There is something wonderful, and meditative, about having a catch. Throwing the ball back and forth is a good way to loosen up the arm and works just as well as a metaphor. I remember as a kid watching Mantle and Maris tossing the ball to each other in long arcs over the lush grass expanse of the Yankee Stadium outfield; later seeing Dwight Evans in right field in Fenway tossing a hard ball back and forth to a beefy security guard who wore no glove. It looked like they’d been doing it for years.
The catch takes on a harmonious rhythm, requires not a word and it is also the world’s simplest metaphor for what people want in general: I throw you the ball, make it easy to catch, you throw it back so I can catch it and I throw it back to you. What could be simpler, really? The satisfying pop of the ball into the glove, if you’re throwing a ball that wants a glove, a tasty bonus.
I remember one early summer evening my father suggesting we have a catch. I popped up, got the gloves and a baseball and we tossed the ball back and forth for a while in the street in front of the house. I must have been nine or ten. We threw the ball to each other straight and true until it got too dark, even with the street lights, to see it well enough to throw and catch from that distance. A lovely memory, and all the more precious because it happened just that one time, as far as I can recall.
I remember another catch with my father, when I was a few years younger, in the driveway, that was more typical of fun times with dad. I had not thrown a ball ten thousand times yet, as I would do in the next few years. I still threw with that spastic imprecision that celebrities sometimes demonstrate throwing a ceremonial first pitch when nerves make the sixty foot toss to the professional catcher, trained to catch or stop virtually anything, impossible.
If you had heard only the soundtrack, and ignored my father’s much deeper voice, you would have thought he was the seven year-old. He had to keep chasing the ball, several feet each time, as it went over his head, past him on the left, past him on the right, into the hedges. He complained each time, as though I was a demanding and sadistic teacher giving him an aggravating test in a language I knew very well he didn’t understand.
Finally he’d had enough with the bending, and stretching, having to chase the ball a few feet (his back was to the garage, so he didn’t have that far to chase it) the frustration of trying to have a catch with someone who clearly didn’t even know how to throw a ball. Or, worse, knew very well how to throw, but was just being a little asshole about it, making his father suffer.
It’s this metaphor of not having a catch that sums up what gave the old man the most regret when he was dying. Finding me without hostility, calm, accepting, probing gently when I didn’t understand what he was trying to say, he lamented at one point that he hadn’t been mature enough to have these kinds of conversations with me fifteen years ago. I was close to fifty at the time.
I remember thinking: fifteen years? A pretty modest thing to settle for when weighed against the first thirty-five viciously adversarial years. I also recall realizing pretty quickly that I’d have taken fifteen years, or five, or even a few months, to have the kind of discussion we were finally having as the last sands of his life were passing through the hourglass like on the opening sequence of that soap opera my grandmother loved.
“Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”
“Well,” says the skeleton philosophically, “while you are alive you can turn the hourglass over, as you are doing now in remembering and setting out these details. That’s one reason I always loved history, the do-over aspect of reading and getting new insights from it. It really never got tired for me. You know how the story ends, Malcolm with a chest full of bullets, his hands up, urging the arguing Muslims to calm down, realizing a split second too late they are the agents of misdirection, creating a diversion to draw everyone’s attention to them as the man with the shotgun plants himself in front of Malcolm, the other two begin shooting with pistols. You know how it ends, but you can’t stop reading, the way you are plowing through that book on Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X now. You know Ali is going to cut Malcolm dead on that street in Accra, with Maya Angelou watching in horror as the boxer sides with the murderous hypocrite and abandons his about to be martyred friend to death, but you still can’t stop reading.”
And it’s true, these memories that move us are the materials of our life and our only pathway to understanding, what we are given to work with. A frustrated parent too preoccupied to realize the child throwing the ball badly is not doing it on purpose to be a prick. The kid doesn’t know how to throw the ball yet, too young, doesn’t have the motor skills yet. Maybe you take five steps toward the kid, instead of standing beyond the range of the kid’s puny arm, insisting madly that he do it right and stop acting like a little asshole.
“Well, this is the kind of catch that’s much easier to have sometimes when the person you’re trying to have it with is no longer there,” says the skeleton. “I mean, you realize now that it was nothing personal, it’s not that I chose to act like such an asshole when you and your sister were young. I mean, nothing personal as to you and your sister, I would have done the same to any offspring, no matter who they might have been. Of course, it happened to you so you have no choice but to take it personally. And you did something I never came close to managing to do, you found a way to forgive someone who had done vicious things to you over the course of many years.”
Rattle on, bone head. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, primarily. It’s not personal either. I would have forgiven anybody who was supposed to be my father who acted the way you did, to the extent I was lucky enough to partially forgive you in the few months before you suddenly went into the hospital to die. That limited forgiveness was enough, I soon saw, to enable you to say necessary things you had never come close to being able to say. Death and a son who was mild and not glaring at you were both in the room, gently helping your final confession along.
I have written more than 60,000 words so far in this draft, told a few dozen anecdotes, and have done little, so far, to illustrate in a way that would touch anyone’s heart the core of violence and destructiveness in you, dad. It’s not my intention in this exercise to reveal precisely why it was so fitting when my sister named you the Dreaded Unit. It will become necessary, at some point, to lay out a few wrenching scenes that show your full brutality. You were always the D.U., true, but you were also always the little kid with the eternal torment of knowing he could never forgive anyone for anything. Most of all yourself.
That’s the part that’s the most alien to me, being unable to forgive yourself and, at the same time, being unwilling to change anything about yourself, and I thank whatever great spirit there is to thank for such things that I am not tormented by that particular sickness: self-hatred.
In my mind I hear third-grade students I once taught remarking on my patience, being referred to in another school (I was told by a colleague) as “that teacher who likes kids.” I recall the comment of a great guitarist I played with about how much he appreciated the space I left in the mix of our two guitar jam. The old friend who took a moment to single out and thank me for the way I always listen carefully to her concerns. These three things, by themselves, are enough reason not to hate myself. Certainly my father had as many as that.
There is the case to be made that the life I live, particularly the ragged outward signs of it, demonstrates that I live a life of some kind of perverse self-denial, reflecting anger at myself. I suppose one could argue that, from a superficial examination. If I loved myself truly I’d tackle this five foot tall mess all around me, throw out ten or twenty contractor bags, force the landlord to make repairs, etc. I’d make money and have a job that showcased my most specialized skills and paid me well for them. I’d be more ambitious about promoting myself (it would be hard to be less ambitious). I’d take more care in my wardrobe, instead of having comfort as my main criteria when I select what I wear. I’ll grant all these things, though I still don’t understand how someone can hate themself.
This book is about my father, but, naturally, one can’t write about a subject so close without also writing about oneself. I am giving you a view of a man you never met, and in my telling I am also showing you the imprint he left on my life. That is the deeper purpose here, to show by the son the man left behind what the essence of the real father was. If you laugh at some of the anecdotes it makes me glad. My father was a very funny bastard. But if at the end you do not also cry, to understand the fathomless tragedy of this talented man’s life, and, while I speak of my father’s life I’m aware that the same can be said of mine, I will not have told this story properly.