The news the next morning came like a thunderclap, as I was turning off my alarm clock which is located on my cell phone the phone rang to the tune of the Panzerlied which is my default ringer, a good German Army tune for a patently military Padre with an affinity for German military history. I was not expecting the phone to ring as you might well image and squinted at the display to see just who might be calling me at this hour. Without my glasses it was hard to see the display but nothing can come from a call this early in the morning. I looked at my watch to make sure that the cell phone time had been correct and that the call was not coming from someone at work seeing if I was running late which this morning despite having been up late the previous night I was not. I hit the little green button with a phone on the key and put the device to my ever ringing ear, a product of too much noise exposure in Iraq according to my ENT, oh well, that and the loss of speech discrimination that I am experiencing tell me that the diagnosis is likely true.
“Hello” I asked warily wondering just whose voice would announce itself on the other end of the call.
“Hey Steve” announced the voice on the other end, it was my brother Jeff and I could tell that something bad had happened. “It’s Jeff I just got a call from the nursing home and they say that dad is hasn’t got much longer to live.” The voice was measured but full of emotion.
“Crap, okay, go on Jeff” my voice hesitated as Jeff continued to talk.
“Yeah, they called a few minutes ago and said that dad had taken a turn for the worse and that they didn’t expect him to live.” He paused for a second and continued. “I figured that they meant a few days so I asked them and the nurse told me that she didn’t think that he would live another half hour.”
I interrupted “a half hour?”
“Yeah, tell you what I need to get up there quick, I’ll call you from there to let you know what is going on.”
“Thanks Jeff be safe driving up there.” My voice trailed off as Jeff replied.
“I will Stevie.”
“One question, does mom know?”
“No they called me, I’ll let her know when I know something and I’ll call you as soon as I get up there.”
“Love you brother, be safe”
“Love you too” and with that Jeff hung up the phone.
I find it funny that my “little brother” refers to me on occasion as “Stevie” but he is my brother but he has been the more serious and grown up of the two of us since he was about eight years old. Dad used to say that he was eight going on forty back then and he still is the more serious and reserved of the two of us. When I was in high school and college he looked in askance when I went on toilet paper raids with friends and later with Judy around town.
In shock I walked back to the bed where Judy was awake and putting her glasses on. As I climbed back into the bed she asked “what’s wrong?” and reached out to me as I lay down next to her. “It was Jeff; he said that he got a call from the nursing home and that they said that dad was dying.” I looked up at her as she simply said “I didn’t expect that.”
“I didn’t either; Jeff is on the way up now, I don’t know what to think.” She cradled my head in her arms as I lay there stunned from the news.
“We’ve known for a long time that this was going to happen but…” I cut her off.
“But I just didn’t expect it now. I know that he hasn’t been the man that I knew for a long time with the Alzheimer’s but I just didn’t expect it. Kay had said that he was doing about the same, had gained some weight again and the last time I talked to mom and Jeff they said that he looked about the same as he has for a long time, I just figured that he would go on longer.” I paused as I took a deep breath and she said “I know” and held me close. Seeing that we were up, Molly our vivacious Papillion-Dachshund mix pulled her 15 pounds of red fur and personality over us and wrapped her body around the top of our heads after squeezing herself between us and ensuring that she kissed each one of us.
We lay there for together not saying much as I wondered what was going to happen in the next few minutes. I prayed silently for my dad to have a peaceful death and to be with the Lord even as I searched for answers myself. It had not been that long, just about six month in fact since I had started believing again after my Christmas miracle. That had been a time, after Iraq I was falling apart and only got worse for most of the first two years after my return. I struggled with PTSD, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, severe depression, chronic pain gained a lot of weight and got out of shape but the worst part was feeling cut off from community and even worse cut off from God, the experience of feeling God forsaken shook me and it was not until shortly before Christmas that faith had began to return to my weary soul. I hugged Judy and pressed up closer to her before realizing that I needed to get a shower realizing that I had just enough time to do this and get dressed before Jeff called back from the nursing home.
“Strange, yesterday I get the greatest news of my career and today this. It’s that damned Yin and Yang, those two have to always show up together why couldn’t I get time just to enjoy the news of the promotion?” It was a rhetorical question of course, I am not one that subscribes everything to God’s will which in my understanding would make God out to be a capricious and even somewhat cruel God, despite what the Calvinists and Augustinians say is part of his will for us. I have a problem with a God that would intentionally screw with his people like that and choose rather to believe that some things in life just happen, the good with the bad and that somehow that God will give us grace to get through the difficult times, even when we see no good reason for the timing of events. “Damned Yin and Yang, especially that Yang always shows up when you don’t want him to.
