Saturday, March 12, 2011

Batter Up!

I'm flying solo this trip, heading off to the Valley of the Sun to catch some Cactus League baseball.  Last year, for the first time, the whole family went.  The girls had never been before - and, if I do say so myself, if you're going to take your daughters to Spring Training for the first time in their lives, it's very cool to take them to start off the year that sees the Giants winning the World Series for the only time in their San Francisco history.

Just saying.

So we traveled to Tucson to see our good friend Mrs. Mellis.  And we went to the Desert Botanical Garden and met my godfather, Bill, and his beautiful wife Diane.  And the kids played in the pool at the DoubleTree Paradise Valley Resort up there on North Scottsdale Road - but before all that?  We saw us some baseball.

It was an away game, which meant we had to travel clear down to Tempe - a whopping eleven miles from the DoubleTree.  And that means I didn't even finish my Diet Coke before we arrived.  The stadium is on West Alameda Drive, and it's kind of funny that we flew from Alameda (the city) only to have to drive to Alameda (the street) but that's Arizona for you.

Scottsdale and Tempe - all the environs of Phoenix - it's just pretty country.  Do I want to visit in July, when the average temperature is 105?  When it's gotten as high as 121?  No.  But March?  When you're looking at 75 degrees day in and day out?  When the desert begins to flower?  Where the saguaro stands tall?  Or when the creosote blooms, pretty and yellow?  Go - really, please just go and then we'll talk about the desert.

That day, the last Saturday in March last year.  It was a lovely 70 degrees, with no wind.  About 8,000 fans filed into Tempe Diablo Stadium to see the team with the best record in Arizona take on the Angels.  We had terrific seats there on the first base side courtesy of Randy and Katy.  Some of the usual crew was there - Robby and his sons, Richy, Jason, Amber and Kip.  But some notables were absent - Danny!  Annie!

But the day was fine and Gene Autry Field looked lush and green and the girls were happy to have ice cream and we were happy for the beer and the Giants had been playing the best ball they'd ever played in the Spring.

Baseball.  Have you ever been to a game with me?  If you had, you'd know I can be a little loud.  Once, at a game in Scottsdale, we had fabulous seats - behind home plate and beneath the broadcast booth.  I didn't think we were that close to the booth, but a few innings in - Richy's cell rings.  It's Jon Miller!  The Hall of Fame announcer for the San Francisco Giants!  Richy knows Jon - and Kruik and Kuip - has dinner with them with some regularity.

I mean, not that I'd personally know about the dinner thing.  Not, you know, like I'd ever been invited to attend one of those dinners.

Bitter?  Me?

Did I say Jon Miller called Richy?  In the middle of a Spring Training game?  And what did Mr. Miller want of our Richy?  Did he want to make arrangements to meet at the Pink Pony later that night for a fine steak, maybe an adult beverage or two?

No, not at all.  Mr. Miller wanted to know if Richy was friends with the loudmouth in the Hawaiian shirt sitting nearby.  And if so, could he please ask him (me) to kindly keep it down?  My catcalls - consisting of such gems as Nice Socks! - were going straight out over the airwaves.  So Richy told me to can it.  Which I did.  For Mr. Miller.

So I'm gonna get loud.  And at this game - March 27th, 2010, in Tempe, Arizona - I decided to pick on Joe Saunders, the starting pitcher for the Angels.  The Halos had scored two runs off of Barry Zito in the second inning, but things were looking good in the top of the third when the Giants loaded the bases.

That's when I got loud.  His last name wouldn't do - Saunders doesn't trip off the tongue.  But Joe?  Lemme tell ya, I can get three good syllables out of Joe.  Any day.  You just gotta put a lot of emphasis on the J, and then really work the O.  Go on, try it.  Real loud now.

J-OOO-OOOOOO.  Ok, that's just three syllables, but it's a start.

Anyway.  Top of the third.  The bases are drunk with Giants.  So I start getting loud because in Spring Training?  At those facilities?  When Randy and Katy have gotten you great seats on the first base line?  Joe Saunders can hear you.  So I'm yelling and while the home crowd is ticked at me - the loyal fans who traveled 11 miles to see their mighty Giants?  They're eating it up - says the gent about himself.

And I rattle Joe so much - JO-OOOOOOOO - that he does the only thing he can do when he's so rattled.

He strikes out the first guy who's got a chance to bring some of those runners home.  Just strikes him out.


That's getting him but good.  We can all see him shaking in those stupid socks of his.

So he strikes out the second guy who goes up there with the bases loaded.

Just strikes him out, too.  Now?  Now I'm now being asked by Joe's own fans to please keep it up - because obviously my vocal chords are determining what's happening down there on the field.

So I give it a good final JOOOO-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO and really work that last note loud and hard so that it's reverberating off the desert hills peeking over the fence in right field.

