My dad was famous. I don’t think I really understood what it meant when I was little. He was always surrounded by attention and frequently left for days at a time but so did many other dads in our community. People traveled for work, had meetings, and got home late but around the time I was turning five, I started to realize that my dad was different. When we went to the store, people would stop and talk to him, to shake his hand. It was probably good that it was all before selfies became a thing – he wasn’t big on picture-taking.
Now I understand how tired he must have been all these years but as kids, we didn’t get it and took it very personally whenever he fell asleep during our family movie nights or missed our school plays. He insisted on us being athletic but he never exercised with us. Once, when I was about eight, I asked him why he wouldn’t, and he replied in his usual quiet, slightly sarcastic tone:
“Imagine that you just spent ten hours or more at school and when you come home, I suggest to you that we go back to school. Would you like that?”
I shook my head but still couldn’t understand how my school compared to him taking me to the GYM until I finally understood – my father was a famous sportsman and now a coach. He was a runner, held multiple world records, and Olympic medals so when he came home, his only interest was to land his long body on the old comfortable sofa in front of the TV with me curling next to him and watching endless Tom and Jerry cartoons. I remember he laughed so hard at some episodes. When I got older, I asked him why he found it so amusing. His response shocked the crap out of me.
“Honeybun,” he always called me that, “I’ve never seen them before. I always wanted to but I was training for four-five hours every day since I was four years old. By the time I came home, I was so tired, I just wanted to go to sleep.” Turns out, my childhood was his.
He always took a shower as soon as he came home. The fresh smell of soap would fill the living room and the kitchen as soon as he came downstairs and ever since then, this smell always reminds me of home. Makes me feel cozy and safe. He always got up around four in the morning. Sometimes I would get up with him just so I could climb on the stool by the kitchen island and watch him make his daily coffee. He liked it strong and black, and always drank it out of a giant mug that even he had to hold with two hands. If I was in the kitchen with him, he would scoop me up and get cozy on the sofa for a quick cuddle before he headed out the door.
“How is your day looking?” he would ask me and I also thought it was very cool. Typically, everyone asks you at the end of the day but my dad wanted to know what was ahead. If I was nervous about upcoming tests or upset about another fight with my BFF Sam, he would say something encouraging before he headed out the door. I thought it would always be this way.
When did I notice the change in him? When I was a senior. One day, dad came home and went straight to bed. No shower, no dinner, no cartoons. It was about six months after mom passed away and at first, we thought he was still grieving and things would get better but they didn’t. Slowly but inexorably, he stopped following his old routine. More and more often I found him sitting in the corner on the patio when I came home from school. I started noticing that his hair was getting greyer, his appearance was changing and he started showing signs of impatience which I’d never seen in him. When I finally sat him down to talk, he refused to look at me while he replied.
“I’m so tired honeybun, I’ve been doing this for over fifty years. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“Then why don’t you retire, dad?”
“And do what? Running, training, coaching – that’s all I know!”
“Well, maybe you can become one of those commentators at the competitions, or…”
“No!” He stood up and suddenly I realized that my big tall dad somehow got smaller. He was tired, he didn’t want to be in public anymore. A year later he retired…
By the time I graduated college, dad found his new routine. He walked a lot, did small projects around the house that he never had time to do before, planted some trees, and spent many hours taking care of them, making sure that every branch was healthy. I had a feeling he was missing my brother and me so the trees were a distraction. I tried to suggest to him to get a pet but he didn’t exactly jump up and down at the thought so we never brought this topic up again.
My life was also changing and it wasn’t because I was getting older, more independent, or starting my own family. I just realized that people’s memory was very short. When I was younger, my dad’s name was mentioned almost every week in the news or someone would recognize him in the park or some young paparazzi would start trailing us posting nasty pictures in questionable magazines calling me his “underage lover” and we got used to it, it became a part of day-to-day life. It was like a mosquito, just a nuisance that is there buzzing around you. But suddenly, it was like he never existed. The phone stopped ringing off the hook. When he went to the store, he was like any other aging guy in retirement, wandering slowly around the place, not certain of what he needed or what to do with his time. We were worried about him for a while but as it happens, life moved on and we went with it. Soon enough it seemed like it was always this way and dad, or rather now a grandpa three times over, was always someone who stayed home and worked on his yard.
