Personal Essays

Photograph by Zepfanman

Bright Sun, Long Shadows

As the Cardinals fought for a playoff berth in August, I watched my father-in-law in his own personal battle. A tale of victory and loss.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Jack. Enjoy the game. The Cards are up by six.”

The TV was on in my father-in-law’s room at the hospice, and we were watching the St. Louis Cardinals—our team, Jack’s team—play the Cincinnati Reds. It was an important game—St. Louis and Cincy had been elbowing each other for weeks for the Central Division’s slot in the National League pennant race and were now only a game and a half apart. A St. Louis win tonight would make it a tie. A win tomorrow would put St. Louis ahead. That night, a fourth-inning grand slam had brought four Cardinal runners home at once, and we were, for a brief few moments, happy again.

It was a little after 7 p.m. on a Monday night in August, and my husband’s father was finally succumbing to the lung cancer he’d been diagnosed with in March. His eyes were closed, he hadn’t spoken in more than a day, and the blood in his chest rattled like coffee boiling in a percolator, but the doctor said he could still hear, so we had the game on loud.

I didn’t want to go, but the hospice nurses were restricting his visitors to two at a time for the night. It wasn’t for his benefit, but ours. Dying can take longer than you think. Only my husband and his mother would stay.

“If you leave now,” Jeff said, trying to make me feel better, “you’ll get home in time to catch the last few innings.” We would watch the game the way we’d watched so many that summer—me at home with our dogs; him, for the last time, with his dad.

 

* * *


Jeff and I grew up in Nashville, which has no major-league baseball team of its own, and it wasn’t until we were living in St. Louis in 1998 that either of us began to follow the sport. St. Louis loves its Rams and its Blues, but it is first and foremost a baseball town. That summer, as it became clear that the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa were both on track to beat Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, St. Louis could talk of nothing else.

Back in Nashville, Jack was so excited that Jeff had finally embraced baseball that he even gave up his longstanding relationship with the Cubs—whose rivalry with the Cardinals is as storied and bitter as the one between the Yankees and the Red Sox—to share the Cards with his son.

As McGwire and Sosa closed in on the record, even I began to pay attention. But I didn’t understand the game well enough to keep it up—I just followed the home run race. After McGwire hit no. 62, the narrative was complete, and I moved on.

Dying can take longer than you think. Which is pretty much how I lived the rest of my life, too. In 1998, I was 22 and still sheltered, and most of my understanding of the world came from books rather than life. Baseball, like love, was as incomprehensible to me as a Japanese game show: I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t work out the plot, couldn’t see the arc.

Humans are pattern-seekers by instinct, and maybe I was more than most: I had no idea how to live without a story, and love, for all its splendors, is no story. It’s just part of the weather of life, and I’d come to St. Louis for college, not the sunshine. Less than 24 hours after I graduated, I was gone.

Jeff and I lost touch. I traveled, I moved to New York, I went to grad school. Eight years later, I gave up my Brooklyn apartment and went to housesit a vacation home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, only to find a colony of flying squirrels living in the kitchen. The owner didn’t feel like dealing with them, I didn’t feel like living with them, so I went back to Nashville to figure out what to do next. You already know what happened after that: You’ve seen it before in a Meg Ryan movie, a Shakespeare play, a Modern Love column. There was a chance meeting with a mutual friend. I learned Jeff had moved back, too. He’d stayed in St. Louis to finish his master’s and much of his doctorate, until a carjacking deprived him of both his vehicle and the four years’ worth of dissertation research he was carrying in the backseat. He’d moved back to Nashville to start over. We met for drinks. We talked. I stayed.

We are pattern-seekers, but sometimes the patterns can seem too uncanny to trust. Not long after Jeff and I decided to get married, I started to second-guess everything. Were we doing this out of free will, or because the neatness of our story satisfied some deep, limbic craving for narrative closure? I tried to articulate this fear to Jeff, who looked at me blankly. “I love you,” he said.

