Running with Greatness
As the gravel bruises the rubber soles of my sneakers and crunches
beneath the quick rhythmic pounding of my small feet, I can feel
the heat of the high-noon sun licking the top of my head, its
warm breath making it through my thick dirty-blonde hair all
the way down to my scalp. The air is fresh and clean, the sky so
blue it’s almost white. Hills covered in well-manicured grass roll
out away from the road we’re on as far as the eye can see.
“All those hills kinda look like waves in the ocean, except
green instead of blue, don’t you think?” I pant the words in quick
labored breaths as my heartbeat keeps time with my strides.
My dad smiles down at me from behind his glasses; his upper
lip gets lost in his thick jet-black mustache as he grins and his
forehead wrinkles under the mess of curly hair. “It reminds me
of when we went camping at Happy Hills,” he says. I can barely
talk over gasping for air, but he isn’t even winded yet. I nod and
remember Happy Hills. The whole place looked like a rustic
painting in an Amish family’s living room. My dad is right; this
looks just like that countryside surrounding the campground.
The gravel road we’re jogging along runs up and down through
the hills, out into eternity as far as I can tell. The narrow greybrown
lines cut through the green, snaking their way along the
massive grass mounds for miles. I think of the Wizard of Oz and
Dorothy’s yellow brick road.
I suck down giant gulps of air and try my hardest to keep pace
with my father. My face is a bubbling furnace now, and my clothes
are soaked through with sweat. My T-shirt and sweatpants cling
to me like a second skin. I can feel beads of perspiration raining
down on my face and the back of my neck from the crown of my
head. My dad, who is wearing his 1976 Olympic sweat suit, only
glistens in the intense sunlight. His hair is barely damp around
his hairline, where shoots of thick black hair sprout into careless
loose curls that bounce as he bobs up and down with every step.
I look up at him the way immigrants looked up to Lady Liberty
upon arriving to Ellis Island; I feel the same pride and joy. He is
a monument that will always symbolize something life-changing
and vital to his family, and his country. The shame is that he has
remained a hidden hero to the latter. Not to me though; I can
feel the intensity and significance of my father every time I am
near him. In my eyes, there is no one greater. I know that at this
moment, I am running with greatness. I feel my lips fall to a
frown when I think of what the world is missing out on having
looked past that.
I am only five, and I can hardly stand the penetrating
satisfaction I feel as I run beside my father, a man who has
never overstated anything about himself or his career, although
he represented his country in the Olympic games not once, but
three times. My pounding heart swells as I fall behind a bit and
watch my father’s enormous legs, which are nearly as long as I am
tall, pump up and down rhythmically, his massive feet pounding
the small rocks they come crashing down on top of. I struggle to
keep up with him. He has the legs of a giant, and I’ve not yet even
grown into my own awkward feet.
A surge of determination shoots through me, and my legs
begin to work harder—my feet move faster. When I catch up
with my father, I notice that he is no longer running with the ease
he had exhibited when we set off. His breathing, which was slow
and unstrained, has become labored; and his pace slowed. I take
advantage of him finally losing steam and dart ahead without
glancing back. My age is finally an advantage for me. My dad
has strength and size, but I have stamina. I feel a burst of selfsatisfaction
feed my muscles as I think about outrunning my dad,
I’m winning now, I think as I rush past him with a grin. Caught
up in the grandiosity of the moment, I don’t notice that he isn’t
catching up. He isn’t even behind me anymore.
There is only the sound of my own feet slapping the uneven
road now; only the sound my own breathing fills the air around
me. I am alone on the road. I stop running—stop congratulating
myself for a job well-done—and slowly turn around to see where
my dad is and why I can no longer hear his size 14 shoes grinding
pebbles into the loose dirt of the road. When I see him, I nearly
choke on my own heart. Tears mix with the sweat that pours
down my face.
“Dad?” I call out to him. “Dad, what’s wrong?”
He is on one knee slumped over at the side of the gravel road,
one hand on the ground, propping himself up. At first glance, he
looks like the image of a stoic football player taking a knee. I see
his other hand clutching his chest and immediately know that
this is something much more ominous than that.
“Dad!” I shout as I take off toward him. The closer I am, the
harder the knot in my stomach feels. Just before I reach him, he
collapses to the ground, like a felled giant in some ancient fable.
He falls hard and doesn’t move once his body has crumpled to the
earth. He suddenly seems so small.
“Dad, get up! Please,” I shout as I grab hold of his arms and
yank at him. My tiny hands clench only the smooth polyester
of the Olympic sweat suit as I pull at my fallen father. My body
aches as I tug hard against his 245-pound frame. The colossal
Olympic wrestler is impossible for a five-year-old to move.
