I once knew a man.
I met this man when I was younger. He was older than I was, and his age showed through the lines on his face, the strands of grey mixed with black on the top of his head, and the slight limp he would walk with as long as I knew him. Some people said we even looked a little alike, although I never saw the similarities.
We shared a few common interests, in particular our love of sports. He loved the Green Bay Packers, and even though I was young, I knew that was the team I wanted to be a fan of. I can still remember, starting when I was five years old, watching a few games a year with him at his house. Growing up in Chicago didn’t offer the chance to see much of the Packers, so we would make it a point to watch the two, maybe three games a year together. He taught me about the sport of football, the bond of the Packers fans to the team, and along the way, a few colorful adjectives and verbs when things didn’t quite go our way.
Our other common sports interest was baseball. Oh goodness, did he love baseball, in particular his beloved New York Yankees. He would cheer like a kid when they did well, and bellow from the pit of his stomach when they played poorly. He knew a few things about baseball, having once been a semi-pro player, and I listened to everything he had to say.
When the time came for me to play sports, this man was right there with me, teaching me how to not only play, but how to excel. He would line up like a running back and let me tackle him. Over and over, bad knees and all, he pushed me to the limit when it came to excellence on the football field. He would throw pitch after pitch after pitch before every baseball game I played, to the point where he threw his arm out a few times getting me ready for a game. He must have really seen something in me, and wanted me to succeed.
As time went on, I began to see a little less of him. We would see each other every other day instead of every day like we used to. He got busy with work, while I got busy being a teenager. We didn’t talk as much as we used to, but there was always a common bond of sports which would gel us together. Whenever there was nothing to talk about, we could always talk about sports.
When he got sick, I was shocked. There was no way this man, who I had never seen in pain before, could be less than what he used to be. How could he? This was a strong man. He had survived working in the steel mills in Gary, Indiana during hot Midwest summers when home from college. He had thrown his back out a few times, only to push through the pain to toss the football around to me. He was always willing to take me to the batting cages, putting quarter after quarter in the machine just so I could take batting practice. He had to be strong, because that’s what he had always been. His strength was his resolve, and I admired that about him.
Unfortunately, his strength would not be enough to help him this time. The illness eventually sapped his energy, his mettle, and in many respects, his own self. The man who I used to know had started to drift away. He was still here, but in many respects, he was gone. No longer able to do the things he used to, he began to doubt his own sense of importance. What he didn’t know was how needed he was.
As he was failing in health, the two of us were able to reconnect in a way not seen since I was a child. Whether it was because of my wedding, which he was able to attend, or the loss of close friends we both knew, we were on a daily speaking ritual again, and we both looked forward to the chatting of the day. As was always the case, we spoke about the original bond we had, that of the Packers and the Yankees. He was so hopeful for the future of the green and gold, having just watched them go the the NFC Championship game. Despite losing, he knew that great things lay ahead for our team. As for the Yankees, he still wished they would have released Jorge Posada years ago, the mere mention of his name making him the color of a ripe red apple.
I knew when the phone rang what happened. Without being told, I knew my friend was gone. The entire drive down to his neighborhood, I thought about our friendship, the ups and downs we had, and the eventual unbreakable bond we had established. I thought about the times we would play catch in the backyard of his house. I thought about throwing the football to each other for hours on end. I remembered every conversation we ever had, whether it was just a few minutes or hours on end. Most importantly, I remembered the last thing he ever said to me.
“Take care of yourself, and don’t wind up like me.”
Winding up like him is exactly what I wanted all the years I knew him.
Happy Fathers Day dad. You are missed every day.
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