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Losing my Dad at Father’s Day: An Essay

When Father’s Day means more than a cheesy coffee mug.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays are losing a lot right now, which makes it tough. We’re not professional writers here at DRays Bay, but this is baseball blog. We try to be honest about how we feel about the way things are going, the direction the team is taking, the talent level of players they’re sending out there.

But writing here has also always come with the understanding that the family of these players read what we write and care what we have to say. We’re probably even more aware of it this season as the next wave of young guys breaks upon the Trop. Because for these young guys, playing in the majors isn’t a job yet; it’s still a dream, and one they are living. For the families that have loved and supported them on bus rides and travel ball, through slumps, injuries and “do you think it’s time for me to give up this baseball thing?” conversations, it’s the graduation day for that child you weren’t sure was going to make it through.

So yes, you and I care about these ballplayers. We get endless enjoyment (and frustration) out of watching them play this game into which we have invested so much of our lives. We even say that we love them, sometimes. Or, well, some of them. But our heart doesn’t swell from seeing Johnny Field’s boyhood dreams finally coming true like John Field’s heart does. We don’t really know how it felt to be Denard Span’s mom watching her son finally coming home to play – under not the best of circumstances, to put it bluntly – after a decade of entertaining fans in other cities, only to see him shipped off a couple months later.

And we certainly didn’t live and die waiting for Jake Bauers to get his first big league hit like Misty did.

This is where I’m supposed to drop in some sappy Field-of-Dreams “Church of Baseball” tripe. About how, through all the years, while America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers, the one constant has been baseball. That baseball is family, that baseball is life.

Sorry, that’s crap. Or maybe it’s just backwards.

Baseball is not family, but there is a group of people for which family is baseball. It is the Dream their lives have congealed around. They are the Bauers and the Fields and Spans.

But there are other Dreams. There are other things people we love and give themselves to that don’t involve bats and balls and gloves. Theater. Writing. Teaching. Travel. The possibilities are endless.

The common ground between the Spans of the world and those with other Dreams is not an activity. The common ground is the people who helped you get there. For those of us who are fortunate, we get to call that common ground “family.”

My father has been in hospice since last weekend.

(Well, that was an awkward segue.)

It’s not nearly as sad a time as it could be. He’s been living with dementia and Alzheimer’s for the last several years. He’s only been the man I remember as my dad very sporadically for a while now, and the gaps between those times has been getting wider. It’s been tough, especially on my mom, so in some sense there will be relief when it’s finally over.

But it still hurts. Dammit, does it hurt. It hurts little by little, then all at once. Diseases of the mind are monstrous that way, not just for the things they are stealing, but because the victim knows he has been robbed. There are few things more heartbreaking than the frustrated look on your Dad’s face when he says “Can I ask you a question? Who are you? I know I”m supposed to know you, but...”

This will either be my final Father’s Day with a dad, or my first Father’s Day without a dad. 49 years is a long time to be someone’s son. 57 years is a very long time to be someone’s wife. But 77 years is not nearly long enough to be a man.

I’ve spent a lot of time going through old photos in the last week or so, as you do during times like this. I don’t have many pictures of just my dad and me together. Part of this is because for most of my life I’ve been averse to having my picture taken. Part if it is just our personalities. We were never the kind of men who thought to say, “Hey wouldn’t it be great to have a picture to remember this moment?” unless somebody else said it first. But the lion’s share is probably because I live a thousand miles away.

I moved away from our Pennsylvania home for good when I was 20 years old. Got married, joined the Navy, saw the world. (It’s mostly water, by the way.) After I got out, my wife and I settled in Tampa Bay. We of course made regular vacations back home, and my folks visited us. I called, sometimes, but that was inconsistent. Because you get busy. And then you feel bad that you haven’t called in a while, so you don’t call because you don’t want to explain why you haven’t called.

And then your dad gets Alzheimer’s, so you call all the time. Even when there’s nothing to say.

I did find a few pictures of the two of us. One is of the day I graduated boot camp. I look pretty awkward and goofy in my sailor suit. My dad is standing next to me, grinning like I just got my first big league hit.

This tweet came up in my feed the other day. It hit me in the feels so hard:

Even before these monstrous diseases attacked my dad, we didn’t have the kind of relationship where you had long, intense conversations to solve the world’s problems. We didn’t share a whole lot of interests. We didn’t even have the safe space of sports that lots of father-sons can retreat towards. But what you can’t see is the amount of love in the blank space after each DAD: and each ME:

My dad was a good man. A couple inches shorter than my mom and stocky, with thinning hair for as long as I’ve known him, he was wickedly funny in that counter-punch way some people have. He loved being outdoors almost as much as he loved naps. He got flustered when he got excited and would lose the thread on the stories he was telling, but he had an amazing smile. And he loved his family more than anything.

That last bit was probably in large part a reaction to his own rough childhood. His parents split when he was young, and his mother died from leukemia when he was a teenager. For much of his childhood, he was separated from his siblings and raised by people other than his parents.