A few years later, I was at the park with my youngest daughter blissfully enjoying a nice cool mocha while she was enjoying her fifties ride down the slide. She was getting to a more independent age so I could allow myself to relax a little, even read a book for a few minutes at a time glancing at her between sentences. I was about to get ready to go when I heard someone calling my name. When I turned around, I saw a young woman whom I didn’t recognize at first until she almost knocked me off the bench in her excited embrace.
“Honey-B!” she exclaimed, giving me a good squeeze. Only one person used this modified nickname for me – my father’s former student, Dana, who was just a couple of years older than me. She was training with him very seriously for years and frequently came to our house so I knew her rather well.
“Dana, how are you? What a surprise!”
“I know, right? It’s crazy to run into you here. How have you been? Are any of these munchkins yours?”
I nodded toward my daughter who was very busy digging into the sandbox.
“Oh, she looks just like you – even the same serious face!” Dana nodded a few times with a wide smile emphasizing her statement. “I’m still running, can you believe it? Everyone said I will grow out of it but nothing doing! I’m now training your Dad’s team. How is he doing by the way?”
“He’s fine,” I replied hesitantly, not really knowing what to say and how much my father would want me to share with people from his past.
“How is he holding up after that whole ordeal?”
My ears perked up.
“Well, we don’t have to rehash it, I was just wondering, you know? Do you know if he got over it?”
“Dana, look at me, does this look like the face of someone in the know? What are you talking about?”
Dana stared at me for a moment with realization suddenly flashing in her eyes.
“Nothing, it’s nothing. It was great to run into you, I…”
“Stop!” I grabbed at her. “Talk to me!”
She sat back down with a sigh. “I’m truly sorry, Honey-B, I thought you knew…I wouldn’t have said anything otherwise.” She sighed again. “What did he tell you when he left work?”
“Not much, just that he was tired and not feeling up to it anymore.”
“Really? And you believed him?”
“Well…” only now when she asked me that question, I started wondering why didn’t I dig in deeper? Dana was right – if anyone would be the least probable candidate for retirement, that would’ve been my dad. He loved what he did, he lived and breathed that life on the track field, the sound of the running feet. He said many times that a good coach can recognize talent by just the sound of how they run. Turns out, he was never wrong. He could find that raw diamond that he could polish and make them shine all over the world. Then why? Why did he quit?
“He seemed frustrated and tired, so I didn’t want to excite him any more than he already was.”
Dana shrugged as if she didn’t really believe me.
“Oh, I hope your dad is not going to hate me for telling you this… but fine!” She sat up with determination. “Maybe if I tell you, you could help me.”
“About six months before he retired, we were in the final stages of training a new runner. Your dad found him by accident when he caught this kid running away from a dude whom he stole from. Man, he was fast! No technique or training, but he was a natural. When he ran, you practically couldn’t see his legs. It felt like it was converting into some sort of a dust cloud. Others on the team started calling him Tornado…”
That day Tornado came to training in a bad mood. He was tired, didn’t get enough sleep, and wanted only one thing – to go home and sleep. He mumbled something incoherent to his coach and went to stretch, yawning widely. When he went for the first light run, he was sluggish, kept tripping, and quickly ran out of breath. He was sweating profusely by the time he finished his first circle. Coach told him to step aside to catch his breath waiting for the rest of the team to run ahead except for Dana who stopped to grab a towel from her bag.
“You were drinking again,” he told Tornado in an even tone.
“No! I’m just tired!”
“Don’t lie to me. You are sweating like a pig on a grill. I told you, if you don’t stop drinking, you won’t be going to the competition!”
“I’m fine!” Tornado jumped defensively. “I can go right now!”
“You can’t even finish a circle!”
“Yes, I can!” Tornado jumped with his nostrils flaring.
“No, I said! Wait it out!” Coach waved him off, walking away to attend to the rest of the group. It was a few moments later before he heard distancing steps and turned around to see Tornado running away. His balance was off, his muscles were still cold.
“Stop, you idiot!” the coach yelled after him but it was no use. Next, as if in slow motion, they saw Tornado trip over his own feet and go flying. He rolled forward a few times and remained there motionless.
Dana’s sob snapped me back to reality.
“What happened to him?”
