Ernie Banks loved the game of baseball so much, he was known to clock in for another day of playing shortstop for the hapless Chicago Cubs, inhale deeply, and say, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two!”
I’ve buried three fathers. A couple of them more than once.
There was the man who fathered me, then hitched his trailer to his truck and left town, leaving my single mother to figure it out. I’ve never met him.
There was the man who adopted me, at birth, in 1966. By 1972, Burton Riley was gone – a divorce sent him back to California.
And then there was the man who was my mother’s next husband. John Werline passed in 2008.
I buried Burton twice — first in about 1976, when I finally grew weary of waiting on return letters and phone calls, and then again in 1993, when old age officially took him.
After the first burial, he just sort of magically appeared in my driveway on Jackson Street as I walked home from the sixth grade. I recognized that pickup truck with Arkansas plates — from photos his latest wife had been sending to me, correspondence generated by her (and only her) that seemed to be an apology of sorts for his lack of interest in my life. She wrote of life on the farm. Even tucked a Polaroid into one envelope, showing him shoveling something into the bed of the truck. That’s how I knew the truck. She wasn’t my mother — I’d never even met her — but mothers usually know these things about fathers and their sons. But the letters eventually stopped coming. Now, as I rounded the corner, I saw that truck in our driveway and I still see that truck as clearly as if it was 1978 again.
Like most of my family, he wanted to pretend the previous six years hadn’t happened. There was never any explaining, never any talking, in my family. We were trained to just pick up where we left off, which, in this case, had been sitting on his lap as he steered the riding lawn mower across the grass at the trailer park my parents managed on Ninth Street back in Corvallis.
He made his jokes and invited me to lunch but I was entering my teen years angry, hurt, and frustrated by the challenge of trying to navigate life with my raging alcoholic of a mother and now a father who seems to think he can just come and go as he pleases.
You couldn’t return a single letter I wrote to you the past six years? Not a single call? Not to ask about baseball. Or newspaper class? Anything?
So I ignored him. I flat-out refused to speak to him. For weeks.
I’d buried him and had no plans to dig him back up.
Then the phone rang. I could tell by the look on my stepfather’s face, the sound of his voice — something wasn’t right. “What? Where? Okay, we’re on our way.”
It was only a couple miles of pavement, but that drive — I don’t ever want to make a drive like that again. My mother and Burton had been returning from picking up my sister at the blueberry fields when they were involved in a car accident. A bad car accident. That was my stepfather’s daughter on the phone. She had happened upon the crash. In the small towns of Western Oregon, word travels fast.
“Jeffy.” My stepfather only ever called me “Jeffy” when he was serious about something. “I don’t know what’s happened. Okay?”
And so we drove on, an Oregon summer breeze blowing through the open windows.
I can still hear the hiss of the radiator of our Volkswagen Rabbit. The broken glass, the crumpled front end, and my father laying in the middle of the street that ran in front of the A&W. He was moaning, trying to tug at his pants as the EMTs told him they needed to cut his pants away. It was our main street, so a crowd had quickly gathered. People had spilled out of the restaurant, the grocery, the bowling alley.
I stood, frozen, in the middle of the street. Alone.
He let out a sound — long, deep, loud. A sound I’d never heard a human make before.
“Sir, SIR!” the EMT yelled, running scissors up his pants leg as another EMT held my father’s arms back. “We need to get to your leg.”
Like that truck ride, it was another thing I never wanted to experience again.
How could I have been so rude? So dismissive? So mean?
I was a terrible son.
Now he’s back from the hospital, slowly pushing his way through our home on a creaky metal walker, and I can barely live with myself.
He is 75 years old, his right hip crushed by the collision, and he’s learning to walk again. We weren’t a family with many resources, and he truly had nowhere to go, so we squeezed another twin bed into my room and we became roommates.
I bathed him, walked behind him to help steady him as he slowly navigated the hallway, and laughed at the Irish limericks he sang as we both laid in the dark of my bedroom, staring at the ceiling of another day. We talked about Bill Walton and watched Atlanta Braves games on TV. Then we watched them again, when the games were replayed a few hours later.
Both of us healing.
I played shortstop on the muddy spring diamonds of the Willamette Valley. It was cold, it was foggy, yet there he was, every game, leaning on his cane as he made way through the mud, sitting his aching hip on the near-empty grandstands, under an umbrella, watching me hit .176 and throw the ball all over the diamond during a season in which we finished in last place. I did finally get ahold of one, a grand slam, one of only three home runs I ever hit in 15 years of playing the game. My legs felt numb by the time I got to second, and as I rounded third to the handshake of our head coach, he was grinning and saying “Hey man, slow down – enjoy the trip!”
But I had to get home.
I had to touch that plate and push my way past my teammates and step toward the backstop and point at my father, sitting there in the stands, smiling and wiping away tears. He knew my struggles that season – the injuries, the errors, the strikeouts — and he basked in my moment. A father-son moment.
