I am walking down the long corridor of a nursing facility. My father is in the very last room, which means I have to pass the open door of every other patient before I can get to him.
One or two rooms are lit up and crowded with family, but most patients have just a single visitor. Some people are alone, so thin under the bedcovers they barely make a dent in the mattress. The one thing in common: every room I pass, without exception, has the Red Sox on.
I can follow the progress of the game just by listening as I pass by each room, so that when I arrive at last and my father tells me, “We’re watching the game,” I say, “I know! Victorino just hit a home run.”
“We” is my father, Richard, and his only brother, Tom, who has flown in for what we’re calling “a visit” but is really goodbye.
Seventy-five years of siblinghood — the two of them growing up hard in Lawrence, their father dead young, their mother bouncing between public housing and Danvers State Hospital — but they don’t talk about any of that. They talk about the Red Sox.
As a younger man, my father would complain when Tom visited and insisted on watching every game. “It’s too slow! There are too many games!” He was a tennis man and a Celtics fan.
Like dealing with a serious illness, baseball favors the quiet and the patient, people who won’t freak out when the count is against them, even though things look bad from the dugout.
Then the 2002 perfect storm of Pedro, Manny, Nomar, Damon and Lowe made baseball fun to watch, and by then my dad was in a different frame of mind. The last of the kids had finally flown the nest, he’d retired, a back injury had sidelined his tennis career. The pace of his life and the pace of baseball were at last in sync. He’d become a spring-training-to-October-heartbreak fan.
Now he is in rehab, dividing his time between worrying about congestive heart failure and worrying about Jake Peavy’s pitching.
As it turns out, baseball is oddly well suited to convalescence. It’s a long game, a slow game, easy to follow even when your television is hanging six feet over your bed at that crazy hospital angle. Like dealing with a serious illness, baseball favors the quiet and the patient, people who won’t freak out when the count is against them, even though things look bad from the dugout.
Walking back down the hall, I think of all the silent watchers I’ve seen since my dad got sick — people with feeding tubes and breathing tubes, heart monitors and morphine drips, nebulizers and catheters. Far away from the Fenway bleachers, out of earshot of the sports bars, these are the Sox’s quietest fans, but in many ways their most loyal. They know a thing or two about keeping track of the count till the last pitch is thrown.
The next night, sometime after midnight, I get a call from my mother. They’ve taken my father in an ambulance to the emergency room. I drive the deserted streets to the hospital thinking, Is this it? Is it happening now?
A CPAP breathing machine covers my dad’s whole head; it’s as if he’s being embraced by a transparent plastic octopus. He’s struggling with every breath. He can’t talk, and his eyes dart wildly from my face to my mother’s. I swallow back tears. I have seen my father annoyed, impatient, irritated, peevish, and very angry — he’s an Irishman, after all — but I have never before seen him frightened.
The ER nurse, a big guy named Franklin, says, “let the machine breathe for you. That’s its job.” My father closes his eyes, trying to comply, and my mother, exhausted, closes hers. I stare at the endless loop of an infomercial. It’s 3:30 in the morning.
The pace of his life and the pace of baseball were at last in sync.
After 40 minutes, Frank says he’s going to move my father onto a different machine, though he still won’t be able to talk. “You’re gonna have 10 seconds to have your say while I switch masks,” he warns my dad jokingly.
When the big mask comes off, my father says, “How’d the Sox do? I missed the end of the game.” I roll my eyes and pull out my cellphone, calling up the score. My dad is in his late innings now, possibly in the ninth, but he’s not out yet. Not as long as the Sox still come first.
The game had been close, 4-3. I hold the small glowing rectangle up close to my father’s face so he can see it over the top of the mask. “They came from behind, dad,” I tell him. “They came from behind.”