Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Pilgrimage

It's an odd pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage none the less.

While on a bike ride on father's day this year, I made a decision. I was doing some remembering while I enjoyed the solace of the rode and decided that I needed to make this trip. After years of sitting next to my dad in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, and knowing his love for LSU sports, I needed to be in the stadium for the first home game.

My dad had season tickets for LSU Football for as long as I can remember. My mother was happy and relieved when I "came of age" and could take the seat next to my dad. It's not that she doesn't enjoy LSU Football, she just isn't as excited about the warm, humid, crowded nights in Tiger Stadium as some.

I love it.

With the exception of the years that I was a student at LSU, and thus enjoying the cheap seats in the student section, I was my dad's "plus one" if you will. Saturday nights were ours. We'd make the trek to the stadium, grab a bite to eat and then head for the seats in time to see the team warm up. The tradition runs deep in Tigerland and I was happy to be a part of it.

I left Baton Rouge in 1996 and my brother inherited the seat. I still made it back for a game when possible and would reclaim "my seat". There's nothing like the place, the tradition, the purple and gold bond between father and son. That love for LSU sports was the biggest common interest my dad and I shared and it came from him as assuredly as any genetic trait written into my dna at conception. It's more than a team loyalty, it's a heritage. My dad and I both attended classes in these halls, walked these grounds, lived on this campus and enjoyed the shade of these majestic oaks. This place is a part of us and for as long as I can remember, it's where my dad was on any Saturday when the tigers played at home.

My relationship with my dad had its awkward moments. Like any son struggling to find an identity out from under his father's shadow, I drifted away for a while. My dad was my baseball coach for much of my teen years and I played his old position. That can put a strain on a relationship. Still, we survived. In fact, years later I had the pleasure of playing church softball on the same team as my dad. He may have been 20 plus years older than me but he could still hit the ball and run the bases. Come to think of it, he would have been about the age I am now, so I shouldn't be surprised.

My dad was artistic, musical, athletic, dry witted, loved a good western, a trip to the theater and Andy Griffith. These are all things we had in common but many of our best conversations involved LSU sports. So the trip back home for this first home game of the year felt less like a nice thing to do and more like something I needed to do. It was a little like those movies where someone has to make a trip to some mystical place to scatter the ashes of a loved one. Only there were no ashes to scatter, just a need to represent. And so I did.

My brother, who now holds the season tickets, joined me early enough to visit the cemetery on the way to the game. We shared a few stories, laughed a little and then headed to the stadium. We arrived early enough to grab lunch at the student union and watch a few of the early games on the big screens and I took some time to walk the campus alone. The place is full of echoes. So many memories. We grabbed dinner at Louie's (more echoes) and then headed for our seats. The traditions were the same as ever. The game was an easy walk for the Tigers. But it wasn't really about the game. It was about honoring my dad's memory.

The Tigers have gone on to have an historic season. Right now they are 11-0 and ranked #1 in the country with only Arkansas standing between them and a trip to the SEC Championship. My dad would have loved the season and been nervous about every game. There have been many times this year that I've found myself missing him on game day and thinking how proud of his team he'd be. The Alabama game would have made him a wreck and I think the idea of a rematch for the national championship would have made him feel the same way I do. I'd rather not.

Today would have been my parent's 50th wedding anniversary and I'm back home once again. Tonight we'll take my mom to dinner and tomorrow I'll smoke the turkey for thanksgiving. I already feel the empty spot. He'll be missed at the table, but more in other places. The corner chair where he sat to read the paper has been moved. The yard is nicely kept but when I look out it just feels empty. There's no garden.

Honestly it feels like the empty space gets bigger the more I look around, I also know that it won't always be this way. Yes, with time the absence will be less strongly felt. But that's not what gives me comfort. The comfort comes in knowing that my dad was also a man of faith. He placed his life in the hands of Jesus years ago and is in His presence now. Someday we'll all join him and the others who have gone before us and in that place there will be no loss or longing. In the words of the old hymn, "When we all get together, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we'll sing and shout the victory."

Dad, save me a seat.