My 18-year-old son, Erik, stands at the kitchen counter wearing a bright orange sweatshirt. It’s opening day of the 2009 baseball season, but he’s not wearing his white team jersey, the one with a bold black “3” sewn between his shoulder blades. For the first time since he was six, my son isn’t going to swing a bat or throw a pitch for the Tigers. Instead of warming up with the team, his right foot tamping the ground where red clay meets the white rubber of the pitcher’s plate, Erik dips a peanut butter Girl Scout cookie into a tall glass of whole milk.
He scoots the glass of cookie-ruined milk across the green-tiled counter and heads toward the garage door. Of course, he is going to the game, and I watch him go, his cropped hair covered by a black cap with a big orange “O,” his dark eyes even darker under the shade of the bill. I watch him grab the keys to the red scooter that waits outside the door, watch him toss the keys above his head and nab them, palm down, as they fall.
He goes out the door, tossing off a “See ‘ya,” that belies a grief too tender yet to share, and it’s as if I’m seeing him for the first time; how big he is, his broad shoulders, the thin whiskers on his strong chin, the way he moves through this house with a grace I cannot muster.
When I turn around, my husband is standing at the counter. He raises a blue mug and glugs down the last of his thick, black coffee. He looks smaller to me this morning, or maybe I’m just angry that he cannot fix this thing with Erik—this torn and shredding labrum in Erik’s shoulder. He lowers the coffee mug to the countertop and glances up at the clock. “If I don’t get going,” he says, “I’ll miss the game.” And then he too moves toward the door and the first game of our post-baseball lives, into the grief we share but do not talk about. The door shuts behind him, and I’m alone.
“It’s too early,” I want to scream. I knew this day would come, but I had it all planned out for next year. Erik would be in college then, and I would sit here alone in the kitchen, the radio on, prepared to reminisce and drink a milky cup of coffee. I would remember all of his first pitches, and I’d smile as I recalled his senior year and the All-State honors he’d have won as a left-handed pitcher with an ugly split-fingered pitch. I’d even tear up a little, I imagined, when I shook my head over the baseball scholarship he hadn’t accepted, comforting myself with his good grades at the University of Illinois.
So much for plans.
I should have known he was hurt last year when the coach called one night after practice. I stood at this same tiled counter, emptying the dishwasher, the plates and glasses still hot in my hands. “Mrs. Jensen,” he said. “Erik threw a pitch today and he fell to his knees. I think he needs to have it looked at.” We didn’t go to the doctor right away. I thought he could work through the pain. We opted for physical therapy over MRIs. We were wrong.
I want to say it again: “I’m sorry,” but he is gone, so I flip on the radio to listen to the game, and I drag a basket of folded clothes from the laundry room. It’s too full to carry, so I maneuver it with my feet across the kitchen floor and scoot it up against the table, where I begin to sort as Mark Weiler, the local radio announcer, welcomes us to Olney Tiger Baseball. Before he lists the starting lineup, I am crying.
Erik’s baseball career began in the delivery room when his father held the little guy’s left hand and claimed with pride, “This one is a left-handed pitcher.”
As a baby, Erik sported a full head of dark brown hair and an ease unlike any infant I’d ever known. He rarely cried, sleeping four, five, sometimes six hours at a stretch. Noise didn’t stir him. “Quit doing that!” my husband would chide when he caught me clapping my hands over our sleeping Buddha.
“Get back in bed,” he’d whisper when he woke in the dark of three-in-the-morning to find me on the floor, my arm stuck through the slats of Erik’s cradle, my hand resting on our sleeping son’s chest.
He was so lucky, my husband, so ignorant of all the dangers I was prepared to fend off, all the small signs I might miss if I weren’t vigilant.
What I didn’t know the day Erik slipped from my body into the world: How much I would love him and how long it would be before I realized my love wouldn’t keep him safe.
Erik didn’t make the All-Star team the first year he tried out. In Olney, we play league baseball, which is followed by All-Star baseball. There is a tryout drama for this elite group, a ritual during which several boys from each league team line up on a hot Saturday afternoon, the sun beating down on the brick-dust field. They pitch and hit and field, but it is theater; the coaches have already scoured the official books for hitting, fielding, and pitching stats, and by the time the boys are running the bases at tryout, the team has been chosen.
Erik had a league game the night we found he hadn’t made the team. The All-Star list was posted on the cinder block walls of the concession stand at the ballpark. Erik was so little, nine at the time. I can still see him shuffle sideways up to that wall. I watched from the car and held my breath as he stood there. I gulped back tears as he turned and walked toward the ball diamond where he was to play his game, his blue baseball bag slung over his right shoulder. There were four of them walking toward that ball diamond, and it was obvious from the heaviness in Erik’s gait and the tossing of gloves between the other three, that Erik’s name was the only one not on the list.
