I moved in with my dad when I was 11 years old.
It was the year my parents got divorced, and I had been living in Rhode Island with my mom and my three older sisters. She sat me down in the kitchen and told me their marriage was over, and the only other thing I remember from that day was saying, “I want to go live with dad.”
In my memory, the next pin is dropped when he drove up to our 100-year-old Colonial house with the leaded glass doors and dark oak floors and the claw-footed bathtub upstairs. He was in a pickup borrowed from a friend, and he helped me put my boxes in the back. My dog Nicky clambered into the front seat with me, rode next to me from the east coast to Ohio, where I was from and where my dad, John, still lived.
We drove through the night because my dad had always kept odd hours, working for General Motors and sometimes bartending on the side. We stopped at a truck stop in Snowshoe, Pa., and my dad woke me up to see if I wanted a hot chocolate. I can’t remember if I did or not, but I remember looking at him and asking, “Dad, is everything going to be OK?”
And he looked at me like he does, straight in the eye, confident, open and he said, “Of course, honey, everything’s going to be fine.”
I went back to sleep, believing him and in him in the way only kids can.
When he tells the story, he talks about how he had no idea what he was doing. He had a furnished bachelor pad in an apartment complex that didn’t allow children, a second-shift job and no babysitter for me. I wasn’t enrolled in school. Somewhere between West Warwick, R.I., and Elyria, Ohio, the wives of his friends found us somewhere to live, someone to take care of me after school and helped my dad get me signed up.
It was a blue duplex where we had an outdoor staircase to the top floor, a kitchen and dining room and living room, one bedroom that was mine, carpet in the bathroom. He slept on the couch. Across the street was a cemetery and behind us was the parking lot for the American Legion.
One night I woke up to my dad standing in the kitchen, looking out the window with a stricken look on his face.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
He just pointed outside, where blue balloons were rising into the air from the fog of the parking lot. There must have been some kind of celebration, but to him the scene was eerie and he told me about “It,” the Stephen King book he was reading and the fog and balloons and clowns. He notices things like that – one moment that can look like another one. One means nothing, the other, everything.
We each went back to bed.
My dad notices everything. I watch him when I see him, which is a few times a year, and he perches on a chair or sits on the couch and you can see him take in the room, assign the roles, watch the story unfold. He always knows how it’s going to end, and it can be maddening to listen to. Nobody wants someone else to be right all the time, and yet you love him for it, wonder what it is in him that makes him so able to just know.
Maybe it’s all the books – shelves and shelves of them in our house growing up, in my house with him. Later when he had Bell’s palsy, he would lean his face on his hand, hold one watering eye open with his other hand, a dishtowel next to him to keep wiping the tears out of it while he stared down at whatever he was reading. Book of the month club choices and secondhand store paperbacks and hardbacks everywhere. Shelves of nonfiction and history and world religions. Sets of encyclopedias.
“If you girls want to know something, I want you to be able to find out whenever you want,” he explained of this time before the Internet.
Finding out was his life. Still is. He’s 76 years old this fall, still lives outside of Cleveland with his second wife. They’ve been together for 17 years. He was married to my mom for 22. They’re all retired. He lays on his couch most days in his little TV room and falls asleep watching The History Channel, turned up to an unbearable volume from more than 40 years of working in an auto factory, a life of little orange ear plugs on the kitchen table next to a pair of Levis hung over the chair, a vice in the garage I loved to crank open and closed, open and closed on summer days.
He’s a man of grease and stories and bad choices and some that were OK, too.
“The best thing I ever did was have you come live with me,” my dad tells me. “You saved me.”
And maybe I did. And maybe he saved me, too. I needed him, and his unconditional love and how he ran errands with me in his old brown Chevette, littered with Pall Mall ashes and an AM radio and a tape deck that only worked if you jammed a matchbook into it with the tape. How then and now he looks at me and really sees me, knows what I’m going to say before I say it. It can be maddening – nowhere to hide, even when you want to. At the same time, when things have gone awry for me, he’s never turned away, even when the problems were ones I made myself.
It’s a gift, to be that way for someone. It’s the best gift you can give and he gave it to me. Still gives it, every time I call, and every time I don’t. Then, when I do, when his voice cracks as he asks me, “Jackie, even if you only have a few minutes, just call. I just want to talk. About anything.”
To be that wanted and that known, that loved anyway.
We had to be involved in activities growing up. My sisters Pam and Tracey ran cross-country. They were fine. My sister Kim ran track in high school and set state records in the 400 and the long jump in Ohio and Rhode Island, went to college on a scholarship. I ran track. I was fine – my best race involved me winning my heat, once.
My dad came to my track meets for the first two years when I ran, and he sat up in the bleachers with bags of trail mix he shared with the other kids on the team. He didn’t make friends with the other parents, and I didn’t really make friends with the team. One of the coaches had competed against my sister in high school. I’m sure I was a letdown after she saw my last name and then watched my times.
It didn’t matter. I ran because that’s what the Palfy girls did. My dad didn’t know anything about track or cross-country, didn’t play any sports in the Catholic high school he went to until he got kicked out. He was in a gang called the Bladesmen and that was as close as he got to organized anything, for a while.
But he wanted us to do it – something, anything, to keep us busy after school, to keep us active. He was obsessed with us all playing some kind of sport, and he didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t great at it. It didn’t matter.
“Jackie,” my dad would say as he drove me home from the meets. “You’re so far ahead coming out of the first curve, and then you really open up on the back stretch, and then those girls just catch you. You can’t let them catch you.”
“Dad,” I would say. “They’re faster than me, that’s why they catch me. I start too fast, then blow up. God.” Imagine the teenage frustration played out in the passenger seat.
But that was the gift: He believed it. Just run faster. Pick your feet up. That momentum on the backstretch? Keep it going through the curve. Pump your arms, and drag yourself, kicking and screaming, across that finish line.
Maybe you won’t be first. You probably won’t be. You usually aren’t.
But you’ll finish. That he knew. Knows.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at email@example.com. Story ideas are encouraged.