In our varsity basketball team’s dressing room the most important ritual involved our seating arrangement. The captain got No. 1 chair, the four starters the next four; the sixth to 10th men were assigned accordingly. No fights, no discussions. Each man knew his place and kept it.
In my junior year I was the third man of the first team. I was the leading scorer and rebounder, and I would have been the No. 1 man except that I was not a senior. Next year the No. 1 chair would be mine.
When it came time to move up, I knew I was No. 1, but I could not feel it. I chose to remain in my old chair. This failure to acknowledge my power and position I had learned from my father.
My father was known as a humble, gentle, quiet man. He dressed simply. He treasured his long-lived trousers; his shirt collars frayed, while new shirts hung in his closet. He always wore a Panama straw hat from Memorial Day to Labor Day and a soft, mouse-gray fedora the rest of the year — except in deep winter, when he wore a cap with a wool visor and ear flaps that tied at his chin.
In public he walked with a slight forward bend, hands often behind his back. When talking to someone, he held his hat in front of him, rotating it by the brim, the speed corresponding to his anxiety. He acted the Irish peasant he felt he was. Many, most, found him charming.
I was not charmed. I hated his feigned powerless stance, so unlike the ready rage he saved for home, a rage related to his subservience. In fact, he was successful by his world’s standards. He worked every day at the railroad. He owned his home and a car and supported his five children.
One cold February night we were to play Spaulding, a big game. My sister told me that my father might come to the game.
A shorter but muscular player named Bobby Brault was assigned to guard me. As we lined up, Brault taunted me: “You won’t be having a good night.” I listened. I missed a shot. I decided not to listen.
I got hot. If Brault played me loose, I scored from outside. When he played me tight, I drove by him or, once in a while, threw a jump shot. On two of these occasions he fouled me, and both shot and free throw were good. As the half was ending, I had 16 points, on my way to a great night. Then it happened.
I got the ball in the corner, faked right, and dribbled across the key. Brault was not with me. I decided to go for the hoop. I hit something. It felt like the wall. It was Brault. I had hit him hard, landing on a twisting right ankle. “Charging,” the ref motioned, holding up eight fingers, my number. I started to get up. I felt strange. I lay back down for a second.
“What is it?” the coach asked.
“Nothing. I’m OK. My foot feels funny.”
He touched it.
“Don’t. Don’t touch it.” Pain replaced the numbness. I was led off the court, down the stairs, into the team dressing room and placed in my chair. I put my swollen, purple foot into cold water.
The half ended. The team filled the small room. The coach began his halftime talk of part analysis, part hype while we drank water and sucked oranges. Someone knocked on the door. “Go away,” the manager yelled. Another knock. The coach wound down his speech. The manager opened the door.
A man came in. He had his coat collar pulled up. His head was bowed. His upper body bent forward slightly. He was holding his hat in his hands. Nervously he turned it on its rim in 2-inch-by-2-inch movements. He slowly looked around the room. The players stopped talking and stared at him.
“It’s your father,” the manager said into the silence.
His eyes met mine. He raised his head and stretched his neck toward me and waited. It was a powerful message, a look of love.
My heart beat faster. I wanted to say something. My father started walking toward me. “R-r-r-r ... Ray, Raymond? Raymond?”
Feelings tangled up inside me. I felt his courage. I felt his love. No words came. He looked awkward, pained, lost. I was glad he came. But I wished he weren’t so backward. Shame began to overpower my gratitude. Other feelings froze my tongue.
The coach took over. He spoke to my father respectfully, telling him I’d be all right: “We’ll get X-rays.”
“Much obliged,” I heard my father say once, twice, three times as he backed out the door. I said nothing.
I severed my Achilles tendon that night. In time it healed, but never completely. When I run hard or when the weather is damp, my heel aches. But that ache is scant compared to the ache I have when I remember the other pain of that night.
I realize now that my father had asked me the question that I had always asked him, that every child asks each father in that shy, urgent, vulnerable, ever so personal way, “Am I OK?”
And I responded as he had always responded. Silence.
Years later, I would appreciate the courage of my shy father to knock on that door and expose his heart in the presence of strangers. I would come to understand his fatherless tragedy-filled life and the shyness and rage that accompany such a life. I forgave him. In time, I forgave my harsh judgment of him. That forgiveness led to a replaying of the scene, where I speak with nodding and he smiles in return. That silent moment remains a rich recurring nurturing memory, well worth a torn Achilles tendon.
Ray Lovett is a psychotherapist in Dorset.