The ball seemed to hang there in mid air as if waiting for me to settle under it. It was a bright white orb contrasting with the dark blue Summer twilight. It finally fell landing gently in my glove as if it belonged there. I had that momentary thrill of having caught a fly ball. But I immediately flung the ball as if there was a runner on second thinking of tagging up. On two bounces the ball settled near my father. He looked in my direction acknowledging the catch and throw with a quick nod and smiling eyes.
It was one of those moments in life that has become eternal. I was 11 years old. My father had come home from work and offered to hit fly balls to me. He was a carpenter and had long work days and must have come home quite tired. He could have begged off further physical activity for the rest of the day. Dad could have taken a beer out of the refrigerator and relaxed in front of the TV. I would have thought not a whit less of him. But he wasn’t like that. My father reveled in being a parent. He loved my brother and I boundlessly and was always ready to — anxious to — entertain us, indulge us, make us happy.
Dad was remarkably adept at hitting fly balls — or if called for ground balls. Especially when one considers that he was born and raised in rural Finland and didn’t touch a bat and a ball or so much as see a baseball game until well into his 30s. He was a natural athlete.
My dad was a heroic figure to me. After all he’d fought in a war. Serving in the Finnish army during their brave battle against the powerful Soviet army in the Winter War. More than that he’d seen the world as a merchant marine and during World War II had been on two ships that were strafed by Nazi planes and a third that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. That story was the stuff of legends in our family. Dad was at the helm of the ship and was the first to spot the periscope. He brought it to the attention of the first mate who promptly scoffed at the notion that the object in the Arabian Sea was a periscope. He was not scoffing seconds later when a torpedo struck the middle of the ship.
This was the pinnacle of my dad’s storytelling but just one of many. In my mind I had a genuine hero as a father. Today when I consider how he raised me I see that his true heroism was evidenced by his parenting. That I grew up to be far far far far from perfect is no reflection on him and manifest of a plethora of other issues.
When I found my true athletic talent was as a soccer player, dad supported me however he could. I always got when I needed. Dad never minded paying a little more than average to outfit his boys. We didn’t expect nor did we receive high end items. That is until I started excelling in soccer. I got the best soccer shoes available and never mind that they were the most expensive. But what was more meaningful than this was that Dad came to all my games. And what was more meaningful than that was that Dad would even come to most of my practices. He couldn’t bear to miss a chance to see his youngest boy in action. It meant all the world to me to have him there. I never told him so. And he never told me how proud he was of me. He wasn’t demonstrative about it either. But I knew. I knew beyond any doubt that my father was proud of my athletic accomplishments. There was that nod of the head he gave me as I came off the pitch, sometimes accompanied by a hint of a smile.
When we won the state championship and I was the hero of the game he positively beamed and I gave him a half a hug. That was enough, we knew how we felt and demonstrations or effusions were not needed. A year later we were upset in the Northern California championship, essentially the state semi final. I was shattered. Dad stayed close by me but he knew not to offer a word or a pat on the back. He knew just to be there. I swear I don’t know how but he always knew what to do whether I had reached the heights or plunged to the depths. His presence was powerful and made everything okay.
Like a lot of successful people my father loved life. He plunged head long into it and never spent a lazy day. He worked hard and took pride in his work but he also knew when to turn off that switch and go into fun mode. He approached his recreation hours with the same sort of gusto he brought to his work. He also pursued fatherhood passionately and relentlessly. And I very much doubt that he was philosophical about any of this. He just did it. Dad was not one for musings, he was far too busy living life to think about it.
I always wanted to make my dad proud of me. I ended up on some disparate paths in which I grossly overindulged and wasted my talents for many years. Dad could see that I wasn’t making the most of my abilities. But he loved me just the same and always took an interest in whatever my latest scheme was. Maybe he could have tried to right my ship but he probably knew I’d have had none of it. He knew I had to make my own choices and live with them and that he’d always be there for me. A presence. I eventually turned my life around and his relief and pride were evident, if unspoken.
My father was not perfect. I probably know that better than anyone alive. I’ve looked square at his foibles, weaknesses and shortcomings. I had deified him for so long that it is only natural that the pendulum finally swung the other way a bit.
I think of my father every day. I’ve grown to become a very different person from what he was but share many of the same values and I still feel that steadiness that reliability that steadfastness of his that supported me while he was alive. My father’s death did not diminish that at all. His influence is still pervasive. Also I still have so many moments that remain indelible. Like waiting for that fly ball that he hit. The one that he hit after a full day of work. The one that he hit so we could have some more fun together. The one I caught and threw back and that he responded to with that little nod and the twinkling eyes.