Pitching in the Shirtsleeves

My Mother died a little over a year ago, so this will be my 41st Mother’s Day, and my first one without her.

We’ve all lost someone: a Mom, a brother, a friend; that’s the way of the world. So we all know the excruciating loneliness of the calls that aren’t coming, the happy memory that can fill you with effortless pride and bitter anger at the same time. The guilt at what we didn’t say, didn’t do, or the photos we didn’t take.

We usually meet these things from a distance when we’re too young to lose people ourselves, so we feel them in waves of loss around us. As we get older, there are fewer surprises in loss except when it happens to you, and what you find along the way that you never heard mentioned.  

The long road of loss becomes familiar as we get older, so I try to be open to the surprises, to let them happen, and not be afraid of them or avoid them. They’re a way to look backward and forward at the same time, they’re both learning about and remembering who you’ve lost. They’re a rest stop on the endless road.

Last week my wife Heidi and I were playing cribbage and listening to the Red Sox on a radio so old we had to turn it up to the highest volume just to hear it. Joe Castiglione started calling Sox games 36 years ago, when I was four. Before every game was televised, and even on the weekends when we could watch them on TV38, our house was a radio broadcast house. My mom, ironing and listening to Joe and Ken, falling asleep to the games, turning up the radio to hear it when she worked outside in the garden. I’ve heard his voice a thousand times, in the foreground and background, and my Mom is nearby for most of them. When we were reading her last wishes, it was right there in her handwriting. She left me her collection of baseball books, including the pride of her collection, one signed by Joe himself.

Then I paused as the game came back to the foreground, and I heard Joe make an errant comment, one of the millions he’s said over 5,000 games when you both need to fill the air and want to paint a picture of the action for your listeners, as they’re sitting playing cards or ironing.

Rodriguez, pitching in the shirtsleeves tonight.”

Here was one of those surprises, one that sent my surroundings backward into infinity, that cut across time and took me off the road and onto a rest stop. While that single random phrase is one I’ve heard many times across many games, enough for it to be familiar, it surprised me how quickly I was transported. I was inside a small house on a Friday night in spring with the windows open, sitting at a campground, riding in the backseat. Listening to an announcer paint the story of the game, with my Mom nearby, or far away but at least available for a call.

I was with my Mom, and not just with her habit of listening to the radio. I was with her innocence, her natural and unaffected embrace of habits and small joys. The attitude that she used to make the most of her time here. What we do in the long light of summers when we don’t think we’re doing anything.

I don’t know if she would ever have sat me down to tell me this. It just became true over time, enough to come back through a single sentence, one of a million, from between the crackling of an old radio on a clear night.

I wouldn’t have come across it if I wasn’t open to the surprises.

Many of the things we think we learn from observing loss end up being at least little bit wrong, and the deals we make we can’t always follow through on. After we lose a loved one, no matter how much we regret, we’re not always going to appreciate every moment. We still forget to take more photos, we still say something we don’t mean, and we still miss a chance to give a hug.

One thing we can do is to be there for the surprises, let them happen, and allow them to show us things. It might come through some color commentary about a pitcher in his groove on a warm night, and it might be to remind us of something that hurts. It might be to show us a memory we’ve relived a million times, while it leaves something behind as it fades away.

Whatever that surprise is, it will be a rest stop on the long drive. And this might be the time it makes us a little wiser, and brings us a little closer to someone, even from impossibly far away.



Befriending Time

I stood up from my seat in the pew, ready to carry a heavy weight. Could I take a punch? I guess this was as good a time as any to find out. Only it would have to be a wet one, like a kiss, because it was starting to rain.


When someone dies, you still need to do the normal things. Like shave, make sure your shirt is wrinkle-free, help your kids get ready for the events of the day. There’s fixing up the daughter’s hair, helping the son with his tie, and you eat a little bit if you’re hungry or you know you’ve been forgetting. Then there are the abnormal things, the new things. Trying to find a way to comfort your mother, who’s just lost her Father. Remembering the last time you saw someone, how they looked. How they looked compared to what you remember them as.

The first time we found out my Grandfather had cancer, we quickly gathered plans to race down and see him. It always amazes me how our small family can create chaos out of quiet, when given the sliver of a chance. This was more than a sliver. It was just after Easter, the time of year that Connecticut is in the full bloom of spring while northern New England is still going rounds with winter, hoping at best for a draw. We escaped the dirty snow banks to flowers on the trees and something like blue in the skies. We were told, rightly or wrongly, that we needed to visit Grandpa because things did not look good. The kids ran around the back yard, we setup lawn chairs, the aunts and uncles gathered. You talk about work when you don’t want to talk about the future.

Four years later, he died. Four years of ups and downs, long nights we could only imagine with all the distance of 300 miles and a half a climate between us and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors. What did my mother go through in those four years that I could learn from? Not just the fear of driving to the hospital, but the loneliness of driving home, to go to bed, to wake up and go on with their lives the next day, waiting for news.

What about my Grandfather, at the center of it? You’ll need to change your eating habits, try to like new things, have patience forced on you like an icy sidewalk when you fall. The patience of waiting rooms, test results, the patience of waiting to see if a new treatment works or what else it will do to you while you’re trying to battle the larger of two evils.

