Excerpt: Rita Cosby's 'Quiet Hero'

Though I know my dad cared about me, he was by his own admission absent more than he was present. He had little involvement in my life. My closest high school friends barely knew him. I don't remember him ever giving me advice about boys. Besides my wonderful love of more than ten years, Tomaczek, I can't recall him ever meeting any of my boyfriends. Even when Dad was home with us, he often seemed far away. He wasn't overtly affectionate. I never remember him saying "I love you," and hugs were few and far between.

Even though he had a great sense of humor and could be gregarious when he wanted to be, he also had a short fuse, and always seemed to be carrying around a weight of anger and frustration. While we were camping, my brother and Dad often went out on expeditions of their own, and my mother and I stayed at the campsite, or went out to gather blueberries, filling large paper cups with the sweet wild fruit. I also spent a lot of time along the craggy coastline, wandering up and down the water's edge collecting artifacts and shells and other castoffs from the sea. It was on that shoreline that I first learned the cruel lesson of life and death. Starfish were a favorite of mine. They seemed so beautiful, these rubbery little stars clinging to the rocks under the water. Once I pulled one out of the ocean, lifting its five legs carefully off the rock it had attached itself to. I wanted to keep it, so I brought it out onto the rocks and watched as it dried in the sun. My mother was horrified when she saw what I'd done.

"It was a living thing!" she said. "You killed it." My mother valued the life of every plant and animal she happened across. Whenever she found a spider in the house she would carefully coax it onto some other surface, and then dart outside to find a suitable shrub or a vacant spot of dirt. She'd set each thing free and wish it well. When she saw the sun-crisped starfish, she couldn't believe that I could be so careless with an animal's life. But my father defended me.

"All things have to die," he said, brusquely. "It's part of life. Some survive and some don't. Sometimes it's the strong and sometimes it's luck, but some make it and some don't. That's life. And Rita needs to understand that." I vividly remember his words to this day, as they seemed like heavy words for a dried-out starfish.

• • •

In his own life, my father was always careful to take good care of himself. He was passionate about his health, and an avid runner, jogging ten, fifteen, or twenty miles at a time. At his encouragement, I became an athlete too, but I was more interested in ballet, or team sports, such as tennis and gymnastics — things that involved teamwork and interaction with others. He was always prodding me to be faster, stronger, better, saying those were important qualities for life.

Even though he often wanted me to run with him, running was too quiet for me, too solitary. But not for my father, who seemed to thrive on the isolation it allowed him. It was almost an addiction. When we went camping he adhered to his strict regimen, running every day, sometimes twice. And it was when he was returning from one of these runs that his scars finally became, for a young girl, profoundly intriguing and impossible to ignore. That day they became a question that could no longer go unasked.

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