“He tore up some muscles in his right foot so running was out of the question. Coach felt that he provoked Tornado and caused the incident, he said he was responsible. Once the doctor’s conclusion came back, our coach retired. He thought he wasn’t worthy to continue with training the team. So, now you know…”
I glanced at my daughter digesting everything I just heard. My poor dad. It must have been so hard on him and he never said anything.
“Thank you for telling me…But I’m still not sure I understand how I can help?”
“Listen, you know me. I’m always blunt. I was hoping to run into you here. I want him to come back. It’s been long enough. Maybe it’s time he stops punishing himself. I need his help.”
“Are you crazy? I don’t think he ran once since he stopped working!”
“I bet, you are wrong. But I need his expertise, not his speed. I… damn I hate to admit when I fail! I have a super promising kid. He reminds me of Tornado quite a bit but I can’t get him to perform…. I need your father to come back. He’s probably the only one who could. The kid really needs this – his entire future may be riding on this. And to be honest - so is my reputation. I vouched for the kid and now can’t get any results out of him!”
I contemplated Dana’s ask. It was a risky endeavor but I knew that trying to talk to my dad lately was impossible. Dana seemed desperate clinging to my sleeve like she used to do when we were younger.
“Come on!” I got up deciding that there was only one thing to do. It took a few minutes to convince my daughter to leave the playground but eventually, we walked toward the parking lot discussing our plan and making arrangements for the next day. I had an idea.
In the morning, I came to my dad’s house with a large steaming caramel latte (which he loved but never wanted to admit) and a full bag of bagels.
“What are you doing here, Honeybun?”
“I have the morning off and thought maybe we could go to the school’s stadium and have breakfast,” I tempted him by opening the bag and shaking it under his nose. The overwhelming aroma of fresh bread mixed with the smell of coffee filled the kitchen making us both drool like a couple of pups. Dad nodded with a wide smile grabbing his old running jacket as we went out the door. The school’s stadium was around the corner and soon enough we were sitting at the bottom of the bleachers pinching the bagels, dipping them in cream cheese and jam. Dad sighed stretching with a big smile and I realized that I haven’t seen him this happy in years. Why did it take me so long? Why didn’t I try to bring him here, to our place where we spent so many Sunday mornings?
“You know, I come here sometimes by myself. I like it when it’s quiet like that. When I come here early in the morning, no one is here and all I can hear is the sound of the wind in my ears when I run and the sound of my steps on the asphalt. I get very reminiscent, maybe a tad nostalgic. I imagine that the stadium is full of people cheering me on as I get closer and closer to the finish line.” He glanced at me awkwardly and smiled.
“Look,” I smiled back and nodded toward the little skinny kid who just came onto the field. He stretched a bit before he went into a light jog around the field. Our reaction to him was different. While my dad was watching him curiously, I was actually paying more attention to my father. Is he watching this kid as a professional or just an older man who found him endearing? The boy went on his third circle. He was still fresh and smiley. His breathing was even, just like when he first started running. He was coming closer and closer to us and suddenly he took off. I closed my eyes, like dad always taught me, and listened to him run. Even with my limited experience, I knew this boy was special. I glanced at my dad who sat there with an open mouth, watching excitingly as the kid started on his fourth circle.
“What do you think, coach?” Suddenly I heard Dana’s voice above us. I couldn’t help but flinch - where did she come from?
My father was never a stupid man. The realization of the setup came into his eyes as he glanced reproachfully at Dana and then turned toward me.
“Damn manipulators! This is like hitting below the belt!”
He got up with a frustrated huff but the love for the sport was already seeping through slowly taking him over.
“Easy on the turn!” he yelled as the kid zoomed by him. “How old is he?” he asked without even looking at us.
“He will be twelve in a month,” Dana replied quietly standing next to him.
There was a long pause during which, Dana and I, both were clenching our fists nervously – what would he do? The kid was approaching again still looking powder-fresh but as he was about to turn, he clearly followed the order my dad just yelled at him. The kid was smart – nothing was more important to my father than when his students followed his instructions.
Dad waved his arm before he lightly pushed Dana with his shoulder.
“On one condition – I get my old office and you get all your stupid anime posters out of it!”
“Done!” Dana smiled as they shook hands before turning their attention back to the kid who was still running alone, on a large track field, on that beautiful October Sunday morning.