Pep Talks

Updated: Aug 21, 2018



During the hot summer months after the long and toilsome high school year, he pushed me to wake up at four in the morning—the sun just on the horizon—to run five miles. Years before then, in my middle school days, he dragged me to softball practice and, when I had a day off, planted me on our homemade pitcher’s mound fashioned from the side edge of the driveway and a hole that dug deeper into his perfect lawn with each push off the pavement. “Can’t I just have a day to relax?” I used to complain, slamming the neon yellow ball into my glove.


“You can relax after five more strikes,” he’d reply, and knowing that years of construction work had taken a tremendous toll on his deeply-tanned back, I made the crouching catcher’s position he took in front of the picket fence—fifty yards of wood splinters and sweat—worth the strain.


I hated it. I stifled tantrums and glared my rage at him. I hated practicing and hated my body’s

fatigue. I hated the smile he constantly wore as the ball slapped against the loosened leather of his mitt or when I dove into our inflatable pool after a sweltering run. The deep crow’s feet about his eyes and parentheses around his mustached mouth were valleys of torture as strike after strike and mile after mile were racking up as seemingly useless statistics.


The moment I developed bursitis from years of training on a misaligned hip, however,

he was my gentle father, pushing me to ease up while doing the most I could to heal. He’d tighten the laces on my running shoes, silently telling me to visualize recovery. “You know what I say,” he would embed into his pep talk before each missed cross-country race. “Rest is best.”



Second best mid-distance runner for Southington High’s Track and Field team, they called my father “The Hungry Dog,” always pushing himself as hard as he could and each time

finishing second to his teammate.He trained harder than any player on the high school football team, and though he was technically too small to be playing Varsity, his incredible effort—and a bit of number-fudging on the coaches’ part—pushed him onto the field with his best friends.


He wishes he pursued a career as a Physical Education teacher, but loves working in the dirt, creating foundations for homes that will protect and nurture many families to come. He lost his wedding band in a concrete wall and, despite his efforts, could not get it out before the concrete was much too hard. He wears no wedding band, but loves my mother more than anything, and once in a while I will catch him smiling at her for no reason at all.


Each day, he comes home smelling of dirt or oil. His face is lightly coated with dust, and his jeans are completely covered with concrete, mud, and stains from the years of work they have previously gone through. He smiles at me as I open the screen door, greeting him while he stomps the cement off of his boots and relieves his tired feet of the tall, dirt-stained socks.


The smell of work yards, two-by-fours and propane fill my nostrils as I give him a delicate kiss on the cheek, my lips just barely touching the scruff on his face. This “eau de Construction” finds my senses in Boston once in a while, grounding me more in my second home and host to higher education, and any anxiety I would have had at the moment fades away as it takes me back to chats on the front porch and the loud purr of his diesel truck.



A brief pep talk: A girl named Emily walked up to bat. Compared to me, she was enormous. Her record for home runs was one of the highest the league had ever seen, and I was responsible for striking her out. She tapped the corners of home plate, swung the bat a few times, raised it up, and awaited my slow and accurate pitch.


Normally, pitchers in the league would just throw a bunch of inaccurate pitches, giving her

a walk, and then would take the next batter out. I, however, wasn’t one to give any less than my best. I leaned back, raising my glove to my face, holding the neon yellow ball with the threads just beneath my fingertips. I looked over at my father, clad in his Riverdogs coaching hat and shirt, and he gave me a solid nod—the “go for it” nod.


My foot slid perfectly into the hole in the pitcher’s mound. As soon as I let go of the ball, the

loud ping of the aluminum bat rang in my ears. It was a line drive, coming right at my face.


Leaning to the left, I tried to catch the bright yellow ball with my glove, but it came too fast. I fell backwards when the ball hit my shoulder, as if I had been shot. I screamed profanities as the children up in the tee-ball section of the fields held their hands over their mouths in shock. Through the stars in my eyes, I saw my father leaning over me, pulling me to my feet and walking me toward the medical office.


