Chasing The Hawk: Looking For My Father, Finding Myself

Overview

“I have always chased my father, chased after his love, chased him through his many changes.

I chased him even when I thought I was running in the other direction.

Today, even though he is gone, I chase him still.

I know he is the ...
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Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself

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Overview

“I have always chased my father, chased after his love, chased him through his many changes.

I chased him even when I thought I was running in the other direction.

Today, even though he is gone, I chase him still.

I know he is the key to my freedom.”

To runners around the world, Dr. George Sheehan, author of the landmark New York Times bestseller Running and Being, was nothing short of a guru — the country’s “greatest philosopher of sport.”

But to his son Andrew, who had spent his entire boyhood longing for the attention and approval of an emotionally distant father, he was an incomprehensible paradox: a lifelong loner, who was now sunning himself in the spotlight of the nation’s press; a hero to millions, who seemed to have no time for his own son.

The events that transformed George Sheehan from doctor to family man to bestselling author and media magnet began at the depths of what we would now call a midlife crisis, when he rediscovered an old love — running.

Twenty-five years after his days on a high school cross-country team, he remembered how running made him feel free, and began beating a solitary path down his suburban streets. With running as his new religion, the formerly quiet, withdrawn man became an unlikely evangelist, converting a sedentary nation to the theology of fitness, and in the process becoming an internationally known figure.

But the freedom he found in running was not enough, and one day he left his family, having decided that life was “an experiment of one,” and it was time for him to start living it.

Angry anddisillusioned after years of enduring his father’s self-absorption, and hurt by his apparent indifference, Andrew had long since begun the search for his own version of freedom, looking first to drugs and later to alcohol. By his twenties he was a confirmed alcoholic. By his thirties his marriage had fallen apart and he was drinking more heavily than ever.

It was at that moment that his father threw him a lifeline. Although he was struggling with the cancer that would eventually end his life, Dr. Sheehan was the first to notice his son’s pain, and to reach out to him.

In this stunningly candid book, Andrew Sheehan describes the process through which these two men carefully and lovingly rebuilt their relationship. And in the effort to understand and forgive the dark side of his father’s psyche, Andrew shows how he came to understand, and to transcend, his own.

A gracefully written paean to the healing power of forgiveness, a memoir that will resonate with any “fallible” parent or child, Chasing the Hawk traces the arduous steps that carry father and son down the hard road to resolution, healing, and love.