He was 80 by then — seven kids, three wives, and his third hip. I know he had his regrets in life and they often rolled down his cheeks. I also know he was the only family member sitting on those rain-soaked wooden bleachers in the spring of 1984.
Then cancer came. Twice.
The first arrived as I was on my way out the door to pitch an American Legion game. There I sat in the dugout, a 17-year-old kid doing his best to gather himself. The radio play-by-play guy enters the dugout to get the lineup card, and after scanning the card, he walks over to me.
“Hey, you got the ball tonight, eh?” he says. I didn’t get the ball very often. But I was that kid who was always hard-working, patiently awaiting any opportunity to play, and clearly thrilled to just be a part of one of the best American Legion programs in the state of Oregon. Play-by-play guys and my teammates’ mothers took a liking to me; I was the underdog, that kid whose parents were never there, and these people were my biggest cheerleaders.
“Yep, got the ball,” I answer, forcing a slight grin. As he begins to walk away, I stop him.
“Can you do me a favor?” I ask.
“What’s that?” he says.
“I just found out my Dad has cancer,” I say. “I know he’s going to be listening. Can you tell him I’d like to dedicate the game to him?”
The radio guy gulps. “Absolutely.”
I really struggled that night and was out of the game by the third inning. I would have been yanked in the second, but I more or less refused to come out. Coach McClain had come out to get me in the second, after already having made a quick visit to the mound in the first. By then, the story had made its way to him and now he’s standing on the mound again.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Yeah,” I say. “I can get out of this. Let me, okay? I promise.”
And I got out of it.
But I was quickly in trouble again in the third. A double, a couple of walks, a hit batter. And now Coach McClain was standing on the mound again. I handed him the ball and walked back to the dugout. Some teammates hugged me, others gave me my space.
After the game, we ran our lines, raked the field, cleaned out the dugout, poured out the water cooler. Coach McClain pulled me aside, told me something about life and fathers and baseball. I don’t remember those details because I was too embarrassed, fighting back tears, staring at the ground. I nodded, not knowing whether to cry or scream.
There’s a reason most guys who have played for Coach McClain would run through a brick wall for him. He is long retired from coaching the game, and we still talk a couple of times a year. At least one of those days is around Father’s Day, because that’s simply how I think of the man.
As the lights flicker off and we head toward our cars, I hear “Hey, Riles!”
I turn back to see the radio guy leaning out of the press box, giving me a thumbs up. I smile and return the thumbs-up.
When I get home, I put my gear in the garage and head directly to the apartment we had built for my father out of an old chicken coop behind the house. I knock, open, and we chat. We laugh about my horrendous outing. The walks. The wild pitches. He teases me about the pain in his hip being nothing compared to listening to that disaster on the radio. I tease him about living in a chicken coop.
But I notice the crumpled Kleenex in his hand, the soggy eyes, the red nose.
I know my old man. And I know he’s been crying for most of the past couple of hours. That’s as close as we’re going to get to talking about cancer. And that’s okay.
There were baseball games and road trips and surgeries – life with an elderly father when you’re only 20 and trying to figure out your own next move is not without its moments.
There was driving him to California, his old Cutlass overheating much of the way, chugging along at 55 mph, dragging all his worldly belongings behind us in a small U-Haul trailer. Over the Siskiyous as my frat buddies partied on the Lake Shasta waters below, on through the valleys of Central California, and along all the dusty back roads of the desert country he knew like the back of his hand.
Then a few months later, flying down and driving him all the way back, when that move didn’t work as everybody had expected. Another thousand miles back up Interstate 5. His stories of building the water duct we passed. The cafe he built in the Cajon Pass. His Cadillacs and race horses. His patience, sitting at the edge of his bed, quietly sipping his instant coffee in the motel room, thinking like fathers sit and think, sipping — waiting for me to wake up so we can finish the final leg the next day.
There was another hip — the metal one replaced by the plastic one. Then the cancer treatments and the pneumonia from the fall by the mailbox— the one that left him sitting in the mud for more than hour before somebody drove past and saw him.
There were the Sundays I drove over from college, exhausted from another week of working my way through school. But those were welcomed Sundays, our Sundays — a load of laundry in the washer and lunch at Elmer’s. He always picked up the check, turning to wink at me as he answered the young cashier’s request for a phone number for the personal check he had just presented to her. “Phone number?” he’d say. “Sweetheart, don’t you think I’m a little too old for you?”
Through it all, he was always good for a laugh.
There’s the day I pulled out of his driveway, at 22, headed to California, armed only with about 50 dollars to my name, a degree, and a burning desire to write my next chapter.
“Dad, please, don’t stand in the window waving and crying, okay? Please?”
I won’t, he says.
I back out of the driveway and turn back to steer onto the street. There he is. Standing in the window, waving and crying.
He’s dying now and I’ve come to say goodbye.
Only days earlier, post-surgery, while I was standing next to his bed in the hospital, he had grabbed my hand to make a point about the feeding tube that had just been implanted into his belly. “I can’t do this any more,” he said. I saw that in his eyes. He had no more fight to give.