“You’re going to be okay,” he repeated over and over again, his voice eerily calm, as I hyperventilated, tears streaming endlessly down my face. “You really went down quick, huh? It’s okay—look at you now! You’re on your feet again. You’re okay.”



Since freshman year, I dreamed of being captain of my cross-country team and making my final speech at the last banquet. The podium in front of me, the small lamp illuminating the words I would read, and all of the people I had grown up with, listening to my thoughts, were

all things I visualized constantly. I did not know what the future held for me at sixteen, but I knew exactly what I would say at the end of my address:


"…and thank you, Dad, for pushing me to get up off my butt and run on weekends and for standing by me through injury and in health. Remember when you said, “One day, you’re going to thank me for making you get up and run?” You’ve been the biggest factor in my success, and I will never be able to thank you enough for all that you and Mom have done for me."


And it was true. Behind every five-o’clock wake-up call and late afternoon pitching drill, I found that success takes practice, and practice—even though it was my least favorite thing to do—was the only way I would overcome anything.



“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a stupid thing to do.” The dangerously copious amount of pills taken the night before weren’t the only thing making my stomach hurt. My father’s dark brown eyes had an unusual shade of blue about them as he looked at my hands clutching my midsection.


My mother spoke, telling me that what I did was extremely dangerous, and that I needed

to think about the possible consequences that could have resulted if I had taken slightly more

than those eight Tylenol PMs.


My father just looked on, and though my mother’s words were clear, he seemed to be the only

one in the room. The guilt silenced me, the only sadness in that moment being the disappointment and worry I could see in my father’s eyes.


I sulked back to my bedroom, sitting numb on the edge of my bed, trying to wake myself up. These were not things my father had seen, and I could feel that most of his grief was due to inexperience. It wasn’t that he just wanted everyone to be happy—he did not know what to do when a member of the family was in distress, much like his mother, her mother, and many of my other relatives.


I jumped at the sight of him at my door. As a type of rule, we often found something to laugh about, something to smile about, each moment that we saw one another. Our unsaid relationship was just that. No negativity, always finding the positive in things, but it never felt wholly right. We were only stifling the pain and hurt, not looking to heal those emotions that were very present. We never spoke about depression in depth.


“What are you so sad about, anyway?” he would say.

“I don’t know, Dad. I really don’t know.”

In this moment, the air was still, our mouths on the verge of frowning.

A desperate pep talk: “Amb, you know you can talk to me about anything,” he began, his voice strained. “I am always, always, going to be here for you, no matter what you do or say. You are a wonderful person, and you deserve to be healthy and here, where you have so many people who love you.”


At the hospital, the corners of his eyes scrunch into the warm imprint of crow’s feet as his lips form a gentle smile. There is worry behind his smile-squinted eyes—I see the usual light in them dimming the more he looks upon my tear-drenched face. Never before have I caused so much pain, so much fear in him, and my heart tightens at his forced positivity.


He puts his hand on my knee; welcoming warmth against the numbing cold of the waiting room. His mouth begins to open, and the corners of his mouth slope downward. I curled my

toes, awaiting the blow of a well-deserved guilt trip.


“I am so proud of you.”


I looked down at his hand holding mine, and my eyes traveled up to the white bracelet hugging my wrist.


“I am,” he repeated. He let me hold his hand as tightly as I wanted to, let me cry into his shoulder.


“You’re going to be okay, you know,” he said, a strong smile upon his face as he held his daughter up after being hit with such a powerful blow.


Taking a quick glance at my mother, he placed his forehead against mine, the familiar

smell of earth pushing away the sterility of that unfamiliar and ever-feared place. “You know what I always, always say,” he whispered, straightening the hospital bracelet to properly adorn my wrist.


A brief, freeing pep talk. “Rest is best.”

© 2020 Amber Cunningham.