try and raise my children the best way I know how; listen to my wife as she tells me about her day; learn any new thing anyone wants to sit down and try and teach me; and love the fact that no matter how many times I fail or fall down, I will always have a chance to get back up and try to redeem myself. I will not quit.
Thanks again to everyone who has prayed for my family and expressed your condolences during this difficult time. You have meant more to me and my family than you will ever know. God bless you all.