Nearby, Doc nodded. “Do it.”
Dad looked to his doubles partner, a gentle-hearted retired scientist named Rob, who emigrated from India, and Rob smiled.
“You can do this, Jay,” he said.
And then, Dad strode on the court, and won.
After the Ohio Senior Olympics, Dad and his friends started training in earnest. They traveled to other ping-pong clubs, testing themselves against different players. Doc hired a coach, a kid in his 20s who is trying to make the actual U.S. Table Tennis team. My dad started being more conscientious about what he ate: fewer late-night potato chips, more vegetables.
I’d visit their practices and watch as they tested new serving styles or worked on returning harder shots, and I got to know the rest of the group: Kerry, my uncle’s doubles partner, an ardent Catholic who jokes and laughs nonstop. Doyle, who plays the banjo and has been wheelchair-bound since a motorcycle accident in his teens—and who has been competing in table tennis tournaments around the world for decades, beating able-bodied competitors at every stop. Tammy, Doyle’s wife, who only recently started playing, but who competed alongside Doyle in the mixed doubles tournament in Albuquerque.
There are others—Leon, who won a gold medal in the 85–89 mixed doubles tournament in Albuquerque; Mary, who is not yet 50 and too young to compete in the senior games; and Victor, who looks like an aging movie star.
As their training for the national games ramped up, their practices got more intense. Three or four times a week, they’d get together in that same little conference room at the health center where Doc and Mary work. They’d push the conference tables to the walls, drag out two high-priced ping-pong tables, and start playing. Sometimes, there was music—at one practice, Doc fired up Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” turned to my dad with a sly smile and said, “This one’s for you, Jay.” (I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.)
And the thing was, they weren’t just playing ping-pong. They shared meals—lunches and dinners, sometimes with their spouses, sometimes without. When my cousin, Uncle Ricky’s daughter, wanted to build a treehouse for her sons, Doc volunteered to come help. There were times they set down their paddles and talked about social issues. They don’t share the same politics, but they agreed to start with respect and go from there, and so they were able to talk about immigration and health care and climate change. It was almost like they were trying to get better, not just at ping-pong, but as people.
On nights when the group didn’t play, Dad headed into the basement of my parents’ house. Catty-corner from the shop where he dabbles, purely as an amateur, in woodworking, he keeps a ping-pong table with a robot that serves ping-pong balls over the net with varying speeds and spins.
His training was on pace and his game was getting stronger. Every time I asked him about it, he’d say he felt good, that he was just trying to do his best, that he couldn’t wait to see what the national competition was like. He and my mom booked a bed and breakfast in Old Town Albuquerque for a week around the Senior Games, and she started making plans to visit Santa Fe and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, to sample New Mexico’s famous chile rellenos, to explore the desert valleys.
And then my dad cut off his finger.