Sunday, December 03, 2006

My Father, My Hero

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a [father] in [his] children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues -- faith and hope. – Charles Dickens in “Nicholas Nickleby”

For most of my life, from the time I was born until shortly before I graduated from college, my father was a full-time member of the Rye, New Hampshire Fire Department. As a kid, this was often more a cause for frustration than anything else – staying quiet during the day so he could sleep before overnight shifts, dealing with the overbearing smell of smoke when he came home from a fire, the knowledge that he might be pulled away at any moment (even on Christmas morning, which happened more than once) to go out on a call. There were times other kids made jokes about my dad’s job, especially in our small town, where nothing exciting like a FIRE ever seemed to happen, and all I did was smile and laugh along, wishing that he did something, anything else to earn a living.

As I got older and wiser, I began to understand, thankfully, the importance of and inherent danger in the career path that my father had chosen. Along with that understanding came the realization that my father was a good and selfless man, the type of man I wanted to be. In addition to working the long hours required to feed a family of six, he cared for both of his parents after they became ill in the mid-1990s, then did the same for my disabled Uncle Jimmy after my grandparents passed away. He could have complained – I would have complained – but we were more likely to win the Powerball (still one of his great unrealized dreams) than to hear my old man suggest that there was anything he couldn’t handle.

Somewhere, lost in the importance of family obligations and work responsibilities, my father introduced me to the game of baseball, beginning a love affair that has lasted nearly twenty years and figures to continue to the end of my days. A pretty fair player himself as a young man – he once told me that even now, forty plus years later, he wonders how far he could have gone – he was always available to play catch for a few minutes, watch the Red Sox on TV (assuming they weren’t on NESN – this was in the days it wasn’t a part of our basic cable package), or hit some ground balls in the back yard. Most importantly, he did all this without being the type of overbearing parent that appears all too often on the news these days, choosing instead to let me stand or fall on my own. He cared about my success and was pleased that I loved the game, but was not going to ruin that love by forcing it upon me.

The result was, by the spring of my junior year at Portsmouth High School, a reasonably talented player. I had entered ninth grade with high hopes, thinking of all I could accomplish in the next four years, but not much had gone right for me on the field my first two seasons on the team; twelve at-bats as a freshman, followed by a .300 batting average as a platoon outfielder on the junior varsity squad as a sophomore. By the time 1997 rolled around, it was becoming clear that I was a JV lifer: supremely capable of beating up on less talented and slightly younger opponents, but virtually unable to compete against varsity caliber talent, even in a state like New Hampshire, where the overall level of play was generally unexceptionally.

But that junior year; what a year! It’s almost a cliché to talk about athletes who enter “the zone”, that magical place where the ball looks like a grape fruit and the bat feels like a toothpick. Before I knew it, before I even considered that it might be possible for someone at my relatively low level of play, I was there, charting a course that would take me on the greatest hot streak of my baseball life, the magnum opus of my high school career. Nothing was impossible with a baseball bat in my hands – I was invincible, if only for a couple of hours three afternoons a week. If our field had had fences, I might have slugged a handful of homeruns; as it was, I managed my fair share of doubles and triples, all on balls that were hit far enough to allow my squat 5’9”, 220 lb. frame to careen around the bases, usually ending up with an awkward flop and a cloud of dust.

Despite his unbearable schedule – by this time, my grandfather had passed away and my grandmother was growing steadily sicker - my father was there to see every baseball game my team played in high school, with the exception of two, whether I was on the field or not. Until I got a car my junior year – my grandmother’s old Ford Escort wagon, which my dad figured I could use – and could drive myself to and from games, I assumed his presence was a matter of practicality: he needed to pick me up anyway, so why not take a break from the day and attend the game first? My final two seasons, I realized how untrue and naïve that mode of thinking was: he was there to see what the fruits of his instruction had wrought, to witness firsthand the application of the skills he had handed down. He understood that my meager talent and lack of 100% focus on the sport – I was starting to discover money and girls by this point – meant that I would never progress much beyond high school in terms of ability, but I think he hoped that I would one day take what I had learned and use it to do something special.

Every athlete at every level should have at least one game to remember, one game that they can look back on years later and appreciate as a fine moment in their athletic careers. Mine was late in my aforementioned junior year. We were playing a home game against Spaulding High School of Rochester, and things were not going well. Our pitchers couldn’t pitch and our hitters couldn’t hit, two sad realities that resulted in an 8-0 deficit and a no-hitter for the opposing pitcher through four innings. Yeah, it had all the makings of a great afternoon.

Then things changed. In the bottom of the fifth, facing the top of our lineup, the Spaulding pitcher started to wear down, walking the first two batters. I remember thinking, as I headed up to bat, that he really wasn’t anything special – didn’t throw very hard, didn’t come at you with a lot of junk, didn’t have a deceptive delivery. This wasn’t Nolan Ryan shutting us down; it was Bobo Holloman. I knew, even with an 8-0 deficit to overcome and just nine offensive outs at our disposal, that this game was completely winnable. All we had to do was be patient and wait for our opportunity.

It didn’t take long for opportunity to arrive. Early on in the at-bat, the pitcher left one out over the plate and I turned on it, driving the ball to deep right-center; both runners scored, I ended up on third and our bench went nuts with the sudden and shared realization that this was OUR game. From there, we never stopped scoring. The next inning, I found myself on third base again, two outs, now trailing 8-7, and knew – KNEW – that I was going to score. It wasn’t a question of if; it was a question of how (it ended up being a passed ball).

