LONG DISTANCE

i.

I remember Daddy best as a runner.

Typically he'd go running when work wasn't stealing him away. Wearing a variation of his standard armless running shirt, short shorts, and wristbands, he’d leave the house early. He'd return much later with clothes darkened by sweat. I can still see him strolling up the cracked cement sidewalk, shaking off any settling sores, flicking sweat from his hair, and wiping his runny nose on one of his thoroughly drenched wristbands. Inside, he'd greet my mom or Grandpa Joe, whomever was there to watch my sister and I in his absence. Sometimes, he'd lean in and give me a kiss on my forehead. I remember recoiling in an attempt to avoid the beads of sweat rolling from his face. He'd just cackle and force the kiss on me anyway.

Such memories of Daddy often seem to well-up memories of the hours spent awaiting his return. Laying on the couch’s armrest, picking at the calk on the pane-glass windows, I’d watch for his figure to emerge from behind the neighborhood trees, descending on foot from Hillcrest Road towards home. On other days at different times, I’d await the body of his small, black Dodge pickup truck turning left onto Bayview Road towards its spot in our yard. Years later, on each Sunday after my parents’ divorce, I’d do the same waiting while looking forward to the few hours a week I got to spend with him.

The time I did get to spend with Daddy was brief. He worked hard, regularly balancing two jobs and his running schedule. I did not see him as often as I would have liked. My memories of him are few and far between, though as clear today as the the moments they formed.

ii.

I recall a ride home from his trailer. At the time, in my early teens, seeing Daddy was limited to a dozen hours each Sunday, a constraint created by my school, his work, and the divorce. Together, my sister, Daddy, and I sat in his red Chevy Blazer, the one that smelled of gasoline and rotting grass because he used it to haul lawn mowers for his on-the-side handyman business.

Daddy asked us our aspirations: what did we want to be? I imagine I told him I wanted to write crime novels (at the time, I was obsessively reading Tony Hillerman and John Grisham). After listening to our dreams, Daddy said what he always did.

What you want in life, you can have. Follow your dreams, no matter what.

His words sounded corny, like some sentiment on a Hallmark card. It was a seemingly forgettable childhood moment, yet that instance, in that Blazer, on that night, wormed its way into my memories. Maybe it was the honesty and commitment in his voice.

He dropped us back at home, and my sister and I walked the cracked sidewalk back to our mother and watched his tail lights fade away.

iii.

Nearing the end of my sophomore year in high school, Daddy died doing what he loved. On June 5th, 2002, Joel Patingre went to work; not to work, but to run. Along with some colleagues and on behalf of his employer, he had volunteered to carry the Special Olympics torch for part of its scheduled tour of Connecticut. From what I’ve been told by the people there that day, he seemed in good spirits as they accepted the torch and started their leg of the run across the Thames River towards Norwich, CT.

He carried the torch for a short distance, but as they approached the other end of the bridge, Daddy seemed winded. Once across the bridge, he passed the torch to a coworker. He veered from the pack of runners and off the road towards the woods. Rather than collect himself as they all expected, Daddy collapsed in the tall grass. A massive heart attack ended his run and eventually his life minutes later.

He was 42.

iv.

As clearly as I recall memories of Daddy alive, I can recall the weeks after his death.

During that time, my family moved through the motions of tidying up his life. After the funeral, we entered Daddy’s trailer to remove his belongings, collect what we cared to keep, and prepare the trailer for sale.

Amongst his possessions were the memories of a lifelong runner. In his bedroom, hung upon the smooth, dark pressboard paneling, was a photo of Daddy running the New York City Marathon; his medal hanging from its frame. In his drawers and scattered about the matted, and forever-stained, baby-blue trailer rug were the training clothes and shoes he sported almost everyday. And inside boxes, in the closet once intended for use by my sister and I, had we lived there, were boxes containing news clippings and runner's bibs from decades of races.

It was in this trailer that day that I also discovered another part of his passion that I had not fully known. In box after box, my sister and I discovered aging running magazines. We thought it possible that this was just another collection, not unlike the boxes of MAD Magazines we had been prepared to find (and did find). But upon closer inspection, we found articles penned and published by Joel Patingre. I had never known Daddy as a writer, nor a published one.

Stacked alongside the magazines, we found a stash of cartoons sketches, mostly of runners. I had known Daddy to be a doodler, often watching him sketching in ink at the kitchen table. Yet here were some of those drawings, now on newsprint. Digging deeper into the box, we found a sweat rag; the type of complimentary item a race might give out to participating runners. On it, a cartoon logo penned in Daddy's style. I had never known his cartoons had reached beyond the kitchen table to be seen by so many others.

Daddy had never boasted, bragged, or mentioned these achievements - these aspirations. Like I said, I knew Daddy best as a runner. I knew him to be a workaholic. Days after losing him, I realized I had known a published writer, a newsprint cartoonist, and graphic designer.

My sister and I collected most of these mementos from Daddy’s reserved past. Leaving his trailer for the last time, I felt left with so many questions for the man I could no longer ask.

v.

I remember Daddy best as a runner, yet that never inspired me to be one as a child. In fact, we were forced to run timed miles at school just about the time I started growing into the boy branded with nicknames like 'Doughboy' and 'Butch.’ Being a book worm and exemplary student was easier. 

Running was never comfortable for me as an overweight teen, yet it was my weight and the personal unhappiness spawned by it that eventually pushed me out the door. All I needed to do was look to Daddy for inspiration. During a semester hiatus from college, I learned to run. Step by step, using the same roads Daddy would frequent, I increased my endurance and shed my weight while also finding a passion for the sport Daddy loved. 

It took me five years before I earned the confidence in my abilities to start racing. Over the last two years, I have run a handful of 5Ks and 10Ks, along with a hard fought first Half Marathon. When injury struck last year, I hung up the running shoes to recover. In the process, I found weightlifting. Today, I balance the two physical challenges much the way Daddy would have.

Out on my training runs, it is me, the road, and my mind. Since my first steps running, Daddy has never seemed far from me. 

Lately, faced with questions about my future, I turn to him again. 

What you want in life, you can have. Follow your dreams, no matter what.

Over the years, my memories of my father have conversed. And recently, out training, I keep asking myself the same question: what were my father’s dreams and aspirations?

Often, my mind wanders to those boxes buried in the trailer closet; the cartoons in print and on racing memorabilia, and his published articles in magazines like Running Times. They remind me of my own boxes buried in my closet, filled with video tapes and pictures from high school and college; home videos, short films, and 35mm stills created by me, my friends, and classmates.

vi.

Out on the road, running alone, I wish Daddy was still here. We could talk about our ambitions as we log miles. He’d confess his own struggles, his own failures, and his own successes. I'd share mine. Together, we could push one another, both physically as runners and mentally as creatives.

Out on the road, I still do the talking I would have done with him by my side. I tell him how much his passion to run and his rigorous work ethic continues to inspire and to challenge me. I tell him how much his articles and his drawings help me remember my own dreams and keep my aspirations in check.

I tell him how every time I run, I remember him running up Bayview Road, walking the cracked sidewalk to the house, and greeting me with a sweaty kiss on my forehead and a smile full of pride. One day, I tell him, I hope I can leave my own children with the love he left me.

I ask him for guidance. Out on the road, I hear his answers.