Back when I was a kid, I found a list of goals my dad had written for himself. He wanted to travel a bunch. Publish a book. Always be kind. Live to be 110-years old. But the goal I remember the most was written in all caps, as if to imply it was the one he most wanted to achieve. It said, “RUN A MARATHON.”
My dad grew up in Oakland. His father was a decorated WWII veteran and his mother was president of the local PTA. He was the oldest of five kids and a middle-of-the-pack cross-country runner. He used to say he’d have been a basketball star if his height (6-1) was commensurate with his foot size. His military-issued boots were a whopping 15-D and way too small. He needed a full size larger and two sizes wider.
When I had a Fleet Feet store, I insisted my inventory contain at least a couple pairs of shoes that would fit someone with feet like my dad’s. The multiple 16-4E boxes needed a shelf of their own. Typically these shoes only sold at clearance sales. But on the few occasions when a customer entered assuming a special order, they usually bought me out. The one time my dad managed a visit, he asked me to ship his new kicks home because they took up too much space in his luggage.
Last month my dad passed away in his sleep after enduring a decade of declining health. His aliments stemmed from a prolonged exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. My dad never let on how much he was suffering. In fact, he always insisted on a good prognosis. I was dumbfounded when I received the dreaded call, but after looking over his health records I was more marveled by the fact that he lived as long as he had.
As for his goals — My dad never did much traveling. Never wrote a book. Was only 76 when he died. And he never ran that marathon. In fact, most of his goals from that list were left unachieved.
Last week as I rummaged through his den, I found a three-ring binder labeled Western States. Back in 2007, I asked my dad to pace me as I attempted my first 100-miler. At the time he was overweight and hadn’t run in decades. Still, he agreed, and immediately changed his diet, started running again and dropped down to fighting weight. This dusty binder was filled with event ephemera. Printed emails, his flight confirmation, hotel receipts, course descriptions and his yellow pacer’s bib with the safety pins still attached. My mom told me pacing me for the final few miles was one of his proudest moments.
I also came across multiple copies of books I’ve written and magazine articles I’ve published over the years. They were all organized on his bookshelf, neatly curated in chronological order. I never knew he read my work, let alone save copies. Shoot, I don’t even do that.
Hanging from a deer antler above his desk was the brass medal from my first marathon. In 1991 I was a PFC in the Army and based in Darmstadt, Germany. One morning in formation, the CO asked if anyone wanted to represent our unit at the Frankfurt Marathon. I was the only taker and the following weekend I hammered the rain-soaked cobblestones and narrow streets, smugly enjoying beer stations along the route. I mailed my finisher’s medal to my dad with a note saying, “I did it for you.”
This past weekend my mom and I sorted through their bedroom. I emptied drawers and closets and piled my dad’s things on the bed for my mom to sift through. I collected no less than 10 pairs of my dad’s voluminous shoes. The mountain of 16-4Es made my mom and I crack up. Tears joined our laughter.
With a sigh, my mom looked at the stack of shoes and said, “Let’s take them all to the Goodwill. Someone with feet like dad is going to be overjoyed and that would make him happy.” We bagged everything up and donated it the next day.
As the chaos of loss settles and I adjust to a new normal, I catch myself thinking of my dad’s goals again. How so many of his goals became mine. And maybe this illustrates what we’re all actually here to do — inspire others to reach just a little bit higher than us. What a joy it should be to watch the people around us surpass us.
As for my dad’s goal to live more than a century, well, I think I’m okay leaving that one behind. Longevity would be cool, but it’s certainly not necessary for a full life.
Which reminds me of something he used to say, “You only live once, and if you do it right, once is enough.” I guess I’ll just keep on trying to do it right. May we all.