Soon after graduating college, my father lost his construction job. The Teton Dam he helped build let loose its foundations and poured downhill, flooding a fifth of Idaho. He began distance running to calm the jangling in his head.
Short and springy, with the lean muscularity of a hunting cat, he took to running easily, getting out every other day, then every day, then, by his thirties and into his forties, twice a day. A long meandering sojourn at sunrise through the potato fields surrounding our house. A five-mile burner around the Idaho Falls Greenbelt at lunch.
He entered road races: 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons. Blowing out the carbon, he called it, and indeed he had the power and speed of a gasoline engine. At the start of a half-marathon in Moab, wedged together like commuters on a train so the runners could scarcely move, behind him my father heard this:
“I’ve got to piss.”
“We’re about to start. Go on the ground.”
With no alternative, as discreetly as possible, the man urinated on the asphalt. The warm backsplash spattered Dad’s naked calves.
For memory’s sake, allow that about a year later my father was lining up at another race. A marathon, say, in Salt Lake City. As he and the other racers awaited the gun, he overheard in front of him the familiar line: “We’re about to start and I’ve got to piss.”
“Go on the ground.”
“This always happens. Last year in Moab? I went on some poor guy’s ankles.”
Not without some pleasure, my father tapped the shoulder of the man in front of him; with a sardonic grin, he explained who he was.
A decade dead, he comes to me in dreams. His roles are always various, his countenance sad. Years after Salt Lake City, he was crippled by a training accident. Bereft of the escape of running, he felt suffocated by demons. In life, he endured pain until he couldn’t.
Then, with a rifle and bottle of pills, he holed up in a local motel until the police found him.
Better to remember the man who—I quit after a few hours—excavated a neighbor’s car from wild snow, blowing drifts faster than he could shovel. Better to remember the man who carried two backpacks for the final miles of one camping trip when I was so cold and defeated I could no longer carry my own. Better even to remember the man who smacked my jaw after seeing the Fs on my report card.
Let me remember the man who fixed too much weight to his belt when we dove off the white coast of Cozumel: We glided giddily along the Santa Rosa coral shelf—prismatic, shaming out-of-water light—while he, sucking air and fighting too much weight, drained the O2 in his tank while ours remained half full. This is a fitting metaphor for the man who labored his whole life for everyone but himself, finding at last, that the load could not be borne.
Unbidden, this is the image I conjure most:
He stands in the soft oblique light of morning. He loosely shakes his hands. He dances on the balls of his feet, shifting weight from leg to powerful leg. He is lithe. He is all expectation—to fulfill the measure of his creation in mere running, aboriginal and pure. Legs to churn and lungs to burst and all of him not dead but joyful now, and joyful now. Beneath the heavens of that god who made him, holy he is and swift. For all this, he is as eager as a boy and, looking down—he’s getting pissed on. Is this also holy?
Lacking the tangible pulse of his living flesh, I look for the narrative that makes sense of his life. And yet, by definition, definitions bind.
Instead light. Cup water in your hands. Don’t spill.