Thursday, November 20, 2014

Home Field

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this short story are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.



I walked to the front of the room, stood behind the podium, and nervously wiped my brow. I cleared my throat and began.

It was an average Saturday morning in April. My dad and I rode together to the golf course for our 7:30 tee time. I preferred to sleep in, but my dad woke up the way young men charge into war. No daylight should be wasted after 70, I suppose. "Someday we won’t wake up at all," he used to say.

My brothers and sisters all moved away years ago, but I hung around my hometown. Partly because my kids were settled into a school they loved. Partly because my wife’s family lived down the street from us. Mostly because there was nowhere else to go. I never believed in leaving just to leave. Some people do that. The allure of “somewhere else” pulls them away. But the reasons you were miserable in your hometown usually travel with you. Like a stowaway suitcase tucked away in the corner of your trunk.

On a drive we had taken a hundred times before, my dad inexplicably began to reminisce about the baseball field he helped build and maintain 40 years ago with his buddy, Chuck Beck. The field I grew up on—shagging fly balls, taking batting practice, fielding grounders. That diamond was like my second home. Hell, my dad and I spent so much time there that it was more like our first home. Neither of us could quite remember how to get there (three decades of new construction and altered traffic patterns will do that), but we knew the field was close. To this day, I swear I smelled stale hot dog water and Cracker Jacks that morning.

I stored away the memory and spent the next five hours knocking a little white golf ball around a big green golf course. My dad shot an 80. Which isn't bad for a 71-year-old man. Or a 41-year-old man, it seems, since I shot an 84.

On our drive back home, I pulled the car into a gas station and turned to my dad. “Where’s that baseball field?” I asked.

“I can’t remember exactly,” he said. “I know it’s around here somewhere.”

I looked at the clock in my car’s dashboard. “It’s barely noon. Wanna go exploring?”

My dad grinned. I took that as a yes and pulled out of the gas station. We must have driven around town for an hour before finally stumbling upon a familiar street. Then a familiar landmark. Finally, the field appeared like an arid oasis in the desert. I shut off the engine and stared.

It was the most depressing thing I had ever seen.

“It’s grown over,” my dad mumbled.

Grown over didn't begin to capture the disarray. The dirt infield had transformed into a grass infield. Well, more like a weed infield. I assumed dirt was under there somewhere because I understood the earth’s composition, but it would have taken an industrial-sized weed wacker to find it. The wood benches and bleachers were rotted. The backstop had been torn down and the chain-link outfield fence was so rusted that I was afraid of catching tetanus from standing too close.

My heart sank. Here was this place that, once upon a time, was brand new. The field had been smooth; the outfield grass had been freshly mowed; the silver fence had gleamed in the sunlight. The benches held excited children and the bleachers gave nervous parents a place to sit when they weren't pacing. No one pictured this day during the grand opening. No one knew then how time and neglect would ruin my childhood playground.

My dad was a private man, and I respected that. He certainly wasn't going to break down in tears in front of me, but he looked defeated. I could see it in his eyes. I felt the same thing. That field had been my sanctuary. Even as an adult, I still dreamed of being a kid running the bases without a care in the world. Life was so much simpler back then. Long bicycle rides and catching lightning bugs. Evening newspapers and best-friend sleepovers. Handwritten letters and collecting baseball cards.

Glimpsing into the past that afternoon gave me an idea. I sat my wife down later that night and shared my plan.

“I’m going to restore the baseball field.”

“What?” she asked. Not in an accusatory way. Not in a dream-crushing way. She really had no idea what I was talking about.

“I’m going to cut the grass, fill the infield with dirt, build a new backstop, replace the fence, install new bleachers … the whole shebang!”

Caroline got that look in her eye. The one she always gets when I announce on June 10 that I’m going to finish the basement over summer break (I’m a high school physics teacher), when we both damn well know summers around the Sizemore house consist of lazy mornings on the golf course, lazy afternoons by the pool, lazy evenings behind the grill, and lazy nights falling asleep on the couch watching Cincinnati Reds baseball games. We’re a pretty lazy bunch by nature.

“I’m serious, Caroline. My dad’s not going to be around forever. I wanna restore that field. It’s not a billion dollar stadium. I can do it in a couple of months. Imagine the look on his face. Imagine me playing catch with my dad on a field he built 40 years ago. A field where I got my first hit as a kid. If there’s a heaven, it’s that baseball field.”

She kissed my forehead. “Do what you need to do, sweetie. You know I’ll support you either way.”

I got to work three days later. I had my two boys (ages 11 and 13 at the time) help when a few extra hands were necessary, but I did the bulk of the work alone. It was spring; school was still in session, so I couldn't devote myself to the project full time. I spent my weekends at that field. I spent most of my nights at that field racing against the sunset. I canceled golf with my dad in hopes I could finish the field before Father’s Day. In fact, except for a handful of brief phone calls from time to time, I went seven straight weeks without seeing either of my parents. It was the longest stretch I could ever remember. But it would be worth it when he took off the blindfold and saw the field restored.

