Posts Tagged ‘handling loss’

The Terrible Necessity of Loss

October 23, 2013

It wasn’t the fact that his voice had dropped three octaves in the past six months.  Something in his voice sounded different.

“Mom?  Dad?  I think Star is sick.”

I’ve heard that voice almost every day for the past twelve years.  Delighted and distraught.  Worried and wondrous.  Crazy and crestfallen.  Pained and petulant.  But this…this was different.  This was the sound of concern.  But not the “I’m worried about my test” or “I’m nervous about today’s game” kind of concern.  The deep monotone went deeper than the words in conveying that something was wrong.  Something that may not be able to be put right again.

Kir and I followed Gus upstairs and looked into the tank.  One frog, Comet, the younger of the pair, stroked in nervous circles, even more active than her somewhat hyper norm.  On the other end of the spectrum sat Star, the more curmudgeonly of the two, who spent most of her time brooding inside the miniature sphinx sunk in the depths of the cloudy water.  But instead of her normal squat, she was splayed out in the corner, almost on her side, a flipper resting oddly upward on the side of the tank.  When Comet rocketed by, the elder made a slight twitch, but no more.

There was little room for doubt.  Star was dying.

She had come to our home on a fluke.  Gus was in 2nd grade and for science, the teacher had bought one of the “Grow-A-Frog” tadpoles and they watched it grow.  Of course, once the experiment had reached its amphibian conclusion, there was that pesky question about what to do with the actual life that evolved before them.

And yes, we felt so “lucky” when we heard the exciting news out of that ecstatic seven-year-old that he had won the frog lottery.  Star was coming home with him!  With our permission, of course.

A grin of breathless anticipation.  Giant blue saucers blinking, begging.

Resistance was futile.

And so Star became a part of the family.  We explained to Gus that this was his frog to take care of.  We would fill in for him if he was away, but otherwise Star’s fate would be on his hands.  Earnest to a fault even at that young age, Gus took his charge seriously.  He fed her to the letter of the instructions, and watched as she continued to grow.  He asked for a larger tank for his birthday as he felt Star was cramped by her small school tank.  And when we read up on the frog and found that they were social creatures, he made the decision that he wanted to grow Star some company.  That’s when we received the mysterious box with nothing but a small bag of water inside that I threw away, realizing just before the garbage many came that it might just have a tadpole inside.

He had spent five years looking after this animal, his first real charge.  Before that he had the odd carnival-won goldfish with the two-week average lifespan.  I think we managed to get a couple of months out of one.  The flush down the toilet was quick and painless.  But for a 12-year-old, 5 years is pretty much your entire life.  Those baby and toddler years would be no more than fantasy save the embarrassing photos and video.  And those pre-K years are spotty at best.  Elementary school is when memories truly take root.  Those memories persisted every day when a few miniscule specs of food drifted their way down to the bottom of the water toward his grand dame.

“I don’t think she can make it back to the top of the tank to breathe,” he said.  These were water frogs, but needed the occasional trip to the surface.  “And she’s so skinny,” his voice dripping that that most wonderful, contemptible of emotions—empathy.

I flew to the Internet as Kir comforted him, noting that dealing with loss is an integral part of owning a pet.  I Googled “Sick Grow-A-Frog” and gleaned enough information to confirm that at five years, Star had reached the average lifespan for her kind.  It also noted that for a sick frog, a transfer into some fresh water can be helpful.

And so I dusted off Star’s old, small tank—the place where she first came to us.  I rinsed a handful of white gravel and patted it evenly at the bottom, then splashed some distilled water until the tank was a third full.  Then it was a turn with a more murky fluid, as I plunged an old Orioles souvenir cup into the larger tank and gently captured Star.  With a carful pour I dropped Star into her new, old home.  Gus immediately sprinkled a few grains of food in, hopeful that perhaps with the contrast of color Star might more easily be able to find sustenance.

“I think that’s the best we can do for her now,” I said.  “We’ve made her as comfortable as we can.”  Gus nodded silently and got himself ready for bed.  As Kir and I left the room with a kiss on the head and a stroke of the hair, that middle-school voice warbled, “Good Night” – the deep concern beginning to crack through the determined monotone.

In the morning we peeked anxiously into Gus’s room, and found Star was still with us.  Indeed, she seemed to be moving a little more.  Kir and I both cautioned him not to get too excited, but if she showed some signs of progress that there was some medicated food available we could order.  He went off to school not exactly a bundle of joy, but not singularly preoccupied, either.

