When I was fifteen, I decided to exchange my gymnastics leotard for a basketball jersey. There was just one little problem (and I do mean little): I was barely four foot eleven, with shoes on.
I practiced hard that season, but whenever game time came, I warmed the bench. With the rare exception of a major blowout, my sub-five-foot frame didn’t see any action on the court the moment the game clock started.
But my dad . . . my dad was at every game. Every. Single. Game. He’d leave work early and sit up in the bleachers with my mom, still in his dress shirt and tie. All so he could watch me warm the bench.
When I came out of the locker room with the team before each game, I’d find him in his usual spot—left side, near the back—and he’d flash our family’s secret signal, which, roughly translated, meant, “Hey, I see you. I’m here.”
He was there, even though we all knew I wouldn’t be out there shooting or dribbling or passing or doing any of the other things he’d been helping me with in our hoop out back.
And he was there after each game for his trademark “postgame talk” when I was feeling discouraged after yet another four quarters of not even taking off my warm-up jacket.
“We’ll keep practicing,” he told me. “Just wait—you’re going to be a starter one of these days.”
Right around that time, I found myself plunged into the waters of teenage awkwardness, and along the way, I started losing track of how to connect with my dad. I was self-conscious in my own skin, clumsy about hugging him, so we mostly exchanged fist bumps instead. I didn’t quite know how to talk to him about the things that made up my world either—friend drama, boys, how I was trying to sludge through this new space to figure out who I was and where I fit in. How could we show love to each other surrounded by so much awkward?
But Dad found a way. I’m sure I didn’t realize what was happening back then, but each time he showed up, each time he watched me sit the bench, he was giving me a rare gift: the gift of presence. He was there, and there said, “I love you.”
All through the next summer, Dad coached me as I relearned my basketball shot. It was brutal at first, but he was right—it paid off. My senior year, when they announced the starting lineup for my team, there was a new jersey out on the court—number ten, measuring in at barely five feet tall. When they called my name, I ran out onto there, shoes squeaking on the hardwood, my eyes scanning the stands for one face.
He was there, of course. I flashed Dad the trademark family signal and grinned to myself. I’d been wishing for this moment for a long time, but when it arrived, I realized that what I’d needed most had been there all along.
“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sometimes love is complicated, multilayered. Sometimes it means having deep talks and hashing everything out. But other times love is simple. Sometimes love is just showing up.
So Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thanks for teaching me how to shoot a basketball. Thanks for watching all my games. Most of all, thanks for always showing up. (And by the way, I didn’t get you anything for Father’s Day, so please consider this your gift.)