We have come to the point in the season—exhausted, injured, limping, Halloween candy in the grocery—in which we question why we keep going to the ballpark. There’s much to be said for personal pride and individual statistics, and somewhat less for launching a fatal fusillade into the playoff plans of the enemy.

They need to keep playing because somewhere, for some family, or just one person, those nine innings are the difference between forced peace and awful reality.

My father died over a summer. The cancer diagnosis came just after Easter, the decline came throughout the hottest months, and he died with the season in October. In the middle was the 2010 baseball season, which I simultaneously missed and absorbed like no other.

I have no idea what the Reds’ record was that season. I could not fill in a single roster.  All I know is I was living in Alabama at the time, and when I was home, and when there was baseball on television, my mother and father and I had something to stare at besides the pill bottles.

In June I messaged my sister to ask if he might like to go to a game for Father’s Day. Answer: No, and it’s a measure of how much you’re not here that you think such a thing is even possible. “You don’t know how it is,” she wrote, not to be mean, but to indicate the dreadful progress of things. I cashed in my last childhood savings bond to afford the airfare for a visit. Something was different, and terrible, from the last time I was home.

What I found was an echo of the man who raised me, without hair or appetite. I placed a small serving of lasagna before him, and my mother said, “You don’t have to eat it,” at his dismayed expression. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me to make dinner. It was that nothing tasted good and nothing stayed down and nothing could be done about it. Taking a shower was a massive ordeal. And now I knew how it was: A simple trip to the ball park was utterly unthinkable.

So we watched from home instead, every single strike and ball.  A day game rendered the evenings endless. An off day was a catastrophe. The games proceeded by inches but always far too quickly.

I am touchy about how sports is often framed in military terminology, as though a game sits equally on the scales as a life-and-death struggle. And since 2010, I detest how cancer is framed in terms of war:  “He lost his battle with cancer.” “She succumbed to cancer.” As though those who died from it just didn’t push back hard enough. I now understand how survivors and their families emerge on the other side of a diagnosis feeling as if they had indeed just waged cruel war, for months or years at a time. But this scourge doesn’t care if you’re a Senator or a young mother or a genius or a deadbeat dodging child support. They all fight it. Some emerge, others don’t—and it’s never a matter of who deserves to win. It’s a tornado of a disease, skipping over one house, badly damaging another, leveling the next.

In his final days, my father struggled to raise his head from the bed to look at his youngest grandson in the eye as the baby pulled himself up on the end of his hospital bed.  In addition to him, I also lost a mother-figure, a teacher and mentor, a force of nature and spiritual Amazon, to cancer. The woman was born wearing combat boots and carrying an iron shield. “It’s not fair,” I said to one of my classmates at the funeral.

“No, it is not,” she said, which was better than anything else, because it was the truth and that was all I was in the mood for at the moment. They fought, and we lost them.

But beyond the edge of his hospital bed, as the daily titanic struggle unfolded on the flat screen, there was just another summer, a fair game where rules applied. There was me sitting at my father’s side in Riverfront’s green seats and all he remembered of the rising outfield of Crosley. There was life as usual, just life.

18 Responses

  1. Richard Fitch

    Heartbreakingly beautiful, Mary Beth.

  2. gusnwally

    Wonderfully written.Very touching indeed. My dad was bedridden for many years. But thru all the adversity between us we always had baseball. Whenever I visited, I would walk back to his room. And the first thing out our mouths was ” What’s up with Reds”. Baseball can be a truly great bridge between children and mom and pop.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      You get it. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Mary Beth Ellis

    That is stunning. I’m sorry all of you had a similar experience.Save this comment. It’s part of her, and part of you. I am honored by your willingness to share this with us.
    This is why baseball matters, and must be kept safe as a place where we can all meet.

  4. Scott C

    Mary Beth and CI3J both are beautiful pieces of writing and sharing of your heart. Being a minister I have sat with many a family through this ordeal and watched as a bystander of this experience, Cancer is indeed a terrible ordeal, as is Alzheimers, to watch a loved one go through. I am glad you both had the Reds to be there as an anchor point.
    Thanks for a reminder that it is not so much the wins and losses that matter but experiencing the game together with those we love.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s an excellent way to put it.

  5. David

    I remember the last baseball game I went to with my Dad. It was 1975, and the Reds were playing the Cubs. The Cubs got up early 6-3, but the Reds ended up winning 12-8. A lot of offense. Early on, the Cubs fans at Riverfront were chortling.

    Two years later, my Dad was gone from lung cancer. Cance is not a battle, or a war, it;s a struggle people have in hospitals, at home, all very personal and painful. But it is so much to lose someone close. Baseball and sport is reduced to trivial significance.

    Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

  6. BigRedMike

    Thank you for sharing. These are good reminders, as I age, to enjoy the moments and not assume that there will always be next year.

  7. Michael Smith

    Mary Beth you have a way with words that draws out all the feels.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’ll try to use the power for good 🙂

  8. Mary Beth Ellis

    many thanks for reading 🙂

  9. Eric

    God Bless Our Dads. And CI’s Mom.

    My 78-year-old father-in-law, as far as I can tell, has loved only one sport his entire life: baseball. Having spent significant portions of his youth in Atlanta and Tampa, then most of his adult life in Louisville, his MLB loyalties have been split between the Braves, Rays and Reds. You’d’ve never known it, though, as we made our way to GABP to take in our annual Reds game when I could make it from Raleigh. He was all-in, Reds cap on, sporting the Transitions lenses, jonesin’ for that slice of La Rosa’s.

    In April, while having a normal day at home, Pop fell, and (as the commercial goes) couldn’t get up. My mother-in-law called the ambulance. Trip to the hospital. Back issues. Surgery. Staph infection. Surgery. Gastric issues. Surgery. Heart condition. Blood pressure. Blood sugar. In and (mostly) out of consciousness for days, then weeks. Finally, a discharge from the hospital to a rehab facility, where I found him, flat on his back, so weak he couldn’t hold a phone up to his own head.

    The visit was short, but at the end, he was trying to tell my wife and me goodbye – I mean really goodbye – and I told him, “You’ve got one more game left in you.”

    Five months, one hospital and three rehab facilities after the fall, Pop is now home – not because he’s all better, but because Medicare coverage ran out. Rented wheelchair. Rented ramp. Rented hospital bed.

    And then, a picture of him, standing up, with the help of a nurse, from his wheelchair at the kitchen sink, looking out the window. Looking…

    He’s got one more game in him. I know it. I hope I know. it. I hope.

    Baseball, after all, is life.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      God bless your dad indeed. Wonderfully stated. I know that game will be a good one

  10. Mary Beth Ellis

    Those are incredible memories, and I’m so glad you wrote them down. Makes it easier to hang on tight.

  11. Vandermint

    That’s really well-written.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks for the kind words.

  12. Mary Beth Ellis

    Baseball and family indeed.