Saying Goodbye

As Sheila and I struggled to remain upright on our surfboards, Patrick sat up on his and pulled the jar out of his backpack. It had been his idea to scatter dad’s ashes in the Pacific. He had planned to do it by himself but, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility, he asked us to come along at the last minute. So, after braving the rough swells of Steamers Lane in the beat-up surfboards and wetsuits Patrick fished out of the back of his truck, we arrived at a calm spot between the surf and a massive clump of kelp. “I miss you dad,” Patrick said as he poured the ashes into the ocean, “Goodbye. I love you.” Sheila and I softly murmured our own goodbyes.

The ocean took in our father’s remains without a ripple. On the cliffs above, mom and the rest of our family were gathered in a grove of trees. I couldn’t see their faces or hear their voices over the breakers crashing on the rocks. I felt like there was something more to say or do—a way I could etch a permanent mark onto the spot where dad hit the water before the incoming waves scattered his ashes further and further apart. But how could I keep him from washing away?

Patrick, Sheila, and I (from right to left) suited up and ready to surf on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz.

At the age of 82, my dad fell and hit the back of his head on a rock and died instantly, though he had received his death sentence several years ago. That’s when he was diagnosed with distal myopathy, a condition that progressively weakens and wastes away the muscles farthest from the center of the body. A form of muscular dystrophy, my dad’s particular flavor of myopathy developed when a bone at the top of his spinal column grew into the bundle of nerves at the base of his skull. Over time the resulting pressure started cutting off the signals running up and down his spine. In the year following his diagnosis he had lost all feeling in his hands and feet. At first he couldn’t button his shirts or tie his shoes then, eventually, his left hand started to curl up and stiffen and his feet turned blue unless he wore compression socks. The doctor told him that when left unchecked, his myopathy would shut his body down completely. He would be unable to move his arms, swallow, or walk—making him a prisoner in his own skin.

Soon after the diagnosis, my parents met with a surgeon who offered to open up dad’s neck and shave the bones in his spine away from the problem area. Though, the surgeon warned, the survival rate wasn’t good for someone my dad’s age and his prospect for a full recovery was even worse. Dad’s options weren’t great at that point. He could die on the operating table, come out of the surgery fully or partially paralyzed, or watch as his body shut down, slowly and inexorably. Dad chose to face his illness on his own terms, putting his faith in physical therapy and his own unshakable will. Mind over matter had always been his mantra for the problems that came his way. He would push himself to remain active as long as his body would let him and not give an inch to this affliction before he was ready.

It took only a year before the myopathy had its grip on him. Dad would suffer through days when he couldn’t summon the strength to leave his chair and then, the very next morning, he would bounce back to his old energetic ways. Over time the down days started outnumbering the up days. For us it was difficult to gauge how much longer he had. Myopathy isn’t like cancer in that you can see the body ravaged by the steady march of mutant cells and the carefully measured poison of radiation treatments. Cancer has a physical presence and distinct smell that this stealthy killer didn’t possess. Along with its ill-defined nature, dad’s myopathy didn’t have specific timeline or endgame—it just came down to how long dad could endure.

Dad with Sheila and Kathy in 1965 at a Monterey, California, beach. Check out that physique.

Watching his body waste away is a cruel fate for a guy who had been so active for so long. Dad was someone who had lived and loved the litany of life. Or so he said one morning as he and I were eating breakfast. “That is what I want you to say when I die. I want everyone to know that I had a full life.” And by every measure he did. Dad was born in Northern Ireland on October 14, 1929, and spent his youth in a constant state of motion. With no opportunities for young Catholics in the trouble-filled North, he and four of his six brothers sought their fortunes in other countries. Dad was a boxer in Ireland, a merchant marine sailor in England, and a bull rider in France long before he met my mom in San Francisco. He was always an athlete, nimble and well muscled. In his thirties, while working for a mining company in Canada, one of dad’s duties was to plant the dynamite and then dash to safety before it blew. He got the job because could run so much faster than the rest of the guys there. Also because he was a little bit nuts.

Dad had remained spry and fit as he settled into family life with mom and the six of us kids in Northern California. Growing up I remember him always being athletic. He regularly did sit ups, push ups, and pull ups. He would demonstrate his fitness at family barbecues by flexing his abs and ripping phone books in half. Dad also ran religiously. For 25 years he would come home from work in the evening, put on his shoes, and take off running. He loved to feel his body settle into a steady gait after the first mile and then let the stress of the day fall from his shoulders as he put one foot in front of the other. He got caught up in the wave of the 1970s running boom and every weekend found him out racing another 5- or 10-K. 

Dad knew every runner in town and one of his favorite things to do while racing was to get out ahead of the guys he knew were in his age group. He was a natural front runner and loved the thrill of being a step ahead. He’d say that catching up with someone isn’t easy, but staying ahead is. “Just hearing the footsteps scares the piss out of me.” The fastest two miles dad ever ran was in this little race near Sierra College in Rocklin, California. There was only one other guy his age there and he had beaten dad in a race the month before. When the gun went off dad moved to the front right away and poured on the speed. He said he could hear the guy breathing behind him all the way up to the finish line. Of course when he turned around the guy wasn’t even close. Dad had just been running from himself the entire time.

sean & dad grouse ridge
Dad and I in 1983 at a running camp in the Sierras. This was back when serious runners wore split shorts and trucker hats.