It was then that I decided once and for all that this bullshit rejection would never happen to my little guy again. From here on out, we would no longer participate in All-Star ball.
And it never happened again, not because we refused to participate in All-Star baseball, but because each subsequent year Erik made the team, and each year I was able to convince myself that I couldn’t hold him back.
I am sucked into baseball every year. I tell myself that I’m not like the other parents, the ones schmoozing with the coaches, paying for expensive clinics and camps in the off-season, the ones with enough baseball gear to outfit an entire team; but we’re all the same.
I can’t tell you how many times I stood in this very kitchen with my son and asked him, “Erik, are you trying hard enough? How did you hit at practice? Did your coach say Good job? Did you hustle?”
And when he shrugged me off, I became shrill, my heart batting against its cage. Everything rested on his answer, the response I, and only I, could elicit. “Listen Erik,” I would get in his face, quiet but shaking with intensity, “you have to want it—you have to hustle all the time. Anything you want to be good at will take practice. The coaches are watching you all the time. They want you to try, to want it badly. You’ve got to be hungry, Hungry, HUNGRY!”
By the time I was through with this intense, but surely motivational, line of questioning, my fisted hands were clenched in front of me, pounding my point in the air, and my boy would be close to tears, unable to respond. It was only then that I would recognize myself as the exact sort of sports parent I disdain.
I just loved that kid so damned much that sometimes I was an asshole. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
And what does love have to do with it? What should a mother’s love look like? Perhaps it should be selfless, protective, but not suffocating. All grizzly bear and warm blanket, both fuel and fire. My love for Erik is all of these things, but it is also selfish and overprotective, hovering and claustrophobic, a little like a long-sleeved black sweatshirt on a sunny spring day when the temperature hits an unexpected high.
But here’s something else. I not only love being Erik’s mom, I love being the winning pitcher’s mom. There is no getting around that ugly fact, or the bald truth that when the last pitch is thrown, and the crowd is standing up and clapping for my son—in that moment, I might confuse the nature of their applause. I am a little proud of me, a little full of myself for giving birth to and raising this boy with the mean left arm. In that moment, Erik’s strong arm is but an extension of my own left arm, and as I purchase a blue Gatorade from the concession stand and make my way through the crowd to the dugout, where my son sits with a plastic bag of ice draped over his left shoulder, I am a teensy bit overwhelmed by my own success. It feels so damned good.
In the kitchen, I sort piles of clean and folded clothes. On the radio, Mark Weiler introduces the Tiger players in the field: “Seniors Hunter Hahn behind the plate, Tanner Jones in center field, Cord McClain at third, and on the mound, Billy Brown, the junior ace, will throw the first pitch of the season.” *
I stand over a basket of the freshest smelling clothes, and I cry so hard that my hands shake as I stack T-shirts.
It’s the first time I’ve really cried over this shoulder thing, this injury I tend to refer to as a small blip on the radar screen of Erik’s life, and these tears come hard, and the first inning is over, and then the second, and the Tigers are winning. Billy Brown is pitching a perfect game. I turn the radio up so I can continue to listen as I make my way through the house with sorted laundry. As I open dresser drawers, stack T-shirts into neat piles that will soon be a jumbled mess, as I throw socks and underwear together with pajamas into the deeper drawers, I tell myself again that this is a blip, a small blip. And Erik plays along. He doesn’t want to delve into his own grief. It’s a blip, a small blip; the phrase works for him, too.
But the question nags me: Where would we be now if we’d taken him to the doctor sooner? What if he’d had surgery last year?
I go round and round this way, half listening to innings four and five. They wouldn’t have done surgery anyway; I try to console myself. Six months of physical therapy is standard. They would have waited. Even now, the surgeon wants a second opinion.
I could do this forever. Blame myself, absolve myself of blame, blame myself again. I’m his mother, after all. I should have known. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I’m beginning to get it: my love didn’t keep the connective tissue in Erik’s shoulder from tearing, and it certainly cannot fix it. It can’t fix anything.
Maybe it’s not so much about love after all. Maybe it’s about the loss of identity—both mine and Erik’s—and how we are going to navigate the heartbreak. It’s one hell of a curveball.
Moving into inning seven, the Tigers are ahead 7-0, and the sun shines a bright swath of light on the back deck. I grab my notebook and head out the door. Through the open window, I can hear the radio, listen as the relief pitcher gives up a run, making the score 7-1.
When Mark Weiler signs off, I’m crying again, and there is my husband walking across the backyard. “Brown pitched a great game,” he says, smiling. I see him take note of my tears.
He isn’t going to mention them, because we aren’t going to talk of this today. He reaches out and touches my hand as he sits down in the lounge chair beside me.
My baseball player is gone, and with him a little part of me, so I nod, and my nose runs, and we sit together, the spring sun warm on our bare arms.
* Boys names have been changed.