Walking Besides You This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

May 11, 2017
By , Montgomery, IL

My feet happily skipped along the pavement trying to keep up with the long strides of my dad on one of our usual walks to Speedway. He had a cigarette in one hand, taking drags every once in awhile. His other hand held mine making sure I didn’t wander away. It was a perfect mid-summer morning, the weather was comfortable, and everyone and everything was quiet. We walked a lot. Whether it's to Speedway to get slushies, or just down the block to go see horses, we walked there. Usually on these walks I'd ask my dad ridiculous questions wanting answers that I know I'll just never be able to understand. We talked about politics, school, family, and often sports. My dad’s voice was the perfect tone, calming and deep, which made everything he said sound smart and correct. The old man was never wrong.

I remember how much he used to love to work and it didn't matter the job; he just needed to be kept busy. Everyone in our neighborhood went to him for when they needed something done right. His kind, old soul made him so sweet, serious, and a tough cookie to break.

The injuries he has acquired seemed to never phase him. He was so unbelievably crazy that he never really felt pain.

“What's the worst pain you've ever felt?” I asked curiously; wondering what it could have been.

“Back in my early days of carpentry I got a small sliver of glass in my eye. No doctor I went to could find it, so it was lodged in there for two days. I saw a specialist and finally they found the glass and had to flush my eye out. That was the worst pain,” he responded, while brushing his calloused hands through my hair.

He has a lot of stories of him being injured and each and every one fascinates me more. I was fascinated by how he seemed to be unbreakable, how the scars toughened his skin; made it thick. I saw my daddy as superman, he was invincible.

Our neighbor’s garage burned down one day while my dad was in there. No one is quite sure how the flames erupted, but they all seemed to blame the guy who was caught in them. They all kept silent about the situation whenever I was around, they didn’t want me to find out the truth about him. But I already knew the veracity of his problem.

He was an alcoholic.

I could always smell the beer on his breath when I hugged him or kissed him goodnight. The yelling and the anger of mom would start as he cracked opened another beer, drowning his sorrows in the bitter taste. He wasn't happy and he wanted to be, I knew he wanted nothing more than for the pain to go away.

His drinking never bothered me. Drunk or sober, I knew who he was. A good father. My superman. My best friend.

I don’t see my dad much anymore. My parents got a divorce, and our mom took us to move us into a new house. Our new house is quiet, I don’t have anyone to talk too since I don’t live with my best friend. He used to be down the hall, now he’s a phone call away.

He tried to hide the fact that he was heartbroken and worn out from constantly fighting. Love for mom was still clear in his blue eyes, but the stress showed more in his scruffy jawline and new wrinkles. The struggles of his life left scars that he tried to heal, but failed. He was growing weak but managed to stand strong. I knew he didn't break for me, but he was bending towards the weight of the world on his shoulders. He wasn't alone. I stood silently behind him.

Cancer is a vicious disease. Like a snake, it finds its prey and sinks it's venomous fangs latching on and never letting go. Eats at the strength and the beauty of a person. Stripping them of their identity. Dad tried to pretend like the cancer cells weren't deteriorating his insides, his handsome looks, and his health. The years caught up to him quick and the doctors said there isn’t a fix.

Dad knew he was going to die. That he wouldn’t be able to see me graduate or walk me down the aisle on my big fancy day, or cry at the sight of me in a white dress. He knew he wouldn’t meet his grandchildren and teach them life lessons the way he taught me. Daddy knew his days of smoking, drinking, yelling at the sports game on the T.V, giving out hearty advice to the neighborhood kids, and his days of being superman were done.

“We're going to beat this,” I heard him tell me over the phone. The lie was evident in his voice as he tried to make it sound believable. Trying to convince me, but more importantly trying to convince himself that his life was soon coming to an end. “Cancer can't destroy us.”

But it has.

“I know, dad. We got this.” I whispered, fighting back the tears that wanted to fall down and stain my cheeks.

Funerals feel like a parallel universe. I don't feel as if I'm in my own body, like someone else is controlling me to smile, to walk behind the black glossed casket, to pretend like my world didn't completely fall apart. It all seemed like a bad dream and my dad was going to walk into my room and wake me up any second. But I was awake and he was asleep.

I sat down next to his grave and picked at the grass around me. The tombstone seemed to summarize my dad perfectly. With the words “beloved father, husband, and son,” engraved above the quote of his favorite song “Come Sail Away,” by Styx. They designed the stone to have a hammer, a baseball bat and ball; resembling his works of a man and a coach.

I traced over the words while listening to the whispers of the wind, pretending he was talking to me.
“I miss you old man.” I heard the words escape from my lips but I didn't feel them break free from my throat. They seemed to be stuck there as I choked on the painful truth. I replay his voice mails over and over, hoping to never forget the sound of his voice. The calming yet serious tone that I could listen to forever and never get tired of it.

I hug the soil beneath me trying to be closer to the man buried six feet under my embrace. I let the tears water the grass as loud sobs escaped from my chapped lips.

I was alone.
I had no walking partner. I didn't have a teacher. I didn't have a best friend. I didn't have my superhero.
I missed him.

I place my lips on the cold stone and gently brush my fingers over it once more. Trying to remember the touch of my dad's hand, the warmth and comfort of his hugs, and the scratchy scruff of his unshaven beard. Standing up I brushed away imaginary dirt and slowly dragged my feet along the graveyard, walking away from daddy instead of walking besides him. I no longer had a hand to hold to keep me safe from wandering alone.

I always believed pain was an easy fix, like putting a band-aid on a cut. Whenever my dad had spoke of pain they were visible wounds, he never warned me about the pain you feel deep in your heart. He took a small part of me with him when his casket was lowered six feet into the dirt. The pain of losing him was unbearable and I don't think daddy realized that the worst pain to ever feel is not glass in your eye, but losing your other half. I have no one to walk besides me anymore.

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