Naturally, Joe Saunders finishes what he started and strikes out the side.  After loading the bases.  Just mows down three of our guys.  A fellow Giants' fan two rows up leaps to his feet and spins around.  Least, he does as much spinning as an obese fifty year old can do who's hampered by his girth and the tight orange shorts with the dark stain of sweat riding between his cheeks.  But he spins, kind of, and shouts at me, Are you happy, jerk?  And I just sort of laugh, because this is what I do, often, at games.  Just get a little loud.  But he doesn't like the laughing and if he didn't perhaps notice my two young daughters looking at the funny fat man yelling at their daddy, he probably would have flipped me off.

Ah, well.

Did I mention that Barry Zito was on the hill that day for the Orange and Black?  And that even though the Giants would make a game of it, and go ahead briefly in the fifth, Zito would cough up two more runs in the sixth and take the loss.

My damage had been done.

We bid adieu  - me, Karen and our girls - to our compadres and file out of the stadium to get to our rental and head back to the DoubleTree to get cleaned up and ready for dinner.  Now, Tempe Diablo Stadium isn't a huge park - this is the Cactus Leagues, not the Major Leagues - but it still can hold more than 9,000.  So it takes a bit to get out of the stadium and across the street and the girls of course are waylaid by the pretty yellow flowers so we have to stop and inspect them - just enjoying a brilliant afternoon in the Arizona sun.

When we finally get to the rental, I notice that a van headed towards me is slowing down.  Kind of looks like one of those special vans that a Senior Center would own.  Real big.  Extra axle to hold up the extra seats inside.  A new van, painted shiny blue and white.  While it slows I buckle Elizabeth - Kristina only wants Mommy to do her buckling but La Liz will consent to Daddy.  Then I walk around the car to get to my door.  I kind of feel that the van has now stopped, but I'm thinking they're just getting their bearings and will move on quickly.

And that's when, of course, I hear it.


I mean, it's not really loud, but I can hear it - real easy.

I turn around and see that all the little windows on this super big van have been cracked open as much as they can, and  there must be sixteen people inside all taking a big ol deep breath so that they can let loose with another--


And they are all just cracking themselves up inside their stupid Special Van.  Just cracking up and waving at me.

So I do the only thing I can.  I doff my cap, it's brown and has an orange lizard stitched into its side, the lizard and the cap commemorating Spring Training the previous year, 2009.  So I doff that cap and bow low.  Real low.  And that gets a hearty applause from the Angel fans in the van, they clap like mad and their driver toots his horn and they drive off, happy to make the stupid guy in the brown cap eat crow for his earlier loud shenanigans.

Karen and the girls want to know what that was all about, but I don't want to talk about it.

Not really.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pictures of Papou

And I ask Kristina if she remembers her grandfather – my dad, her Papou – because I worry she’ll forget.

Karen tells me to get one of the photo albums. It’ll help, she says, if Kristina sees him – so I search through the stack of albums piled on top of the black trunk next to the couch. I grab one titled Early Spring 2010 and hand it to Karen. She says, Not that one, and all I can think is, Why the heck not? I love this one. It has one of my favorite pictures of Elizabeth, that one where she's looking straight at you with her eyes so big and Superhero blue. And it has the pictures of Spring Training – all of us in Arizona. The girls' first trip to see the Giants in Scottsdale, their first visit to Tucson, to Mrs. Mellis. The album with that great shot of Kristina in Mrs. Mellis’ cactus yard.  Kristina in her beautiful, strappy Hawaiian dress, Kristina soft and small surrounded by prickles, the prickles yellow and brown and green.

But there’s something about Karen’s tone. Something in those simple words, Not that one. And it takes a moment, but then the penny drops. Of course not that one. I’m trying to show Kristina pictures of Papou. So she’ll remember. But this is the wrong collection – Early Spring 2010 – to find pictures of Papou because—

This isn’t the album to reinforce in Kristina an image of my dad because—

Christmas 2009 would be a better choice because—

How can it have been a year since my father died? A year to the day? March 1st already?

The week before March 1st last year. That week before was a hard time. I’d been driving to Modesto a lot in January and February, when my dad began failing, when—

Christ, what a ridiculous word, failing.  This is what I'm left with, ridiculous words.  But they’re all I have to convey what I felt, words are all any of us have to convey what we feel, but the words, often, are so ridiculous. How can the Inuit have dozens of words for snow – specific words for falling snow, for snow on the ground, for a snow drift – and yet I don’t have the precise word for the act of watching the strongest man I’ve ever known confronting, head on, the end of his life, with that end accompanied by pain of a magnitude unfathomable to me. Meeting that pain and that fate with courage, with quiet dignity. I should know the word for that, shouldn't I?  Shouldn't there be a word?

Of course, the Inuit probably don’t have a hundred words for snow. Is that just another something made up by someone somewhere?

The last Wednesday in February, last year. Late at night – 11:30? A quarter of twelve? Dean called. I couldn’t make out the words – though of course I knew what they were – I could just make out the sounds of my brother, crying soft. He thought, they all thought, my brothers and my Mom, that my father was dying.  That night.  Right then.  I got in our Accord, drove fast. I drove fast a lot then, in those weeks speeding back and forth to the Valley.

