It was a typical Spring day in New England. The cloudless sky was a beautiful shade of blue. The combination of warm sun and soothing breeze made this a perfect day for outdoor activity. As my father would say, it was a “great day for a ball game.” The calendar read Saturday, March 14, 2009.

Despite the beautiful weather, I remained unphased by it as I walked my dog that day. My thoughts were clouded and my emotions were shattered. Rather than hear the singing of the birds or the sound of the wind traveling between the budding tree limbs, I could only hear one sound. That sound agonizingly repeated in my head.  It was the sound of my mother crying, as the ER doctor delivered the words we had dreaded to hear:

I am so sorry.  We did all we could, but we could not save him.”

Only a few short hours earlier, my father had passed away suddenly at the age of 58; the result of an aortic aneurysm. Without warning, he had been taken from this world; to be mourned and survived by my mother, his loving wife of 31 years, and myself, his only son. The light of our lives had been extinguished, and the bluest of skies had metaphorically turned dark and gray. It happened ten years ago, and the memories remain as vividly painful as they were that fateful morning.

An Important Message

Shortly after my father’s passing, I received an email from a friend. While these messages usually began with the typical introductory banter (i.e. “Hi, How are you doing?” etc.,) this one was a bit different. It consisted of only one sentence. It was a quote from an unknown author, which read:

“Dad, your guiding hand on my shoulder will remain with me forever.”

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Anyone familiar with my writing style knows that I am fond of inspirational quotes. I have a fascination with the meaning behind quotations; whether profound, amusing or both. No matter the task at hand, they have always provided additional motivation. This particular quote arrived at a time in which I was in great need of inspiration. At first, the quote was comforting. I would occasionally glance at it when I was in need of a calming thought. Beyond that, however, it had little impact on my everyday life.  

As the days passed, I found myself reflecting on this quote with greater frequency. In what was typically a source of positivity for me, I realized that it was starting to make me angry. I came to the harsh realization that my father’s hand never again would touch my shoulder. That feeling produced a hurt inside me like no other. Even though it was shortsighted and selfish, I could only think of how much I already missed him. I sat at my computer, ready to delete the email; banishing it to the ‘trash’ folder, never to be seen again.  Rather than act on impulse, I chose to close the email window instead. Still, it was never far from my mind.

Leading by Example

Each year, as Father’s Day approaches, I find myself reflecting on the countless ways in which my father was there to support me. Being an only child, he willingly played multiple roles in my life, including that of brother, best friend and even coach. Most importantly, he was my father; and a son could not have hoped for better. Whether it be a helping hand, a reminder of the difference between right and wrong, or some much-needed encouragement, he was always there. While he was never at a loss for words, he did not require many to teach me life’s most valuable lessons. Simply put, he led by example.  He worked tirelessly to provide a better life for my mother and me. That often included working long hours at a second job. Still, he never complained. In fact, I cannot recall a time in which he returned home in a foul or angry mood. He would greet me with a hug, a smile, and gentle touch on my shoulder. Despite his fatigue, he gladly listened to the details of my day. My needs always came before his.

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My father approached every aspect of his life in the same way…with love.  His love for life, God and his family inspired him to give the very best of himself in everything that he did. His love and devotion to his wife could never be denied. The exchange of the words “I love you’ were never at a shortage.  However, they were seldom needed. The palpable love in my father’s eyes when he looked at my mother told the entire story. Whenever someone required his assistance, he never disappointed them. Whether it be a friend, co-worker, client or family member, he could always be trusted to provide love and support. In fact, one could say that he was defined by ‘love’ itself.

It’s How We Played the Game

One of my father’s greatest loves was his love of sports. A superior athlete as a child and young adult, he excelled in both baseball and football. It is no coincidence that these became my favorite sports, as well. He taught me the rules of the game, as well as the nuances of each sport. Whether it be watching a game together or having a catch in our backyard, sports served as a true bond between father and son.

When I chose to focus my efforts on playing baseball, my father eagerly agreed to be an assistant coach for my team. Although I would practice with him for hours and hours, it was a struggle for me to reconcile the fact that I never equaled his accomplishments on the athletic fields. As a son, especially an only son, the thought of disappointing your father can become an overwhelming and terrifying thought. Despite his encouragement and unconditional support, a part of me always felt insecure about my youth in athletics.

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Years later, I remember confessing these feelings to my father. Once again, he smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder. In a way that only he could, he assured me that never had he felt one second of disappointment. To my surprise, I had made him proud with every swing of the bat (of which there were more misses than connections) and scoop of a ground ball. What made him most proud was the fact that I always gave an honest and complete effort. Rather than take pride in the outcome, my Dad found pride and joy in spending time together. We recalled him having to arrive at the baseball field directly from work; often having to change clothes in the backseat of his car to make it on-time. Thanks to his effort, I never began a game without some extra infield practice. Thanks to his selflessness, I never questioned his love for me.  

