On the face of my refrigerator, underneath a magnet that shows a wilting cactus and reads, “Yuma, Arizona: It’s a Dry Heat,” rests a yellowed, creased Jim Davis comic strip. In the cartoon’s first panel Jon Arbuckle sports a headband, tank top, and mid-calf socks while telling Garfield, “Running is good for you.” Next to Jon, my grandfather scribbled in, “Travis,” and above the listening Garfield he wrote simply, “Grandpa.” In the second panel Garfield retorts, “Keep running, I’ll let you know when I feel better.”
As an adult running became my greatest connection with a grandfather who never ran. But he loved sharing stories of where I raced, if I won, and how fast I finished. I’m not sure the times ever meant anything to him. That wasn’t important. Sharing in my passion mattered.
As a boy I sat in the parlor of my grandparents’ modest ranch home at the edge of town and hung on every word as my grandfather described road trips with my grandmother across the American West. National parks, mammoth irrigation systems, open skies. “There’s so much land out there,” went his common refrain as I sifted through old photo albums — the place where we once stored glimpses of life’s precious passing moments before it all got uploaded, filtered, and captioned on Instagram. I mentally noted the immense beauty of the endless landscapes and vowed to someday see them all.
On some visits to that house on Ann Ct. after a meal we retired to the basement where my grandfather regularly drubbed me in games of eight ball on his billiards table. An old National Geographic map of the United States hung on the concrete block wall framing the room. Without fail, the conversation ultimately turned to that map and places, “out West”. My grandfather spoke of his French-Canadian friend Pierre. They played billiards together at a campground in Yuma, Arizona one winter 30-plus years ago. The magnet he brought back is now my keepsake of that Western expedition.
In recent years, I ran marathons in the places my grandfather loved — Eugene, St. George, Folsom. When I returned home I shared stories of my experiences at the same sites I saw in his pictures from decades ago — Columbia River Gorge, Zion, Sutter’s Mill. And when I left for Boston a few days after my grandmother passed, despite my grandfather’s melancholy he simply asked about the starting time and television channel. Perhaps he could briefly see me scampering out of Hopkinton full of boundless optimism on the path to Boylston St. A bond born of family was again forged by running.
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“Now don’t cry when I beat you,” my dad always said, chuckling, as we descended into the basement for a first man to 21 battle on our ping pong table. To me it was Wimbledon. I was McEnroe and he was Borg. Rematch. I morphed into Stefan Edberg and he became my arch nemesis Boris Becker. Best two out of three. Now Agassi and Sampras dueled for final glory. He played with cunning and savvy. I employed youthful exuberance. An old Zenith television set with manual knobs and 13 channels played sitcom reruns and Jeopardy in the background. I didn’t realize at the time how special it was that my father shared that time every evening without question. He had delivered newspapers before dawn, taught history all day, coached basketball, then helped prepare dinner.
I always wanted to be my dad. Running around the sidelines of his practices, shooting baskets in the backyard, memorizing every square inch of trivia on the presidential flashcards he brought me from a school field trip. I was never the best athlete as a kid, but I played every sport imaginable and my dad encouraged me along the way. Perhaps it’s no wonder that ultimately I was drawn to running. There, success can be harvested almost solely from a tireless work ethic. My father taught it through his countless odd jobs and the way he squeezed building a fence or painting a deck into the last golden moments of sunlight before dusk. My grandfather taught it as he clocked in every day at the Ralston Purina factory or drove a rickety box truck on a rural bread route.
A few autumns ago, a friend and I traveled to Upstate New York for the Wineglass Marathon. We heard the sales pitch of cool, fall temperatures and a flat, fast course, and packed up my Jeep for the drive north. But something bigger beckoned me. My spirit needed it. I had lived through an emotional valley. One of life’s phases that best compares with the anguish we runners feel late in a marathon. That 26.2-mile course was my emotional reckoning. There I shed the weight of the past and proved to myself that my journey is not the product of my circumstances, but instead how I respond to those circumstances — just as my father instilled in me and his father instilled in him. I crossed the finish line with a then-fastest time by over six minutes. I felt gratitude knowing even in our darkest hours we are afforded the opportunity for redemption and wholeness. We can fill ourselves with life through every gasping breath and measured step of race day. Shuffling down the cobblestone street beyond the finish teary-eyed and overcome by emotion, I spotted my dad. He stood outside the finisher’s chute holding a chocolate milk. How could I ask for a better post-race treat? I stumbled over and we hugged. He saw my tears, and, as fathers do, asked if I was alright. The pain and then subsequent joy of that race, that season of my life, had simply spilled out in his arms. Of course everything is okay I told him. It always will be.
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Last year we lost my grandfather. He was a lion of a man. Not because of his stature or remarkable deeds. Rather, he raised a family with love and basked in the joys and accomplishments of the generations who followed him. I went home for the funeral. In the days leading up to the service I stiffly trudged across frozen rural roads staring at barren winter fields and considering what I might say about the 90-year life of my father’s father. In the end I knew the words held little consequence. So many family and friends gathering together in my grandfather’s memory was all he would have wanted. As I loaded my bags for the drive back to Greenville I shared a final moment with my dad. This time he was the misty-eyed one. Reassuring himself he stammered, “It will get better. It has to get better. Doesn’t it?” Of course it will get better I told him. It always does.
My father was the best man I ever knew…He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness…I knew [very few] men who got greater joy out of living than did he. - Theodore Roosevelt
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