Dedicated to my little boy - who one day became a fine young man.
He will always be the bravest boy I know.
The day my son was born may well have been the prophetic catalyst for all his future actions, whether conscious or not. I did not burst into tears at the sight of my child, as I had anticipated, but rather, watched in awe and amazement, counting his fingers and toes. It was not until the next morning, when I had some time alone with him, that the tears came. The doctor commented on the rather large size of his feet and I noted how disproportionate they looked with the rest of his body. But it wasn't his feet that caused the trouble, it was his hands.
In the midst of a wooded area on the outskirts of town, a clearing had been made for a baseball field. The playing area was dirt and gravel, surrounded by a metal fence and equally cold bleachers. Sitting behind me, two parents were complaining about the destructive potential of gravel to a little boy's tender flesh. You would think they had more to worry about than torn skin. Their son wore glasses and was the catcher, no less. I was more concerned with the velocity of speeding baseballs at their weight of impact, or the careless toss of the bat from an angry batter. Missing teeth seemed more injurious than scraped knees.
I had stacked the odds quite neatly in my mind. Once, my younger brother had been knocked to the ground, unconscious, by a solidly placed baseball to the front of his face. But, after all, he was the pitcher and children weighing less than one hundred pounds were not capable of producing damaging force winds behind a ball. Were they?
Such were the preposterous rationalizations of a mother.
Miniature red and white uniformed bodies ran around chasing stray balls from under cars and retrieving them from brier thickets. First game jitters. Only the flicker of flying insects momentarily diverted their attention. Little boys are more adept at catching lightning bugs than fly balls, I thought. These wandering light bulbs floated among the players, adding warmth to the night chill that now descended.
The game was about to begin.
Politely, I applauded and smiled cordially to the other parents, as they beamed with delight over the athletic genius of their children. Noticing the not-so-well-hidden grins on their faces, I made a mental note to appear in control at all times. It was my boy's turn at bat. Pretending this to be an everyday occurrence, I adjusted my sweater, looked down at the ground far beneath the bleachers, and swatted a mosquito.
Nonchalantly, I directed my gaze to the small-framed body of my son. His fly-away, brown hair peeked out from under his hat and curled upward. Those large, dark eyes that could melt my defenses with one swift glance, seemed to gleam with anticipation. In the outfield, his teammates leaned forward, hands on their knees, chattering in unified tradition. The varied timbre of little boy voices in half grown-up bodies filled the night air. Jay wore a red and white uniform with matching leg stirrups and hat, imprinted with the name of a local entrepreneur.
Apart from wondering whether his over-sized, safety-pinned pants would stay up, I thought him quite handsome.
He stood with his short legs spread apart across the wide home plate, holding a bat that must have been twice his body length. The previous batters had expertly displayed the proper squatting position, tilting and swaying over the plate like a tightrope walker, evoking ripples of laughter from the crowd. He was too compact to do much squatting. Instead, he planted himself squarely before the pitcher, looking wise and dignified, deliberately prepared for the approaching swing. Two off-center balls crossed the plate, and I was sure that this wise choice of stance had assisted his judgment.
As the pitcher paused, he raised his elbow higher and leveled the bat in an imaginary connection, then resumed his pose. "Strike one!" the umpire called, as I reassessed the pitcher, somewhat agitated at his nerve. Then in a loud, clear voice that reverberated through the night, the umpire called a second strike.
I now viewed, with grudging respect, the beady-eyed ball-throwing machine that hurled strikes at my son.
He never took his eyes off the target, dragging dirt with his feet, rotating the shoulder blade like a well-oiled semi-automatic, ready to expel the final blow. I wondered what demons lurked behind that cruel smirk and casts a few not-so-motherly thoughts his way. I wanted to somehow invisibly climb over that jagged fence and tie his shoelaces together or alternately tap him on each shoulder like an impish fairy. I was sure he stepped on caterpillars for a hobby and collected Rambo posters. My fears were only beginning to surface when from the opposing side of the bleachers a voice yelled, "That's right, son, mow him down!"
This was war.
No more polite assertions and gracious nods of community pride. Lines had been drawn.
He never wavered or relaxed his stance as the third strike barreled past him in a resounding clutch of the catcher's mitt. The chattering voices in the outfield abruptly halted with the final swing as if on cue from a conductor's baton. Awkwardly still, with the absence of applause, the night offered only a prevailing, hollow silence, siphoning strength from the crashing crescendo I had expected.
He turned and lifted his gaze toward me, with a sheepish glance; those dark, shining eyes barely visible underneath his cap. I sat smiling, with that encouraging mother-look on my face, wrestling a few demons of my own.
I remembered the steely silence of an operating room. The awkwardness of a particular moment when I lay helpless in the face of finality. Fading in and out of consciousness and in pain, I too heard distant voices cease their chatter and grow silent above my bed. It had been my third strike, my last chance, my final swing.
The first child had come and gone swiftly; a brief, passing existence. The second, though brandishing a valiant effort to survive, laboriously died in stages. And this, the one I had waited and prayed for, lay struggling within me. The pain in my body and the hushed voices of those around me, told me the fight would bring a cruel resolution.
There were no fences to climb, no words to say, no magic cures.
But there were stances to take. Epiphanies to ponder.
There seemed to be a sacredness in this third defeat, a bitter completion of dreams that died in utero.
Miracles often float in and out of our lives in threes: the Trinity, "surprise" yelled at the end of a three count, Wisemen. Waltzes are danced to in three; butterflies evolve.
And my bright-eyed firstborn had just learned to say I love you.
Jay reached the dugout and sank against the corner wall, fighting back tears, unaware that the quivering, protrusion of his lower lip gave his bravado away. He looked obscure and small. The stinging pain in my chest kept rhythm with the visible beating of my heart and again, I fought the urge to climb that fence.
How many times had I turned from unexpected failure in such a way, but with much less grace. I remembered the corners I'd retreated to, making a bed for myself, and evoking much louder pity in private than he had afforded.
He carried a resolution that experience could not have acquired. Swiftly, he had removed himself from the trial, quietly taking his place of refuge, and rightly so. Perhaps I would have enjoyed a sulkier retreat or tarried a bit in anger. He never took the time. I wonder if I'd still be standing had my strikes been four.
I hoped my son would.
The unheralded dignities we firmly plant ourselves in, often find us standing in the wind, unabated before a thundering world of hardball.
As that once frail infant lay suited in gauze mittens and fought unseen forces, so this ballplayer, whose feet never found the bases, knew a lot about running. My one shining success, unknowingly, had braced himself for stronger storms.
I won't climb that fence.
He had straddled the bull's-eye with his over-sized feet, and stood.