“Baseball saved me,” he once said. (Yet another reason to love baseball.)
It was around 30 years ago, and he was living on the edge, a life marked by bouncers and fights, drugs and women, motorcycles and bars, bad memories of Nam, testosterone and—because there was always a core of him that was different from the usual macho madness—spirit. He has said that if he continued in that life, he probably would have died.
But a friend pulled him out, told him that he would be traveling with a semi-pro team up and down the small towns of interior California, and made him come along.
Those months also had their wildness, no doubt, but they were nevertheless a break with that more turbulent recent past—a paradigm shift of life. Being on the field, being outside in the sun, feeling the glove on his hand, feeling the muscle memory guide his throw to the mark, reawakening the dormant delicious high you get when the bat meets the ball—feeling all those moments of reassuring joy that you can experience on a diamond, even the disappointments of a tough loss, which can be tamped down by the knowledge that another game will come, all those experiences combined to lead his feet onto a new path.
He settled in one of those small towns. Began living with a woman, got a job, had another son. Still enjoyed his dope, but left the harder stuff behind. Played ball each spring and summer, practiced his creative profanity, developed his cooking. Years later, in Ohio, he became the leader he was always destined to be, coaching girls softball for many years, becoming the ringleader of and chief cook at annual pig roasts, helping lead the union drive at his shop and being elected as first local president.
All this time, his life a mystery to us. It was as though he were one of those intrepid explorers who left civilization for the wilderness and were not heard from again. No. It was like the disappearance of Judge Crater. When the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis, after all, people knew what they were up to and, vaguely, where they were going. He had simply vanished. No one knew where. We could only speculate why.
The disappearance had a cost, of course. He had abandoned a daughter and a son that he loved. We saw glimpses of the pain that abandonment caused on a visit some ten years later. We took them down to Washington, D.C., to see their great-grandmother and some of the sites. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, our nephew, then thirteen or fourteen, desperately looked for his father’s name among the dead, a fruitless search, of course, because he had returned from Nam. But it was what made sense to the kid. His father had to be dead. Why else would he be gone?
Several years later, his wife tracked him down. He had no interest in being with her again, but he reestablished contact with his kids. He and I got in touch. We talked as often as we could and visited when we could. He reconciled with our father, a great thing for both of them.
Two years ago, I went out to see him on opening weekend of baseball season. We watched many games over the next few days, welcoming in the new year, experiencing the revival of hope and the mystery of life that a new ball season represents. It was fun, though not easy: our tastes and interests differ in so many ways. But it was fun.
This spring, after learning of his cancer, I went again. A more bittersweet visit, but still with sweetness.
Thirty-three years ago, in August and September, we all gathered in the hospital as our mother faded. This morning, Mrs. P, Number Two Son, and I drive off to Ohio to see him in the hospital and begin what feels very much like another death watch. His son is flying out from California to see him, too—there is no greater evidence of forgiveness and acceptance than that.
In Bang the Drum Slowly, Bruce Pearson, the catcher stricken with Hodgkin’s disease, tells narrator Henry Wiggen, “Arthur, I’m doomeded.” We are all, of course, doomeded. But we usually don’t remember that as we go about our trivial days and nights. After Bruce dies, Wiggen ends his reflections on that sorrowful and memorable season this way:
“He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.”
We are all that. No worse than some and perhaps better than others. We are all in need of finding the game that suits us, the thing that will save us, the people who will care about us and for us. We are all flawed. We are all special. My brother caused people pain, but he also helped many.
When we spoke, fifteen years ago, for the first time in eighteen years, I had no interest in casting stones. He came out to see us a couple of months later, and it was the best damn birthday present I ever had. We could be together again. That’s all that mattered.
Words © 2009 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.