 

* * *


The one piece of St. Louis that I had kept when I left was a box of Jeff’s letters to me (we still wrote on paper then). Jeff kept the Cardinals. This past May, rather than draw up an agreement with the Cardinals for joint custody of my husband during the summers, I decided it was time to get to know his other family. He was delighted and ordered the MLB package so we could watch every game of the season if we could find the time. (There are 162 games in a regular season. With an average length of 3 hours per game, this works out to 20 days and 6 hours of baseball every summer. Jeff was nothing if not ambitious.)

My intention was to acquire a sufficient understanding and respect for the game to appreciate his love for it. But after two games, I was hooked.

After a dozen games, I could tell the players apart from a distance without seeing their faces or reading the names on the jerseys, just by their quirks, their tells. There was businesslike Schumaker, readjusting the Velcro on his gloves after every swing, and Ryan, elfin and fidgety, always licking his shoulder before stirring the bat. There was strapping, gum-snapping Holliday, and rangy, scowling Rasmus. And there was Pujols himself, as unassuming as a groundskeeper, the best player living, maybe the best player ever, and the only reason why, when Jeff and I discuss our hypothetical children, the name Albert is even on the table. And behind the plate, Molina, who could pluck a 90-mile-an-hour fastball out of the air as neatly as you or I might pick an apple out of a fruit bowl.

I loved the obscure trivia, the staggering volume of metadata that had accumulated over the years. I loved that a group of dedicated baseball wonks were able to determine that Roger Maris had been erroneously credited with an extra RBI in 1961—the same year he set the home-run record that McGwire broke—and they did so convincingly enough that Maris’s stats were officially changed. The mistake meant that he had tied the Orioles’ Jim Gentile for RBIs that season instead of beating him, which would have made Gentile eligible for the $5,000 bonus that the Orioles had offered him if he earned or tied for the most RBIs in the league that season. So, 49 years later, the Orioles wrote him a check.

The players may come and go, and the seasons may change, but a box score is forever. Baseball, I was learning, was a pattern-seeker’s goldmine.

 

* * *


It broke my heart every time Jack said he was determined to beat the cancer. It was Stage IV, he had diabetes, and he was 71. He was probably just trying to make us feel better, but in a way he was right: It was unlikely he would die of lung cancer because the chemo would kill him first. In July, after yet another adverse reaction to his treatment landed him in intensive care, he decided it was time to go into hospice.

The Cardinals went on to win, but I didn’t remember anything after the fight. I woke up on the sofa the next morning still in my clothes, still holding a beer in my hand, the sun hot on my face. As Jack’s cancer consumed his life, it also consumed ours—we retreated into our lizard brains, seeking little more than sleep, and food, and sex. One evening as I emptied the dishwasher, I realized that it had been filled entirely with bowls and spoons—I don’t think we’d eaten anything that required chewing in days. Toward the end we coasted along on cigarettes, the touch of each other’s hands, and, on the many nights Jeff spent with his father to give his mother a break, baseball—watching together across town, texting our commentary after every at-bat so we wouldn’t wake Jack.

My husband and I are atheists, but as with any worldview, atheism comes with its own mysteries: foremost among them, death. We took some comfort in knowing that the energy stored in Jack’s body had existed for billions of years before he was born and would exist for billions of years more after his death. It was tempting to spin that out metaphysically—to believe that death is not really death but merely a transfer of energy from one form to another, that we are all just eternal pieces of a sun. But that temporary mollification only led to a more depressing corollary: If death is not really death, then life is not really life—no beginning, no end, no story to tell. We are not sentimental people, but even that was too nihilistic for us. So we had to accept that the scientific method is unequal to the challenges of love and grief, that science explains why a heart beats, not why it breaks. Science does not console.

But baseball did.

Now the rhythms of the game became absorbing rather than thrilling. Often I would find myself so mesmerized that several innings could pass without my realizing it. I stopped keeping score—it didn’t matter, nothing mattered, only the pattern mattered. The tiny dramas of the game, the sudden changes of fortune—the home run, the double play, the broken bat—would break the spell, but only briefly, like a stirring in sleep between dreams. Often a game would end, and I wouldn’t even know who’d won. It was enough to know that Jeff was watching too, even if we were apart.