A few hours later I went to check on Star and found her in a surprising position.  She had managed to get upright, her eyes peeking over the top of the film of water.  Two flashes of thought ran their way through my mind at that moment.  One was “I wonder how much that medicated food costs?”  The other, a little less base, recalled a moment with my dear Grandma Mary in her last days.  We visited her in the hospital, watching as she lay there, a slip of a woman haloed by flow of tousled white hair.  And, for just a little while, she came back to us.  Having been fed through a tube for days, she sat upright and talked to us.  The doctor asked if she’d like to try anything to eat, proffering Jell-o and broth.  She responded with a clarity we hadn’t heard in weeks:

“An egg.”

We all laughed, and the doctor smiled and said, “not quite yet, Mrs. Nathanson.”

She left us just days later.

Gus came down that evening, eyes wide like a Second Grader, but this time with not beginnings to be found, but endings.

“I think Star died.”

We rushed upstairs, and there she floated, flat on her back.  There was no think about it.  Star’s ascent was that last bright flair.  A final feast of chicken our old cat Peter had before we had to put him down.  A hearty laugh of my Uncle John as he gave me tips on how to win over this new girlfriend I had named Kirsten while cancer overtook him.  A Christmas hug my Father-in-Law Andy gave me before cancer stole him from us.

An egg.

Kirsten rubbed his back and stroked his hair.  I carried the tank that once held that little tadpole out of sight.  And there was a new noise.  Gus cried.  But much like his deep monotone, it was a different cry than I had ever heard before.  It wasn’t getting hit by a pitch or insulted by some bullies.  It was the knife of loss etching its first real scar on his soul.  For even though he still remembers his Pappy Andy and felt the pain of his passing—this death was his to own.

Gus took a few days, allowing the sorrow to dilute into sadness, and decided to dispense with anything too drawn-out for Star’s resting place.  He did want her committed to water, but a swirl down the toilet seemed a bit too callous.  So he and I crossed the street, a small Ziplock bag with enough water to make Star look like she was still swimming, and slipped her down the storm drain to float away to the local river.  A simple “Goodbye Star” was all he wanted to say, and it was back to homework.  The pain wasn’t gone.  It would never be gone.  But it had begun to index itself, tucked among first grand slams, Straight-A report cards, and a day when he brought a small tank home with the first life that was truly in his hands.

Now Gus faces another decision.  A frog the owner no longer wants is looking for a home, and Comet could use a new friend.  When I ask him about it, I see the struggle etched on his face.  He wants to do for Comet what he did for Star, but to bring another life means invariably handling another death.  It is an experience he is, understandably, reluctant to repeat.

Aren’t we all.

And yet we go on, risking pain because of that most lamentable, essential human condition – the need to love.  It is a terrible and crucial truth.

Pets are a portal to that critical life lesson.  No, not portal.  They are a shovel.  They dig the hole in which greater loss will be cast in.  They dig away at the childish notion of the eternal.  But all that is dug out is not lost.  Instead, it builds a mountain of memories and responsibilities that temper the pain of a moment with the joys and headaches of living life, day-by-day.

Goodbye Star…

…And thank you.

It is designed to break your heart

August 2, 2013

Barcroft Park

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

15-3.

That’s how badly the DC Dynasty had whipped us Arlington Cardinals in the wee morning hours.  It happed just the day before, in what now has been coined “The Great Hangover Game of 2013.”  You see, our young B-teamers, 11 and 12-year-olds all, had bounced back after getting thrashed by the Arlington A Team–the Storm–in the first game of this, our last tournament of the season, to actually win the next game by mercy rule.  The ecstasy of that 11-1 win, a game that started at 8pm, kept most of our kids up past midnight that night.

And any parent can tell you that a pre-teen with a bad night’s sleep is a truly gruesome sight to behold.  As our boys staggered onto the field for an 8am start, they looked more like they’d be hunting for brains than baseballs.

15-3.

And yet, here we stood the next day in the semifinals against that very same Dynasty, headed out to the field for the bottom of the 6th and possibly final inning of our season, and the story was a very different one.

7-7.

Once again, we had gotten down early, but this time we had our top pitchers on the mound, and our ace contained the damage and, with solid defense, we were down only 4-0 going into the top of the 4th.

Raj, our #2 hitter, led off the inning and worked a nice walk to get us started, and my big fella Gus followed with a booming double to right centerfield, our first well struck ball of the game and a capper for his breakout offensive season where he batted .533.  And even though Gus eventually got thrown out at home, our guys still carried that momentum forward doing what we worked on all season: working the pitch counts, laying-off the high heat, and focusing on putting the ball in play.  By the time the inning had ended, it was more than a brand new game.

5-4.

