The moment is burned into my brain. It's a Friday afternoon, summer 1985. I know, because we still lived in the house on Henry Street, and I was kinda old enough to have a beer with my dad (note: not yet 21, as that didn't happen until the following summer, when we lived in California). Dad ran the family water well drilling business, and I spent my summers sweating in the sun, digging ditches and hauling pipe and doing any other grunt work he could find me. It was good, honest work, and sometimes I really miss it.
Anyway, we got home from the shop, still sweaty and dirty, and Dad opened the fridge, popped open a beer and - for the first time ever - offered me one. I hesitated, but opened it, and we walked out the door to the deck. That's it. That's the moment. The first time I remember him treating me like...well, not an adult, exactly, as there was still a subtext of me still being a kid. Maybe it was the first time he'd treated me as a friend. We had always gotten along famously, no matter what - on some level I had more in common with my dad than anyone I've ever known. We always got each other. But this was him wanting to hang out with me by choice rather than responsibility, and me doing the same. I don't really remember much beyond walking out the screen door onto the deck. I think I finished the beer and we BSed about baseball, or girls, or whatever, then I showered, we ate dinner as a family like always, and I went out with my friends. But that single moment remains.
Seven years later, I'm in my last year of grad school. I'm married, and my life has gone the way of most - I've gotten involved in my own busy and I don't get home to Muskegon as much as I would sometimes like. Hey, Ann Arbor is the center of the universe, right? It's a Monday morning. Debbie and I had talked about going home that weekend, but we didn't, for some now-forgotten reason, so during a break in class I call home. My dad's best friend Bernie answers the phone. Weird.
"Oh, hey, Mr. McKenzie. How's it going?"
"Oh, hey Mattchoo. Here's your mom."
"What? OK. Hi, Mom, just wanted to say hey. Sorry we didn't come home this weekend."
"Matt, your dad fell at work this morning, and he didn't make it."
...and that's all I remember about the conversation, except I told her I'd go get Andy from class and we'd be home that day. Well, that and where I was standing in the architecture school building. I never went down that stairwell again.
My dad had had a stroke (or something - it was a little unclear at the time, and to my shame I'm not sure if it was every fully diagnosed) during Christmas Break my freshman year, followed by bypass surgery during my sophomore year. That he lasted as long as he did is, in retrospect, about as much as we could've hoped. He never took care of himself, not really, or for any length of time. He would eventually lapse back into sausage and bacon and eggs and...well you know. The whole list. I don't know that he ever said it out loud, but it was pretty clear - dad was going to live the life that he wanted to live, as long as he could, and be happy.
I'm a crappy father. I'm wound way too tight in some ways, and I'm an infuriating flake in others. I pout. I complain, I rant. I hold grudges. I put things off. I have less self-discipline than most people I know. I will never think of myself as a good dad.
I literally only do one thing better than my dad: I take care of myself. I did the math; for me to live more days on this earth than my dad did I have to survive until December 9, 2016. There is one reason, and only one, that I will be able to do that.
I run. I'm a runner.
I am a runner because I miss my dad. I like talk about how my whole day changes for the better when I run, and how running is the best cure for depression on this earth, and how I've never, not once, regretted going for a run after I got done with one, and that's all completely true.
But when I run, I connect with my dad. I am asking him, over the years and lost memories, to take better care of himself so that I can get to see him for just a bit longer, so that he can be the greatest grandfather to my kids that anyone ever saw. So he can meet Camilla - he would have absolutely loved Camilla.
Someday my kids will get married, and have kids, and come over to my house on father's day before they head out somewhere else.
I plan to be there - hopefully still wearing my running gear after an easy 10-miler.