About the Author: Andrew Sheehan is an investigative journalist for a television station in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Veteran booksellers will recognize the name of Andrew Sheehan's dad, the pater in this moving father-son memoir. Dr. George Sheehan, known as "the runner's guru," was the author of the New York Times bestseller Running and Being. His love of running, rekindled in middle age, made the elder Sheehan a national media figure, but his fame and success robbed him of any closeness with his 12 children. As his father's celebrity grew, young Andrew Sheehan became more angry and disillusioned, reacting against his father's fitness regimen with alcoholic binges and drug-distorted tantrums. One painful marriage later, he descended into an endless cycle of substance abuse. And then his father, himself dying of cancer, offered him a lifeline. A poignant work that can be compared to Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life or Mary Karr's The Liars' Club.
Robert Lipsyte
A smart, tough, beautifully written love story of a father and son, one drunk on fame, the other enraptured by drink. Their missed connections are heartbreaking, their final reunion and forgiveness inspiring.
Caroline Knapp
Sheehan has a painful story to tell about missed connections, fallible parents, the currents of rage and longing that both separate and bind family members and he tells it beautifully, with grace and insight and unflinching honesty.
Peter Quinn
Andrew Sheehan's Chasing the Hawk is a courageously candid account of a son's relationship with his father. A uniquely individual story, written with clarity and grace, it is also a moving reflection on the universal struggle to reconcile truth and love. This is a book that should be read by every father, and every son, and every person who wishes to understand how human frailty and failure can be transformed by honesty, forgiveness and hope. It is one of those rare books that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Marc Parent
Andrew Sheehan’s writing sparkles with the pain and beauty of truth. Chasing the Hawk is a love story that ebbs with gentle complexity before crashing head-long against the rocky shores of fathers and sons.
Lewis Nordan
A truly beautiful book ... Sheehan has gone straight to the heart of the matter and has written one of the best father-son books ever.
Frank McCourt
This is a thank-you note to Andrew Sheehan for putting down the glass and taking up the pen to write his story, Chasing the Hawk. Yes, it’s an old story drink and recovery from drink, loss of faith and recovery of faith. The ingredients are Irish and Catholic the American variety but the writing is fresh and clean as a Hail Mary pass.
Malachy McCourt
This book is so profound and moving that it would bring tears to a statue. Sheehan is a man who drank and sank and resurfaced to find and finally embrace his distant, dying father. A triumphant love story with victory over alcohol, over anger, over depression, over self. This book is for those who have loved and lost and for those who have loved and won.
Publishers Weekly
Unblinking honesty is the hallmark of journalist Sheehan's searing examination of his demons, of his father and of their joint redemption. That honesty is one among many blessings and burdens passed down by Sheehan's father, George, an Irish Catholic cardiologist who drummed a creed of duty, hard work, success and large families into his son and found salvation through running, becoming a leading spokesperson for the sport in America in the 1970s. In Sheehan's portrait, George was a solitary man not temperamentally suited to being a father, who thrived on exploring new ideas and resented having so many of his life choices made for him. When George discovered his passion for running, his emotional neglect of his family grew in direct proportion to his surging fame as a running guru. Father and son may have shared running (Sheehan's stories of the marathons they ran together are particularly fresh), but that was not enough to satisfy Andrew's growing need for approval and support as a teenager. Emotionally adrift, he turned to beer and drugs in earnest upon entering college. Although the spiral of dependence and denial that ensued will be familiar to friends and families of alcoholics, what distinguishes Sheehan's memoir is his steady calibration of the shifting emotional temperatures within the complex yet surprisingly sturdy Sheehan family. Years of repressed knowledge emerge with startling eloquence at unexpected moments: at Sheehan's first wedding, Andrew's mother tells his bride, "Give him plenty of love. Because he never got any." Readers will find their sympathies vacillating as the stakes rise with infidelities, pledges to reform, resentments and confrontations, until Sheehan'sintense and lyrical writing leads readers to appreciate not only the intricate interdependence in the Sheehan household but also the force of will necessary to break patterns that imprisoned them for decades. (Sept. 11) Forecast: Blurbs from Frank McCourt, Malachy McCourt and Caroline Knapp will help draw attention to this turbulent tale of an Irish Catholic family in crisis. Those who revered George Sheehan as a running guru will also be rewarded with much to ponder about the private man. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"I had always chased my father, chased after his love, chased him through his many changes. I chased him even when I thought I was running in the other direction. Today, even though he is gone, I chase him still. I know he is the key to my freedom." Andrew Sheehan's father was Dr. George Sheehan, a physician well known in the 1970s for his syndicated column popularizing running as a fitness activity. After achieving fame, he left his profession to become a full-time writer and motivational speaker; he also neglected, and eventually left, his wife and children. As a teenager, Andrew, who shared his father's love of running, repeatedly sought his father's love and approval. Disillusioned, he turned to drugs and alcohol, becoming an alcoholic in his twenties. During his father's final years, Andrew, now a journalist, realized he needed to understand his father in order to understand himself. This beautifully told story of loss, pain, and recovery is reminiscent of Christopher Dickey's Summer of Deliverance (LJ 7/98). George Sheehan himself wrote of his final struggle with cancer and his reconciliation with his family in Going the Distance (LJ 3/15/96). Recommended for all libraries. Lucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Like father, like son. Newspaperman Sheehan's potent memoir finds a lot of unfortunate parallels between his own and his father's lives: drinking gone sour, marriages abandoned, a furious pursuit of freedom that turned both remote, then solitary. Sheehan always remembers running after the love of his father. George was a doctor, son of a New York Irish doctor, who worked dawn to dark to get beyond what he saw as the confines of his heritage. He was an absence to his 12 children, and Andrew, smack in the middle, acutely felt the lack of attention. Sheehan tries to get a grasp of the situation by exploring how his father's sense of insecurity and inadequacy might have made him unapproachable. The two shared time together, but never enough. And there was alcohol: "Even in temperate Irish households, alcohol was always a presence, a specter from the past kept at bay, in hope that if no one acknowledges it, the beast will just someday roll over and die." For neither man was it so temperate. Worse still, when George gained fame as a running guru in the 1960s, he started to pursue women, forsaking his family. His mother would always accept him back, but after he had entered into the family's midst, he would take what he wanted and then leave again. Sheehan follows along in his father's footsteps: a runner, a writer, an escaper from responsibility and from his own emotional life. As the son gathers the rubble of his life, George discovers he has inoperable prostate cancer. He wakes up to the glory of his family, and the pages devoted to this time are heartbreaking in their beauty and unadorned brevity. Enough ache here to fill more than a lifetime, albeit with reconciliation at theend and a "father who wondered at the beauty of his son and could claim no influence."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385335614
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/4/2001
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.37 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Sheehan is an investigative journalist for a television station in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife and two sons.
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Read an Excerpt

