Late Father’s Day

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I’ve told the story a few times lately. Short and simple, unlike all my others.

“My mom told me that my dad tried to run a marathon once. Around Mile 17, she got a phone call from him: ‘I’m done, come pick me up.'”

I don’t know if it’s true.

The basics, sure. My dad was a runner, and I have vague memories of participating in fun runs after his races, the ribbons from which adorned the posts of my childhood bed—which had once been his—even after the remains of my family made the move south. I’m pretty sure my mom told me about the marathon try, a few years ago. But was it Mile 16, not 17? Was there more to it? The game of telephone rings doubts through my head.

*******

I only have one (good) photo of my dad, one that’s in focus and frame, one taken by someone other than my five-year-old self. It’s Father’s Day, 1987, and I’m sitting beside him in my parents’ bed, holding a sky blue construction paper card in the shape of a tie up to my neck. Five months earlier, he had for the second time become a dad. A year and a half later, he’d be dead.

In his absence, my father has become a legendary figure. Those who loved him are always happy to talk about him, sometimes for hours, once upon a time, on tape. I have the digitized files of his best friend’s tales, of tipping over phone booths the summer after college, or the time he drove cross-country to help his friend save his marriage. His older brother, speaking of his mischievous youth. Nobody speaks ill of the dead.

I have one photo, on a shelf, sitting crooked in its too-large frame.

*******

Before my parents met, my dad lost 80 pounds, or so I’m told. I haven’t seen the photos, haven’t seen the evidence. Years ago, I saw one picture of him as a teen, in which I’d describe him as “chubby,” and I can picture the path his physique might have taken from there.

But in my mind, my father was always in shape. I remember sitting in my seat, strapped onto the back of his bicycle as he rode around our New Jersey town, sometimes accompanied by my mom and sister in a similar setup. I remember his weights in the downstairs den of our split-level home, and the hand-grip strengthener that somehow escaped the post-mortem purge and journeyed with me all the way to my current home. I remember him running.

A few years ago, I took up his old hobby in an attempt to escape his genes, much as he had. Type II Diabetes runs in his family, and while I only lost half the weight he did, it was all I had to in order to feel more confident in my future health. I was never as heavy as he had been in those unseen years, and I’m now probably as fit as he was at his peak.

After building for years, last Fall I decided I felt confident enough to run a half-marathon this year, and ultimately I signed up for two. The second is the day before my 34th birthday. The first is Sunday. On Father’s Day. A holiday that, for many years, I couldn’t tell you when it was.

Friends have asked how I feel about the looming race, and I make jokes, as I always do. The truth: I feel capable, but not confident. I know I can do this, but that despite all the training, it will, by definition, be a struggle. At the very least, it will be the most physically demanding thing I’ve done to date.

In those conversations with others, I deflect. I say I’m crazy or masochistic, but neither affliction severe enough to ever step up to a full marathon. I say this is what I have to do to eat as poorly as I do, or that I like challenging myself in ways like this. Or I tell the story, ever so brief, of my father’s attempted marathon, the implication being that if he could do 17 miles, I can do 13.1.

Telling that story has put him in the forefront of my mind as of late, and running this race on Father’s Day doubly so. And that’s probably why this morning, I realized something I hadn’t realized as of yet.

In that photo, that lone photo sitting crooked on my shelf, my father is two months younger than I am now.

After a lifetime of chasing him, I’m approaching Mile 17, that place where he stopped despite his best efforts. And I still have miles left to go.

My Country

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“That’s your country,” my dad told me, pointing past the wall.

I was two years old, and he was joking.

The summer of 1986, my family visited the United Kingdom. I only have the vaguest memories of the trip, and this certainly isn’t one, but it’s a story I was retold years later. For my father, it was a business trip—I’m pretty sure it was when he landed what was ultimately his final job—but my pregnant mother and I tagged along. One day, we made the trip up to Hadrian’s Wall, to look across the old border into Scotland.

Scotland. Scott’s Land.

Good one, dad.

The really funny thing is, I can’t say whether we set foot in Scotland on that trip, or just gazed in its direction. I can’t say whether my father ever set foot there at all. But what I can say is, two and a half years later, his body fell out of a disintegrating airplane and landed in a neighborhood in the small Scottish town of Lockerbie.

The universe is full of sick jokes.

