― Markus Zusak
From, “I Am the Messenger”
(b. June 23, 1975)
Father’s Day is for dads. Always has been. Always should be. But sometimes it’s for dads who aren’t your father.
The thought came to me the other morning during a pre-dawn run along the shore of Lake Huron in Mackinac City, Mich., where my wife and I were spending a long-awaited week’s vacation.
Cruising to a stop in my aging Nikes, I beheld the most gorgeous sunrise I had ever encountered; at least, not since another 5 a.m. jog along Niagara Falls several years earlier.
Never could I have believed — until seeing it for myself — that a distant horizon could bear so many shades of orange and red with a hint of yellow submerged gently in their soft in between.
It’s rare during a run that I will come to a complete halt to stare in amazement.
But I did along the Niagara River on that cool May morning in Canada. And I did again across the way from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan just a few days ago.
Not long until Father’s Day, I thought of my dad. I saw him in that sunrise. I heard his calming voice from a day gone by. I felt his touch on one shoulder, then the other. I yearned for a quiet moment, just one, to ask his blessing.
“Dad,” I whispered, no one but a nearby seagull dancing on one leg to hear my sound ... that, and maybe a pair of green-necked Canadian geese blocking the trail ahead, one staring across the waters, the other pecking at the manicured grass below two webbed feet.
“This year, I’m not writing about you on Father’s Day,” I offered. “I’m writing about somebody else, somebody you always liked. You didn’t know him too well, but you always admired his way.”
On a red-tinted cloud to the east, one that I figured might hold a patched and worn living room recliner, the morning edition of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and a small TV screen showing an old rerun of “M.A.S.H.,” I could make out his image. He was nodding in approval.
“I’m glad you understand, Dad,” I offered to the awakening sky.
He smiled, slid the aromatic pipe to the other corner of his mouth without a touch and returned to an inside news page — one that may have been reporting on a wildfire in California or a distant war on the other side of the world.
My dad loved his newspaper.
I loved my dad.
But today, I’m thinking of another. His name is Billy Wade Swindell. He is my father-in-law.
He’s not my dad. He didn’t raise me from the crib. He didn’t give me lunch money for school. He didn’t frown at the “C” on my report card. He didn’t buy me ice cream from the Tastee Freeze. He didn’t punish me for disobeying.
He is my friend. He has been for 37 years ... 39 if you count the two years I dated his oldest daughter before popping the big question. Actually, he didn’t like me in the beginning ... so he claims. So maybe our friendship, in years, is just thirtysomething.
But that’s hardly the point. What matters is over the years we bonded ... not as father and son, and not even as father-in-law and son-in-law, but as best friends, buddies, kind of brotherly and most recently as confidants.
When he needs to talk, I gladly lend an ear.
When I need to hear, he gladly speaks.
For two decades, in his working years, he drove a route truck for White Rose Laundry over in West Tennessee. On many occasions during extended visits from Cleveland I rode along ... not because I had to, but because I wanted to. And he wanted me to.
We worked hard, but we had fun.
We toted heavy bags of dirty linen and mops and uniforms, but we rolled in laughter.
We simmered in the summer heat, but we talked of a cool Florida breeze.
We froze in the icy grip of Old Man Winter, but we warmed our hands with cups of convenience store coffee and comforted our hearts with stories of family vacations from days gone by.
Drawing on my disdain for country music and to lure his son-in-law’s ire, he would playfully crank up the volume on the White Rose van radio for twangy tunes like “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” and “Chicken Truck, Chicken Truck.”
I would gag. He would laugh.
I would roar, “Turn that down!” He would sing along.
To quote a familiar adage, “Those were the days.”
They were our days. Buddies. Chums ... from different generations but same-day styles in humor.
In some ways, we’ve done it all; at least, that’s the way it is remembered. We camped. We vacationed. We mowed his huge yard, including that vast lower 40. We drove the country roads on a fall foliage afternoon. We traveled — Florida, Branson, Gatlinburg, the Ozarks, Chicago, the Smokies.
We haven’t been everywhere, but we’ve been just about anywhere.
And time has followed with every step.
Hours to days. Days to weeks. Weeks to months. Months to years. And years ... to now.
My beloved friend, whom I call “Bill,” turned 80 not so many days ago. On July 11, which is his daughter’s and my wife’s birthday, he and my mother-in-law Shirley will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.
That’s with a “6” and an “O.” They’ve been married longer than I’ve been alive.
They’re amazing folk. And I love them dearly. Should I be granted just one wish, it would be that their lives be made just a little more gentle.
But life, and time, have slowly taken their toll.
As I stare into the words of this faceless screen, I think of my dear friend on the state’s far end and the latest health challenge he has been dealt. Today, Bill faces a mountain ... one whose ascent is no longer a given.
I have no words to comfort my friend nor his loved ones in this time of fear. I have only the words, “You are my friend. You have been my friend. You will remain my friend ... today, tomorrow and forever.”
On this Father’s Day, I will think the happy thoughts of a lighter time when Billy Wade Swindell turned up that White Rose radio dial, turned to my disapproving face and roared with laughter, “My baby thinks he’s a traaaain!”
Before continuing with my morning run along the Lake Huron greenway, I face the vibrant colors of the comforting sunrise one last time. And I focus on my own father’s cloud.
“Happy Father’s Day to you too, Dad. And thanks for understanding about today’s column.”
My father smiled back at me and returned to his newspaper.
And I continued my run.