When I think of him now, I see him at dawn, driven from his bed by the sun and headed down to the ocean for his morning dip. But having never actually witnessed it, I find it odd that of all the images I hold of him in my head, this is the one that returns most often. By the time it had become part of his daily routine, I no longer lived at home, and when I visited, I was never up at that hour. Still, it makes a certain kind of sense that this particular ritual should come to mind. Swimming in the morning was something my father did alone, for the specific purpose of being by himself, and I always think of him that way — alone and apart. He was away a good deal of the time, and even when he was among us, he was a solitary man.

In my mind I see him on this morning a few years before his death. He has pulled on his running shorts, grabbed a towel from the bathroom, and, without showering or shaving, is ambling barefoot down the stairs to the front door. Exiting onto the porch, he pauses for a moment. His bony hand rests on his hip as he stares off at the ocean horizon and loses himself in the arrhythmic clank of the rope and clasp against the town flagpole, still flagless at this hour of the morning. The scavenger gulls screech at one another as they hover and descend over the boardwalk, fighting over a loose scrap of garbage. A few other gulls loiter nearby, taking furtive steps, staring sidelong and gangsterish.

The house fronts Ocean Avenue, which as the name implies runs parallel to the beach, and from the porch you can see across the road to the boardwalk, the beach, and the ocean beyond. It’s late September, the official best time of year in my family. Thecrowds are gone, and the air is cooler, cleaner now. The light has a special clarity that seems to intensify all colors: the blues of sky and ocean, the green of the small patch of grass in front of the house, the yellow sandstone road. This makes for a disarmingly pretty scene, even as the town itself shows the creeping signs of disrepair. The boardwalk, gray now, has begun to warp along the edges. The pier seems to dip in mid-span, and at the far end, an old fisherman’s shack lists leftward, threatening to topple into the water. The beach itself has begun shrinking at an alarming pace, the ocean’s advance now within a hundred feet of the boardwalk.

Like many shore towns, its best days now seem consigned to the past. Still, you sense that an infusion of yuppie cash and sweat could make it into a postcard scene once again, a scene not far removed from the one depicted in the hand-tinted photo from the 1920s that my mother has framed and hung in a bathroom upstairs — minus, of course, the parasol-carrying ladies in full-skirted neck-to-toe dresses. The lower right-hand corner of this bit of tourist memorabilia bears the caption: “The Seashore at Ocean Grove, New Jersey.”

I never lived in Ocean Grove — I was on my own before my parents moved there — and when I visited, I would generally have gone to bed only hours before my father’s sunrise swim, most likely to sleep off another late night of drinking. And yet I see him in my mind’s eye as clearly as if watching from a bedroom window — his spidery frame treading lightly across Ocean Avenue, mindful of bits of glass, treading lightly across the boardwalk, mindful of splinters, and down that small flight of wooden steps to the beach. He has a peculiar, almost feminine waddle to his walk, and in the sand it’s even more pronounced: chest out, shoulders back, arms and hands dangling loosely behind him. With the sun still barely free of the ocean, he saunters to the edge of the wet sand, and for a moment he ponders the ocean’s chaos of blue and gray, his great unending theater.

