Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was 16, I was driving home from work on a dark, unfamiliar country road. I hit a turn and couldn’t hold it. My folks got the late-night call that all parents dread.

My parents arrived and learned my friends were OK. I had some cuts and bruises. The car was totaled. On the long ride to the hospital, my dad uttered one terse sentence: you were driving too damn fast.

A few weeks later, I asked my dad if I could buy a car. I had saved my money and I agreed to pay for the vehicle, insurance, gas and maintenance. My father took me to a dealership to help me pick out my first car.

My father trusted that I had learned my lesson. I had been reckless and I could’ve killed my friends and myself.

Over the years, I’ve had a hard time picking out a Father’s Day card for my dad.

We didn’t live those moments so often pictured with the fancy script. We didn’t go fishing together. Or play catch. We didn’t go camping or take long walks with his arm draped over my shoulder. We didn’t have long talks.

My dad was short on words and long on discipline.

I have embarrassing moments of Dad’s reprimands seared in my memory. He marched my sister and me down the aisle and out of church one Sunday when we failed to stop talking and giggling during the sermon. He came to a pizza place where I was hanging with friends and removed me from their company because I wasn’t home on time.

My dad was tough.

I came home once and showed him a test with a ‘C’ marked on it. I told my father it was an “average” grade. He responded that it wasn’t average for me.

My dad was missing a lot. And he missed a lot.

He was a soldier and an officer: his job, his men and his country often took precedence over his family. On weekends when he was home, he played golf and poker. He missed birthday parties and ballet recitals. He missed more than one Christmas.

Last year, my father called to tell me that the doctor had found a shadow on his pancreas. Dad, I said, shadow and pancreas are two words I do not want to hear in the same sentence.

Tests, a second opinion and surgery followed. By the grace of God, my tough dad beat the odds. Next month he’ll celebrate his 80th birthday. When he looks back on his long life, my dad sees that he made mistakes and missed important milestones and moments.

When I look back, I see our tangled, tempestuous father-daughter journey. I also see all the times my father stood by me, when he had my back. When he flew halfway around the world to attend my high school graduation. When he and my mom flew across the country to attend the opening of my photo exhibit.

When I was a young girl, I decided I wanted to dive off the high diving board.

My father agreed, with a condition. If I went up the board, I had to dive. I could not back down. I could not retreat.

I stood in line with the big kids. As I approached the ladder, I started to get nervous. As I climbed the ladder, I started to shake. I clutched the handrails and walked one halting step at a time to the edge of the board. It dipped under my weight. I looked down and realized it was a long way down, much farther than I’d imagined.

My father was treading water, waiting for me.

My legs trembled as I walked back toward the ladder. I looked down. The line of kids had grown longer. My dad was still treading water.

I was afraid to dive and I was afraid to back down the ladder. I’d made a deal. I’d given my word.

I don’t know how long I stood on the edge of that high board and trembled. It was an eternity. Fifteen minutes. 20 maybe. My dad kept treading water.

I finally summoned the courage to place my head between my outstretched hands. I folded over and fell into my first high dive.

My dad was there.


Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.