He was 89 now. He’d lived his life. He’d had his laughs, his heartaches, his loves, his successes, and his regrets. He’d come to his terms and who was I to tell him differently.
I got a second chance with him, for 15 years. In a family that knew no forgiveness, I was thankful it had climbed through the rubble to find me. He was the only one at my baseball games. He was the only one at my high school graduation. On the day I crossed that stage at Oregon State and held our family’s first college degree, he had been too ill to travel to the ceremony. So when I pulled into the driveway after the ceremony, he was the first one I looked for.
And there he was. His Kleenex. His red nose. The letter I had written to him tucked into his front breast pocket.
Thank you. For the games, the drives, and the laughs. I hope I’ve made you proud.
But it’s four years later now, and he’s dying. I’m living halfway across the country, having flown home to this parking lot at the hospice facility. As I pull in, I brake and look around. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Because it was the same building that used to be the city hospital. The city hospital where my 16-year-old sister had been taken with a near-fatal case of pneumonia when I was only six. She was my world – the one who held me and assured me everything would be okay as the glass shattered in the kitchen and the drunken arguments raged on. I didn’t like seeing her in a hospital. She recovered, just as she assured me she would, but I didn’t like it one bit.
Is anything in this God damned family easy, I think as I continue on to a parking spot, toward my dying father.
First, there’s always the smell of these places. It’s the pungent odor of disinfectant and death.
Second, it’s the sights — the elderly people slumped in wheelchairs parked in hallway corners, staring into the distance, talking to walls. It’s the nurses moving from room to room – there is no urgency in hospice; there is only the accepting strides of comfort.
Third, it’s the sounds – the beeping of machines, the moans, the calls of “Help! Help! Help!” that nobody seems to be all that alarmed about, because apparently the woman is not in need of help. She’s just delirious.
And then, finally, there’s the sound of the death rattle of my father.
I’d never heard that sound before, but once you’ve heard it, you know exactly what it is. I’m terrified, again, standing at the bedside of somebody I love in this God-forsaken building.
I try to find a nurse, a bit frantic. The look on her face – she didn’t need to say the words that she said. I get it. I return to his bedside and see the glossy, distant look in his eyes. It’s just the two of us. He tries to say something, reaching for me, clasping onto my forearm to pull me closer. He stares intently toward me, trying desperately to find my face but clearly his sight is fading. I lean closer, turning an ear to hear him.
“I want to remember your face.”
I laid my Rosary on his chest in the casket and we sang Amazing Grace. Now we’ve got a box full of his ashes and no solid plan as we extend our beers into the air for a toast at a dingy pub off Highway 20.
It’s my two brothers, my nephew, and my former brother-in-law. We’re discussing where we can spread his ashes. My father had left it to others to decide these things.
Suddenly, I know the place. The perfect place. But I’m not sure how legal it is.
“What,” my nephew asks. “You look like you have an idea.”
I chuckle. “Well, I think so, but I’m not so sure. What are the laws about this stuff?”
“Do tell,” he says.
My father had pitched at Oregon State back in the 1920s. He played in the Cleveland Indians organization. We’d always connected over the game of baseball.
“The mound at Oregon State,” I say.
The table fell silent. Then it was a round of “Whoa! That is perfect!”
We pulled up to the diamond, looking for open gates, climbing fences, and finally there we were, forming a circle around the pitcher’s mound.
We each took a handful of ashes and tossed them onto the mound. I bent down to carefully spread them neatly into the dirt.
I stood up, dusted off my hands, and everybody seemed to look at me for the final word on things.
“You’ve got the ball Sunday in Heaven, Dad,” I said.
Sunday is my 24th Father’s Day without the man. There’s no lunch at Elmer’s, no card to send, no call to make. It is sad. Lonely. Funny.
Every year is the same: a tear on Tuesday, maybe a chuckle to myself on Thursday, more tears on Saturday.
Then Sunday comes and it’s the hard swallows and lessons of another year. Another year of still seeing his smile in my mind. Hearing his laugh. Knowing his tears. Missing lunch.
I’m 50 now, the father of three grown boys, still unable to listen to Amazing Grace without being deposited back in 1993.
Father’s Day feels like the second game of a doubleheader in my world.
In the first game of this twin bill, it’s our fathers who are on the mound. The riding lawn mowers, the divorces, the departures, the returns.
Its pain. Its anger. Its hurt. Its forgiveness.
Its second chances.
In the second game of this doubleheader, we toe the rubber as fathers. The hot dogs. The cards. The smiles and laughs of our own sons.
I will look at them today and fight back my tears. I will think of how my father never met them. I will think of all the experiences I’ve had in my 22 years of parenting. I will think of all the victories and losses and not once being able to pick up the phone and share it with him.
I will think of how much he’d enjoy them – their smarts, their humor, their passion, their dreams.
I will think of how much they would love him.
It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two.