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Some love stories take 19 years to unfold.
By Maddie DeBilzan
My dad sat on the leather swivel chair with a Ziploc-ed turkey sandwich in one hand and a fishing pole in the other. I knew he wouldn’t eat the sandwich because it was smothered in mayo. He hates mayo.
I hummed to the Taylor Swift music that crackled from my dad’s Blackberry. Occasionally, to keep his ears from bleeding, he’d slip in a Merle Haggard song.
My dad is a stocky, 5-foot-10 goofball who calls my mom “Wildebeest,” my brother “Shark,” his fishing boat “The Angry Lady” and his truck “Letharga.”
When my friends come over he changes into a gray, sweat-stained tank top and a pair of Under Armor spandex leggings, just to embarrass me. He always has at least three holes in his socks. His T-shirts are always an inch too short. He puts ketchup on his tacos and a mound of pepper on his spaghetti.
On the day of the annual Clearwater Lake fishing tournament, he wore his army-green fishing hat. I decorated it one year for Father’s Day, embellishing it with sparkly pink fishing lures and puff-painted stick figures that were supposed to resemble Napoleon Dynamite characters.
I was a scrawny, awkward, tomboy-diva hybrid wearing oversized sunglasses and drowning in a red t-shirt tamed at the bottom by an elastic binder. I loved reading the Babysitter’s Club books. When I went swimming I wore a surf shirt with board shorts. On this particular morning I struggled to brush through my snarled hair, so I threw on a baseball hat. I looked like Angelica Pickles from “Rugrats,” but I knew how to fish.
I’d fished enough to recognize the difference between a little bass and a 36-inch-northern. So when the line beneath my thumb plunged toward the bottom of the lake, I knew: this was not a little bass.
I screeched – a shrill, sixth-grade-girl, everybody-look-at-me kind of scream. My dad, of course, had to tame me.
This fishing tournament was high-stakes, locally sponsored by my grandparents and cousins, and he didn’t want the boats around us to find out about his self-proclaimed personal honeyhole.
My dad wanted me to catch it by myself. I’m sure he knew I probably wouldn’t have been able to set the hook on a fish that big, but he grabbed the net and told me to jerk the pole anyways. I didn’t want to. There’s no worse feeling than missing a monster fish. So I handed the fishing pole to my dad and asked him to set the hook.
Within three seconds the pole was back in my hands, my little arms shaking, my lips mouthing a prayer to God that this fish wouldn’t pull me into the water. My dad scooped up the fish with his net and welcomed it into the boat.
“Great work, Ba. ”
I slapped his slimy hand – half-proud, half-excited and half-wondering why he credited me with the work when he was the one who set the hook.
We won the tournament – $400. As far as everyone was concerned, the little four-foot-five girl caught that monster fish all by herself. I was the talk of the tournament.
My dad sets the hook, I reel for five seconds, and the fish lands in the boat.
“Dad, I’m gonna play basketball someday.”
The Easter Bunny dropped off a basketball hoop in the driveway that year.
Then, when I was in third grade we moved right next to a park with a chained-net basketball hoop and I was finally strong enough to hit the rim.
In high school we moved again — different house, same neighborhood — and I was strong enough to play against my dad. He’d stuff me, stiff-arm me and smack-talk me.
“Shoot it, I dare you. C’mon, you won’t make it.”
My mom used to yell at him for it, but I appreciated the meanness.
The only way I could score against him was by blowing past him and rolling the ball in the hoop with my left hand. Otherwise, he’d swat the ball away.
I’ve beaten him once, but if you ask my dad, he’ll say it didn’t count.
I made the White Bear Lake High School varsity basketball team my sophomore year. I was 3 inches shorter than most girls I played, but I was strong and quick. My team made it to the Minnesota state semifinals. At Williams Arena, where the Gophers play, I rolled a left-handed floater into the hoop — my go-to move with my dad — and it replayed on television as the play of the game.
We lost that game and I cried as soon as I saw my dad. He pulled me in until my nose was against his shoulder and whispered to me.
“It’s just basketball, Maddie. Just play. Just have fun.”
He was right. Before I graduated, my team got to play at the Target Center. Twice. I’ve never had so much fun.
My senior year of high school, my boyfriend of two years broke up with me while we sipped strawberry-banana smoothies at Caribou Coffee.
Tears slipped silently down my cheeks as I drove my purple minivan home. It was a this-won’t-matter-in-a-year kind of day, but it still stung like bad sunburn. My dad is not a man of many words, especially when it comes to dating advice, so he just left a note and a bouquet of flowers on top of my dresser.
When I was in kindergarten my baby brother spilled a jar of vegetable-medley baby food on the frozen pizza, and my dad slammed his fist against the kitchen table. Frozen pizza was a delicacy.
We lived in an 800-square-foot rambler. My mom was a journalist who wrote part-time for a manufacturing magazine and my dad was a financial advisor with less clients than he had fingers. Traveling to Duluth for the weekend was our big vacation for the year.
For weeks, I rarely saw my dad. He was busy studying to earn his Financial Planner certificate. It’s a rigorous process in which only about half the people who take the exam pass. Then we got a letter in the mail. He passed.
To celebrate, we went to Pizza Man.
And sometimes I rewind the record player way, way back, until it’s staticky: my father standing at the altar with trembling hands while my mom walked down the aisle. They were 21 years old. Kids, really. I was the four-year-old flower girl, staring up at the only dad I’ve ever known, whose DNA configurations and last name didn’t match mine.
My dad married his high school sweetheart even though she got pregnant with me at a party when she was 16 years old. When my biological father fled the scene, he jumped in. He was there to hold me at the hospital.
In college, when my mom needed a break, he’d take me into his dorm room. We’d watch Timberwolves games.
Two years after the wedding I was a pigtailed six-year-old standing in front of a stone-faced judge with a changed birth certificate in my hands.
Dad took me out for ice cream afterwards as if we were celebrating a T-ball victory. I had no idea that he’d changed the trajectory of my life by adopting me that day.
My Dad gave me a dad.
He was always there to yell at the basketball refs. He clapped through my dance recitals and gymnastics meets and track races. He told me to keep going even though I pitched an entire softball game without throwing a strike. When my mom wouldn’t let me eat junk food, he’d slip a cookie into my hand. He tells me I’m pretty without makeup.
He does annoying Dad things all the time. He’ll shake his head if he thinks my shorts are too short. Before I leave the house he tells me nothing good happens after midnight. When my boyfriend and I watch a movie in the basement, he goes outside to “work on the yard,” but I know he just wants to keep an eye on us through the sliding glass door.
He has taught me the value of hard work matched with confidence and toughness. He’s the reason why I laced up my basketball shoes in the Target Center locker room and felt the rush of playing in front of thousands of people. He’s the reason why I found some of my best friends at a summer camp in fifth grade, even though I woke him up every night for a month with anxiety beforehand. He’s the reason why I read my Bible before bedtime. He’s the reason why I can mow the lawn and bait a hook and throw a spiral.
He taught me that if my college doesn’t have an intramural basketball league for women, fine. I’ll play with the guys. He taught me that being a girl isn’t an excuse not to be tough.
Because of my dad I wake up in the morning to the sound of my siblings’ eight little feet running across the kitchen floor above me. And because he walks straight into the kitchen every day after work to give my mom a hug, I will never settle for a husband who treats me any differently.
Because Dad has always set the hook, and all I’ve ever had to do is reel.