Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on June 13, 2007.
MOST EVERYTHING I thought about my father, and this morning, of all the stupid reasons to hold back tears in public, it was roast beef. I sat at a corner table on the veranda of the clubhouse, waiting for Arnold Palmer to take the Masters’ first ceremonial shot. Friend, my dad likes watching Arnie. To do it from the veranda with a plate of torn beef? Hotty Toddy, brother. It’s just that the excitement of extraordinary times like this is muted for me now. I have learned in the past three years that I do many things solely to tell Dad about them later.
The crowd stood on Washington Road, waiting for the gate to open. For a moment, the road was silent. Bird chirping Drone lawn mower. Immediately, another lucky visitor asked if he could join me. The food arrived first. When we talked a little, wrapped in cold, he saw an empty space in front of me.
“What did you order?” he asked.
“Minced beef for toast,” I said. He laughed. “Champion’s breakfast,” he said.
“That’s my dad’s favorite food,” I explained.
“Have you ever brought him here?” he asked.
There is silence. “No,” I said, turning around.
Father watched the Masters every year. He dreamed of attending only one, and he was always on my mind when I came here for my work. Indeed, for all of us who are fortunate enough to actually walk through these gates, we cannot leave without thinking about our father, because Augusta National is a place for fathers and sons. Davis Love III navigates the same fairways as Davis Love Jr. The new father carefully holds the toddler’s hand. “Can you see?” You will hear them say. Strong arms gently aim hunchbacks. “Watch out, Daddy,” you will hear them say softly. That’s Augusta.
When Jack Nicklaus finished his final round at the Masters, his eyes stared at green. He glanced at his son, who was serving him, and repeated the last words of his own father, “Don’t think that’s unattractive.” When Jack ended his relationship with this special place, he looked at his son and thought of his father. That’s Augusta.
When Tiger Woods won for the first time, his eyes searched the gallery near the warehouse of evaluation for Earl Woods. They hugged, Tiger’s head hugged his father’s shoulder. And when he walked out of the green almost a decade later, and Earl Woods was no longer there, Tiger remembered that shoulder and he grieved. That’s Augusta.
This, too, Augusta: I, need a father more than ever, to finish the beef that is crushed with toast, walk the ground in search of fatherly wisdom. I, a 30-year-old man, who failed in my promise to bring Dad to this place he really wanted to visit, was unable to control my emotions when I saw a father and a son standing near the first fairway. The boy is half a head taller and growing. Both of them wore blue Penn State teeth. I saw myself in the boy, standing with his father, both thinking they had all the time in the world.
WE ARE father and son in my father’s imagination before my parents even knew I was little. On the day I was born, he sat and wrote a letter to himself, recording his thoughts when his first child came into the world. He called me his son, with his daughter written in brackets every time, just in case. When I arrived, even before my mother cleared her head, she had already filled out the birth certificate. There was never even a discussion of what I would call. “Walter Wright Thompson, Jr.,” he wrote.
Walter Wright Thompson, Sr. grew up on a Mississippi stick with three brothers. Many qualities that my friends will recognize in me come from them. He likes to be the loudest person in the room, and he likes to tell stories, and listen to them too. He likes his favorite places to eat outside of normal circumstances and the sound of the ocean and the hum of late-night conversation. He likes to work hard.
His father himself was a tough man with unfulfilled childhood dreams. Nothing is good enough. When my father, a star quarterback, would run for three touchdowns and throw for the other two, Big Frazier would wait after asking why he missed handling it at the start of the third quarter. Father decided that when he had a son, he would do it differently. He would give his whole heart, shower all the love and attention and approval he could muster. He will be a good father. Sweet daddy.
I remember tailgating before the Ole Miss soccer game, he threw the bait far enough that I had to dive. I remember Destin, Florida, when I dropped my favorite stuffed animal, dear, and didn’t tell her until we returned to the condo. He spent hours looking for the rabbit, and he found it too. I saved it, but I never told anyone why. When I saw him, I could feel how much he loved me. I remember skipping school to go fishing, and I remember promising not to tell Mama. I remember him always reminding me that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” and “if it feels wrong, that’s right.” I remember him taking me to see “Superman III” that night opened, even though I was in trouble; I remember watching “The Guns of Navarone” thousands of times with him. And I remember, as clearly as that happened yesterday, in April 1986 when Jack Nicklaus stormed his sixth green jacket.