When we trotted out to try and defend that slimmest of leads, it would be my guy on the bump.  Gus was our #2, but had really developed into a solid pitcher in his own right.  After giving up a leadoff double to their best hitter, Gus managed to do what the Dynasty could not.  He worked around an error, an infield hit, and a walk.  Walking the tightrope as he had done all season, he managed to escape the 4th with only one run scored.  The bottom of our order was then no match for their pitcher, however, and we found ourselves out there again deadlocked in the bottom of the 5th.

5-5.

Gus again worked his best through a batting order far deeper than ours.  He gave up a bloop single which in our league is essentially an automatic double as with leads and 70 foot basepaths, it is the rare day when a runner gets caught trying to steal.  They played a fundamentally sound game and bunted the runner over to 3rd.  Now our entire season was dancing up the baseline, attempting to induce a wild pitch.

And, of course, up once again stepped their big fella, whom our parents had nicknamed, “The 30-Year-Old.”  He had burned us the day before with a home run that sealed our mercy-rule fate.  He already had two doubles on the day.  And puberty seemed to be rushing upon him so quickly that I swear you could see his stubble growing as he waved his bat menacingly in the batter’s box.  As I viewed the matchup, I could only think of one possible solution:

Surrender.

“Step off, Gus, step off!” I yelled, remembering a point in an earlier tournament that season when I wasn’t vocal enough in calling time out and it cost us (that’s a story for another day, but it’s a good story).  He complied, though glaring at me in that, “Dad, you’re the assistant coach, you know,” kind of way.  I turned to Danny and pled, “Walk him.  Let’s walk him.  Let’s intentionally walk him!”

Hey now.  Don’t give me that look.  It made perfect baseball sense.  Mr. 30 was the guy who has beaten us all weekend long.  There were two outs, and the most important run was at 3rd.  I was simply trying to apply a sound strategy to a big moment—perhaps with just a small touch of, “My boy has had such a great season, please-please-please don’t make him pitch to this brute!”

Danny called time and trotted out to the mound to chat with Gus.  I immediately ran to the ump to see if we could simply declare a walk rather than throwing four intentional balls, something that you are usually allowed to do at this level.  But when Danny returned, he simply said, “No walk.  Gus wants to pitch to him.”  Abject terror and immense pride washed through my body in what, though I hope to never validate, is what I would expect a small heart attack feels like.  My son toed the rubber, and let the first pitch fly.

He attacked high in the zone, and got Mr. 30 to take the bait.  Swing-and-a-miss—strike one.  A ball outside to even the count, then a low called strike on the outside corner to get him way up.  All season long, we had worked on varying location.  None of our pitchers, even our best ones, had “swing and miss” stuff.  So location and changing speed were our bread-and-butter to compete.  Now, it was time to execute.

“Climbtheladderclimbtheladderclimbtheladder,” I muttered over and over, hoping that our catcher Harry would make the right call.  I saw him come ever so slightly out of his crouch.  Yes!  Yes!! Do it!!!  Gus fired the ball right at chest level, and—PLINK—the ball went sky-high right to the left side, a towering fly to the infield.  Gus had done it!  He beat the behemoth!

As the ball sailed in the air, its hue shifted from a dirt-smudged white to neon green.  For in my mind’s eye, that ball became one of the hundreds of popups Coach Mark and I had swatted at our fielders with a tennis racket in what we called the “Sky High” drill.  It was the perfect way to safely whip soaring popups in the air so our fielders would know where to be and how to communicate.  It was one of those perfect coaching moments: a huge situation where you prepared these very players for this very thing.

But when both the 3rd baseman and Shortstop took two staggering, silent steps backwards, confidence turned to prayer.

A teeter.  A waiver.  A desperate lunge.

A ball making, quick, popcorn-like bounds as it landed safely in the short-outfield grass.

6-5.

Then our crimson uniforms were suddenly replaced with jerseys marked “Chico’s Bail Bonds.” A rage-fueled throw back into the infield careened past the 2nd baseman, allowing the runner to take 2nd.  And the only reason he didn’t get to 3rd is that the equally ill-advised throw back in managed to find the 2nd baseman’s shin, as he wasn’t even looking when the throw came bounding through.  After a ground ball single scored the next run, you could feel it all getting away.  But Gus, much to his credit, settled down and struck out the next hitter, giving us a small gasp of life in our season.

7-5.

Now, if you are skeptical of baseball gods ruling the fate of we mere mortals on the diamond, the top of the 6th should make you a true believer.  For we stood there with two outs, our season saved by the juggle of a catch in what would have been a game ending double play.  Tyler, the boy who had lunged at that fateful fly, came up to the plate.  Ty had been mired in a slump and was moved down in the order, and was not having a great day at the plate.  He got down early in the count, but each time the final pitch seemed destined to find leather, a small sliver of aluminum got in its way.  He fought back to fill the count, and, after a 10-pitch at bat, worked the walk.