“I’ve got to get cleaned up and dressed I’ll have to go in to work after I hear from Jeff and rearrange my leave.”
“I guess this means another anniversary apart huh?” Judy looked at me and I simply replied “yeah what’s new?” I had planned to take a good amount of leave around our anniversary this Friday just to be with her, help her around the house and relax through the July 4th weekend but that was now out the window with dad’s death. Over the 27 years of your marriage we have been apart more than together on this auspicious date that we share with the 1950 invasion of South Korea by the North and the 2009 death of Michael Jackson. I spent our first anniversary in Landstuhl Army Medical Center back in 1984 and over the years had only been at home for 11 of our anniversaries. I guess being in the military you get used to this in fact with us it is almost a running joke, but this year I didn’t think we would be apart.
“I think that this means that we’re 11 for 27” I dryly said.
“I’ve stopped counting dear I just figure that it’s going to happen.”
“Yeah, me too” I pulled my body which now felt like it weighed a ton off the bed and headed to the shower and Molly looking somewhat offended snuggled closer to Judy.
About the time that I was finished dressing the phone rang again and it was Jeff telling me what I knew he was going to tell me. I answered the phone resigned to the message that I knew was coming. “Hey Jeff, what’s going on?”
“Stevie, I’m here at the nursing home, I made it just after he died. It looks like he just passed away in his sleep, he looks at peace.”
“That’s how we hoped it would be no suffering.”
“I know, I just didn’t think that it would happen this fast. I thought they would call us and that he would slip into a coma and take a few days to pass away.”
“Yeah, same here, I just didn’t expect it today, but then who does?”
“Hey Stevie, I call you back I need to go let mom know that he’s gone.” It was 3:25 AM in California.
“Okay, hang in there and good luck with mom, it will hit her hard I’m sure. Talk to you later, love you Jeff.”
“Sure thing, later.” The phone went silent as Jeff hung up. I got my gear together gave Judy a kiss goodbye, filled me a water bottle and headed to my car. After loading my gear in my trusty war wagon festooned with bumper stickers of baseball teams and military units and newly issued Operation Iraqi Freedom license plates personalized with “FLAK88” my favorite artillery piece of World War Two turned the key and nothing. The battery was dead.
I went back in the house and let Judy know that I needed to borrow her car and then proceeded to load her car for the trip into work. On the way I called Derek, our assistant Department Head to let him know what had happened and by 7:15 I was walking in the office door wearing my Tides road jersey and hat. I sat down with Derek for a while as he and I have very similar family situations and both of us were wondering who would be the first to lose their father. The talk was helpful and Derek prayed for me as our Monsignor, Father Fred. Fred when he was on active duty had been my first detailer, which in non-Navy parlance would be a personnel manager or assignments manager. Fred and I have had a wonderful ministry together as Priests and he came into my office, closed the door and spent time with me, finishing with prayer and letting me know that he would offer Mass on my dad’s behalf. He was followed by Father Roy a Canadian Army Priest in our Clinical Pastor Education Residency who offered his condolences and then let me know that he too would offer Mass for my dad. I gathered the things that I would need to include my Summer White uniform, or as I love to call them my Faggoty White Uniform as Colonel Nathan R Jessup, Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie A Few Good Men called them. Once I was packed I was on my way home where Judy awaited me as did my laptop with which I would make my travel arrangements.
I could not believe the prices to fly on short notice and the aggravation that I had in trying to use my frequent flyer miles or get a real person on the line on all airlines except Southwest. Although I was able to talk with the kind folks at Southwest, who by the way are always the most courteous of all the airline customer service agents, at least to me, I went online where I got my ticket on Southwest to Sacramento and made my rental car reservations. Following all of the time spent making arrangements my neighbor Larry jumped my car which enabled me to go to the auto part store for a battery.
Finally about exhausted and with the temperatures in the high 90s with unbearable humidity Judy and I went and got a beer and light lunch at Biersch before the ball game which I knew that I needed. It is funny how baseball of all things works to calm me when nothing else will and how even when I experience great loss baseball is there for me. It is much as Walt Whitman once said: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair those losses, and be a blessing to us.” Baseball is a blessing to me, something that the Deity Herself must have figured when I was conceived to a couple of baseball fans who in addition to raising me right taught me to love this game.
I looked up at the sky and realized that there was a strong possibility that rain would affect the game as I got out of my car at Harbor Park. When you live in these parts you can tell by the look, feel and smell when a storm is coming and this was one of those days. I entered the park, as Bill “Spaceman” Lee once said “as one enters a church” paying my respects to the folks that I now know well at the front gate walking up the stairs to the concourse where I was greeted by Will, one of the ushers who helps people as they come up the stairs offering greetings to those that he knows while directing first time visitors in the proper direction. I let Will know what had happened and he offered his condolences and said that he would pray for my family too.
I made my way across the concourse and looked out at the lush diamond below, the grounds crew was preparing the infield for the game as Rip Tide mugged for fans and the Tides band played on the concourse. Vendors selling all types of food and drink were busily engaged in their work while Marty the Card dealer talked with a customer. I stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do next and decided to get a Tides dog and a beer before going down to my seat. This is a comfort food for me and like Humphrey Bogart said “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Going down to “Rosie’s Grill” on the third base side of the concourse I ordered the dog and the beer, a draft Yuengling Lager and after dousing the dog in mustard and relish I went over to a table and ate the dog there as I stared out at the diamond occasionally looking across the Elizabeth River to the shipyards and dry docks and the Staten Island Ferry that was high and dry in the dry dock directly across from right center field.
My mind wandered thinking about the many times that dad had taken me to ball games and how much that meant to me. The last game that we saw together was a Stockton Ports game at Banner Island Ballpark back in 2005 or 2006 when the Alzheimer’s was just starting to show up in his daily life and instead of being able to really enjoy the game he nervously paced the concourse behind home plate for much of the game. That was so unlike him and I knew that he was slipping even though he did not yet recognize it. When I finished the dog I took my beer and my bag with my camera and windbreaker in it down the concourse where I met Chip the usher who greeted me in his usual friendly manner.
“Hey Steve how are you doing? Celebrating the promotion?”
I looked at Chip and sighed. “Chip it’s the damndest thing I thought that I would be celebrating and my brother called this morning to let me know that my dad died.” Chip looked at me and shook his head.
“Sorry to hear that, he’d been sick for a while?”
“Yeah, the Alzheimer’s didn’t even know who I was the last time that I saw him; at least he went peacefully in his sleep.”
“Yeah, really threw me for a loop, I just didn’t expect it to happen now even though I have expected it for the last two years.” I paused.
“I’m really sorry Steve; I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers. When are you going out?”
“Okay, I’ll keep you in my prayers my friend.”
“Thanks, I better go down and see Elliott.”
“Catch you later.”
I walked down the stairs to see Elliott waving at me having already wiped down my seats. I got down to where he was and he greeted me cheerfully. “Hello Padre, just you tonight?”
“Yeah just me.”
“I hope we don’t get rain tonight”
“Sure looks like we might it feels like rain.”
“Yeah, so how are you doing?”
“Not so good, I won’t be here for a while I got a call from my brother this morning to tell me that dad is dead. I fly out tomorrow.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that Steve.” I knew Elliott like Chip meant what he said.
“Yeah, hard to believe, I thought that God might actually let me enjoy a full day with my promotion.” I paused as Elliot let me continue, a good usher like a good bartender is a good listener. “But stuff happens, like those Chinese kids Yin and Yang, the good and the bad huh?”
“Yeah, seems that way.” Elliott paused. “How are you doing there?”
“I guess okay, he died in his sleep, we’ve expected this for the last two years, I just didn’t expect it now.” I paused and as before Elliott let me do so without prattling on. “You know I prayed that he would go in his sleep at peace without anymore suffering but now that he has I am just…I don’t know, I didn’t expect it now.”
“Hang in there Padre; I’ve got to get busy before Dave thinks that I’m ignoring others, I’ll talk to you later.” A couple came walking down the steps looking for their seats and Elliott turned to great them. As he did I looked up at the sky, the clouds were building from the west and well, if you have ever lived where thunderstorms are a part of daily life you know what I mean when I say that you can smell the rain in the air or feel the storms building.
I went to my seat and as the grounds crew finished its work and the teams began to take the field I wondered if we would get the game in. The young woman who would sing the National Anthem came out on the field and the PA announcer announced the Tides as they ran onto the field each accompanied by a young girl softball player about 6-9 years old. Obviously the “Field of Dreams Team” was a girl’s softball team otherwise they would have been boys. The young woman sang the Anthem and Chris George the Tides starter went into his final warm ups, just then the rain started and the home plate umpire signaled for the players to come off the field as thundered rumbled and lightening flashed nearby. I looked at my cell phone and looked up the weather channel whose radar show a very big blob of red coming our way. I left my seat and walked up to the concourse and not long after I did the heavens opened and the rains came down. As I and most of the other fans took cover from the storm a finger tapped me on the shoulder.
“Padre, I knew that I would find you here.”
I looked up and it was Pete.
“I thought that the boss sent you out of town?”
“He did but he let me come back when your dad died.”
Pete put his hand on my shoulder “Padre the Boss had me come back because he knew that you’d listen to me.” He paused and looked me in the eye. “The boss was going to send Thomas because he wanted to send me on a road trip but when he actually called Carl home he realized that you really didn’t know Thomas, I mean Thomas is a good guy but…” I cut him off.
“But Skip knew that you were right for this.”
“Yeah, Tom’s good but you know me.”
“And he likes wine better than beer” Pete chuckled “and even though he’s on the team he’d rather sit down in a nice restaurant and share a nice bottle of Merlot and eat cheese, Skip realized that I was the better choice.”
“Makes sense, Skip knows me pretty well huh?”
“All of us my friend, all of us, heck I remember meeting him for the first time when he called me, changed my name on the spot from Simon to Peter, the Rock.” He chuckled “sometimes I think that he thought the rocks were in my brain housing unit, the time I corrected him and he told me “get behind me Satan” my Lord that was not fun, I felt so foolish, but he didn’t chase me away.”
“Sometimes I feel pretty foolish Pete, I mean look at me, my dad is dead, I fly out to California tomorrow and I am standing in the concourse of a baseball park with rain coming down in buckets.” My sense of frustration and confusion was showing. “I mean Pete, what should I be doing? I really don’t know.” I shook my head and my eyes first moved to the ground and then looked back up at Pete. “I don’t know what to do Pete.”
“I know, and Skip knows, that’s why I’m here and not Tom. The fact is Steve you can’t do this alone, that’s why you’re here tonight; you need to be around this place, your friends and in a sense your dad. Your dad is here at least in spirit.” Pete paused “Let’s get a beer and sit down out of the rain.” Pete walked me over to a stand on the first base side of the concourse where a vendor was selling Killian’s Irish Red. Pete looked at me and said “I’ll get it so put your wallet back.” Walking up to the stand he said “Sir, two Killian’s, make them large” and laid a twenty dollar bill on the stand. As the man reached to make change Pete said “keep the change my friend, tips might not be too good if this rain keeps coming down.”
The man behind the stand smiled as he finished pouring the second beer, “Thanks there buddy, you have a good night, thanks again” as he put the five dollars of change into his vest pocket.
“Let’s go over here Padre.” Pete led me to one of the tall round metal tables near the stand and put the beer to his lips. “Not bad, of course it isn’t named after Saint Killian, but we can pretend can’t we?”
“Cheers my friend, to Carl.”
“To dad” I replied as we lifted our cups. The rain continued to beat down on the tarp spread across the field; I looked down at the display on my cell phone and noted the large amount of red, yellow and green on the Weather Channel, and I looked at Pete “looks like the rain isn’t going to let up for a while.”
“Well then let’s hang out for a while then.” We’ve got a little bit of time, besides; you don’t want to get soaked on the way out to your car.”
“True, I am not a big fan of torrential rain.”
“You know that some of the good times early on came with the boss in the rain, well actually in the rain in little boats in raging storms. I will never forget the time that he came walking across the water, shocked the heck out of me, enough to tell him that I wanted to do it too” Pete took a drink of his beer and laughed “I laugh about it now but when I saw those waves around me and realized that there was no boat under my feet I freaked out. As I started to flail about and sink Skip walked over to me like he was on pavement reached down, grabbed my arm lifted me up and hauled my ass back in the boat. He then stilled the storm and the rest of the team; even guys like Judas had a laugh.” The rain was now coming down in sheets and with the exception of a couple of ushers and diehards everyone in attendance was on the concourse under cover or under the overhangs on the upper decks and the party deck.
“I’ve been through some storms at sea too”
“But you weren’t foolish enough to jump out of the boat.”
“Patently Pete, patently” I raised my cup “cheers Pete?”
“Cheers Padre” and Pete raised his cup to mine and each of us took another drink.
“So anyway, you wanted to talk to me.”
“Well, last night I mentioned that you were in few a few changes or something like that before I left the park.”
“Okay, go on.”
“Well, that call from Skip, he kind of let me know that he was going to take Carl, your dad home.” Pete paused “And he kind of told me that he was going to send Tom as he had other work for me to do.”
“But that changed, you already told me that.”
“Yeah, yeah anyway, as I was saying, um where was I?”
“Changes and Skip telling you that he was taking my dad home” I paused and looked at Pete.
“Yeah, that let me continue. You know that Skip liked your dad a lot, and I got to know your dad before you were even born, played some ball together on Guam. I was on his team, I remember when he slid head first into second and broke his collar bone.”
“You dad was a young Petty Officer and a heck of a ballplayer, he was a solid hitter, knew where to hit the ball, aggressive on the base paths and good defensively at second base, sometimes all of us on the team would go out for a San Miguel after the game” and then paused for a drink and I took the opportunity to interrupt.
“What were you doing in Guam?”
“Come on Padre, what I’m doing here, Skip keeps us busy, that thing about “the great cloud of witnesses,” well some of us are more like low cloud cover or fog, a bit closer to the action than some of the others.” Pete laughed, “Skip likes us to be involved and I just happened to be in Guam when Carl was, it was totally coincidental.”
“Like the past two days?”
“No not at all, this was one of those God ordained things, you know Skip, when he wants something, well what can I say?”
“So you’re telling me that playing ball with my dad was coincidental and this was God ordained?”
“Yeah, so why can’t it be that way?”
“It just seems too coincidental to me Pete, I mean why this why me why now?” I was still in shock about dad’s death and though I knew that Pete was telling me the truth I didn’t really know how to react or what to say. I looked down at my beer and back up at Pete. “Pete I’m sorry I just don’t know what to say, I’m still in shock and kind of numb.”
There was an awkward silence and Pete reached out to me. “Padre, you needed to be out here tonight, you needed to hear this, it’s been so long with Carl not being himself with Alzheimer’s that you needed to remember that he was once young and enjoyed life, he loved you and your brother and your mom. He wasn’t perfect but there is a lot of him in you. He was proud of you and your brother and your families and I was glad to have known him back then.”
Though there were people all around us chatting and rain coming down mixed with thunder and flashes of lightening. It had been nearly an hour since the rain began and it didn’t look like it would be letting up anytime soon as water began to puddle in the right field corner and other places in the outfield and warning track. There was also water building up in my eyes, and I tried to be inconspicuous as I wiped away a tear.
“Padre, it’s okay, your dad died this morning. It only happens once to most people and Carl was a good man, he’s getting a chance to hang out with Skip and well a lot of others, he’ll be fine.”
“So Skip really knew dad?”
“Still does, and I know that after Iraq you wondered if God existed and struggled with faith but when Skip said that he was with us and would never leave us or forsake us he meant it. He didn’t say that we wouldn’t have problems but he said that he would be there. Sometimes that’s hard to believe, I know I had a number of times where I doubted more than Tom ever did, thankfully Luke didn’t take the time to report all of those events.”
“Good thing I guess, better than these ballplayers, every error they make get’s published.”
“Good thing Padre, good thing.”
“So the reason that Skip sent me back is that he knew that you needed a bit of a pep talk. He wants you to know that things will work out and to find a way to make sure that people remember your dad before Alzheimer’s took everything from him. Skip thinks that it will be good for them and you too.”
“But what?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Skip didn’t tell me. I guess that he will give you inspiration, he’s good at that you know.”
“Yeah, but until this inspiration comes I don’t know what the hell to do.”
The rain began to let up; I refreshed the Weather Channel and noticed more storms in the area.
“Pete, I have a long day tomorrow, I need to get home and pack, if this game does get going it will be close to midnight before it’s over and I’m still tired from yesterday. I’d better get out before the rain starts coming down again.” I finished the last bit of beer in my cup. “You will talk to me again?”
“Of course, I’ve been assigned your case.”
“Thanks for being here and thanks for the beer too, it tasted good.”
“Sure thing Padre, I’ll see you here again, maybe we’ll even find some way to get a game going, I think I can talk Dave into renting out the park for a day.”
“That would be good.” I moved away from the table, picked up my bag that I carry my camera and extra baseballs and other memorabilia that I might pick up. Pete stepped out too and as we walked down the concourse he put his arm over my shoulder.
“You be safe on the trip Padre, give Judy a hug for me and spend some time with her, she loved your dad a lot too.”
“Thanks Pete, I will.”
Pete took his arm off my shoulder. “I think that I’m going to hang out for a while, I have a feeling that we’ll get the game in.”
“I hope so.”
“Catch you later Padre.”
“Thanks Pete.” As I walked down the concourse to the exit Chip, Elliott, Dave and Will all wished me well and I walked into the night to my car and my ears continued to ring.