Part of me felt like an intruder. I don’t live in Modesto – could only give my often strong and strident opinions over the phone, over email. Had to remind myself that we were all interested in one thing, in one goal. And when those doctors failed my father—

I will say nothing other than that, that those doctors failed my father—

When those doctors failed my father, and our goal changed, became instead focused on easing our father’s pain – nothing more, in the end, than that – then we called Hospice.

Too late – we called too late, but dying is such a mystery, and until you go through it, closely, you don’t recognize the territory. My vision was clouded by the sad, by the anger – by the grief, guilt and regret. It was too hard to see through all that, and so Hospice was called too late.

They came after that night, after that night that we all thought was the end. My family had done so much, for so long – and everyone was so tired, and it was so late.  So as the clock turned Wednesday with no remorse into Thursday, I said I’d stay up.  Everyone else – my brothers, my mom especially  – had done so much for so long there in Modesto, so much—

I'd stay up.  I'd sit with my dad as he lay dying.

Dean went home – slowly, grudgingly.  Ball cap on his head.  George lay down on the couch in the living room.  My mom.  My mom needed rest.  She of any of us needed to rest and so, finally, she agreed to try and sleep in my room.  To rest, with no chance to dream.
I stayed up, next to my dad, and talked to him.  George said he could hear me from the couch.  Just talking.  Said I put him to sleep with all my talking.  I thought I'd remember everything I talked about that night.  But what did I say?

I just talked.  About our good times.  Playing catch.  Driving to Columbia – to Gold Country.  Watching Twiggy race around out back, barking at bees.  I just talked.  About watching all those Dean Martin videos.  About trying to distinguish my dad's voice coming out of the choir loft.  About the birds in our yard getting drunk on the pyracantha berries that had fermented in the sun.  I just talked.  About how much I loved him.  About how great a man I believed him to be.  About my girls, and Karen.
I just talked all through that night – to my dad, with his eyes closed.  With no hope of them opening.  But I could hold his hand in mine and talk.

What do you say when there instead should be a flight of angels singing your father to his rest?  I have no idea - so I just talked.  Through the dark and the quiet.  Picking up framed photos – snapshots of our lives.  George there, a chubby baby.  Dean and Laura, their wedding day.  And the girls.  The Christmas photo with all my dad's granddaughters.  The baby, Eleni.  Her sister, Adrianna.  Our own girls – Kristina, just two.  Elizabeth, six.

I worry that Kristina won't remember.  She was so small, not yet three.  Karen thinks she'll remember – does what she can to make that happen.  That was why Karen told me to get the album, yes?

So I just talked.  There was nothing to say and so much to say.  So many questions that I'd never asked.  When was your parent's anniversary?  What shows did you listen to on that Philco radio?  When you saw that screwdriver ripping through the screen door in Hiawatha, were you scared?

I talked.  And right after six that morning, as I'm explaining to my dad that Kristina was telling me just yesterday, just Wednesday, about how much she loved him, loved her Papou, as I'm letting him know that Kristina is always telling me how much she loves him – my dad opened his eyes and said, She's just too much.

My dad opened his eyes.  Opened them and saw me - really saw me.  Made eye contact with me and so I told him how much Kristina loved him, yes, how much we all loved him.  Got it out fast before he closed his eyes and dropped off – but dropped off to a restful sleep.

That was 6:06 am.

Just a little later, my dad opens his eyes, again.  Could focus on me, again.  So I tell him, again, how much we love him.  Then asked if he wanted his blanket pulled up and he said, Yes, please.

That was 6:20.

When his eyes opened for a third time that morning, I told him that we were all just thinking about how much we loved him.  That time I got a big smile and my dad looked at a picture of my mom and said, We love you, too.

We all love you, Dad – I'm just saying it again and again so he hears me, so he knows that's all anyone is thinking about.  He kind of waves me off.

We all love you, Dad.

Thank you, he says.

No, Dad, I say, emphasizing my words, thank you.

And my dad smiled big again.

That was 6:48.

In the midst of that exchange, I heard my mom coming down the hall, and the look on her face when she saw my dad, saw him talking to me, focused on me – ah, Mom.  I love you, too.  For everything, but especially for that look.  Confusion, astonishment, wonder.  I know that she knows that this is only a reprieve – but we've been given my dad back, for a few days at least.

In those days, we can remind him how much he means to us, to the girls.  How his friends are thinking of him.

We can say goodbye.

I can talk to his neighbors of nearly fifty years – Ed and Ann – and then relate to my dad the stories they shared with me.

We can say goodbye.

I can hold his hand like I did that night and remind my dad of his influence on me and that I love him, that the girls love him, that his house is full of love for him.

We can say goodbye.

When on that Sunday Karen says the last words she'll ever say to my dad – when Karen on Sunday, February 28th, 2010, tells my dad that she loves him, my dad will have the chance to close his eyes and open his hands and say, I love all of you, too.

All of you.