Not long after my 15th birthday my father died.
By then I had been living with my grandparents for six months; my stepmother having banished me from home.
Something changed in me then. Grief, I suppose, but over time a growing compassion for all living things. Then, however, I didnt know what to do with my grief. I turned solitary.
And I began to run.
One late fall evening, as I ran down the darkened streets of my hometown, I noticed two boys playing basketball. They called me over. I didnt really know these boys, though they attended the same school as I. They were a year ahead of me.
What are you doing? one boy asked. He was the tallest of the boys, and he bounced the ball hard on the cement.
Just running around the neighborhood, I said.
Are you going out for track? asked the other boy.
Hadnt thought about it.
If youre not going out for track, why are you running? the tall boy asked.
I like to run. It feels good.
The boys laughed.
You want to shoot some? the shorter boy asked.
OK, I said.
They shot around but never passed me the ball. The tall boy would rebound and pass the ball to the smaller boy. After a while I found myself sitting out their play, watching them make one basket after another.
What are you doing this weekend? the smallest boy asked.
My dad and I are going to the beach to do some camping and fishing, said the taller boy.
My dad has tickets for the Michigan football game.
They laughed, and continued to chatter away about their plans, and I began to think they were making fun of me. Though I really didnt know them, we attended a very small school, in a very small town. I felt sure that they knew my father had died.
I got up to leave.
Where are you going? the smaller boy asked.
To finish my run.
I bet we could beat you running around the block.
What? the taller said. Im not running.
Chicken, I said.
Surprisingly, without a word, the boys darted off and were fifteen yards ahead before I responded. I caught them effortlessly and observed their lumbering strides and determined scowls. I mocked them by running ahead five yards, then allowed them to catch up. Once I sped away and circled the boys, snickering as I ran in front of them. Sometimes I laughed and shouted words of encouragement. Come on, or Push it, Id say.
I thought about leaving these two boys, racing back to the house far ahead of them. I rather liked the idea of watching them gasping their way to the finish. But I thought they might stop if I ran too far ahead, so I turned around and jogged in reverse, smiling at them. The boys heads were cocked back; their pinpoint eyes glazed over in disbelief. They appeared small and curious. But it was they who saw a neighborhood collie run out into the street and catch me from behind. I tumbled to the ground.
I picked myself up, wiping both elbows, which were bleeding. I walked home.
Recently, and for only the second time in 46 years, I visited my mother in Tipton, Ind. During the visit, she asked if I wanted to see where she was going to be buried. I thought it was an odd request, but I agreed.
The cemetery was a pretty one, well-manicured. She had a large headstone; she was to be buried next to her second husband. He had been dead for a couple of years now. It was not easy for me to see his name next to hers. I couldnt help but think my fathers should have been there instead, but I dont think my mother thought I might think this. Earlier, at a restaurant, she had told me that she thought my father had loved her, but that he didnt know how to show it. I hadnt known what to say to this startling information, after all I was 9 when she left. What does a 9-year-old boy know about their parents love? So I hadnt said anything.
What I have come to realize is that the search for a father is a search for authority outside yourself; you feel incomplete without him, and the longing can seem terrifyingly long.