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Inner voice helps ease painful loss


I'm heading down to Miami later this week to cover the Super Bowl, and there'll be a voice in my head that no one else hears.

Don't worry, I don't need professional help. It's not what you think.

My father died a couple of weeks ago, as suddenly as anyone can die with heart problems at age 80. He went to the hospital for a minor operation, and he never came out.

There's no way to prepare for it, and I'm still reeling. My father and I were close, extremely so. We never had any of the "issues" that often come between fathers and sons. We never even had a cross word.

He lived in Texas, but we still saw each other several times a year and spoke three times a week on the phone, solving all the world's problems and always getting around to pro football, his favorite sport.

The calls have stopped, abruptly and heartbreakingly, but the darndest and most wonderful thing keeps happening. I keep hearing him.

No, I'm not suggesting that he's reaching out and talking to me from above. It's nothing that otherworldly. I just knew him so well that I know how he'd react to what's going on in his absence, and I keep hearing those reactions, in a voice as clear and reassuring as any conversation we ever had.

He was a physician and a professor of medicine for 50 years, a gentle man with an arch sense of humor and a strong set of priorities -- family first, medicine second and pro football third, with the latter occasionally placed higher. He also played a lot of golf, although he tended to "retire" once a week somewhere on the back nine.

When I was growing up, he never missed my games and always made his point at dinner without raising his voice. As he grew older, he never forgot how to smile.

He would have laughed until he cried at the ghoulish funeral parlor scene, where one of our options for his memorial service was "the rental unit." How's that for a visual?

The service itself was a glowing testimonial with many of his former students packing the sanctuary. He would have beamed. And when it was over, he would have leaned over to me and whispered, "Don't believe a word."

We didn't need sports as a common ground to bond over, but we did, anyway. Had we spoken last Monday as usual, to review the NFL's conference championship games, he would have reminded me of what he'd said about the Minnesota Vikings' high-flying style, that it was all wrong for playoff success. He believed in the old school of football. A defense and a running game was better in the end. He was right, wasn't he?

That it was the Falcons who'd upset the Vikings would have delighted him. He rooted for Falcons coach Dan Reeves, as do many longtime fans of the Dallas Cowboys, who remember Reeves as a crafty halfback playing with Don Meredith and Bob Hayes in the Cotton Bowl.

My father, born and raised in Winston-Salem, N.C., felt a bond with Reeves, who is from Georgia. They're a pair of dapper, courtly Southerners who never lost their accents. Both had heart problems in December.

There's no doubt who my father would have rooted for next Sunday, when the Falcons play the Broncos.

"Reeves should win one [Super Bowl] as a coach," he'd say. "He's a pretty good coach, you know."

I'll hear him say it all week.

And I'll root for the Falcons in his honor, not that it matters to anyone but me.

Of all the events his son the sports columnist covered, the Super Bowl always excited him the most. Well, that's not entirely true. The Masters got him going, too. I scared up a ticket for him a few years ago, no mean feat, and spent the weekend walking the fairways of Augusta National with him. You could say I'm sort of glad I did that.

But the Super Bowl was the biggest of the big time in his eyes. He'd always call several times during the week, finding me in my hotel room while I was writing. He'd want to know the scoop, what the players were saying, what everyone thought would happen.

Every father should make their sons feel so important.

Like a lot of people, I'd dreaded this saddest of life's passages. Now I know why. It punches a hole in your world that you can't fix.

Sure, I can find solace in the positives, of which there are many. I was lucky that I had him for so long, and that we got on so well, and that he had such a long and happy life. Those are blessings I don't take for granted.

But what gives me the most comfort, I'm finding, is the sound of his voice and the way it keeps coming back to me, sometimes when I least expect it, like when I'm sitting at a stoplight or riding in an elevator or, say, just climbing the stairs.

I would never have guessed that such a thing could happen, but I'm glad that it does, and I hope it keeps happening. He's still making me laugh.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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