Play Ball!

Dad in little league

My dad, back in his little league days.

 

My dad loved baseball. Not in any sort of obnoxious way, but his appreciation for the game always been a factor in my life. He watched the other sports, followed football, played tennis as an adult, and he got pretty excited when my sister was playing basketball in high school, but baseball was the one he loved, and I love it too.

When I was a little girl we would sometimes play catch, or “pepper” as he called one-sided batting practice. He would pitch me the ball and I would try to connect a bat to it, striking out as often as I made contact. He showed me how hitting a baseball involved so much more than your arms. “Feet, hips, swing” he’d say. You step into it first, turn your hips, and the arms and bat are the last to complete the arc.

He’d played little league as a boy, been a pretty good left-handed pitcher, even throwing one no-hitter. I sometimes wonder if I would have played softball had we been living in the states. It’s possible, but I doubt it. I was a terrible athlete. Still I grew up loving baseball. When we lived in Kobe, my dad would take my sister and I to watch the Orix Blue Wave, and their star player: Ichiro Suzuki. Baseball in Japan is a lot more ritualized than it is in the States. The cheering is orchestrated, adorable bento boxes take the place of hot dogs and garlic fries, but there is the same electricity to watching the game played live.

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Me, my dad, and my sister at an Orix Blue Wave game.

When I moved back to Seattle in fall of 2000 Ichiro moved with me, or so I like to think. He was acquired by the Mariners that year and played in their history making 116 win season in 2001. Socks pulled up, constantly stretching out in right field and almost always beating the throw to first base, he stuck with the team a lot longer than he probably should have, once that epic winning season turned into over a decade of playoff hopes evaporating in July. I was sad when he transferred to the Yankees, but not too sad. I felt I understood his motives. Ichiro was a great ballplayer. He was nearing the end of his career and wanted to end it with a team that had a chance of making the postseason. The irony of the fact that the Yankees have not made the playoffs since he joined them is not lost on me.

When we were driving anywhere together Dad would have the game on in the little white Ford truck, just to check in. We rarely watched games on television, we never had cable, and there are too many games in season to let them affect your schedule, but we always checked in when we were driving. When we got the house or the church or the store, he’d park the truck but keep the radio on. “Let’s just listen until the end of the inning” he’d say “see where this goes.”

Several years before he got sick, my sister and I started taking our dad to the Father’s Day Mariners Game. The M’s almost always played at home that Sunday, and we would find the best tickets we could and experiment with different modes of transportation to Safeco Field. The first year we drove, the next took the bus, and the next the train from Edmonds. One year we invited our stepmother along with us and she bought everyone fish and chips during the third inning.

Games were too taxing and time-consuming after the cancer so the last two Father’s Days we had brunch, and went to see movies or got Chinese foot massages. It was always a good time, but I missed going to the game. I missed having that live collective experience, the three of us suddenly on our feet after a big hit, or my dad remarking on the speed of a pitch, on whether a batter was ahead or behind in the count. “This is a batter’s pitch” he’d explain on a 3 and 1 count, or “look at the pitch count on this guy, sometimes a batter will try to foul off pitches just to wear out the pitcher and get his pitch count up.” I think Ichiro was good at that.

We could always talk about baseball. With the advent of smartphones I could follow the M’s season on the MLB app. Dad still relied on the newspaper to check the box scores in the morning. “I just like to see if Smoak got a hit, if he doesn’t start hitting the ball it’s going to be his last season, that’s what I think.” The last time he was in the hospital he was pleased he got to watch the games. One time I went to visit him by myself and brought sushi from the restaurant where I work, his favorite. He was on the rehab floor, and one of the nurses came by to check on him. He had his hat on, the one with the two red socks on it, so she commented on the poor showing Boston had put in this year. “That’s all right” he said, “The Mariners are still in it.” “As long as they can take this next series against Toronto” I chimed in. “This is my kid, Caitlin, my first-born.” He told the nurse proudly, “She knows all about baseball.”

It feels wrong that I can’t just call him up anymore. Leave him messages like I did after the Red Sox won the World Series last year. Let him know it looks like he was on the money about Justin Smoak. Commiserate about the M’s recent meltdown, and marvel that the last games of the season still matter. But all I can do is wear his hat, the one with the two red socks on it, and sit in the car after I’ve arrived home to listen through the end of the inning.

 

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The Language Legacy

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me at age three with my dad

My dad told amazing stories. I would say he was the best storyteller I knew, except that is what my dad said about my grandfather, his dad, and I knew my grandfather so I defer to his judgment. Regardless of which one of them was superior, they both told amazing stories, they would get animated, add in arm movements, gritted teeth, voices that always seemed to be necessary, not put on. You would get swept up in the experience, you would laugh, always laugh, and the point, if there was one, would be forgotten in the course of the storytelling. It was the journey that mattered, it was the communion.

