“20 years now….where’d they go?”

My Dad as a young man at Washington State University, circa 1973/74

Today is the 20th anniversary of my dad passing away. I remember the events of July 24, 2001 very clearly all these years later. His passing was a very peaceful one which I remain so thankful for, because I know he was worried that wouldn’t be the case. The doctors told him that the tumors in his lungs could bleed or cause him to basically suffocate to his death. Instead, around 11:30am that morning, his lungs just stopped. I was sitting across from him on the couch next to my uncle Gary. I saw his stomach lift up, then settle down. Then up again. Then down. And then stay down. He didn’t make a sound or a movement. Just peacefully transitioned out of life at age 47.

My dad in 1999, shortly before his cancer diagnosis. He loved that Santa Anita jacket.

I said in the acknowledgments of my novel in 2014 that I had learned more from my dad after his death than I did during his life. As I write this now, I don’t really feel that way anymore. I think I took for granted the day to day things that he would teach me about as a kid. And in some ways, he taught me a lot of “what not to do” as well.

As a kid, a teenager, and even a young man, I wanted my dad’s approval more than anything. He didn’t give it often, but on occasion he would. And it always felt amazing. My mom supported, encouraged, and loved my sister and I constantly and looking back I think I took her love and dedication for granted. When I think of the sacrifices that parents have to make it makes me emotional. They put their lives, their wants, their needs secondary to those of their children. I still try to express my gratitude to my mother as often as I can because everything she provided for my sister and I, frankly, brings me to tears to think about it. She’s my hero.

My dad would be 67 if he was still alive, and I simply cannot imagine him at that age. When anyone I know dies, they always kind of live on in my memory at the age and appearance from when they passed away. I suppose he’d be retired by now. He used to always talk about wanting to retire in Arizona. He used to love to go to Spring Training down in Phoenix. I remember him smoking on the porch in the mornings down there and saying “there’s no place better than Arizona.”

My dad was a great baseball coach. I can’t stress the word great enough. I truly think he was at his best coaching baseball and had he lived longer he would have made his way further up the coaching ladder. Within 3 years, he built an 18 year old select baseball team that finished 2nd in the nation. He worked tirelessly from home calling coaches and lobbying to get his players scholarships, better draft position, or just a second look from a scout. He died before the internet really exploded and I can’t even begin to tell you the hours on the phone he spent on behalf of his players. I’ve still never seen a coach physically impact a game like my dad could from the 3rd base coaching box. I have no doubt many of his players will echo my statements about that. I got to coach little league for the first time this spring and within a week I understood how my dad felt about it. The kids I got to work with were so wonderful. Great kids, learning the game, and being competitive. I hope to be able to do it again in the future.

My relationship with my dad was very complicated. He was hard on me, often cruel if we’re being honest. About my appearance, my weight, and many other things. He often liked to parent by fear and not from a place of caring. Most of growing up I used to always think that people were either “good” or “bad.” My dad was a good illustration to me that people are far more complex than that. There’s so much gray area in our human experience that it’s just simply impossible to paint everyone with a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ brush. I really think he was trying his best. He had his own demons and I saw him struggle with them in a few different forms. I feel sad about that now. I wish he was able to learn and explore more about his feelings, his struggles, his addictions, but I just don’t think he was equipped to do that. Maybe he would have eventually, but he just ran out of time?

I still think about him somewhat regularly. I get reminded of him when a song might come on. Or when I drive by a ballpark. I still have a strong image of his hands. I’ve always been someone who looks at people’s hands because I think they often tell stories about the person. Maybe they’re just an interesting identifying physical characteristic. But I still very much remember what his hands looked like. His nails. It’s interesting what sticks in our minds. I don’t have a strong sense of his voice any longer. I feel like if I heard it on a video or something now it would sound foreign to me.

His birthday is June 14th. Father’s Day is always around that same week. His death anniversary is July 24th. These days come and go each Summer and it’s fascinating to me how different they are each year. Sometimes I acknowledge them, think about my dad, and move on with my day. Other times I’m sad. Sometimes I’ve been angry on those days. I kind of wonder if how I feel on those anniversaries each year is more of a reflection of what I’m going through at the given time or what. My dad’s mom, my Grandma Beem, passed away last August. I always called her on July 24th each year to talk to her. We’d always mention Dad, but mostly I just wanted to talk with her, make sure she was doing alright, be some kind of comfort to her on what was a tough day for her. She would almost always say “My poor Markie just got cheated out of so much life.” It’ll be strange not to be able to call her this year. Grandma Beem lived to be 94 and was a world class Grandma.

One thing I’ve thought about a lot lately in regards to my dad is the idea of ‘living out a dream’. My dad’s dream was to be a professional baseball player. He was an all-state pitcher in high school. A full scholarship Division 1 pitcher in college. Threw a no-hitter in college. He told me several times he thought he had a chance to make ‘the show.’ But his arm blew out. I get the sense that he never got over that. His dream not happening. I think it crushed him. I write this essay at a time that many of my career dreams are being realized. I get to do something I love, make a nice living, travel, and meet wonderful people. I saw my dad go to work every day to a job he hated. I saw him come home pissed off and irritated from sitting in a truck all day. When I got a bad report card in 8th grade he yelled at me “Do you want to be a truck driver your whole fucking life? Cause if you don’t get your grades up that’s what you’re gonna do.” I have the utmost respect for the men and women who drive truck. I never took that statement as being a truck driver was bad. I took it as he hated it and did I want to be doing something I didn’t love? The visual of him coming home every day miserable from work really hit home with me (my next report card was my best ever by the way.)

But I got into horse racing because of my dad. Betting the races was our biggest bond aside from baseball. So many of my childhood memories are with him at the track. His last weekend on Earth I sat with him at Emerald Downs, betting the races and helping him with his oxygen tank. When I got the job at Tampa Bay Downs a couple months ago I can’t tell you how much I wanted to call him and tell him about it. He would have thought it was so cool. I like to picture him calling me between races to talk about them. Him not being able to see me ever call a race gives me great sadness. That’s probably the dad approval seeker in me, but I think he would have gotten a kick out of it.

I want to keep talking about my dad as long as I’m alive. To keep his memory alive in some little way. I get sad that since neither my sister or I have kids, that not long after we’re gone, he’ll mostly be forgotten in this world. I know that is the case for most of us, with the exception of people who do historically significant things. I suppose we just have to be thankful for the time we have and the memories we have, when we have them. But as long as I’m around, I choose to remember him. The good, the bad, and all the rest.

I love you Dad.

My favorite picture of my dad and I