On holidays, and loss, and the memories that warm us.
Thanksgiving is bittersweet for me.
Been that way since 1997. My father battled cancer three times when I was a kid, and he ended up dying the Monday before Thanksgiving when I was 14 years old.
It's tough to be thankful when you're reminded of loss.
Twenty-four years later, his death simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago. Time is a curse. It takes me further away from the pain of his loss, but it's also taken me further away from him. How do you hold onto the memories of the good things while blocking out the ending?
There were so many good things ... My father Scott was funny and humble and had a wild streak. He played college football (he was named most inspirational player his senior year) and after doing some coaching and substitute teaching, and selling life insurance, and enduring radiation and chemo treatments, and asking an audience question on an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show” (the VHS tape is somewhere) he ended up working as the business manager at his family's company.
He was a good dad, out the door before dawn to make sure he could attend our sports practices and games.
My dad had big dreams. And there's an alternate reality in my mind where he never gets sick and gets to fulfill those dreams.
But that’s not how things worked out.
His life makes me consider what it means to be successful. He wasn’t financially rich and didn’t have a snazzy work title. But he was loved. And he loved in return. And I don't think there's anything more meaningful than that.
Even if some of the memories have gotten blurry after a quarter-century, one of them sticks with me.
My father used to take me and my brother to a lot of Manheim Central football games. They were a powerhouse team in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and my father had coached for their JV team in the 1980s under famed head coach Mike Williams (my dad used to tell us that he introduced a pre-game drill for the linemen that the team still did years later, where they would shuffle along a line and collide every three or four paces; I have no idea if it was true, but it was too specific to make up, so I'm inclined to believe him).
Manheim Central was our team, even if we attended the typically football-inept Manheim Township (Jeopardy! champion Brad Rutter and golfer Jim Furyk were my high school's big alums). Central's colors are maroon and silver, and their mascot is a Baron who marches around with a stick and a top hat.
Central typically breezed through the early rounds of the playoffs and always seemed to come up just short against Berwick, the best team in the northern part of the state.
The district playoffs were held at Hersheypark Stadium, which was the iconic facility in the area -- built in 1939, seats 15,000, with rows of bleachers that rise to the heavens. Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Penn State, this was the best place to watch a football game in the state.
There was one experience during a Central playoff game that remains etched in my mind — I think the game in question was on Nov. 17, 1995, based on a newspaper search.
The temperature was in the upper 20s that night, and the Barons -- behind quarterback Matt Nagy, the Chicago Bears head coach (for now, anyway) -- were playing against Garden Spot in the district championship game for the chance to advance to states.
The game wasn't close. Another blowout win for the Barons.
Central always drew a big contingency of fans to its playoff games, and we were sitting high in the Hersheypark Stadium bleachers, near the press box (a fitting location, given the path my career would take) and we stuck around as the game was ending, and a canister of hot chocolate was sitting in the press box.
My dad, with an easygoing nature to talk his way into things or get places where he didn't belong, was somehow able to get us cups of hot chocolate. It was the hottest hot chocolate I'd ever had -- my tongue was scorched for days -- but it warmed me on a cold night, and the memory has warmed my heart ever since.