When I think about those four years, I imagine the patience is tempered by the vast uncertainty of length, like how driving somewhere the first time always seems so long. Do you lose sense of time wondering if today will be a good day, or if this month will bring setbacks, or this season will be filled with promise as the enemy retreats? And come to think of it, did the enemy retreat, or are they regrouping? When you’re a child, time alternates between enemy and friend at different times. Growing up means understanding time, befriending it, ultimately controlling it. The cancer takes that, returns days to weeks, hours to months, removes your ability to predict and balance your present with your future.

Secretly, I didn’t think he’d get well, only manage, with bouts of triumph and resolve, while a steady decline walked on, ignoring his will.


He died in February, yet another time of year when Maine is consumed by the darkness and the whiteness of winter, while Connecticut turns the corner. There weren’t quite flowering trees, but the snow had given way to rain and the immeasurable dark skies were now just gray, with a hint of blue.

Me with my Grandfather Gerald Dowd, Christmas 1984.

We were ready. I had a haircut and bought a larger wedding band to fit over my broken finger. My family would immediately notice if I wasn’t wearing a ring, and even a swollen and purple knuckle would not excuse the adoscelent arrogance of not wearing it to such an occasion. Death is one of the reasons we maintain traditions in the first place.

Saturday morning, we were groups of dark suits and dresses, piling into dark cars under deep gray skies. They weren’t showing clear signs of lightening; that took the promise out of our small talk about the weather. Some of those gathered  were handed umbrellas by the funeral attendants, until the umbrellas ran out. My own children had never been to a funeral; never seen my wife and I at our most vulnerable. We would need to expose them to the power of grief and still hold them close enough to not feel alone.

A traditional Catholic mass anchored the solemnity. Even for those people who grew up outside of the church, it provided meaning to our dress and united our quiet solitude. The sermon reminded us that my Grandfather received comfort as dramatically and as surely in the other world as he had been plagued by pain and decline in ours. This peace was possible in his new place because, the priest assured us, “Only the father knows the son,” and “only the son knows the father.” This was religious in intent. Then my uncle got up to deliver the eulogy for his father, gone after a lifetime, and those words meant something even more to me.


After a short drive from the church, we gathered at the gravesite. The rain clacked on umbrellas above us, and below the somber quiet followed us from the church. They’d erected a canopy over the grave for the service. My grandmother and aunts and uncles and friends gathered in seats for the military ceremony, honoring my Grandfather’s service in Korea. I stood outside the canopy, listening.

Approaching middle age, I realized I had been wondering, for nearly 30 years, how my Grandfather felt on the long boat ride from Korea back to the United States. I know from stories that he and his friends played cards to relax and pass the time, but what else? What mix of confidence and relief showed itself on the faces and in the words of him and the men next to him? Did he dwell much on the choices that lay before him, as impossibly wide as the ocean? Did he plan out the universe he would co-create, that now stood gathered around him in the cold and wet world he left? You rarely think of something when you’re in the middle of it, even as long as a life.

My wife pulled my daughter closer under her umbrella. Men in uniform moved through traditions. My Grandfather had never been as far away from that boat and its possibilities. No harm could come to him anymore as he stood with the Father, in rest following a lifetime of choices and sentences, lucky and smart, fair and cruel.

My son looked up at me, and I looked back at him. I don’t think you learn how to act at funerals, any more than you learn how to control life. You befriend time, and you carry an umbrella, and when you escape one battlefield, you take a moment to laugh and play cards and maybe you catch a glimpse of the next adventure you’ll have a hand in creating. Then you go towards it, with fear and confidence, invincibility and fragility. Peace and loss.

As my son stared at me standing in the rain, his face moved for a second. I think it was recognition. Then he lifted up his umbrella, stretching to the limits of his reach to place it over my head. I took it from him and held it over both of us. We were out of the rain for the time being, but it was still loud as hell and inches above our heads. He stood close to me to keep out of the cold.

Only the father knows the son, and only the son knows the father.

RIP, Gregory McDonald


Sad news out of Pulaski, Tennessee: Author Gregory McDonald passed away September 7th at 71. McDonald’s Fletch series of books have been a huge influence on my interests in mystery writing and dry humor; in fact I just finished re-reading (for the third or fourth time) Fletch’s Fortune last week.

If you’ve seen the classic Chevy Chase flick Fletch, you’ve had a brief introduction to the character; though the books are decidedly darker, more insightful, and less forgiving. Check out the absolutely overlooked classic Fletch Forever, which includes three of the best, funniest, and most entertaining mystery novels ever written.

CORRECTION: My original version of this post noted Mr. McDonald passed away on September 14th. The correct date, according to multiple media reports, is September 7th. I regret the error.

In memory of Cathy Seipp

Cathy Seipp, a writer whom I admire both for the reach of her work and of her self, has passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. She will be fondly remembered.

UPDATE: I wrote the above post yesterday after reflecting on the many people commenting on Cathy’s condition. To my deep regret, I inadvertently published the post– rather than saving it as a draft to be published later, as I originally intended– prior to Cathy’s passing. I am truly sorry for this error and any pain caused to Cathy’s friends and family.


My apartment is infested with koala bears. It’s the cutest infestation ever. Way better than cockroaches. When I turn on the light a bunch of koala bears scatter. But I don’t want ’em to, you know, I’m like “Hey, hold on, fellas. Let me hold one of you…and feed you a leaf.”

Mitch Hedberg, 1968-2005.

More Mitch (from this Slate article):

I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.

I hate flossing; I wish I just had one long curvy tooth.

A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.

I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semicircle.

More Mitchisms here.

In Memory

“When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future…

I know that for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

President Ronald Reagan