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me about age eleven, with Grandpa Steve

My grandfather died when I was twenty-five after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He’d had the disease for most of my life, but had also been in remission for much of that time. I always knew him as a vibrant, dynamic man, who loved good food, would talk to anyone, and had a funny story about his latest doctors visit. We never lived in the same city, so I didn’t see him when he went out of remission, when things got bad. He was in his eighties by then, living in the Twin Cities so he could be near one of his four children, my Aunt Deborah. My dad was with him at the end, flew out from Seattle and sat with him through hospice visits, through the morphine. He told me about witnessing the moment of death, about the way the breathing changes, that so-called “death rattle” and how he talked to him then, told him he’d been a good father, that he’d been strong, that he loved him, and that it was okay to let go, coaching him almost in the last moments, in the act of dying. He told me that afterwards, after he’d called his sisters and told them that their father was finally cancer free, after he’d made the arrangements and signed the papers he needed to, he went back to his hotel in a daze, and sat at the bar. The bartender came up and asked him how he was doing and he looked at the man and said “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

I’ve felt that way a lot these last few weeks. I wish sometimes I could respond that honestly to the friends, grocery checkers, customers at my restaurant, anyone who innocently asks me how I’m doing. I usually go with “I’m okay”, it feels less like a lie than the standard “I’m fine” or “well” or “good”. “Okay” is an emotion I can cop to without feeling like a fraud. It’s true, I can walk and talk and feed myself and act like a person most of the time, I am okay. But I’m not fine, I’m definitely not well or good or great, and I wish sometimes that instead of this deceptively vague but true statement I could just tell them “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

His fight with cancer was much shorter than my Grandfather’s. He had a seizure two months after my little sister’s wedding, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, and lived another twenty months, six months longer than the prognosis. And they were good months, he shared that with his dad, living with cancer he was still a vibrant, dynamic man. He continued working, he continued traveling, he cracked up all the nurses. He got a fedora for festive occasions, but still mostly wore his Boston Red Sox baseball hats. He took more naps than before the cancer, took longer to do things, sometimes he’d forget to shut doors, sometime his speech would slur, especially if he was tired, but he never lost himself, and he never lost track of who he was and who he loved.

I was there when he died. Not in the room, my sister and I left and our stepmother held him in his last moments, but I was there. I sat with him alone for a bit, his eyes were closed, his breathing labored, but I held his hand touched his face and told him how lucky and grateful I was to have him as my father. I said a lot of other crap too, I’m sure I rambled. I knew it was the end and didn’t want my language to betray that I knew, wanted to keep all my tenses rooted in the present. I told him I’d found the poster of the play he’d done and I directed back when I was in college, right before he met my stepmother. In the poster he wears a business suit and wields a samurai sword. “You were such a bad-ass” I said, and then caught the tense and corrected myself “you are such a bad-ass.”

My father and I shared a love of writing, of language and of communication. We shared an ability to observe situations and interpret them, the way people behaved, the reasons we didn’t like certain things even though they seemed friendly or harmless on the surface. We shared a deep appreciation of history and rituals.

I will never be the storyteller he was, I don’t have the same gifts for animation, and I’ll never be the storyteller my grandfather was, even my dad couldn’t do that. My grandfather was an extrovert, so where engaging a live audience was concerned he will always hold the advantage. My dad was an introvert, as I am. But like him I feel called to carry on my family legacy. We have always been a family of readers, of philosophers, of storytellers, a family without much talent for the hard sciences, but with an understanding of the unique power of language. He left me with a lot of stories to tell.

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The Ski Trip

This is the story my dad told at my grandfather’s memorial and credits with being the first story his father told him, I remember it was one of the first ones he told me and my sister as well.

One winter my grandparents went skiing. They were a young couple and they skied all day until the sunset. On his last run down the slope my grandfather fell, wiped out right by a tree. He got up and finished the run. Then he and my grandmother headed for the car, but when they got there the keys were missing. They looked everywhere, in all their pockets, under the car, by now it was getting quite dark and they were faced with the fact the keys must have fallen out sometime during the day, somewhere on the slope. In a Hail Mary attempt my grandfather went back to the top of the slope and tried to go down slowly, peering into the dusk, hoping against hope to catch a glint of metal. As he was making a turn he wiped out again, and looking up noticed the same tree he’d fallen by earlier, and then on the ground, not yet covered by the new snow that had begun to fall, he saw his keys.