Things My Father Taught Me: James Wilson

There’s a reason I’ve been trying to get James to write something for me. One of the more impressive men I’ve ever met, he lives his life like he runs his site, clean and simple, and cool as a cucumber wedged in a Pimm’s Cup. I’m happy to report I managed to drag him out of his well-appointed Secret Fort just in time to share a few words on his father.


IMGThis isn’t about my father’s style necessarily, although he had it. Nor is this about what my father taught me, although that is plenty. It is, however, a complicated thing to sit and try to do this, in that it is certainly the first time since his passing that I have confronted the idea of actually writing about him, to sit and try to distill something succinct about what he was to me and what he left me with. I will try to keep it light. I apologize if I fail.

He was a marathon man. Until his knees gave way. A gradual process. And before that he was a handball champ. He left Johns Hopkins, a fresh faced young man with a school teacher wife, a young, cute as shit little girl, and a residency lined up at Vanderbilt. They spent the summer in Key West and then found their way to Tennessee and a new duplex. He moonlighted in the small hours of long shifts when things were quiet along the hallways. And in free moments, he sped off to the YMCA for a game or two. My mother would get calls from the desk attendant and race over to get him. Before cell phones and pagers.

IMG_0001I came to them seven years later. He was an internist then, a general practitioner. When O was a little older, we were in the front yard sledding during a rare southern snow storm big enough to allow it. He was still a young father. He let me go, I didn’t know how not to hit a tree and wear a small scar on my forehead to prove it. It is something we laughed over years later.

My father never taught me to shave. Because I’ve worn a beard nearly all of my adult years, I don’t begrudge him for that.
A few years back, while on a ski trip, I was able to convince him to stop shaving, something that before retiring, he had certainly never considered. By the end of the ten days, he had quite the respectable beard, something that I had never seen on him. In all my years. A day after he returned home to my mother, we spoke.

“Did she let you keep it?” I asked.

“I shaved in the airport bathroom.”

So goes forty-two years of marriage. Give and take. He taught me that.

L1030655When I was seven, my father was training for the Boston. He always wore New Balance. Even as Nike and other companies spent scads of money on R & D, air soles and the like, he preferred his New Balance. Tried and true.
He had bought two pairs. The same shoe. One to train in and one to run the marathon in. But as the race date neared, he decided to stay with his trainers. He gave the other pair to me, although it would be years before I would fill them out.
I still have them. Soles whose glue has long since yellowed and turn brittle. Re-glued, worn out, and yet there they sit in my closet.

My dad passed away just over two years ago. After a long battle with cancer.
Somewhere in there his colon ruptured. I flew home immediately. My sister and I shared twenty-four to thirty-six hour shifts in his hospital room. The drugs made him hallucinate. He would sometimes try to rise from bed or pull out IV lines. He had a colostomy bag for the remaining year and a half of his life. I went home to be with him and take whatever care I was capable of during that period. Was there maybe a month. It is something quite incredible to take care of a parent in that way. He was a doctor, so the figuring out of everything was very clinical. How the adhesive for the bag worked. What to do differently the next time after the seal broke in the night. Just how long my mother would be at the salon and if we could get out to the driving range and back in time.

We spent as much time as we could together. Every other week I flew home. We would sit on the patio and spend hours talking. He told me what to expect after he was gone.
It wasn’t easy. But it was an invaluable time. We were making peace with the one thing that was certain and out of anyone’s control.

IMG_0002I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a year or so ago. And to borrow a sentiment from it,
my dad carried the light. He was the greatest guy.

– James Wilson, Secret Forts