I’m playing in another room, maybe with G.I. Joe the aircraft carrier, when he called my name. I do not want to go. He called again. So I went to their room. He lay on his stomach.
“Jack Nicklaus will win the Masters, son, and you must watch this. You will remember this for the rest of your life.”
So we lay there, my feet just kneeling, watching. I am 9. She is 40 years old, six years younger than Jack, and she cried when the last putt entered. I don’t remember now if I’ve seen her cry before.
Years passed, but every April, we lay on our stomach – tumbucket, he called them – and called out on the azaleas and shelter above Amen Corner. Every time, he smiled and mentioned that, one day, he would want to see what the place was like in person. He grew older. I went to college and, as a freshman, called him to ask if he noticed this boy named Tiger Woods. He is. I sat in the house of Phi Delta Theta, three states away. I can imagine him lying on his stomach.
The house doesn’t feel so far away.
BEEN 10 years. I no longer watch Masters on television, and I pinch myself whenever I get the trust, even though I try to hide it. Sportswriters should act tired, right? I sit now with colleagues in the press center interview room. Tiger Woods is on the podium, no longer a kid ten years ago. Normally, he is full of boring nonsense, using many words but carefully not saying anything. Only now is he talking about father and son, about losing one and getting another. I lean back a little. He talked about remorse, and the things he wanted him to do. He talks about what kind of parents he wants.
“I’m here, 31 years old,” he said, “and my father is getting smarter every year. Incredible. But hopefully, my son, a little way, will say the same thing.”
For me, that is the definition of growing up. There was a time when each son began a slow transition to fatherhood. Mine starts four years ago. My father felt sick and went to see a doctor. Scans reveal cancer. He is 57 years old, with a marriage to attend and his grandchildren will be broken. As a replacement? He fought for his life. He stopped in the parking lot on the way home and read the report. That says something about the pancreas. He understood he was in trouble. Riding a tributary without rowing on a sailboat, he said.
But the man never backed away. One day, in college, he subverted the All-SEC soccer player for screwing up his brother. He attacked this disease just as cruel. After the first chemotherapy session, he stopped at an oily fast food chain to pick up a sack of sliders, you know to poison. Walking past the hospital with him means understanding his talent for life. All nurses and doctors and patients – especially patients who sit through care alone – call him by name. For each of them, he has a kind word and smile. He raised the energy level of each room he entered.
We went on a fishing trip that he always wanted to do. I know there is no time to waste. We spent several glorious days on the river in Arkansas, filling our coolers with trout, talking late into the night. “I’m not afraid,” he said. Before leaving the fishing grounds, I made a reservation for a year later. This, he said, we must do again. “We will be here,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I guarantee it.”
Returning home, he spent hours alone, in his place behind the house. There are cliffs out there, and brick walls, and tall oaks and rivers. He would sit there, far past sunset, and he would think of his life. That’s where he prepared to die. One day, my mother pointed at her reflection, tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks, and said, “That just breaks my heart. I think she’s scared.”
Still, he read the right books, by the preachers and by Lance Armstrong, and he will make it clear that he does not want to know the possibility. So we did not tell. But we know. And it is not good. I cried the first time I searched for pancreatic cancer on Google. What would I do without father?
Only, sometimes, it happens like in the movies. He responds to chemotherapy. Doctors saw the tumor shrink and, finally, the scan revealed he was cancer-free. We can not believe it. He did not act surprised.
Of course, I was at the Masters when we got the news.
Father and I immediately made plans for a vacation. We will return to Destin, where he will find my animal puppet. I bought a ticket and, the day after the tournament, I went to Atlanta, met him at the airport and, together, we flew south. In the air, I gave him my Masters media credentials. He gathered them together, making them hang in the mirror of his bathroom to remind himself that his son had gone somewhere. He appreciated the parking ticket too, and, faithfully stuck it to his truck after I left Augusta.
In Florida, we sat in lounge chairs by the ocean. We ate quail and grits, and Father talked about the place to give us a recipe. We drive a Mustang convertible with the top rolled, and we make a plan. His reprieve made him realize that he needed to stop practicing law 16 hours a day and do the things he had always dreamed of. He wanted to visit China, standing on the canyon. He wants to see Tuscany, rent a villa.
Mostly, he wants to go with me to the Masters.