 

* * *


The Cards won on Monday night. It was Jack’s last game: On Tuesday night, he began to cough blood again, only this time it didn’t stop, and he drowned.

Too antsy and heartsick to go to bed that night, I put on the Cardinals-Reds game from earlier that evening, the second in the series, and I began to think about my grandmother. She grew up in Cincinnati, and her first job was selling hot dogs at Crosley Field. She was fired for paying more attention to the game than the concession stand. The last year of her life, she could still name the Reds’ entire 1938 lineup.

She died before I fell in love with baseball. I wish I could believe that some day she and I would be able to watch a game together, that we’d trash-talk each other about our teams and maybe make a fun wager on the outcome of the season, but I know we can’t. Perhaps this is why, lately, my clearest memory of her is not a memory at all, but an image of her at 16, crouching by a fence watching the Reds make a double play, oblivious to the man making off with the cash box from her hot dog stand.

I wonder what she would have said that Tuesday night as a spat between the Reds’ Brandon Phillips and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina erupted into a dugout-clearing fight. The Cardinals went on to win, but I didn’t remember anything after the fight. I woke up on the sofa the next morning still in my clothes, still holding a beer in my hand, the sun hot on my face.

Wednesday we attended to the business of death—going to the funeral home, making phone calls, tidying the house, pressing the dark clothes. It wasn’t until that night, sitting on the back porch with glasses overfilled with whatever spirits we had left in our liquor cabinet, that we had a chance to talk. “The look on his face,” my husband said. “I can’t get it out of my mind.”

“You won’t always remember him like that,” I said, although that was less a statement of fact than of hope.

On Friday, after the funeral, after everyone else had finally gone home, we turned on the TV for Jeff’s mother so she would not have to face a silent house when we left. “Is there a game on tonight?” she asked brightly, finally sounding like herself again. There was: The Cardinals were beginning a homestand against Jack’s old team, the Cubs, that evening.

The Cards scored six that night, and won.

 

* * *


The glory was not to last. After that series, the Cardinals declined precipitously, mysteriously. In a game against Pittsburgh—a team we should have soundly beat—Jose Oquendo misjudged a deep hit and held up the tying runner at third, costing the Cardinals the game. “I can hear my dad yelling at him,” Jeff said, and for the first time in weeks, he seemed happy.

The Cardinals rallied ever so slightly when LaRussa stacked the lineup with September call-ups eager to prove themselves during these few precious weeks in the big leagues. After one particularly—and, by then, uncommonly—fine showing against San Diego, I advanced the ridiculous hope that the Cards would win all of their remaining games, and maybe Cincinnati would lose all of theirs, and then we could make the playoffs after all. They had won eight games in a row before—surely they could do it again. “It’s time for your last baseball lesson of the season,” Jeff said gently. “‘There’s always next year.’”

It was a pleasant night, unusual for August, and when we let the dogs out for the last time that evening, we waited for them on the porch stairs. “I dreamed we got him back for a day,” Jeff said.

My husband is a vivid dreamer, and he has the gift of remembering his dreams long after he’s awakened. Usually they are festivals of surreal fantasy, intricately detailed and often plotted as coherently as any work of fiction. When he does dream of real life, though, it’s freakishly tangible, and if the dream is a bad one, the sadness can cloud over him for the rest of the day. But this was a good dream: a Sunday lunch at his parents’ house, his father healthy and happy, everyone happy, laughing and eating together. Not a story—Jack’s story had ended—but an epilogue.

“I want to believe that means he’s telling us he’s OK,” I said.

“Me too,” he said.

The Cardinals did not win all of their remaining games, and the Reds did not lose all of theirs. The season ended for St. Louis in a Sunday afternoon game at home against Colorado, a team we had no strong feelings about. It didn’t really matter anymore—they’d already lost their berth in the playoffs—but the Cardinals won.

I could tell from the crowd’s jackets that the day was cool, but it was pretty, and above the stadium, the sun was shining. It would have been nice to be back in St. Louis for the game. Maybe next year we’ll go.

biopic

TMN Editor Liz Entman has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman