Before I became enraptured with photography, I was a dad. Being a dad wasn’t always easy and I made my share of mistakes, but thanks to the grace of love and forgiveness, I’m happy to report today that I have a wonderful successful daughter. Back in the late 1990s, I spent my time as a runner and a writer. I dedicated myself to both disciplines from the comfort of home while I tried to keep up with a teenaged daughter.
Fatherhood, running, and writing all came together for me on a magical Father’s Day in 1999. I was in Washington DC with my daughter to attend a ceremony where she had won a prestigious award for a painting in the Scholastic Art and Writing competition. It was a pretty big deal with a ceremony at the Kennedy Center and an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The morning after my daughter’s big day, I went for a quick four-mile run. It was a dreary rainy day, but I ended up having a very special moment at the Vietnam Memorial. It was so special that I wrote about it and the story was subsequently published in the Father’s Day issues of Runner’s World magazine in 2000. Twenty years later, the whole series of events remains such a vivid memory for me that I’m celebrating by sharing my story as it appeared in Runner’s World. It is entitled “A Run to Remember.” Here it is in its entirety. Enjoy!
A Run to Remember
June 20, 1999. It started like many other runs I’ve taken during a visit to a big city. I generally don’t like running in downtown areas—too much curb hopping and car dodging—but I always look forward to these runs when I travel because they offer a taste of a city that I can’t get any other way. And I was especially eager for this one.
I strapped on my heart rate monitor and began running at the corner of 12th and G streets. I headed west in an unseasonably cool drizzle. The streets were quiet this Sunday morning, and my glasses fogged as I turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue. I passed a group of tourists in front of the White House and proceeded toward Constitution Avenue. I was so excited, my heart rate quickly reached 140. What a great place to run! The Washington Monument was in the middle of a face lift on my left, the White House was on my right, and the Lincoln Memorial lay ahead. After crossing Constitution, a narrow path led me to the tree-lined Reflecting Pool. I thought about images of these trees from movies, books and news clips. My heart rate topped 150.
Some distance along the Pool, I followed a path to the right and came upon the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. I slowed to a walk as I noticed hundreds of red and yellow roses along the base of the black granite. I’d seen the Memorial many times, but I was puzzled by the roses. What was the occasion? It wasn’t Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, and I couldn’t think of any other holidays. Why were all of these roses lined along the Memorial? I kneeled to read a note attached to one of them. “Happy Father’s Day,” were the words written in rain-smeared ink, “although you died when I was very young, I feel like I know you and I think about you every day.” It was Father’s Day! When I left my slumbering sixteen-year old daughter in our hotel room that morning, the fact that it was Father’s Day completely escaped me!
I slowly walked along the black granite, noting the solitary name at my ankles on the first panel. The panel number was 70E. I continued walking along the wall, and soon the names reached my knees, my waist, then my chest. Finally, they were over my head. I was drowning in the names of dead sons and fathers who could only celebrate this day in the memories of the living. I forgot about my run, I forgot about my heart rate, I was overwhelmed.
The drizzle intensified into a steady rain that rinsed the sweat from my brow. My gaze turned to a solitary yellow-jacketed woman kneeling beside the wall with a rose. Her reflection poetically stared back at her from the faceless memorial. She gently kissed a name on the wall, then kissed the rose and laid it against the black granite. She remained still for a few seconds, then rested her forehead against the name and trembled in tears. She was wishing her dad a Happy Father’s Day the only way she could, I assumed to myself. A dozen questions entered my mind. Did she know him? How old was she when he died? Had she ever spent a Father’s Day with him? So often we hear that soldiers sacrifice their lives for our freedom. Those words were never more alive in me as when I bore witness to her loss. I struggled with the urge to kneel next to her and console her, but, in the end, I respected her privacy and started my exit. As I did, I realized that I didn’t remember a Father’s Day with my real dad. He didn’t die in a war and his name isn’t engraved in a 72-point font on a memorial. Instead, my dad left my life when I was young and, because of his choice, we never shared a Father’s Day. Tragically, the woman in the yellow jacket had no choice today.
As I finished my run around the Mall, I floated. My thoughts turned to the dad who raised me. He loves his son as his own, and we have shared almost forty Father’s Days together. Then I thought about my daughter, no doubt still asleep in the hotel. What a blessing she is to me and how fortunate we are to tour DC together. I wish I could thank the woman in the yellow jacket for the inspiration behind these thoughts. I guess the only point of her loss is the reminder it serves to the rest of us—treasure your children, cherish your family.
When I returned to the hotel, my daughter characteristically asked, “How was your run, dad?” I smiled widely, replied “It was awesome!” and thought to myself that it truly was a run to remember.