My first solid memory of a lesson learned from my father came in the fall of third grade, after a tragic personal failure at a “Punt, Pass and Kick” competition. I’ve no doubt there were hundreds of lessons before that moment, but this is the first one in my memory.
Father’s Day was a couple of weeks ago, of course. I didn’t take my father out to lunch or send him a card on Father’s Day this year, or even give him a call.
I did send him a little message and put a handful of photos of him up on Facebook, but that was about it. I was extraordinarily busy that Sunday for reasons I won’t go into, and honestly, that’s about all I had time for.
Now before you start telling me that I’m a lousy, ungrateful son, or start speculating that there must be some family issues, or begin reciting lyrics from “Cat’s in the Cradle” to me, let me explain.
For the last couple of months, I’ve been spending a whole lot of time with Coach Dad. You see, a while back, I had a recurrence of cancer — a battle I’ve been fighting for a few years now — and I’ve needed a series of chemotherapy treatments in Iowa City. Dad’s retired, and unless there’s an important fishing trip on the agenda, he’s got nothing better to do than drive me down and back every couple of weeks and keep me company.
I have to tell you — there aren’t many positive things I can say about fighting cancer. It’s an awful, horrible, hateful condition that turns your life upside-down. But I have to tell you it’s not a the death sentence it once was, and I’m not taking it passively. I’m aggressively managing my own health care and using every weapon at my disposal to battle the disease.
That’s an attitude I learned from Coach Dad. And Mom, too, of course. But this one’s about Dad.
The support I’ve received throughout this struggle has been breathtaking. I’ve received tons of advice and offers of help from people who have been in my shoes. I’ve reconnected with dozens of old friends and relatives and resealed bonds that hadn’t been sticking for decades, though they were always there.
I’ve made new friends, too, people who barely know me but still kindly offer to help me with whatever I need.
My last chemo trip was earlier this week, and as relieved as I am to have it over — at least for now — I’m going to miss the trips with my father. Cancer has given me the opportunity to spend hours with Coach Dad that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and strangely, to every cancer cell we kill together, I give it a little “thank-you” salute as it dies.
Dad was an educator who, for over 40 years of his life, coached baseball, basketball, track and wrestling. But mostly, he was a head high school varsity football coach during an era when he and dozens of men like him were re-inventing the game.
He was a pretty darn good coach — hell, he was a great coach. He should be in the Iowa Football Coaches Hall of Fame, but for inexplicable reasons, he isn’t. At least not yet. But that’s a whole other article.
He’s a fisherman, a hunter, a conservationist who has planted hundreds of original American Chestnut trees all over the United States in an effort to repopulate the nearly extinct species. More than all that, he’s a father, a grandfather an uncle, a friend and a husband. He’s been around.
You might know him, and certainly you know someone like him — perhaps your own father or grandfather, or perhaps an old coach or teacher who made a difference in your life.
And so, the first time I participated in “Punt, Pass and Kick,” I failed miserably in front of him. I predicted the failure. I remember saying to him before I went out there, “I really don’t care how well I do, I just want to try this out.”
And try I did. My punt went off the side of my foot, so far off track that the penalty put me in negative numbers. My pass was straight, but way below average. And my kick never really went off the tee — it bounced about two inches in front of me and added nothing to my total — which was the worst of the day for anyone out there.
Afterward I went up to Coach Dad and looked him in the eye and started crying. The old coach took his only son in his arms and hugged him and comforted him and reminded him that everything was OK, and that Mom was cooking something good at home. I felt better.
And then he said something I’ll never forget.
“You said you didn’t care, but it sure looks like you did,” he said. “You know, if we work at it, I think next year you’ll be a lot better, maybe even win a trophy. That is, if you care.”
And he was right. I really did care, obviously. We worked on it. And my punts, passes and kicks improved remarkably. The next year, I finished third and received a bronze trophy. The year after that, a silver. Second place. Not first — nothing to brag about, but still something to be proud of, especially with the memory of finishing last still pretty fresh.
There ends the lesson. Of course you care. Telling yourself you don’t is a lie — and an excuse. Saying you don’t care is the first step toward quitting. There are proper times to quit, but they should be exceptions, never the rule. When you don’t care, they become the rule.
Coach Dad doesn’t say too much as the nurses tend to me and pump the chemo into my system. He watches, he listens — as best as he can, his hearing aid isn’t always working well — and he pays attention. He fetches my prescriptions and sometimes brings me a sandwich and some chips.
His being there gives me a sense of security. He’s got my back. It’s a perpetual reminder of why I’m fighting so hard to whip these cancer cells and live as long as he has.
So happy belated Father’s Day, to my dad and all the old coaches out there like him.
Throughout my life, every time I’ve thought of quitting, I remembered who was watching