He has never been conventionally good-looking, but even early on, he had a kind of Bogie-like handsomeness. His teeth have always been crooked, and he has an overbite, so when his lips purse, he looks a bit odd, like a fish. The weak chin is countered by the great hawklike nose which juts from his face like the blade of a hatchet. When he was younger it sat squarely in the middle of a soft, pudgy face, but as he has aged, his face has grown strikingly angular around it. His face has wizened. The lines have deepened, accentuating his blue-gray eyes. A certain Irishness has broken through, and his look has grown kindly.

As he walks into the shallow white water, it’s as though I am walking alongside. Instantly, I feel the cold with him: the shock of it repels and invites at the same time. I can see him grimace, all teeth and squinty eyes, as he wades in waist-deep, and I hear as he hears the repeating crash and withdrawing snore of the waves. Raising his arms above his head, he strides into the deeper water, then plunges under the first wave available. As he invariably did, he lets out a yell of frigid shock upon his reemergence. “WooooooHoooooo.” The faint echo of it bounces off the Victorian guesthouses along Ocean Avenue, and the row of facades stares impassively back. The morning silence returns except for the sounds of gulls and waves. He dives deep, and then deeper still, searching for that even-colder water that rushes blood to his head and every limb.

To know him at all is to know that he loves the water — loves the feel of it and loves the smell. Even here. Even though there is something distinctly Jersey about it. The tar, perhaps, or maybe some hint of gas or petroleum. Even at its most pungent, it doesn’t bother him, because he knows it keeps others away. And it puts him in mind of what Emerson meant in his one-sentence assault on perfectionism: “Everything God made has a crack.” One of his favorite, and oft-quoted, quotes.

He is a quoter of dead philosophers, an intrepid searcher of usable quotes. He scours books for them like a prospector panning for gold, and when something quotable gleams back from a page of black and white, he plucks it out and stashes it with the rest. They pepper his articles and talks, and even in conversation he drops a half dozen within the first five minutes. He has a particular fondness for a quote he attributes to William James. It went underground for a few years but has resurfaced at the time of this scene I have conjured so vividly. “The strenuous life tastes best.” It describes this morning and many mornings like it. There must be challenge, and if there is none, challenge will have to be created.

He has found the strenuous life in running, and more specifically in running marathons, an activity that’s about as strenuous as it could be without being downright masochistic. Having run more than fifty marathons and written about each one, he has become the recipient of improbable fame, imploring others to live strenuously and to taste of life rather than endure its passing. Even now, on this morning. Even though he can run no more marathons, he won’t give up running, and he won’t give up these early swims. His body, so recently asleep, is now completely alive. The smells, the screeching gulls, the salt water around his lips — on an empty stomach, he’s tempted to drink it. Afterward, he’ll swear he could taste it. “Fantastic,” he’ll report.

It’s not that he’s ever been any kind of swimmer. He is not. In fact, he’s never been able to swim more than a few laps in a pool without swallowing water. Despite his great love of the ocean, he is forever drawn back to the land, keeping his forays within fifty yards of shore. He’s never been a fisherman, and, ex-navy man that he is, his brief fantasy of buying a boat sank quickly, scuttled by his fear of machinery, seasickness, and nautical incompetence. He excels, however, at the one water sport of bodysurfing, the art of riding waves without a surfboard. And although he has never taught me, or anyone else in my family, how to do much of anything, we all learned how to do that by watching him. From the beach, we’d watch him — just as I seem to watch him now — as he swam out just past the breaking waves and treaded water, craning his neck to scan the horizon for the next large swell. As it mounted, he’d swivel and begin swimming shoreward.

It’s all about timing, bodysurfing. If you can get inside the swell of the wave just before it breaks, it will lift you and throw you out in front, hurtling you toward the beach. Once you catch the wave, your work is suddenly over. The wave simply takes you. The sensation is one of gliding; you glide on top of the flat water stretched out before you, rocketing headlong toward the beach. Weekenders never seem to get it. Even those who manage tend to ride the incoming waves with their arms thrust out in front, like Superman. My father, by contrast, cuts the water like the figurehead of an old ship, always riding his waves with his arms at his sides. He dips his head into the flat water before him, and, shaking it off with a quick flick, he yells, “WaaaaaaHoooooo.” For him, it’s play: the highest of all human pursuits. Play needs no justification. It is the thing itself. The laboratory of all creativity. The chance for greatness.