*******

Sunday morning, I emerged from my bathroom wrapped in a towel, and discovered my girlfriend flipping through my senior year high school yearbook. She was getting close.

“Aww! Baby Scott!” she squealed when she finally found my photo and compared my appearance half a lifetime ago to mine today. As I went about getting dressed and ready for the day, she kept skimming through the yearbook, until she got bored with the main contents and started reading the notes my classmates had left me on the appropriate pages. I hadn’t even noticed her attention had shifted until I heard her exclaim again, “Wait, what?”

She had found a note from one of my closest friends that final year. Specifically, this one:img_0003

During my 15 years in Seattle, I’ve told a lot of people what it was like growing up in Memphis. I’ve joked about the year and a half I spent as a Jewish atheist at a Catholic school in a Southern Baptist city. And people shrug and wave their hands—yeah, yeah, we get it. My girlfriend, who was raised Catholic on the East Coast and spent several years at a private religious school, insisted she understood.

Until she saw that note.

“He drew a cross?” she asked, disgusted.

“Oh, yeah. Jon,” I shrugged. “We had several lunch-table arguments about religion and stuff. He was the one who tried to trick me into going to Bible Study with him. But, you know…”

“I really don’t,” she said, skimming other notes and finding hallmarks: The note signed with “Grace and Love.” The one with multiple Bible passages cited towards the end. The claims that “God has a plan for you.”

Back then, I still identified as Jewish, at least ethically and culturally, if not religiously, because that’s how that city works. Once I made the move up to Seattle, I stopped engaging with Jewish culture, and I’ve long since chosen to identify myself in other ways.

And as of Tuesday night, I’m worried I’m a Jew again, whether I like it or not.

*******

The strange thing about modern Judaism is how early you learn about death.

Granted, I was an exception—my personal experience made me well aware of the world’s horrors long before I learned of it in Sunday school—but growing up Jewish in the ’80s and ’90s, the Holocaust was a frequent topic of discussion, in the same terms that Americans now speak of 9/11. Remember. Never forget. We can’t let this happen again.

Six million Jews, 12 million people all told. America only lost 2,996, but they were American, dammit.

I’ve written before about my personal experience with Holocaust survivors, of sitting down with a Jewish woman who came face-to-face with Josef Mengele and lived to tell me the tale.

And I wonder what’s next, in Trump’s America.

I want to believe it can’t happen here, but I know that’s the attitude that led to many German Jews staying when they could have fled. I want to ignore the signs that it’s already starting, but I can’t.

I want to stay and fight. I want to run.

I live in a place of privilege, one derived from my father’s death. I have enough money in the bank to leave, to apply for investor visas to at least a couple of other English-speaking countries, to get by elsewhere if the need arises.

I tell myself it won’t. That we won’t go that far. That I can get by as a generic white guy, even if my hair and nose and last name are all dead giveaways. People say I’ll be fine. That blacks and Muslims and latinos and women are the people who will truly suffer under a Trump presidency, and I’m a white guy. I’ll be fine.

But sooner or later, they always come for the Jews. And when they do, it won’t matter that I don’t see myself as one anymore.

*******

Today, I put Chvrches’ newest album on as I walked into the gym, and the first song played as I went about my prep. Seconds before I stepped on the treadmill to begin what was ultimately an eight-mile run, I noticed what Lauren Mayberry was singing:

We are losing ground
It’s time to save your neck
And I will try to find my feet and go
I am braced for words that never come
But I choose to decide that
I don’t regret it
I don’t regret it

Here’s to taking what you came for
And here’s to running off the pain
And here’s to just another no man
If you want another
Say you need another”

I’ve been running a lot in recent years, this year more than ever. It’s not a thing I enjoy, but I find a few hours a week of misery and pain preferable to the constantly blech-ness I felt when I was 40 pounds heavier.

During today’s run, my mind was unusually clear, focused by the Scottish singer. Instead of my attention bouncing between podcasts and TV captioning and the goings-on of the gym around me, I planned. I thought of an escape plan, of how to restructure my life such that I can continue to live it happily, but pull the ripcord at a moment’s notice. How to stay, how to fight for what I believe is right, but not at the expense of my own life.

On the treadmill, eight miles passed faster than ever before.

I don’t like running. I tend to think of it as a necessary evil, something preferable than the alternative.

I just hope I don’t have to run any time soon.