Calling the Pen: Enduring life, and death, one step at a time - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: Enduring life, and death, one step at a time

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

When my sister Colleen turned 5, my mom wasn’t home for her birthday. She was in the hospital having our baby sister Val, who had the temerity to be born on Colleen’s birthday, April 4th. It was bad enough that Mom wasn’t there for Colleen’s birthday, but from now on she’d have to share it with Val. It took Colleen a long time to get over it — years, actually.

The reaction was much different on April 4th, 1983. That’s the year our daughter Kelly was born — the middle of five children and the second of four daughters. Colleen and Val were ecstatic that they now shared a birthday with Kelly, and Barb and I were overjoyed as parents.

It was a significant sports day as well. The Orioles opened their 1983 season that day, losing to Kansas City but going on to win their last world championship when they defeated the Phillies in five games. By then, I was working in Philadelphia after accepting an editing position in the Philly Daily News’ sports department. I sometimes wore the Orioles T-shirt I was given as a goodbye gift by my Baltimore News American colleagues and was warned not to go into the composing room because Philly fans took their sports very seriously.

On the night of April 4th, 1983, North Carolina State, coached by Jim Valvano, upset Houston in a national championship game that has only grown in magnitude. I was home from the hospital and watched the game with my friend Dan Broadwater, a pastor who had preached on David vs. Goliath; it sort of felt like that.

Today would’ve been Kelly’s 37th birthday. We lost her on January 30th, 2010. She was born in the warmth and light of spring, and she died in the cold and darkness of winter. After she died, the frozen ground retained a covering of deep snow. I remember trying to clear the driveway one night. The task seemed overwhelming as I started to remove it one shovelful at a time. It’s the way we would have to do life — one step, one day at a time. When the snow finally melted, Barb said she couldn’t see the colors of spring. Life was going on around us, but we were absorbed by grief.

Grief isn’t linear. It isn’t like training for a race where you see steady improvement. It hits you when you least expect it and pulls you back to the most painful time. Little by little, though, the steps become lighter. You recognize that a family that could’ve been torn apart has gotten even closer. You realize how much your friends care, even if they don’t know what to say or do. You begin to see all the blessings amid the pain, and that life is bittersweet. You accept that you’re broken, and that you always will be.

As the 10-year anniversary of Kelly’s death was approaching, Barb and I were trying to think of ways to honor her memory. When I saw that the Salisbury Marathon would be held on April 4th, I viewed it as a sign that it was time for my first marathon. For the past five years, I’ve been running with Athletes Serving Athletes, assisting those who can’t run on their own. A similar organization, Team 360, helps disabled athletes in Salisbury. Its president, Jill Fancher Fears, knows about brokenness and how helping others can be healing; she was going to set me up with a team to run with that day.

Then COVID-19 entered our lives, and everything changed. Almost everything stopped. This time, life wasn’t going on around us as if nothing had happened, as if people had moved on before we were ready to. No one was braced for this, which is how we felt the day we lost Kelly.

What we came to realize is that we couldn’t lose hope. I also realized that I didn’t want to become bitter. Still, there were plenty of times when I wanted to surrender, when I didn’t care if I took another step. Family, friends and faith carried me in those times.

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On my last serious run in preparation for the Salisbury Marathon, a 20-miler on the NCR Trail, I struggled on the final few miles, lacking sufficient hydration and nutrition. I thought of Kelly, and the courage it took to live with the severe anxiety and depression that accompanied her every step, especially the last 10 years of her life. I tried to draw on her strength, reminding myself of why I was taking on this challenge.

I reminded myself that it’s one step at a time, one day at a time. It’s the way Barb and I have lived since we lost Kelly. It’s the way we’re dealing with the pandemic. It’s the only way we know how to go on in our brokenness.

It’s a lot like running a marathon. I won’t be doing that today, but Barb and I will find another way to honor Kelly. And we’ll wish Colleen and Val a happy birthday. They’re good with sharing it, and sharing life with all its bittersweet moments.

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.

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. CalsPals

    April 4, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Prayers to you, yours & everyone, God Bless on this special day…go Gibbons & Go O’s…

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 5, 2020 at 9:26 am

      Thank you, CalsPals. Colleen and Val went to Opening Day on April 4, 1983, and found out afterward that Kelly had been born.

  2. Calvin95

    April 4, 2020 at 9:15 am

    Thanks Jack for sharing this story. God bless you.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 5, 2020 at 9:27 am

      Thank you, Calvin95. The kindness of others has been a blessing.

  3. [email protected]

    April 4, 2020 at 9:24 am

    Thank you for this story. I pray that you and your family continue to have the courage to take it one step at a time. God bless.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 5, 2020 at 9:28 am

      Thank you, Steveo. We’re all trying to take it one step at a time these days.

  4. Rmays

    April 4, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    Jack;
    Thank you for sharing. Our little girl Allison was born on April 4th also. She would have been 35. Both Judy and I feel your pain. May our Lord bless you, Barb, and your family. We love you very much.

    Love & Blessings
    Randy & Judy Mays

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 5, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Randy and Judy, Thank you for visiting us during that time and for your tender hearts.

  5. WorldlyView

    April 4, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    I too appreciated the life lessons gleaned from your story. I found it uplifting and wise. It reminded me of the observation that we don’t get over tragedy, we just deal with it. You’ve done that in a most admirable way.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 5, 2020 at 9:41 am

      Thank you for your words of encouragement, WorldlyView.

  6. garyintheloo

    April 5, 2020 at 3:59 pm

    Bless you and your family and thank you for sharing.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 5, 2020 at 8:23 pm

      Thank you, garyintheloo.

  7. Raymo

    April 5, 2020 at 9:22 pm

    Jack, thank you for sharing such a personal and heartbreaking story. It’s both touching and inspirational.

    Now about this marathon that you were training for, are you a runner or is this something new for you? The longest distance I’ve ever run is 10 miles, so this too is inspirational.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 6, 2020 at 8:58 am

      Thank you for your encouraging note, Raymo. I have been running with an organization called Athletes Serving Athletes for the past 5 years. Able-bodied runners assist those who can’t compete on their own but love being out there. It has inspired me to be a stronger runner, and I find running also helps my mental health. It’s another thing to do one step at a time.

  8. Diamondguy

    April 6, 2020 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for sharing Jack. I totally understand what you are saying about life going on but it seems like you are not. We lost our daughter 8yrs ago and I know and understand everything you wrote. You are 100% correct…one step at a time! We will all get through this but things will change forever for a lot of people!

    • CalsPals

      April 6, 2020 at 10:10 am

      Everyone deals with things in their own way, thankfully I have no experience similar to draw from, but it sounds to me as if Jack is doing a fabulous job…go Jack & go O’s…

      • Jack Gibbons

        April 6, 2020 at 10:44 am

        Thank you again for your encouragement, CalsPals. Take care.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 6, 2020 at 10:42 am

      Diamondguy, I’m so sorry that you lost your daughter. Thank you for sharing your loss, and for the courage to take those steps afterward. We are not in control, but we will get through this unsettling time.

  9. Grand Strand Bird Fan

    April 7, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    Excellent tribute to one of the legendary players from the past. I had the pleasure to see him play numerous times at Memorial Stadium. Also, one of the few players that did not play in the minors.

    • Jack Gibbons

      April 7, 2020 at 8:51 pm

      Grand Strand, I think you meant this comment for Rich’s story on Hall of Famer and Baltimore native Al Kaline. And, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Take care, Jack

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