The backyard ball field with the chicken wire backstop and the marble bases carefully set at ground level was my sanctuary. It was where I would go to use my imagination, making up rosters and playing imaginary games with a Wiffle ball that I pretended was a baseball. It was where I would go to play games with friends, mainly home run derby that was a challenge because of the crabapple trees in left and right fields that made clearing the wooden fence difficult. It was where I would go to escape my troubles, which weren’t all that troubling in hindsight but seemed overwhelming at the time.
It was a ball field my dad had built at a time when I didn’t fully appreciate the gift that it was. It was a place, and a time, I wanted to go back to 16 years ago to escape my dad’s failing health, but time has a way of moving on and moving us to a place of reality.
A trip with a friend to Northwest Hospital on December 3rd put me back in the place where Dad had been taken on December 2nd, 2002. He was picking up groceries for Mom and him. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Dad had devoted himself to being her caretaker. He didn’t feel well, but he had a job to do and nothing was going to keep him from doing it. After getting the groceries, his car wouldn’t start. He had been a mechanic, but it needed more repair than he could do on a parking lot on a cold, gray day that was meant to be spent inside. My sister, Val, drove to the grocery store to wait with Dad until the tow truck arrived. She took the groceries home to Mom while he went with the car to a shop in Carroll County.
About 5 that evening, I received a call at work from Mom. “Something’s wrong,” she said. “Your father isn’t home, and he doesn’t drive at night because of his cataracts.” Not long after that, my other sister, Colleen, called to say that Dad was at Northwest Hospital. The doctors weren’t sure what was wrong.
Northwest Hospital is on Old Court Road in Randallstown, just a block from Liberty Road and just two miles from Mom and Dad’s house. Dad was heading toward home on Liberty Road when he realized he couldn’t make it. He turned into a Pizza Hut just shy of Old Court Road and passed out, his car bumping into another’s. It attracted attention and someone called 911. When Dad awoke, he gave the nurse Colleen’s number. Soon, Colleen, Val, my mom and I were in the emergency room while doctors tried to figure out why Dad was in such pain. Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency, and we were ushered out of the area.
An abdominal aortic aneurysm had ruptured, and Dad was bleeding internally. Hours later, we were told that he had survived, which they called a miracle, but that he wasn’t out of trouble. At the end of our visit the next day, Dad came off the breathing tube for a moment. He looked at my mom and said one thing: “You don’t know how much I love you.”
Those were his last words, his only words. He needed more surgery the next day. Two days after that, on a Friday, one of the surgeons asked us to gather. He told us Dad’s fate was now in our hands — that there was nothing more they could do, and that we would know the quality of life Dad would want. Dad had survived two surgeries; he had also had a heart attack. His purpose for living was to take care of Mom. We knew what his decision would be; we also knew ours needed to be unanimous among Mom, Colleen, Val and me.
It was — until Sunday, the day that Dr. Boston would work beyond his shift so that Dad would be his only patient. Val had recalled that the doctors said it was a miracle that Dad had survived the initial surgery. She thought, hoped, that he might have another miracle in him. Colleen had spent time alone with Dad on Thursday, when it had snowed, and I had spent time alone with him on Saturday night. We encouraged Val to spend some time alone with him.
When she went to Dad’s room, Dr. Boston was already there. She wanted him to leave but when he didn’t, she began to talk with him. “He told me Dad was dying and they were merely keeping him alive. He explained everything in the gentlest way possible.”
When Val came back to us, she said, “I’m ready.” That night, before Dad died, we promised we would take care of Mom. We took her back to the house that they had shared since 1958. The house where we grew up. The house with a ball field in the backyard that was covered in snow. The house that was missing the holiday lights that Dad would put up after Thanksgiving. The house that was missing his light inside it.
Mom said she would stay in that house until her health forced her to move. Colleen and her husband, Chuck, had converted their garage into a cozy living space for her. She would move there when the cancer reached the brain, and she would inspire us with her courage and lift us with her sense of humor for 16 months after she said goodbye to Dad.
The holidays remind us of those we love and those we miss. It reminds me of the magic Mom and Dad brought to Christmas, sending us to bed the night before with a tree that wasn’t trimmed. In the morning its lights would shine on our presents, and the Lionel trains would already be running. It was only later that we realized it was their presence that made everything special.
A Rawlings glove sat under our tree one year. Dad got out the Neatsfoot oil, so we could condition the glove, then we placed a baseball in the pocket and wrapped a rubber band around it. It was ready for action in the spring, when there’s new growth and the grass on a ball field needs to be cut.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.