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I sat on the porch one evening not long ago. It was dark and cool and the feel of the season took me back in time, as it often does, to when fall meant running with bricks in my hands.
This was a training technique to prepare for the upcoming wrestling season by building up my wind and my arms at the same time. Running while holding bricks is hard work. The biceps stay tight the entire time and if the run is a long one, by the end, the arms feel like lead weights. To lift them at all is nearly impossible.
But I was young and loved to push myself as far as I could. I always ran at night and the air seemed to conjure up ghosts at every turn, in the form of my opponents. I knew those kids by name from the newspaper, wrestling camps and summer tournaments: Melchiore, Jacoutot, Monize, Kelly. I can still see those boys, men now I suppose, but always 17 in my mind, lean and strong and waiting for me.
But this is where the story turns. While thinking about the past, I heard from an old wrestling friend who sent me a link to an article about a young man who had just died of a heroin overdose. He was a former wrestler, a great one. He was 25, the oldest son of one of my former adversaries. His father was my main competitor, actually. He had appeared out of nowhere my senior year, giving me my first regular-season loss in three years.
My heart will quicken and no matter what I am doing, I'm 17 again, running through the streets of my hometown ...
I can still remember that night as clearly as if it were this morning. Afterwards, I shaved my head and doubled my evening training, running more miles with more bricks. In a tournament at the end of the season, I avenged my loss in overtime.
From time to time, I have thought about my adversary. He had occupied my every waking moment for a year and then I never saw again. The images of those days come back and visit at the oddest of times — perhaps on a run or driving, when a certain song comes over the radio, or wrestling with my kids in the living room or backyard. My heart will quicken and no matter what I am doing, I'm 17 again, running through the streets of my hometown late at night, feeling so strong and free it is as if I can almost fly.
After I read about his son’s death I left my office and went for a walk. It was the dad I was with on that walk, a fellow father whose grief I could not fathom. I have not seen or spoken to him in over 30 years, and I have no idea what he even looks like now. So I thought of him as he was, with thick red hair and dressed in his wrestling warm-ups, trying to break a sweat before one of our matches. Back then, our problems barely extended outside the confines of a wrestling mat.
When I arrived home that night, I planned to hug my own children and tell them how much I loved them. But instead, I got into an argument with my son over something small that escalated until we were both yelling at each other. He ran to his room in tears. This scene seems inconceivable to me, even more so now that I am writing it down, and yet it happened because I was scared.
My children are still young, and right now the issues my wife and I deal with are very small. But I know this will not always be the case. As parents, we carry the weight of our children our whole lives, hoping we have done enough to protect them, but also knowing that so much is out of our control.
Parenting in the present is a crowded place, with so many memories of the past and fears of the future blocking the way.
I went to sleep early that night, feeling so confused and awful about fighting with my son that I wanted to disappear. The next day, I wondered how to tell him that every time I look at him I am overcome with love and worry, and that I travel back in time to when he was a baby and then forward to when he will become a man. Parenting in the present is a crowded place, with so many memories of the past and fears of the future blocking the way.
I knocked on his door, walked into his room, and sat down on his bed. I began by apologizing and then tried to explain that fathers are human, too, and that I was upset and sad over something that had nothing to do with him. He shrugged and nodded and told me I had been kind of frightening the night before. Then he made a joke and began walking toward the door as if to say, OK Dad, good talk, we’re done now. But I wasn’t ready to let him go.
“Hey,” I said. “Want to wrestle?”
We began doing some moves, arm drags and duck-unders, fireman’s carries and single-leg take-downs, laughing and having fun. And while my son thought we were just wrestling, with every move I was hugging him and holding on to him. And although I knew it was impossible, wishing I would never have to let him go.
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