After the game, which we ended up winning 9-8, I walked toward the parking lot with my dad, still absolutely giddy about the way the final three innings had unfolded, the heart our team had shown in erasing that daunting deficit.

“Whaddya think of that?” I asked as we crossed left field, a huge smile creasing my face.

“I’m proud of you,” he answered in his deep, quiet voice. It wasn’t necessarily the response I had been expecting. My father has always been a quiet man, slow to deliver both criticism and praise. One of the only previous memories I had of either was from elementary school, when I had come home with a less than stellar grade on a test. Even then his reaction hadn’t been so much outspoken as a reflection of the years of baseball instruction I had received: he had simply declared with a certain forceful insistence that this was not my best work and such results would not be acceptable in the future, then left it to me to apply the appropriate amount of effort to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. This scenario felt slightly different, however, in that it was the first time in my ten years as a ballplayer that any of my athletic achievements had elicited this type of reply.

He didn’t get many more chances to express that feeling, if in fact he ever felt it again. My senior year was similar to my freshman campaign, right down to the coach; I made the varsity, but played sparingly and had only eight at-bats in eighteen games. My dad actually missed my first varsity hit, a seeing eye single past a diving second baseman during a mid-week makeup game that I forgot to tell him about, but he was there for my second and final one: a two-run homerun in a 10-5 loss on the last day of the season, the final time I ever came to bat in a baseball game that meant anything; my Ted Williams moment, as I have often referred to it since. This time, however, he seemed more bothered than proud, more upset than happy, wondering if perhaps, with a little more playing time and a few more plate appearances, I could have done that a few more times.

I’m twenty-seven years old now, nearly ten years removed from my days as a high school JV baseball player/benchwarmer, and a lot of good things have happened in my life since then. I graduated from college with honors, met and married a woman I love, and eventually settled into a good job. Along the way, I’ve come to appreciate the way my father taught me to play baseball, realizing that it has a lot to do with the way he taught me to approach life: by giving me an outline and allowing me to fill in the blanks to the best of my ability. Free will at its finest. Still, I look in the mirror sometimes and wonder what my father thinks of me, if the way I have lived my life jives with any expectations he had when he conducted these subtle lessons. Is he happy that I have become a somewhat successful, well-adjusted young man? Does he ever think to himself, “What else could I have done to help him along the way?” Does he know that in everything I do, a part of me wonders what he will think or say when I give him the news? When he tells people where I am and what I’m up to these days, does it make him proud to refer to me as his son?

That’s what it all comes down to in the end: that word, “pride”. Like any son, I’ve always wanted my father to be proud of me, of my accomplishments, of my life. Explicit acknowledgement of such a feeling was not always forthcoming as a child, which could be difficult for a young boy looking for acceptance. When those compliments were handed down, however, it was a feeling like no other.

Recently, I have begun to experience a fundamental change in my relationship with my father; it started to take shape six years ago, around my 21st birthday, an otherwise happy occasion that was marred by the passing of my Aunt Evie, my grandmother’s sister. A physically diminutive woman in her early 90s, Aunt Evie for years had helped care for my Uncle Jimmy and my grandparents’ house; it was not unusual to drive past the home on the way to visit my parents and see her working in the yard, raking leaves or cutting the grass. The continued physical activity undoubtedly helped her remarkable mental acuity – it could be said that the only sure things in life were death, taxes and a card from Aunt Evie on birthdays and Christmas. She never missed an event, and her last Christmas was no different. As always, my father suggested I write a “thank you” note; he knew that she appreciated, but never expected, the small gesture of thanks. Teenagers are strange creatures, however; something always comes before doing the right thing, something that seems more important at the time. My father said I should write a note, and I kept telling myself that I would get around to it eventually.

Of course, I never did. After awhile, it seemed crazy to write a thank you note for something that had happened months before. “I’ll just wait,” was the final decision. “She’ll give me a nice card and $20 for my birthday. Then I can write a note telling her how much I appreciate her thoughtfulness.” Sadly, she didn’t live long enough for my plan to come to fruition, passing away three days before my birthday.

From great sadness came enlightenment; Aunt Evie’s funeral was the first and only time I cried in my wife’s presence, the only time I can ever remember being overcome to that degree and literally burying my face in her shoulder and sobbing. Simultaneously, there was the realization that this was one of life’s great lessons, one of those moments you make a point to file away and remember for future reference. In this case, I was learning that the biggest mistake we can make in life is to wait until it’s too late to tell those close to us how we feel about them.

I’ve never told my father, who turns 61 years old today, any of this. I’ve never mentioned how much I appreciated those long hours in the back yard, learning to play the game I love. He has no idea that as much as I want him to be proud of me, I am as proud of him for the stoic and fearless way he has guided his family through nearly four decades, in both good times and bad. He has never heard that I believe I am a better man, and will be a better father, for having been his son. I have never told him, until now, that he is the best man I have ever known.


Eric (Extra P.) said...

Brian, no matter what you do in life, don't ever ask yourself "could I have been a writer, for real?", because this piece settles the bill. If you can do something this artful and affecting once, it is inside you to do it again. And I hope you do.

Knowing that you are about to be a father yourself just makes this all the more poignant. Fantastic work.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic story OMDQ and really well written. It's nice to read something serious and heartwarming every once in a while - and this is definately one of those times. Great job. said...

I'm glad this is the first thing I read on Father's Day. My pop was a Philadelphia Fire Fighter himself, I had to go through a lot of similar shit when I was younger. Those hours don't exactly let you be a "family man."

Now I'm 28 and coaching my 6-year old's Little League squad. There's honestly nothing better.

Anyways, good stuff OMDQ. As usual.