Since my dad died in October 2022, I find myself looking for glimpses of him everywhere — in the outside world and in myself, too. I’ve mainly managed to catch a sense of him when doing something I used to hate (and sometimes still do): running.
It’s not that running was his thing, exactly. It’s more that while running, I feel like somebody’s kid again. Specifically, while running fast, I get to revive an old quibble he always had with me. He was sure I didn’t push myself enough, or take enough risks. See? I think, propelling myself to the point of pain. By keeping the tension between us alive in my mind, part of me still feels parented.
We can’t choose what we inherit from our parents, and in my case what I got is not what I would’ve chosen. In the days following my dad’s death, many condolence notes mentioned his brilliance, how it was balanced by his gentleness, his love of a good (or a bad) joke. One constant through his itinerant life was his blazing talent as a linguist: he could pick up a new language with about the same amount of effort as I might learn a new cake recipe. He kept reams of verse in his head.
It’s more that while running, I feel like somebody’s kid again.
Raised in a military family, he won scholarships that took him from Oklahoma to Oxford. He and my Lebanese mother moved frequently, bringing their four kids along, and the family culture they created imbued us with a sense of identity that far outlasted the schools we’d inevitably leave after a couple of years. In every house or apartment, there were walls of bookshelves lined with poetry, history, spy novels and endless foreign-language dictionaries. After my father retired, he wrote and published seven books, ranging from poetry translations to biography to literary fiction, and left three more manuscripts besides.
Like him, I’m a writer. But where my father described words pouring out of him with ease, my own process involves a lot of unmagical sweat and doubt. I would have liked to wake up one day as eloquent as he was. It’s no mystery why therapists’ couches are kept warm by the children of brilliant parents.
My parents were from different cultures, spoke languages that I didn’t, and my siblings and I were widely spaced in age, but we did have a few principles in common: We don’t do Hallmark holidays. We don’t do sports. Here’s the joke we crack in traffic. Here’s the dish you cook to welcome people who’ve traveled far to see you. And while our hand-eye coordination was uniformly bad, curiosity and an urge to wander were ingrained into us in generous amounts.
The conviction that someone like my father couldn’t be satisfied with a kid like me only started to disperse after I had kids of my own. Because judgment was there, no doubt; but I understood how, compared to the love he carried for us, it was a drop of water in an ocean. It’s this protective forcefield of love that I don’t want to let go of, even now that I’m going gray.
And so, now that he’s gone, I am finding ways to keep our tussles alive. My mind may never be as agile as his, however, it takes some mental doggedness, as well as a body with a pain tolerance, to run fast and repeatedly, around and around on a track, until you’ve gone just a bit faster than the last time you tried. I like to think it’s a way of surprising him.
In this season of grief, my body pulls the rest of me behind. Every Monday, before my kids wake up, I head to the track, running indoors through the New England winters and outdoors through the summer humidity. Sometimes when I’m gasping, wanting badly to just stop, I manage to notice that it’s kind of new and interesting to feel bad in exactly this way.
In this season of grief, my body pulls the rest of me behind.
In his last two years, my father was no longer able to walk further than a block or two. On our last walk together he was so halting, I kept myself in super-slow motion to match his pace. It was an errand to the neighborhood drugstore, and during that hour he told me stories of a year abroad in Paris followed by hitchhiking across North Africa in 1968. I loved listening to him, and I loved the realization, looking down as we walked, that we had the same duck-footed gait.
Now, running is like a seam that holds the days together. Grief is, as the writer Amy Bloom says, “more of a marathon than a sprint. And so you go a little ways and you are overcome and you drop to your knees and then you get up and you go a little ways and then you’re overcome and you drop to your knees and you just keep doing that for as long as it takes.”
While moving my body through the world I feel I can be, at least, a bit more like him. When I face a hill on my bike, eyes streaming, I know my face creases into a stubborn expression that comes directly from him. The last time I biked with my father we were in farmland, and outside one of the barn dogs rushed at us barking. “Come take my old bones!” he yelled, making me laugh through fear.
Trying to run faster and faster is a borderline hubristic thing for a middle-aged woman to do. But done in communion with someone I love, going back to it again and again, exposing body and ego to all the hazards that await: I think he’d say I’m living.