I write this letter before you're anywhere near old enough to read it, though I suspect that while you're not yet two you're aIready coming to understand more about loss and
worry and heartache than any father or mother wound ever want their child to know. I'm writing in the hope that some of the stories that I and others tell about Rich might help form for you a memory of your father that is every boy's right, and that you've been denied in a way that none of us have yet come to terms with.
I knew your dad for many years, but the most acute memories I have of him are from when we were boys. So I'll spare you (for now) some of the silly stories of high
school debauchery .However, it's probably worth your understanding that if at some later date you find yourself suddenly capable of drinking your body weight in beer and still
looking only mildly impaired, and actually pretty pleased with yourself--like a big, happy lizard on a warm rock--that's not fate, that's genetics speaking.
Back to boyhood. When your dad and I were ten and eleven we were best friends, and the thing that bound us together wasn't soccer or BMX bikes or boy scouts, and it certainly wasn't girls--it was football. Football was the language we spoke and the food we ate. Every day we'd get to school an hour before class started and, with a cast of lesser fanatics, play football against each other in the cool, dewy morning, when you felt you could run for hours and never really get out of breath. At recess we'd bolt down our bologna sandwiches and do the same in that impossibly bright, shearing sun of high noon in Hawai'i.
We were always the quarterbacks for our respective teams; your Dad because he was very, very good at it, a natural really, and me because it was my football that we all played with. And although we faced off that way, twice a day the captains of opposing teams, there wasn't much rancor in it, no real sense of rivalry. It's not that we were such
great sports, but rather that we loved the game so much that when we played it felt like we were both sitting down to our favorite meal and simply found ourselves at opposite ends of the table.
Your Dad had a funny way of smiling a little when he played. When you were quarterback, you'd see him out there, guarding someone, or counting his Mississippi's at the line of scrimmage before he came after you in great loping strides, and there'd be a look of amusement on his face. What was that all about? Was he plotting something? Had he overheard the play I'd called? Did I throw like a girl? Who's to know. but the picture of that Mona Lisa smile is as clear as day to me now.
As a quarterback, your father achieved hero status among the rest of us. He threw the football with his index finger at very back tip of the ball just like Terry Bradshaw, a quarterback for the Steelers we all idolized back then. Don't forget that your dad was twice the size of any of us and could throw the thing about a mile. Sometimes he'd get overexcited and just hurl the ball way out of play, a glorious booming pass over all of our heads that cleared the end zone and scattered kids off the basketball courts at the far end of the field. He'd look around afterwards, grinning sheepishly. and shrug.
On weekends we got serious about plotting our pro careers. We had a secret football hideout under the home my parents still live in. It's a house that's built a few feet off the ground with a sandy crawl space beneath it that was forbidden to us because of the frayed electrical wires that hung down from the floorboards--which is of course the very thing that made the place exciting. Your Dad and I would pretend we were going to the beach--
-- we'd actually open and close the front gate so that my mom would hear it clink--and then double back under the house, crawling to an alcove near the back steps the walls of which we'd plastered with football cards. And there we'd listen to my family walking around the house above us and talk in whispers about how our receivers--people like David "the Stork" Kornhauser and Grant "Short but Slow" Hayashi --were or weren't developing, famous players from football history we both admired, and the relative merits of playing for the Steelers or the Raiders when our time came, until we got so excited that we'd crawl back out, actually go to the beach, and practice plays in the sand until hunger forced us back home. The first thing I did when I heard that your father was missing was to crawl under the house and find five or six football cards from our old clubhouse to send you. You'll find them faded and tattered, but these meant the world to us at a time when all of life seemed to strech out in front of us like the first days of a long summer vacation .
Your father isgone now, Zach. But it's worth your knowing that he remains vividly alive in thousands of memories that a community of lucky individuals carry around with them in a tender part of themselves. I hope that you'll find some solace in this, as I do, for we should all hope to be so well remembered. And as you try and form for yourself a picture of just who your father was and how he arrived there, take from me this image, sharp and bright in my mind's eye: a young boy running fast over a field silver with dew, a football tight under one arm, and smiling to himself as the grass and the cool earth beneath and the laughter of close friends flash by.
Your father was a good man, Zach. I was lucky to have known him.