“It’s a deal that’s been done,” I told him. “Done.”
We celebrate his birthday. I take dinner, first and only when I do it. We laughed, and I gave him a present: the black Masters jacket. He lifted it in front of him, staring at me, words failed. He wore it and went out to read. I go to bed. With cancer gone, time is no longer valuable; we have all the time in the world. But there was something that made me look at the last time, seeing it sitting on the balcony, thin and pale, waves crashing somewhere in the dark, a thin band of smoke rising from an ashtray.
THREE MONTHS LATER, I got a call. I was in Pittsburgh for the Chelsea-AC Roma football match. Mama cried. They ran several tests and the results were entered.
“It’s cancer,” he sobbed.
Two months later, he felt unwell and went to the hospital. The doctors are not too worried. Mama and Daddy ask, “Do we need to call a boy?” Love is a strange thing – you move from a fraternal dance to a church altar to a cold hospital room, asking: Will one of us die? The doctors said no.
They are wrong.
When I sat in Kansas City, watching the movie “Miracle,” my father died. Just a few more days from our fishing trip. My mother didn’t want to tell me until I returned to Mississippi, so she made the toughest phone call of her life. After watching her 34-year-old husband take his last breath, she called me and said it didn’t look good and I needed to bring a suit. I refused to pack burial clothes, holding out hope.
The next morning, I landed in Memphis and carried the escalator to the trunk. I see my brother, William, at the bottom. I smiled and waved. He just shook his head. At that moment, my mother came out from behind the board. I know.
“Your sweet father died,” he said.
I dropped my suitcase and cellphone. Someone got it, I guess. The next moments are fragments. Parking garage, quiet car, relatives, applause, looking away, driving, building, thirsty, I’m really thirsty, can someone please get me water, traffic, interstate roads, highways, driving roads. I can only issue one question.
“Is he afraid?” I ask.
Mama shook her head.
The funeral week was hazy. When we chose his favorite Zegna sports coat, I went to his bathroom, holding the Masters mandate in my hand. I took it out, put it in my jacket pocket. If there is a Augusta National in heaven, I want him to enter.
“Sorry, Father,” I said into the air, “you can’t leave.”
Seven months later, I returned to Augusta. It was a difficult week. I put on a pair of shoes around the field, trying to walk for him. I wrote a column about it for my newspaper and, as I do now, try to find some closure. Then, I believe my sadness ended with the catharsis of the last paragraph. I am naive, because I found out when I returned to Augusta in the years to come, finding my pain stronger each time.
Exactly a year after he died, my family gathered at home. We have baby trees, growing from oaks that come from sturdy oaks in the legendary Ole Miss Grove, where Dad spent so many happy afternoons. We gather where he sits, where he makes peace, and we dig small holes, fill them with young tree roots and pots. I carefully pat the earth around the stalk. Then finished.
That night, I could not sleep. Outside, it rained, soaking its soft roots. One inch of rain, then two, then more. River rises. I was worried about my father’s tree, so I went out just in case. Soaked, cold, shivering, I stood near a tree, protecting it because I could not protect it.
I stared past the cliffs and the brick walls and the river. Dark sky. I wondered if Father was looking down on me, watching me, seeing my successes and failures. I wondered if he was proud of me. I wondered if there was a way I could still ask and he could still give me an answer. I always rely on him for the answer.
“Father,” I said loudly, “are you out there?”
I waited, but I did not hear an answer, only a broken window of water fell from the sky.
MAYBE I WILL FIND the answer was here, in the place he loved so much. Is that crazy? It seems like nothing is crazy to me anymore. The grass glowed like a polished green mirror. Flowers explode with rainbow shrapnel: pink, purple, white, yellow. But, for the most part, I see fathers and sons, like Livelys from Charleston, W.Va, sitting in front of me, watching par-3 tournaments. For 15 years, he entered the lottery for a training ticket. This year, he won, and he took two of his sons out of school for a day. I want that to be us.
Descended by Ike’s Pond, television reporter Jim Gray interviewed the players as they left the field. He asked what I was doing, and when I told him he nodded, pointing to a white-haired man sitting in the sun under the water. That’s Jerry Gray, his father, and for 16 years, he came with his famous son to Augusta. “This is the only week we spend together all year,” Jim told me, and, once again, I was jealous. It seems unfair. Sometimes, a boy needs a father.