Some people who come from tough backgrounds remain prisoners their entire life to the family that never even bothered to raise them; some people fight like hell to rise above it. My dad chose the latter, to his eternal credit.

I know that I’m lucky. I know that not everyone gets to have a dad. Not a real dad, not a good dad. For that, I am so grateful. It is part of why I want to be a good dad myself. To honor my father.

This doesn’t mean he was a perfect dad by any means. Like all of us, he was making it up as he went along. Unlike many, he didn’t have much of a blueprint to work from.

Plus, his son is a weirdo.

I’d like to say that my dad and I had a weird relationship. But that implies that I have normal relationships with other people. The truth is that I don’t do relationships well at all. I’m not social. Though I’ve gotten better over the years, people have always sort of freaked me out. I also get interested in odd things that seem to come out of the blue. And when I commit to an activity, I sort of obsess about it. Until I get bored and move on to the next thing, that is.

When I was little, I got into building model airplanes. I had them hanging from fishing wire on my bedroom ceiling. When I was in grade school, I got into stand up comedy. I watched all the comedy specials I could, and I listened to old comedy records till I could repeat them verbatim, with every inflection and every pause perfectly placed.

But those were nothing compared to my love affair with baseball.

I discovered the Church of Baseball when I was in second grade. I still don’t know how, because my parents were not fans. But I got involved in t-ball, and I was hooked.

I memorized statistics and learned about historical players. I made my parents take a side trip to Cooperstown during one vacation. (Note - Cooperstown is not a side trip. It’s way the hell out there in not-New York City.) I collected baseball cards and I watched every game I could, which was a lot because cable was just becoming a thing, and you could watch not only the Phillies, but the Cubs on WGN and the Yankees on WPIX and Saturday afternoon baseball with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, and ABC’s Monday Night Baseball (it was a thing!) with Keith Jackson and Al Michaels.

And of course, I played baseball for as long as they would let me. Which really wasn’t terribly long, because I was awful. Being a gritty scrappy gamer will only get you so far when you can’t hit a curve ball. Or a fastball. Or catch a fly ball. And you’re afraid of line drives.

It probably didn’t help that my dad wasn’t very good at teaching me how to do the things I loved. Which isn’t his fault of course. He was very much an anti-nerd and, as I said, not a sports guy. He liked to be outside, and he liked to watch TV, where his tastes ran towards Westerns and police dramas. (You should have heard his soliloquies on Angie Dickinson’s legs. Rarely has so much been conveyed in a simply “Mmm!”) He was a volunteer fireman. He liked to travel.

What what my father did do was this: he hung the fishing wire for my model airplanes; he bought me tapes with old Abbott and Costello routines on it; and he took me to ballgames. He took me to the Vet to see the Phillies, even when they were bad, and he took me to baseball card shows. He poured concrete for my Johnny Bench Batter Up. He didn’t do those things because he hoped someday I’d grow up to be second baseman for the Twins; even he knew that wasn’t going to happen. He did them because I loved those things, and he loved me, and that’s what good dads do.

For a long time, I didn’t think my dad had passed on to me anything more than a shared name. But several years ago, before the symptoms really set in, we had a rare vacation back north when the whole family gathered together around the table. Me, my wife and kids, my two sisters and their families. Dad was beaming.

I sneezed. And my oldest sister turned to me and laughed.

“You sound just like dad!”

I was stunned. She was right. I have my father’s sneeze.

After dinner, dad got very weepy. Because his family was all together, and it meant so much to him. I think, for him, it meant that he mattered. That he had done something good with his life.

Dad was clearly embarrassed by his emotions, so I looked away. My parents had taught me the value of privacy, that it was rude to stare. After a few awkward moments, my eyes found my kids. They were all blurry. And I realized that I had gotten a whole lot more from my dad than just a sneeze.

I did not pass along the Church of Baseball to my kids. They didn’t get the gene. They have their own interests and that is more than fine, it is wonderful. My son loves games and music and his dogs. My daughter loves art and concerts and to rage against the patriarchy. I love to listen to them tell me what they are doing, what they’re into. I love it when they tell me what’s going on their lives, and when they teach me new things. But there are still blank spaces in the conversations.

I hope I’ve learned to communicate what is unseen in the blank spaces. I hope they know it is there even when I can’t say it out loud. I hope they know that I feel every bit the major league baseball dad whenever they succeed, and that my heart breaks with them when they fail, no matter how old they get. I hope I have taught them that baseball is just baseball, and music is just music, and book are just books, but that family is life.

This I learned from my father.

Family is not always blood. Some people are not fortunate enough to have a healthy relationship with their family of origin. But all of us have been shaped by those around us along the way. Father’s Day is a day to give thanks to the men who made a positive difference in our lives. It is a day for cheesy coffee mugs and ugly ties and for remembering. For holding on to the good and letting go of the bad. It is a day to say out loud what goes unsaid in the blank spaces.

I love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.