His chest rises and falls, but barely. His face is pinched in
pain. The laugh lines have vanished from the corner of his eyes
and his forehead. His large square jaw is snapped tightly closed
like a rusted trap, and his eyes are closed so hard that his eyelids
have nearly disappeared into his deep sockets. I scoop my arms
under his head, the only thing I can manage with my childish
hands, and put it in my lap. We are miles from anything. The
bucolic beauty of the open countryside has become a prison. My
father is nearly lifeless in my lap, and I am helpless. Tears soak
my face. My heart pounds again, but in a different way this time.
Now it throbs not because of the strain of running, but because
it has broken.
I move my dad’s head from my lap to the ground so that I can
lay my head down beside his. I stare at his twitching eyelids and
say through my sobs, “Everything will be okay, Dad. I’m going to
get us help.”
Resting a hand on my father’s damp hair, I look around us. I
feel the two of us begin to shrink in the vastness of the situation.
There is nothing around us but hills and road—no homes, no
cars, nothing. The roads are still in all directions from the lack of
travel. We may as well be in the middle of the ocean in a canoe.
I scoot my hands beneath my father’s body and cradle him
once as much as I can. I fold the upper part of my body over his
and wrap my arms around him. Squeezing his enormous chest, I
close my eyes and whisper again, “Everything is going to be okay.
I love you, Dad. Everything is okay.”
When I opened my eyes, I saw my wife’s peaceful face just inches
from my own. The soft glow of the moonlight bathed the room
in a muted blue. I leaned in and kissed my wife’s cheek. When I
put my head back down, I noticed that my pillowcase was damp.
My throat felt parched and my body more exhausted than when
I had lay down to sleep. I took a deep breath and tried to let the
residual sorrow of the dream waft away into the chilly drafts of
the cool summer night.
I glanced at the alarm clock on my bedside table; it was two
thirty in the morning. I lay for a moment to let my mind settle.
I waited for that immense melancholia to dissipate. I wished for
the memory of the dream to fade the way the smell of smoke
and ash finally fades from an area after a devastating fire. After
half an hour, I gave up. My thoughts were fixated on my dad, so
I went down to our living room and found my father’s wrestling
scrapbooks. As I opened the first of the battered books, the aged
cardboard and adhesive pages covered in thin plastic smelled just
like I imagine nostalgia would smell. The albums smelled like
memories of times I never had of a man I adored more than
These scrapbooks told the story of a man in a way I never
knew him. I knew Henricus Theodorus Geris, or Harry, as a
loving father and a devoted husband. He never spoke much about
his days as a wrestler and rarely talked about the three Olympics
that he participated in. These articles, which I had never really
taken the time to read thoroughly, told me a story I never heard
from my dad, who was never caught up in his own accolades. He
was gone now though; a heart attack took him down for good as
he was unloading wrestling mats at an elementary school. I took
peace knowing that he died doing what he loved most. He wasn’t
there to answer my questions anymore, though, and I wanted to
know more about my dad. I wanted to know Harry Geris fully,
outside of the role he played to me as a doting father. Being a
father myself, there was something that drew me to the narrative
of my own dad.
I pulled the scrapbooks from the cabinet in the living room
one by one and stacked them on the leather ottoman. These
books covered my father’s life from the time he started wrestling
as a teen until he left the wrestling mat for good, at least in a
competitive way. Once I had each of the scrapbooks down, I slid
the stack off the leather ottoman into my arms and dropped them
down beside my recliner. I opened the first book and began to
read an article that was yellowed with age and worn thin from
time. The color of the pages made me think of the teeth of a
veteran smoker. The first article was dated 1967. It was from my
dad’s junior year of high school, or grade 11 as they say where we
are from in Canada.
I would start at the beginning and keep going until I felt
I finally knew my father outside the context of family man. I
wanted to know him fully. I wanted to get to know my dad, not
just as a father, but as a man and, most importantly, as an athlete
and the protagonist of a hero’s tale. That would be my night’s
quest. I had about four hours until the kids woke up to get to
know my father all over again.
It has been said by one of my dad’s coaches that the story
of Harry Geris is no less magnificent than the legend of Rudy
Ruettiger. My father was just, regrettably, unheard of; his own
tale was yet to be recognized for the inspiration it truly was.
Watching his coach speak, I could see how earnest he was as he
lamented the absence of my dad’s chronicles through wrestling
in the mainstream of both American and Canadian sports
folklore. The thought was nice and made me proud of my dad,
but it only grazed the surface of my consciousness at the time.
After the dream, however, that thought consumed me. Was my
dad’s life really a story of inspiration—a paramount narrative that
belonged alongside so many others that were told and retold,
used to exemplify what determination and heart were capable
of? Was my dad’s story, as his old junior college wrestling coach
had suggested, one that was too unique and rousing to go untold?
With my stack of vinyl covered hardback albums and a silent
summer night, I would find out.
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