I drove through McDonald’s today and I got a cheeseburger and fries. As I bit into a French fry, I had a flashback to childhood…a powerful sense memory of sitting in a McDonald’s in Norman, Oklahoma with my father. It was a scene repeated again and again and again throughout my youth. I’m sure many of you share a similar experience. However, few of you have parents as connected to McDonald’s as my father. He went there on a regular basis. Every day he wasn’t working. When he retired, he went everyday. He knew the staff and they knew his order (a large water and a large ice-tea). No food. He brought his own…homemade bread my mom made in a bread machine and a banana. It got to the point where he could walk in and sit at a table and they would bring his drinks to him. I’m not joking. He got table service at McDonald’s.
My dad was eccentric and he had an amazing ability to get his needs met. For him this was a necessity. He had cerebral palsy, which caused him to walk with a limp, and gave him the use of only one arm. His disability made carrying a tray of liquids particularly precarious. When he got older and had to walk with a cane it became impossible.
His limitations didn’t stop him. He still managed to run over 30 marathons including the New York City and the Boston. In fact, it was during a road trip to a marathon in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada that his passion for McDonald's was sparked.
It was the summer of 1981, I was 8 and my brother, JJ, had just turned 7. The three of us (mom was in nursing school so she couldn’t come) drove from Oklahoma to Canada in Dad’s green Chevy Impala. That was the summer of Juice Newton singing Queen of Hearts, Blonde singing the Tide is High, The Pointer Sisters singing Slow Hand and McDonald’s.
We’d eaten at McDonald’s before, but now we did almost every day. We spent the day on the road playing the license plate game, pretending to be astronauts in the backseat and listening to music. We’d stop for Happy Meals at lunchtime and at the end of the day we’d swim in a motel pool. My brother and I were in heaven.
Never in our lives had JJ and I spent so much uninterrupted time with our dad. We were a team, we were road trippers, and we had a goal. As I write this, I remember that Dad was running this marathon in honor of Terry Fox, a Canadian runner who lost his leg to cancer.
In 1980, Terry Fox set out to run across Canada to raise funds and awareness for cancer. He died before he could finish his run. I think Dad felt a kinship with Terry Fox, as both were disabled runners. We even had t-shirts made that said “Oklahoma Remembers Terry Fox” to wear on the day of the Sudbury Marathon.
Dad came to running by happenstance when his mother suggested he should try to lose a few pounds. He committed to it and it became a passion. He ran every morning. Almost nothing stopped him. When it was raining, he ran. When he had a blister the size of a fist on his foot, he ran. When it was 100 degrees out, he ran. The day I was born, he went running while my mother was in labor.
In high school, I was called to the office to be told that dad was in the hospital with a broken hip. He fell on the ice while running. When he recovered, he was back at it again. Running meant a lot to him. He was so proud to be an athlete. It was something that made him extraordinary…something besides his disability.
He never wanted cerebral palsy to hold him back, and for the most part it didn’t. Though it was understandably frustrating at times.
When a medic saw him limping across the finish line of his first marathon, he ran to dad saying “Let me get you to the medical tent.”
Dad said, “I limp because I have CP.”
The medic said, “Then lets get you there right away!”
Dad said, “Unless you have a cure for CP in that tent, I don’t need it.”
Of course, the guy was only trying to help, and Dad appreciated help. Still, he prized his independence.
As he got older, his body began to fail him. The years of running had taken a toll. Doctors told him he should use a wheel-chair, but doing so would have meant the end of his independence, and he refused. He wanted to continue to live his life without having to completely rely on someone else.
Everyday, he would drive himself to church and then to McDonald’s. That was his routine. It made him happy.
Dad died in August 2013, I learned I was pregnant with my 3rd son a week later. Since then my life has been a whirlwind of new baby, new house, new town, etc.
Grieving his death was shifted to the backburner of my mind. I didn’t have the time or emotional reserve to process it. Plus, the idea of opening up that can of worms was frankly terrifying.
As a therapist, I know that kind of emotional pain doesn’t just go away on its own, but as a person I know it was so much easier to avoid it. It was something I did almost automatically…until today.
When that French Fry triggered the flood of memories and feelings it was actually a relief. I enjoyed remembering Dad as he was in his marathon running heyday. It was nice to learn that grieving isn’t all pain and sadness. I know this was only the beginning of the process. It probably won’t always be pleasant, but I’m finally ready for it.