Running was his passion and soon it became mine as well. Growing up in such a large family meant it was near impossible to get one-on-one time with my parents. Running gave me that opportunity. When we were out on a run I had dad all to myself. He’d tell me stories, talk about current events, correct my form, and coach me through my sideaches as we ran side-by-side. And it didn’t take long before I joined dad at races on the weekends. At first I struggled to keep up with him but, soon enough, I sprinted ahead on my newly muscled 15-year-old legs. I’d hang around at the finish and, after dad crossed the line, wait for him to pat me on the back and say, “Good man, Sean!” I didn’t need a ribbon or T-shirt from the race to mark my achievement, not when I could see the pride in his eyes.

Since those teenage years, I’ve occasionally taken a break from running but have always come back to it, eventually settling into a steady habit in my late 30s. Like dad, I run to work through the stress of the day and to stay fit. Dad was my inspiration to join the staff of Runner’s World magazine in 2005 (I left in 2011) and to complete six marathons, five half marathons, and three triathlons. He was there at the finish line of my first marathon in San Francisco in 2006. Knowing he was waiting kept me from walking the last mile even though I was desperate to do so. I knew I couldn’t let him down.

He just loved bragging about his son that worked for Runner’s World. That’s why I was in such a state of shock when dad died. No one believed in his fitness more than me. I thought he would outlast this thing through his sheer will to survive. I mean, this was a guy who preached the gospel of exercising and eating right every chance he got. He stayed on top of the latest health studies and wellness trends. He drank sparingly and never smoked. He was proud that he could still fit into his wedding tux 49 years after he got married. Dad had done every healthy thing he could do to extend his life only to see it cut short by a misaligned neck bone. It didn’t seem fair. But I came to understand later that it was fair enough, as dad had cheated death once already a long time ago.

Mom and Dad in Turlock, California, on his 80th birthday. They were together for 50 years.

Dad had been born with the top two vertebras in his neck fused together. This made it difficult to turn his head completely to either side, but otherwise didn’t affect him in his younger years. In fact he grew up completely unaware that his neck was anything but normal. Then in 1973 he was involved in a car accident that jarred these two bones apart. One of them encroached upon his spinal cord, although dad didn’t know it at the time. Weeks after the accident he felt waves of numbness coming through his body, starting at his right foot and moving up. Being a nurse, mom recognized the steady creep of paralysis and immediately took him to see a doctor.

Soon a team of surgeons went in to remove the intruding bone that was causing all the problems at the base of dad’s skull. But there were complications. A blood clot formed on dad’s spinal cord after the operation, causing him to have a stroke and lapse into a coma. The surgeons went back in and cleaned up the area, but dad remained in pretty bad shape. He was in intensive care for weeks and even received his last rites. When he finally came back out of the coma he was partially paralyzed on the right side of his body. I was only four or five when all of this happened and wasn’t aware of how close I’d come to losing him. I remember dad spending a lot of time in the recliner with his neck brace on, not responding when I would grab his hand or try to tickle him. I remember him struggling to walk properly and mom steering us out of his way so we wouldn’t trip him up. Growing up, my parents just said that he had an operation done on his neck and left out all the specifics. I only learned the full details of dad’s surgeries 38 years ago when the problem came back to take his life.

After dad came home from the hospital he spent months in physical therapy, working to regain his mobility. Getting back on his feet was a grueling process and he was never quite the same afterward. He now had a slight limp in his right leg that became more pronounced as he got tired. To build up his leg strength he took up running. At first mom would drop him off a mile or so down the road and he would run and walk his way back home. As he ran farther, his strength improved and so did his balance. But he needed to stay moving and keep fit to remain mobile and prevent the nerve damage from affecting his life. So, over the next 38 years, dad took on the task of being healthy with zeal. He played soccer, swam, lifted weights, ran, and kept up with six kids. With dad, the more active he was, the more he got out of his life. He was running from the front again, but not out of fear, but because he knew every day that he could get up and move was a gift. The most important lesson he instilled in me and my siblings was to appreciate every single moment that came before us. To not just pass through our surroundings, but to make an impact upon them.

The many years since his surgeries, stroke, and paralysis had prepared dad for the moment when one of the bones in his neck shifted back into his spinal cord and brought about his end. He knew his final stretch would be difficult and he faced it with his head held high. He had had an extra four decades to live and love the litany of life, what more could he have asked for than that?

Elliot and I in Santa Cruz, California, watching the waves roll in from Steamers Lane and saying goodbye.

Dad passed away on November 4, 2011, and not a day has gone by that I don’t think of him. I hear his voice when I tell my boys to treat each other well and to give their all to what their doing. I see him when they laugh and play. And I feel him flow through me when I’m struggling—during a run or a ride or even with life. Keep moving, he says. Each day is a gift so make the most of it. You don’t always get a second chance.

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