I remember Father's Day, 1982 like it was yesterday.
For the two weeks leading up to it I was playing travel baseball against older, better kids, and I was struggling. Time and again -- pop up to right, grounder to first, strike out swinging. My dad had tried to convince me that my struggles were caused by a slow bat unaccustomed to the velocity of the area's best pitchers. "Bring your hands back and up a bit. Widen your stance. Shorten your swing," he would say.
But I would have none of it. It felt awkward when I practiced it, and I was a star, don't you know. But he persisted: "Just give it a try. For me, just a try."
So when I arrived at the park that day, I resigned myself to give the guy what he wanted. I stepped into the batter's box against the biggest, meanest kid I had ever seen. He may have even had a beard. Prepared for failure, I listened to the voice in my head: "Hands back and up, stance wide, shorten the swing." The first pitch screamed by, and I let it go for strike one. I fouled back the second pitch. And the third pitch -- well, I'm not sure that the third pitch has even landed yet.
As the ball hurtled through a perfect blue sky and as I toured the bases, I felt elated and powerful and relieved. I greeted my teammates at home plate and then walked over to the part of the fence where my dad was standing, cheering, clapping. His smile was wide and knowing.
"Happy Father's Day, Dad," I said. Then, as I walked back to the dugout, I stopped for a second, turned back towards him and added, "and thank you."
Over the years, my uncles have told me that my dad was quite a ballplayer when he was young. He was a pitcher. A lefty. But there were no manicured diamonds, or teams with names on their backs, or personal instructors to help him develop. He lived in a different time -- a much different world.
At six years old, he came home one day after school to find out that his mom had left him and his five siblings. My grandfather had to work and couldn't care for the younger kids, so my dad lived in a Catholic orphanage until he was in his early teens. He left the orphanage and entered an early adulthood where he took up two habits he could never break: hard work and cigarettes. He met my mom a short time later and was struck by her beauty, her great sense of humor, and her big Italian family that grew to love him like one of their own.
In the 60s they married and started a family. He worked at the local grocery store. He joined the Illinois National Guard -- service that included a night helping to control the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention -- a night that solidified his conservative political beliefs and was the impetus ultimately for my own. We moved to an apartment on the Northwest side near O'Hare, a small place that he and my mom filled with laughter and love and hope.
The 70s brought some great news -- my baby brother was born, and my dad was promoted to Produce Manager. We eventually bought a house.
And some news that was not so great. At barely 30 years old, my dad began losing his eyesight. A condition called macular degeneration. Soon he could no longer drive or read normal print. I remember over the years sitting at the kitchen table and reading him the price and quantities of an endless array of fruits and vegetables so he would know what was being delivered the next day. I was the only kid in the neighborhood who knew the difference between endive and radicchio. I can't remember if I got beat up for it or not.
Of course, he never focused on his disability, and neither did we. He wouldn't let us. He still played ball with us as best he could and took us to see movies like Jaws and Star Wars, even though he could hardly see the screen. He still took my mom to weddings and parties where they would dance late into the night.
In the 1980s he was forced out of work. They said his eyesight prevented him from being able to do his job. He took the hit and persevered. He dreamed of opening a hot dog stand, and he took any work he could get to make that dream come true and help my mom support us. He washed dishes. He cleaned windows. He was a school janitor.
On a bad day -- sometimes his, mostly mine -- he would say "the sun will rise tomorrow, and it will be a better day." No excuses. He didn't like excuses. One time when I was in college, he tried to take a full-sized ladder on a CTA bus because he had a window washing job outside of bike riding distance. It was the same bus he would ride to watch me play baseball or basketball on days my mom was working and couldn't take him.
Smart, kind, loyal and fiercely principled, he taught me everything about being a father, a friend, and a husband. And he was great at all three. I know this to be true for two reasons. First, I saw it firsthand every day. And second, that's all anybody talked about at his funeral. He died 20 years ago. In the end, the cigarettes and the relentless hard work were too much for his big heart to take. He was only 49.
For a while I dreaded Father's Day. Too much regret. Regret that he never got his hot dog stand. Regret that he never met his grandkids. But most of all, regret for words I left unsaid because I thought I had more time.
But I don't feel that way so much anymore. Time, love, and my wife and three kids have eased that burden. So I am looking forward to Sunday. After all, I'll get to sleep in and pick the restaurant. I'll get a bottle of really good scotch. I'll get homemade cards and extra tight hugs.
And I'll get to linger for a bit longer on the memory of a perfect day with my dad so many years ago. A day when I grew up a little because I was loved a lot. A day when the bright blue sky was filled with nothing but sunshine and possibilities. Possibilities born from sacrifices he made that I can barely comprehend, much less ever have to endure. And I will take solace in knowing that that was his plan all along.
William John Hughes. Then gone too soon, now gone too long. Happy Father's Day, Dad...and thank you.