Fast forward to the day before Father's Day. One day until the scheduled grand opening. Progress on the field was lagging; my plan was in serious danger of flopping. Time was running out and my masterpiece still needed brushstrokes. I worked my rear end off that day. People often use the cliché that they put “blood, sweat, and tears” into a project. There were definitely tears on that field. A few drops of blood (I'm not as good with a hammer as I thought). And a whole lot of sweat. I wanted to share a moment with my father that historians would be writing about centuries from now, and nothing was going to stop me.

Nothing except the earth's insistence on rotating on its own axis.

As twilight began drawing its curtain across the sky, I stood up, took a step back, and basked in the faint glow of failure. Nothing was ready. The infield still had too many weeds. The fence needed another coat of paint. The benches were uneven and wobbly. Not to mention boring. The home team's bench didn't have three decades of carvings etched into its rotting wood. No preteen curse words like “poop” or “fart” to induce giggling. No declarations of adolescent love. Just plain, lifeless timber purchased from Home Depot.

I dropped my hammer, sat behind home plate, and leaned against the newly installed backstop. It fell over. While debating whether to laugh hysterically or hammer the now-horizontal backstop into splinters, I heard a voice behind me.

"Rough day?"

I jumped to my feet and spun to face him. "Dad, what are you doing here?"

"Haven't seen you in a while. Stopped by the house tonight and spoke to Caroline. And before you go and get mad at her, she was worried about you. Said you haven't been yourself lately. She didn't want to tell me where you were, but I dragged it out of her." He looked around the field as the sun set over his right shoulder. "What are you doing?”

"Trying to restore the field.”

“Why?” he asked.

“So we can use it,” I said.

“For what?”

"For what? For baseball!"

He grinned. "How's it going?"

I couldn't help but smile. My dad always had a way of breaking the tension with a sarcastic comment. I stared at the ground. "I feel really stupid, Dad."

"Why?"

"I wanted to do something special for you—for us—and I screwed it up. I had visions of a spectacular reveal. Like in the movies. We'd play catch and hug and …"

"Wander into the cornfield together?"

"Very funny," I said. "I just wanted to create a magical moment. Now everything is ruined."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. You tried to do the work of ten men all by yourself. Considering, I'd say you did a fine job. And we can still play catch. Just maybe no ground balls until we haul the rest of these rocks out of here."

I picked up one of those rocks and chucked it into the outfield. “I feel like I missed out on so much life these past two months because I spent all of my time out here trying to recapture something I lost 30 years ago. I’d lie awake at night dreaming about this day. But I spent almost no time in the present. Not with you, not with Caroline, not even with the kids—unless they were pulling weeds. And what did it get me? A half-finished cow pasture."

My dad smiled. “You should be proud of yourself for coming out here and working so hard. But I did miss beating you at golf,” he winked. I laughed for the first time all night.

We stood near home plate—about the only part of the field I installed successfully—and talked for a few more minutes before dusk enveloped us. To this day, I remember every word of that conversation.

We drove home separately. On the way, I thought a lot about my dad. About our glory days on that field. About the sacrifices he made for his family. Maybe the secret to life is experiencing joy in whatever moment you find yourself in. Maybe happiness isn't lost somewhere in the past or waiting somewhere in the future. Maybe it’s here. Now. In this moment.

Nostalgia—I wish it could be like the good old days!—is living in the past. Hope—I can’t wait for something different to happen so I can finally start living the life I've always wanted!—is living in the future. I wanted to live in the present.

And so I did. At least, I tried.

And when my dad died 7 months later, I’d like to think our last 7 months together were richer because I partially restored that silly baseball field. Not because we played catch every day—although we did a few times, rocks be damned—but because we treated each moment like a gift—on the golf course, at the dinner table, during those boring car rides. We laughed so much. I miss my dad’s laugh.

I paused to look around the church. So many faces of friends and family stared back at me. Some smiling. Some crying. All wearing their emotions on their sleeves.

And when cancer took my wife 11 years later—three days ago—I was devastated, of course. I still am. Who wouldn't be? But these past 11 years with Caroline were the best years of my life. And I hope her life too. Because we lived every day like it was a blessing. Almost, anyway—after all, we were only human. We had ups and downs like anyone else, but we kept fighting to stay in the present. No matter where we were, that place was home, if only for a moment. Not an old baseball field. Not my childhood elementary school. Not the bigger, better house that would finally make us happy. Not the afterlife.

This life.

After that Father’s Day on the baseball field, everything changed for me. I realized my home was right here. Right now. It had been all along. That home was Caroline for a long time. And our years together were amazing. I’ll never forget her, and I’ll probably never fully get over losing her, but I’m going to keep living. I'm going to keep loving my—our—children. I'm going to keep spending time with my 80-year-old mother. And every once in a while, I'm gonna sneak back to that old baseball field to play catch with my adult sons while swapping stories about their grandpa.

And their mom. Especially their mom.

Tears welled in my eyes as I finished Caroline's Eulogy.

So before you leave today, I want to hug every person in this room. I want us to tell stories about Caroline until we're hoarse. Stories that make us laugh. Stories that make us cry. Because although I don't know what tomorrow holds, on this day, in this church, we are home.

If you enjoyed this short story, you may also enjoy The Narrow Path by Steve Fuller.

No comments: