My father was a sprinter who won many high school track meets just before shipping off to the South Pacific during World War II. As a child growing up in Dorchester, I found my father’s running medals, attached to multi-colored fading ribbons, in a shoe box hidden in a closet. Examining them, I tried to imagine the races he’d won long ago. He’d been running smoothly toward his future, but things didn’t turn out as planned.
By the time I found my father’s medals, his life had changed radically. Somewhere, while sprinting through life, he’d lost himself. He was being treated for schizophrenia, and he’d become remote both physically and emotionally. His medals would become tragic reminders of the man he once was, full of dreams that were dashed.
At first, I was angry at my father for being sick and leaving us to fend for ourselves. Later, I was angry at the doctors for their helplessness in the face of his mental illness. Sometimes I was angry at the universe. But slowly my anger subsided; I realized it was nobody’s fault, and there was nothing to do but resolve my own complex feelings.
I never really knew him: He’d been a sprinter. He volunteered for the Army right out of high school. After the war, he worked as a newspaper pressman. He met my mother, who’d left County Galway to find a new life. They married and settled in Boston; when I arrived in 1965, they gave me his name. I was 2 years old when my father’s schizophrenia came, and I still don’t know how it happened. I suppose I’m still searching for him through clues as elusive as smoke.
While he was being treated at a mental hospital in Lowell, my father was allowed to visit us on occasion. He’d come by commuter rail into North Station, carrying a duffel bag and some candy for me and my three sisters. He’d spend his time sitting on the back porch of our apartment, deep in thought. I’d tell him about school: I was on the track team, my grades were good. He’d nod absent-mindedly, looking into the distance.
Summers were hard. A baseball fan, I watched as other kids played catch with their fathers. The constant, fluid communication of ball and glove was mesmerizing. My father and I were playing an endless, hopeless game of catch. I was always tossing something he couldn’t quite grasp. I waited for him to become the father I wanted, but it never happened.
I fondly remember a warm Sunday in June when I was 17 and my father came to watch me run a 5-mile race through downtown Boston. Knowing he was waiting at the finish, I ran hard and placed second in my age group. I gave my father the trophy, and he carried it around the rest of the day. When we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant, he kept telling the waitress I’d won a trophy. Maybe his mind flashed back to his own medals won before the storm clouds of mental illness hobbled him.
Three years later, when I was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, my mother called to tell me my father had died of a heart attack. I found myself lacing up my sneakers and running around the town, not knowing where I was going; all I knew was that I had to keep moving. I was running fast, my lungs gasping for air, running through pain for a father I’d barely known, running because I was afraid to face the heart-numbing emptiness I had always associated with him. I just had to keep moving, no matter the emptiness, to feel the air filling my lungs, running my own race now.
Chuck Leddy lives in Dorchester and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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