The ocean kicks up in September. The waves, often big and well formed, offer long rides, even thrilling ones. On this day, however, two rides are enough, and at the end of the second he stands up in the shallows and trudges up the sandbar to his towel. He falters as he leans into the slight slope of the dry sand. His legs, thinner now and spindly, shimmy under his own weight. As he falls to one knee, he braces himself with an outstretched arm. He has lived a strenuous life, and he is determined to live the rest of it as strenuously as possible. But now he has cancer, and it is making new rules. It’s spreading through his bones and coursing through his blood, curtailing his movements and shortening his hours. There can be no telling when the end will be, only that it will come too soon. “Carpe diem,” he says of late. And I wonder if that’s what he’s thinking as he stands there. “Seize the day.” For a moment, as he looks down at the drops of ocean water falling from his trunks onto the sand, it’s as though I too am looking down, staring at his knobby feet as if they are my own. Together, it seems, we look up at the waves.

Along with a talent for bodysurfing, my father somehow passed to me his susceptibility to the ocean and its hypnotic snare. Now I watch as his eyes fix on the ocean, following the ebb and flow of the waves in infinite permutation. Never twice the same. Trying to scan it all, he’s held in a kind of trance. There was a time when he might have looked out over the breaking waves, thinking himself master and owner of this particular piece of beachfront. One of the rewards, perhaps, of success, fame, and money. No more. He looks at the ocean now, and he is humbled by it, and he is happy to be humbled. “The proper response to life is applause,” he often says, quoting William Carlos Williams. And it seems that in his morning swims he found that purest, most natural form of celebration. A realization that all days should start with a kind of ovation for creation.

Wrapped in his towel and dripping into the sand is where I picture him last, stuck on the sun and water, frozen in place, reluctant to turn and walk back inside. He is reluctant to say goodbye, because he has a hard time imagining that any kind of afterlife could measure up. In the years before he died, he would say goodbye to everything he loved — the ocean and the morning, his friends and family. Still, the more he said goodbye, the less he wanted to go. I see him standing there, so distant and yet so close, and I seem to be able to think his thoughts and to feel his longing.

I can hear him asking himself the questions: Why all the anger and the angst? Why all the hurt people? Why did it take so long for him to find his right place, his right size? And why now, when he seemed to find these things, would they all be so fleeting? I see him standing there, and I realize he is no longer there. He is as he has always been — distant and yet close. I seem to inhabit his body as he sometimes seems to inhabit mine. I feel his questions, and I feel their ache. I know his questions are mine. I know his struggle is my own.

Outside of my family, my father wasn’t at all known for his bodysurfing. He was known instead for his running. In defining himself, he would always start with that word: “Runner.” Perhaps tellingly, it always preceded other words like husband, father, or doctor. He was, after all, George Sheehan, also known as the Runner’s Guru, the Running Doc, the Runner’s Runner. The running sage of hundreds of thousands of runners. The running everyman.

The act of running had transformed him as a human being, and its attendant fame and money had recast his life. So forever after, in most of his waking hours — in conversation, interviews, and his writing — he performed a kind of obeisance to the sport, praising its every virtue. Once, he facetiously defined life as “those annoying spaces of time in between races.”

In the late 1980s — the same period he was taking those morning swims — he stopped running marathons, because of his cancer’s quickening advance. He would still run the shorter races, albeit less frequently, and when training he trained at a slower pace. Still, when I went out running with him, he wasn’t so slow that I didn’t have to struggle to stay abreast of him while holding up my end of one of his long, wandering conversations. So it was on a clear and blustery March day, during a long weekend home, when he and I went out for a five-mile run that stretched into nine miles.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Andrew Sheehan
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2003

    Unforgettable and remarkable real life story!

    If you are any of these things:Irish, a runner, from a family where alcoholism exists, grew up in the 70's, raised in a not-so-perfect home...READ this book! It is a history lesson in how the fitness craze started and with whom as well as a manual on how to: 1)survive a dysfunctional upbringing, and 2)turn yourself from a loser to a winner. I think the hero of this story is not Dr. Sheehan but his son, Andrew.

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