We were in Sanibel Island, Florida, my wife Kathy and I, celebrating our first real vacation in two years. Staying in a condo 180 feet from the beach, the good life had never seemed so good. The company we kept, my brother Eric and his wife, Renee, was excellent. They were recovering from a home sale and relocation. Kath and I were coming off of a year where our upstairs bathroom had been gutted for months. When your knees are bad and you’re on blood pressure meds…well, you do the math.
For once, we had not planned ourselves into a corner, where we would return from a vacation and go right back to work. Our flight home arrive was on the evening before Memorial Day. We had a family gathering scheduled for the Monday afternoon, but not until later in the day. After decompressing for nine days, we knew we could ease back into the grind with that Monday buffer. Sleeping in was the only thing on the breakfast menu for Memorial Day.
We were still days away from departing our island paradise when Kath repeated the contents of a text she had received. “Lucy needs to come home and drop off her car with us and catch a bus to Chicago.” Lucy is our oldest child, who was just finishing her first year of law school and headed for a paying internship in the Windy City.
“Okay. When?” I asked.
“She’s coming in late Sunday, leaving early Monday.”
I turned to my brother (who has no children) and told him, “This is a perfect illustration of what it is to be a parent.” I wasn’t angry. It was a statement of fact. Babysitters are hourly, parents are salary. We think we are done at various turning points in their lives but, the truth is, if you embraced being a parent, you will always be a parent. If not to your own children, then you find others to assist, mentor, lecture or nurture.
I won’t go into detail about what sort of damage we did on vacation, but it was extensive and self-inflicted. I have been on vacations with people who fancied themselves partiers. On Sanibel Island, we spilled more than those braggarts drank. We got off the plane in Detroit relaxed. Dog tired, yes, and our livers were screaming the Roberto Duran mantra, “No mas, no mas.” We grabbed a small dinner and headed back to the house. Dan, our youngest, came by not long after Lucy arrived and we had some laughs in the mid-evening before he left for his apartment and the rest of us collapsed into familiar mattresses. We had to meet a bus arriving downtown at 8:45 a.m., so alarms were dutifully set. Lucy shares my affinity for arriving early for virtually any event, no matter how mundane. To do otherwise makes us somewhat anxious.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m on blood pressure meds, which means I frequently wake up at night with an urgent need. After a 4 a.m. roundtrip to the bathroom, I found myself wide awake and suddenly aware that we had no groceries in the house for breakfast. We had some flakes and some milk, sure, but that simply won’t work for a send-off. In a house where many of our greatest memories have occurred around the dining room table, breakfast is a religion. This called for a full spread. I began making a shopping list in my head. Knowing there were hours before we had to be at our afternoon gathering, at 5 a.m I went ahead and got up. At 6 a.m., I recognized I wouldn’t be able to relax until I had bacon and eggs and bread and potatoes for my young Crusader, so I went grocery shopping. We finished our early morning feast before 8 a.m. and prepared to meet the bus across town. We arrived with plenty of time to spare. In an hour’s time, I would be back at home, napping.
There was just one old man waiting for the bus when we arrived. He appeared to be about seventy and was waiting alone. He looked at the logoed hoodie and cap I wore and chirped, “You a Cub fan?” I told him I was a baseball fan. Turn on a game and I will watch it. You can get fed up with the big money aspects of the game. You can be sick to death of the personalities of some of the players, but the game is always beautiful.
“My Dad played for Cincinnati in the thirties,” he told me.
“They were still the Redlegs then,” I stated, letting him know I knew a little history too.
“That’s right. He was a catcher.”
My son Dan was a little league catcher. I gained a whole new appreciation for the position after seeing what he went through. There’s no wonder they make the best managers. They see the whole field, they know pitchers and hitters intimately. The old man said his father hadn’t stuck with it. There wasn’t much money to be made in baseball then and it was considered kind of a low-class occupation to be a ballplayer. He continued, “My son, he was a catcher, too. Drafted by the Mets. He was at Tidewater when he got the call, his wife was going into labor. He asked to be allowed to attend the birth of his child. They told him ‘no’. He quit baseball that very day.”
He fished in his pocket for a phone. Figuring the conversation with this stranger was over, I started making my way back to where my wife and daughter were standing. The old man raised his voice to make sure I heard him. He was waving his phone at me. It showed a young man with an even younger boy. “He was a good Dad,” he asserted and, indeed, there seemed to be real affection in the eyes of the man and the boy. “We lost him, my son, ten years ago. Lymphoma. I begged him to come up here, I said, ‘Son, the people at u of M Hospital are great’ but he insisted he was getting good care. Maybe he was. Anyway…”
But there’s really nowhere to go after that, is there? It is a violation of natural law for a parent to see their child die. But he continued. “I speak to my grandson nearly every day. He’s in the Marines. He tells me, ‘Grampa, you don’t have to worry about me.’ But…well, you know what I’m talking about.”
And I did. I did know what he was talking about.
The sound of air brakes made us look up as the grey dog came around the corner. The old man cleared his throat and stuck out his hand. “It was nice talking with you. I gotta get moving because I need to sit near the front. I don’t get around so good.” His bag was already at the curb and soon he was too. I turned and Lucy was there. I had burned up all the time between our arrival and her departure, ostensibly talking baseball with the old man. I hugged her and told her I loved her and then all too quickly she was on the bus as well.
There was plenty of time when Kath and I got home to do anything I wanted. But I didn’t nap. I didn’t even doze. Suddenly, it seemed like a pleasure to be awake and alive, watching from a distance as my child made steps towards her major league dreams.