Just Over My Shoulder

While not lessening that of his love of family and sports, the greatest of my father’s gifts to me was his faith. Truth be told, my faith was severely shaken following his death. Feelings of confusion, anger and sadness made me question that which was once most important to me. To this day, I still struggle with these feelings.  However, my faith always finds renewal when I reflect on a memory, which I believe provides the perfect summary of our relationship.

As far back as I can remember, my father and I attended Sunday Mass together.  I can remember the two of us sitting together in the side pew of our family parish.  Even at a young age, he taught me to follow along with the Mass, while using the missalette.  He would let me place the collection envelope in the basket, and proudly walked hand-in-hand with me as he received communion.

I felt like his helper…his sidekick.

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When i was six years old, our Pastor had instituted a ‘Children’s Liturgy of the Word.” While the adults and adolescents listened to the readings (including the Gospel and the homily,) the children ages 6-12 would head to the church basement for a more ‘tailor-made’ version of the liturgy. Preferring to think of myself as a ‘mature for my age’ (like my Dad, only shorter) I resisted participating in this new liturgy.  I would tell him that I did not need a “children’s version”. If I am truly being honest, I was scared to leave his side, away from his protection. My friends from school all went to a different parish, and I did not know anyone. I was going to be in a room filled with strangers. I was able to successfully stall him for the first few Sundays.  However, my father was mindful that this was a necessary part of my development as a child. Despite my best efforts to stall him yet again, my father remained steadfast. He made me realize that I needed to do this and that it would be ok. He placed his hand on my shoulder and assured me that I “would be back upstairs with him before I knew it.”

Reluctantly, and with tears starting to form in my eyes, I sheepishly walked downstairs with the rest of the children. The stairway was clean and well-lit. To me, however, it seemed dark and cold. There were no windows, making it impossible to distinguish day from night. I entered the church hall and found a seat among the seemingly endless rows of metal folding chairs.  Keeping my head down, I remained very quiet. I was too nervous to talk to anyone, and embarrassed that I was on the verge of crying. I missed my Dad and was scared to be without him.

As the speaker began, her pleasant voice calmed me a bit. However, my tranquility was to be short-lived.  She announced that we would be seeing a short movie, and suddenly closed the lights. Already anxious at the thought of being alone in a strange place, the darkness did not help my mood. Once again, the tears started to well in my eyes. I felt very much alone, and ashamedly, a bit frightened. Feeling self conscious, I looked back over my shoulder. I was hoping that no one had noticed my soon-to-be-falling tears. When I did so, I noticed a very small number of adults sitting in the back room.  As my eyes adjusted to the low light from the television screen, I noticed that one of them was none other than my Dad. He sat at a safe-distance from me, arms folded, and smiling slightly. While my first reaction was to run to him, I was halted to do so when he simply winked at me. For some reason, his wink and smile calmed my fears. I smiled back at him and continued to watch the movie.

When the lights returned, I once again turned to find my father. However, his chair was now empty. Despite his absence, the apprehension I had once felt was now gone. I still missed him.  However, his presence during my time of need provided me with the courage to do what was necessary. Instinctively, my father knew that I needed some help in facing my fear. Still, he had faith in my strength to rise to the challenge. He did not coddle me, or run to my side. Instead, he smiled and let me know that he was there for me, watching me just over my shoulder.  

Until We Meet Again

While it has been over ten years since his passing, I often have moments when I feel like that same, scared six-year-old boy; wondering how I can possibly carry on without my Dad by my side. I frequently envision the day on which we will reunite. While I hopefully have a long life ahead, the thought of seeing my father again someday, in a life beyond this, is a happy one.  Perhaps he will be there to greet me on a baseball field; similar to the meeting between Ray Kinsella and his father in ‘Field of Dreams?’ The thought of my Dad wearing his catcher’s gear, agreeing to my request for a game of catch, might just be my definition of heaven.

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Until that day, my father lives on in my heart. Sometimes, reminiscing makes me laugh and smile. At other times, the tears still form, and the grief and fear are overwhelming. There are even those moments when it feels like the darkness of that church hall is about to return to my life.  Now, however, I am comforted by a heartwarming memory and the reminder of a simple quote. My father is always there. Each time I look over my shoulder, I will find him wearing a smile of encouragement and guiding me by his example. While I miss him terribly, I never feel that he is truly far away. He is with me, just as he was that day in the church hall; just as he was on the baseball fields of my youth; and ultimately as he was each and every day of his life. As always, he is smiling. His guiding hand is forever on my shoulder.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  From the bottom of my heart, Thank You. My greatest honor in life is being your son.

Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media.  He covers the New England Patriots and provides NFL editorial content. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC

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