Bases loaded, two outs.

Okay, sure, that’s a huge moment, but not the magic you were expecting?  Well Tyler’s walk brought the at bat a full year in the making.  For at this very tournament last year, in this very same semifinal game, in this very 6th inning, up stepped Jack, our centerfielder, who has been playing for me since 2nd grade.  In that moment, he lined a ball to Left that seemed ticketed for a game winning double, only to have the ball picked off by the fielder that the other team’s coach admitted was, “the kid we hide because he can’t catch.”

The statistical implausibility of this at bat happening again a year apart was enough to make me believe in the Easter Bunny (and I’m Jewish).  As he approached the plate, I could feel his apprehension as his chest filled and sagged.  Rustling up what little emotional control I could muster, I managed a smile and said, “Jack baby, you know you can do this because you’ve done it!  This time, just find a hole!”  Maybe it was just me, but Jacked seemed a bit heartened—and a lot determined—when he stepped over the eroded chalk line.

I saw him in his wide-open, left-handed stance, something we changed together to get him diving toward the ball so he could cover the outside corner.  And when that outside fastball came, JC was ready to roll.  CRACK.  A screaming grounder to the left of the 3rd baseman.  He had a shot at it, but it was too hot to handle and crawled up his arm and into left field.  Even with 2 outs, however, there wasn’t enough time to get that tying run in as the outfielder was playing too shallow.

7-6.

But, on the very next pitch, with our last-place hitter at the plate, the pitcher uncorked a wild one, and our runner dashed in safely.  I had to chide Jack who rather than running down to 2nd base decided to strut and clap his way to the bag.  “Get to the bag, then strut, big guy!” I yelled.  He grinned and nodded.

After a well-earned walk loaded the bases again, our leadoff hitter rapped a ball on a line, but right at the 2nd baseman.  No lead, but a mini-miracle for all concerned.

7-7.

And so Gus, our middle of the order hitter, the guy who had pitched more innings than anyone else—my son—was asked to go out one more time to save our season.

He didn’t have quite as much pop on his fastball, but was still locating well.  He got ahead of the leadoff hitter, and induced a weak fly ball to right.  But the yips got the best of our right fielder, despite the pre-game instructions for outfielders to “run in and dive for any close ball” he pulled up and allowed the popup to drop.  A quick steal of second, and trouble was once again looming.

As they did the last time, the Dynasty looked to bunt their runner over.  But this time, Gus was ready, and kept the ball up high-and-away twice inducing two foul pops to get ahead 0-2.  We needed the K desperately, and he loaded up to go low-and-in.  But the ball stayed up, and ran right over the middle of the plate.

And there was a sound of thunder.

A walkoff.  A walkoff home run, no less.

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

As we lined up and awaited the conclusion of the Dynasty’s home plate dogpile, I noted that our boys were surprisingly chipper, save one devastated blond fella.  I realized then that Gus had in the most sincere sense taken one for the team.  All the mistakes were washed away, because we had come back from them.  Even the missed fly ball to open the inning didn’t matter, because the home run made it irrelevant.  It’s not that they wanted it to be Gus’s fault.  But a piece of each and every one of them were relieved that it wasn’t their fault.  They were proud—rightfully proud—of their hard work and their fight and, even in a loss, felt that this B team put in an A effort both today, and throughout the season.

But, as the boys settled in for post-season cake and pizza, it was my boy with his back turned at the next table, shoulders hunched from the piano that fell on his shoulders.  All the coaches, this one included, took their turn at cheering him up to no avail.  Even one of the coaches of the Storm came over to tell him how well he played.  That bucked Gus up a bit, but the moment, the brutal finality of it, was an anchor no adult could pry free.

But someone could.

“Hey Gus!  Don’t be so down.  You actually did us a favor, as I didn’t want to get our butts kicked by the Storm again anyway!” said our #1 pitcher, patting him on the back.  “Yeah!” agreed Raj, “Who the heck needed that?”  A small grin, a seed of the joy that season had been until that very moment, fought its way through the heartbreak of the moment and broke through the gloom.  A hand reached for a slice of pizza.  And, not 10 minutes later, Gus sat on a see-saw doing his darndest to knock Tyler off as he in the glorious stupidity of youth attempted to balance in the middle.

The next evening, Gus was having dinner and as he wolfed down his 7th taco, casually told his Mom, “I’m ready for baseball to start again.”  “Gus, it’s only been a day,” Kirsten replied, incredulously.

“Really?  It feels like it’s been 10 years.”

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind