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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

One Swing

My biological father and I never really connected until I was fourteen. He had little interest in his kids until we were old enough to play the games that he was interested in. He wouldn’t be caught dead playing a board game with us, but as soon as we were old enough to play hockey we were on skates at the rink with him before his men’s league games. When we were old enough to hunt we got shotguns and rifles for our birthdays. As long as our presence didn’t mean that he had to give up one of his hobbies, we were welcome to be there. We just learned to not expect him to go out of his way for us. Our mother had remarried; a man who made us his life and did everything with us. We were not lacking a father figure by any means, but still yearned to have our biological father in our lives, despite his hesitation to be in ours.

I didn’t really resent him for his selfish attitude. It took me years afterwards to fully understand him, and by that time, I had accepted him for what he was. As I grew older, I found myself taking up the same hobbies that he had. Most of them I did with Jeff, the man that had married my mother and legally adopted my sister and I so that we could bear his surname. He was a lot like my biological father, Ron. He had been a teacher and a coach. He hunted religiously and fished with a passion. Still athletic, he played in men’s’ leagues to quell his competitive urges. He was and is all the father that a boy could ever ask for. He has been my best friend since I was ten. Yet I was still missing the knowledge that my father, Ron, accepted me and loved me. And I worked for that over the next fifteen years.

As I grew into a man, Ron and I became much more similar. I had been told by my grandparents, who passed away while I was in my late teens, but who had lived fifty feet from me for my entire life, that I looked exactly like their son, Ron, did when he was my age. Hearing that made me proud. Despite being slightly overweight, he was still a very handsome man. When I was able, I grew a beard to match Ron’s. Our dry wit was often misunderstood by everyone but ourselves, a sardonic way that I had cultured to better communicate with him on his level. While I had always loved baseball, I became an ardent fan of the Red Sox so that we’d have something to talk about. I tried. God, I tried. Yet there was still a distance between us that I could neither bridge nor understand.

Things changed for us on a cool fall day at his house. I was twenty-five and Ron and I had become close friends. I had come to think that friendship was all that I would ever get from him and had come to terms with that. He had called me at my apartment to ask me to give him a hand with a leaky roof. Deathly afraid of heights, I was the only person that he knew that would climb the steep pitch of the roof to patch a torn shingle. He and my sister had had a falling out, not speaking to each other at all. I knew better than to get in the middle of it, but was willing to be a sounding board or a shoulder to lean on.

As I was on the roof and he was in the driveway watching my progress, we started a conversation that made me stop my work. He wanted to discuss himself and his shortcomings. Obviously, this was the perfect time to do it, as neither of us were given to physical displays of affection and did not want to be caught in a place where hugging, if called for, was possible. The twenty-five foot vertical distance between us was ideal for both of us. The conversation changed from his inadequacies to his strained relationship with my sister, to the relationship between him and I. I sat on the edge of the roof, my feet dangling in the air, listening.

“I know that I haven’t been a very good father.” And he paused, as though trying to grasp the significance of what he had just said. As his eyes welled-up with tears he continued, “But I like to think that I’ve been a good friend to you.”

I wanted to be on the ground then; to be within arms reach and to touch him and hug him. The only times that I had seen him cry were when his mother and father, my grandparents, had died. We had hugged then and I had felt as though he wanted me to be there in his arms to help him through. I regretted not being on the ground right now to be there for him to help him through this.

“Dad, you’ve been a good father”, I lied. “But more importantly, you have been a great friend. I am what I am because of you. And I think that I’m all right, don’t you?”

He acknowledged that I was all right, and the conversation returned to its origins, witty, meaningless banter that revealed no emotion. But the words had been spoken, however briefly, and we never needed speak of it again. It wasn’t an apology. It was an admission of being less than what he wanted to be. And I accepted it as such. We grew as friends from there.

When I was twenty-eight he asked me to join his baseball team. Having not played since I was nineteen, I was hesitant to play with this group of former college, semi-pro, and minor league players. I knew that I’d be overmatched and probably see little playing time, but I was still trying to relate to him on his level so I agreed. He was a player-coach, by far the oldest on the team. His knees prevented him from running like he used to and his shoulder kept him from throwing like he used to, but he was still living his dream, playing baseball. I knew that he was a great baseball player in his youth. He had captained his college baseball team for two years, one of them including a trip to the college world series. According to family legend, had he not gotten my mother pregnant, he could have played professional baseball. I hadn’t seen him play since I was old enough to understand the game and was anxious to be involved in his passion, to share a dugout with him.

The apparent leader of the team, nobody questioned his decisions or his skill at the plate. Yet when at a crucial point of the game he had me pinch-hit, I heard the players grumble amongst themselves. Good guys, all of them, but competitive. They wanted to win and didn’t see me as their best chance to do so.

Ron was coaching third base, a position that allowed him to flash me the signs. As I watched him go through the signs, eventually getting a “swing-away”, I realized that he was entirely comfortable on the baseball field. This was his element and this is how he knew how to communicate. Subtle signs that I had been missing all of my life. A baseball player to the core, he never would come out and say that he loved me, but let a pat on the back speak for itself. All of the times that he had rubbed me on the head had meant that he was proud of me, and I’d missed them all. All of the high fives were a sign of unity. Every time he chattered at me, it meant that he was behind me, rooting for me.

I watch the first two pitches go by me for strikes. These guys threw hard and I wasn’t sure if I could even make contact, much less catch up. Yet, looking down the third base line to where my father was standing, giving me signs to open my stance, keep my head in, turn the wrist over, I wasn’t very concerned about hitting the ball. I had already succeeded by being with my father.

So as the third pitch came, I swung freely and perfectly, making solid contact that drove the ball out over the left-center field fence. I held my posture for a moment, reveling in the flight of the ball. And as it easily cleared the fence I started trotting to first base, looking down. By the time that I had reached second base I looked up and saw my father jumping with his hands in the air and knew that his joy wasn’t for the team, rather, he was happy for me and proud of me.

It’s inappropriate to stop running the bases for a tearful hug. But running past him, getting my high-five, I read his unspoken language perfectly.

“I’m proud of you, son. I love you.”

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