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I told my injured son, ‘You don’t have to run,’ but he did

I arrive and sprint to the field. I see my son running laboriously, grimacing, jackknifed with pain as he continues to put one foot in front of the other.

John W. Fountain with his son Malik
John Fountain with his son Malik

This week’s column is the last in a series titled “Love Letters To My Son” — a collection of random texts, notes and letters between John Fountain and his son, now 17 and a high school senior.

Wednesday July 31, Son abroad for the summer at Oxford University — Dad: “Dear Malik, I am so proud of you. Proud of who you are. Proud of who you are becoming.

“… We have missed you every single day. Our hearts and home are incomplete without your presence. … Can’t wait to see you, son.”

A cold rainy Saturday in October — Dad: I roll south with anxiety on the highway. Malik is running in the regional cross-country meet in Kankakee at 11 a.m., where he just missed qualifying for the sectionals last year. He had gotten injured in practice lifting weights before last year’s race. He was crushed.

It was a season of lessons: Men must deal with disappointment. Cry if you must. Regroup. Keep running. Vow to come back stronger next year.

Next year had come — his senior year, his last year to try and get to state, at least past regionals. He was peaking after finally getting his running legs back toward season’s end, finishing first among his teammates over the last few weeks, running hard, strong. His strength training and stick-to-itiveness had paid off. His plan — our plan — was working.

Then it happened. Somewhere between running in the last meet before regionals and a downtown parade with the marching band, he had injured his lower right calf. We iced it, massaged, stretched and rested, trying to get ready for Saturday’s race. But it was looking more and more like it would be a factor. He had awakened in good spirits but still in pain.

When my son and I walked the regionals course the evening before — as we have over the last two years — in preparation for the race, he limped and grimaced. And it appeared doubtful that he could be competitive, if run at all.

I worried that running might cause greater injury. I also felt deeply his disappointment, understood his anger.

“Malik, you don’t have to run, son,” I had told him as we walked the course.

“I do,” he said defiantly.

“Son, you really don’t, it’s OK. It’s not your fault that you’re injured. You don’t have to run …”

“I do.”

Even as I drive toward the meet, less than 24 hours later, I am not sure how he will fare. My cell phone rings. It is his mother. The officials are starting the race early. The teams are lining up.

“How’s he looking?”

“He’s hurting,” my wife says, her voice cracking.

My heart beat fast. I stepped on the gas. “I’m coming.”

The rain is pouring, and I am still a few miles away when my phone rings again. “Babe, he’s really hurting. I don’t think he can finish,” his mom says, her voice surging with pain and emotion. “I’m going to tell him he can stop ...”

“Don’t! I got him, I got him. I’m almost there.”

I arrive and sprint to the field. I see my son running laboriously, grimacing, jackknifed with pain as he continues to put one foot in front of the other. Not toward the front of the pack as usual but way in the back.

I run into the woods, where I hope to encourage him as he rounds the bend, uncertain if he can finish. I don’t see him. I wonder if he has stopped. Then suddenly …

I see him, limping, his face etched in pain and disappointment, running with determination to finish what he started.

I manage to hold back my tears until he passes. Then I let them roll freely. For a son whom I have witnessed matriculate toward manhood. A son who will always make my heart sing. A son who makes me overjoyed to be his father.

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