Every little boy grows up thinking that his father is the strongest guy in the world. I grew up knowing it for sure.
My dad had been quite an athlete and was captain of his football team in high school, and the physicality of being a veterinarian suited him. I can remember him putting a shoulder down and pushing a milk cow over a couple of steps so he could examine her. I can remember him lifting Great Danes and St. Bernards onto examining tables like they were Cocker Spaniels. He was strong, to be sure. In later years, to watch ALS systematically rob him of that strength was almost too much to bear.
When my sisters and I were young, we shuffled off to swimming lessons. It was a priority to both of my folks that we were competent swimmers. My mother had actually been a lifeguard and swimming teacher, but my father was one of those good swimmers without formal training. Years later, he explained why our learning to swim was such a priority to him.
It turns out that there had been a drowning on a neighboring farm when he was growing up, and it had affected him deeply. Apparently, a little girl on that farm had dropped a toy into a watering tank that was used for livestock. She reached for the toy, and tumbled into the tank. Because of the slippery vertical sides, she wasn’t able to get out, and she panicked and drowned. It was a tragic story that he had vowed would never be repeated.
What he hadn’t bargained for was that we would not only learn to swim, we would learn to swim fast. That was my sister Ellen’s entrée to competitive swimming, and she was unstoppable. Martha and I tagged along because it looked like fun, and soon it was just something that we all did. The summer Park District program extended into the winter YMCA program, and the years piled up. My sisters swam until the competitive opportunities for young women at the time dried up, and I was lucky enough to keep going with it through college.
My folks didn’t like to attend swimming meets. I can’t say I blame them, as meets can be endless, loud, hot and uncomfortable. Starting from the time I was in junior high school, my folks would make a point to attend the championship meet at the end of the season only. They were always very supportive, but sitting on bleachers (what my dad called “ass-crackers”) for hours at a time just wasn’t on the to-do list.
Ironically, and as it relates to A Long Swim, my father was particularly critical of distance freestyle. After a whole career as a butterflyer, I was excited to swim a 1000 yard freestyle in a meet in college once, and he pulled me aside afterward and said, “Jeez, don’t ever do THAT to me again! That was the most boring thing I ever saw! I haven’t smoked in years, and all I can think of is to go have a cigarette. What’s next, competitive paint-drying?”
My father was diagnosed with ALS in 1994. We had just brought a new baby, Gordy, home from the hospital, and my folks came over to tell us the news. What I knew about ALS was limited to the legend of Lou Gehrig, and he walked me through a pretty bleak outlook. “I’ve had these weird symptoms for about two years already. Actuarially, I’m going to suffocate or starve to death in three or four years.” What hit me the hardest was the fact that my kids would grow up without knowing him. I guess I had known that they would have different relationships with him than I had, but it had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t have him at all. I was heartbroken over it.
ALS is a slow motion shipwreck, but he way outlived that expectation. I think it was because of his positive attitude and the world-class care he received at Northwestern, which is why the money we raise with A Long Swim is directed there. When he died in 2006, our kids ranged from 19 to 8 and, while they will always remember him in a wheelchair, at least they knew him very well. Forever, they will know what he thought was important, they will know what he hoped and worried about for their futures, and they will know what he thought was funny.
My mother is all alone now, but for Louise the cat. She lives in the same house we all grew up in, and is surrounded by her art, her books, and her birds. My folks met as first-graders, began dating in high school, and started a 54-year marriage right after college. She was a self-taught accountant who spent so many years running the business side of my father’s animal hospital. Her mind was like a steel trap, so it is particularly unsettling when she forgets things sometimes now. She spent 12 years as a primary caregiver for my father after he got sick, so I can only imagine how she misses him. They were an unbeatable team, and were ideal role models for my sisters and me. To us, she was the organized one, and he was always good for comic relief with a smartass comment.
My father had quite a sense of humor, and no one will ever tell a story as well as he could. And, oh, would he have the stories to tell about A Long Swim. I have often thought about what he would say about our swims. I am sure that he would tease me, I know that he would challenge me, and I suspect that he would be concerned for me. In the end, he might not agree with me, but I am certain that he would be my biggest supporter.