I had just been married about a year ago, and I knew he would be happy to stand in front of the church. On one side, he: In my tuxedo pocket, I carried a yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet and, when Sonia started down the aisle, I rubbed it once, just to let her know, if she watched, that she might leave but she wasn’t forgotten.
I just bought my first home, and I know he will know if I want a 15-year-old balloon. What is a good interest rate? How do I choose the environment? What is PMI?
I am thinking of starting my own family one day, and I want to know how to be a good father. What should I let my child do? What should I tell him about crossing the road? About sex? How do you remove debris without making it cry? How to make him love you more than life itself? I know he knows the answer, especially the last one.
So I’ve been looking for. I tried to find messages, things that he might have left to guide me to the right path. I know he thinks like that. For months after his death, my mother found a flashlight in every room of the house. Big ones, small ones, medium sized ones, all with new batteries. Then he realized: He would put it there when he left, in case he was afraid in the dark, alone.
Every now and then, I will find something new. I have a note of him leaving me when I visited him for what turned out to be the last time. There is a quote: “To influence people, ask for their dreams and aspirations, not just their needs.” He wrote in blue ink: WWT, Jr., We are very glad you went home for a few days. Love, father.
Or the prayer he read on his last Thanksgiving, when we all still believed. Maybe he knows differently, because he writes, for himself at the bottom: “What a wonderful prayer for all of us on this Thanksgiving, and for all tomorrow that we all cannot accept.”
But small whispers and encouragement rarely occurred, so I tried to find a little wisdom and comfort in his presence in places he liked. I ate at The Mayflower Café in Jackson, Miss. I lived in the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, DC, and now, I have come here, to this beautiful and youthful cathedral, walking up and down the perfectly maintained fairway, hoping to find a father. I walk to No. 10, cross 15 near the stands, work back and forth through pine trees, walk towards Amin Corner. He first told me about it. The most amazing place on golf, he said respectfully. Maybe he will be here. Maybe he knows his son is missing.
I climbed a bench, found a place to sit by myself. When I stood on a rainy night near that little tree, I tried to talk to him. There are a few things I need to ask. How do you become a father? Are you proud of me?
“Father,” I whispered, “are you out there?”
Something extraordinary happened. Understand that I do not believe in things like this and I believe it is a coincidence … but, when the words come out of my mouth, from across the street, the roar rises from the gallery, breaks the silence, voices gather pat festive hand, moving through the pine until it disappears, silent back to Amen Corner.
COLLECTORS COME AND Go. As the sun warmed my face, Jim and Jerry Gray climbed on the bench. They watched groups move and, as they walked away, Jim carefully lifted the rope so that his father could slip under it. This is a touching moment, something a good son must do for his father.
Watching this, I realized something. Even though I’m related to Jim, I also hope that one day, my son will do the same for me. That’s the way father and son. The hole in your chest after losing your father was never filled. You do not get a new father. You are yourself, and my transition from son to father is almost complete.
I walk again. As the clubhouse grew bigger on the horizon, I saw a father and son standing near the 10th fairway. Both of them are wearing golf clothes. I saw myself in the father, wishing he could form his son like his own father had formed it.
It occurred to me that all my questions had been answered. I have been shown how to be a father. I just need to waste a little time so he has to dive. I had to make sure he didn’t lose his stuffed animal, and I had to take him fishing and I had to make him promise not to tell Mama. I need to make sure he knows that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar and if it feels wrong, that’s right. I need to watch “The Guns of Navarone” with him. And I need him to lie next to me, on our tumbucket, when I explain about the golf tournament in April in Georgia, about Amen Corner and Jack Nicklaus and I need to tell little Walter Wright Thompson III that his grandfather is great, great human.
The clubhouse is in front of me now, and I have one last assignment. One time I bought my Daddy’s clothes and my windbreaker. This afternoon, I have something different in mind. I hurried to the large golf shop, past framed posters and women’s clothing behind the shop. This is an unknown territory. I searched the walls for the things I wanted, and I asked the clerk to put them down.
I bought a small green Masters, then I chose a small knit golf shirt, for toddlers. I have one like that, so, one day in the next few years, when I finally become a father and continue this eternal cycle, my son (daughter) can have a connection to this place that means a lot to me.
At the counter, the woman took off the tag. When he saw the cute little clothes, he whispered. His words make me hope.
“Oh,” he said, “good father!”
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