There is a country rich in diamonds,
Oil and foreign sports cars
I know this – having read it in
This is a country in which one child
In six will die before the age of five
Says The Times’ Kristof
But I live in a country that cares
About children – Some of us
Care so much we call authorities
On parents whose children walk
Home from the park – alone
Keeping our children absurdly safe
Ignoring the Angolan mother holding
The “twig limbs,” swollen belly, wizened face
Of the near carcass that is her child
She’s waiting for care from the few who do
Those people who come from far off places to nurse and
Heal everyone’s children
Those people who know that diamonds
Are friend to no one
The people who recognize
The diamond’s sparkle
Being stolen everyday
From the eyes of babies
Leaving in its place a
Haunted spectacle, skeletal frame
Held together in wrinkled brown
Wrappings of skin
“Go home,” the mighty Christians say
from their soapbox of indignities
our taxes too high we need to slay
those who’d deny our vanities
hatred in torrents
Maybe it’s the distance
from Emma’s creed
begetting an entranced
and ugly breed
“Your tired, your hungry” sentenced to crawl
back to Central America; “Mexico”
while goodness & ignorance resort to brawl
to kindergarten a few will go
They will go to your schools
learn your lessons well
they’ll know all enemy’s rules
that armies were sent to quell
And lo many, many years hence
you’ll stare from old window blind
having forgotten hate’s energy spent
begging beautiful leaders, “please be kind”
The New York Times’
Armies of children
Armed only with dreams
In 1998 I was “stuck” with western New York’s equivalent of “The Bad News Bears.” A team no one wanted and I, by default (with a son moving up to majors with his father as coach), was left to coach. I can teach life-saving & water safety classes but baseball? All I could picture was me ducking and flailing comically out of the way of a come-backer that was sure to find my front teeth. If only that were the singular tragedy that season. The following essay won the 1999 New York State Teachers 1st prize for journalism and a lovely (unaccepted) job offer. I repost today after going into town and having lunch by the river treated to sights of youth on the water and the haunting sounds of balls being cracked into the outfield behind me. Happy spring.
It would be wonderful to say “Stevie” came to baseball tryouts that first day and dazzled everyone. He didn’t. Stevie showed little talent for the game. Even when he came to that first practice, when it was so cold he had to alternate throwing drills with time in the heated cab of the truck, he knew he had a ways to go to be as good as some of last year’s minor-leaguers. I didn’t see him for three practices and one game after that. I had forgotten what he looked like.
On the day of our second game this very blond, fragile boy walked into the dugout. I responded with my customary “Excuse me,” which was freighted with suspicious overtones. He slowly turned and spoke his name. Then I was glad to see him, because that only made us shy one player. Even so, I knew we had to borrow a player from our opponent’s bench and I silently kissed the thought of winning good-bye as I saw the little, very little fellow stumbling our way from the other dugout. I looked back at my bench and eagerness engulfed the boys and protected them from the slow rain beginning to fall.
Stevie took his place in the outfield. He was safe. Balls seldom get out that far in the minors. His hitting was lackluster, too, but I did make a mental note to get to the pitching machine first and get in the much needed batting practice for everyone. At batting practice he swung too late, too weak. I began to feel that he was in little league for other reasons. His body was there; arms, legs, and head, but not his heart – that was somewhere else.
Our next game was across town. Stevie was there. He quietly took center field. I remember my frustration as a shallow fly-ball caused him and the other 9-year-olds to stare at such a phenomenon in awe. The next inning Stevie was taking a bathroom break when we started closing the gap despite our weak fielding. It was the fourth inning and Stevie’s turn at bat – no Stevie. I made a mental joke about his bathroom break being a complete stop. After making a substitution, I went to investigate.
I headed around the dugout just in time to meet his mom and dad who were already on their way back with a very shaken little boy. He had been locked in the portable john that sits on the other side of the playground. Turning the ring-shaped latch to the locked position is a common prank, I was told when I complained. I came back to the dugout to see Stevie huddled in the corner shivering in spite of the 75 degree weather. I told him he could get back into the game after this inning, and he looked at me with tears brimming in his large blue eyes and asked if he could sit out the rest of the game. He was different; unlike the others who would probably have shrugged off the incident and jumped at the chance to play. Not Stevie.
I wish I could say I remember what he said when, later, he came out to tell me about something in his life. I remember him standing there happy to have his mom’s sweatshirt on and flapping the over-sized sleeves. I do remember that was the only time I saw him smile.
The last time I saw Stevie was team picture day. I see him clearly, now, next to his mom with his head in her lap as the other Yankees run amok. I see myself, too, cranky as ever, trying to get eleven 9- and 10-year-olds to hold together in line at 6 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The remainder of that week is a blur. Just bits and pieces stay afloat; obtuse, emotional flotsam.
The phone call came Friday night from a friend with news of the terrible accident involving a 9-year-old in my valley and concern that my son be affected by the news. I heard the name, last name only, so many out there it can’t be THE one. I remember my call to the hospital, and the surprise of the emergency room nurse and her emphatic “No!” when I asked if anyone of that name had come in this afternoon. I waited, hoping against hope and losing track of time. I made a promise to myself to hug Stevie the next day at our game. I went to bed thinking of how I was going to explain the hug and special attention. At 11:30 that night the call came. I wouldn’t have to explain. Stevie was dead … killed when a tractor-mounted mower backed over him. I thought of his fragile body. My dreams that short night ended with the sight of Stevie huddled in the corner of the dugout, shivering from the pain and fear of the dark. I cried most of the day – for Stevie, his mom and dad, his brother, for me and every time I made a call to tell the other team parents of our canceled game and the reason.
I met with my team the following Monday. With Tuesday being a game day, I could not go on with life as usual until there was some acknowledgment with the team of Stevie’s tragedy. A counselor, friend and colleague offered to come and speak to the team and possibly help them with grief. I should be used to this grief. But I am not. So, I could only hope that my friend could do for my team what she did for me that Saturday when I called desperately needing comfort and help.
My team was there, and as we sought the cool shade around the practice field, I knew things would be OK. The tentative smiles of the kids and the smiles strained with sadness of the moms and dads spoke of the need to “DO” and the tools with which to accomplish this task. My friend was wonderful, beautiful in her approach. She came with handouts: “How Tos: for parents who deal with children and tragedy.” Grateful, parents snapped up the papers as they listened to their young suggest ideas for a personal memorial to their teammate. Adult tears were ever-brimming as it became apparent these young people were taking that important first step in grief management. They had been given a platform from which to address their sorrow. Plans were set; the stage would be taken, exits would be made and, however sadly, life would move on.
Stevie’s funeral was 11 o’clock that Tuesday morning. Tuesday evening found the ballpark full of parents and players alike, hearts heavy with the knowledge of why the flag was at half-staff. The ceremony began. The stadium announcer proclaimed the game dedicated to the memory of Stevie and invited all the little leaguers in the park to come to the ballfield. A hat and jersey with Stevie’s number was placed at home plate. Someone on the team said “… Stevie’s home now.” The pledge was spoken as two team members unfolded a banner reading “Angels like you are precious and few.” A brand new bat engraved with Stevie’s number was presented to the team. And finally, the messages taped to helium balloons held in the right hand of each team member were released on the count of “1, 2, 3 STEVIE.” A song was playing: “… if I am not there in the morning … remember me …” My team’s faces were shiny with tears, yet held high and smiling at the sight of a dozen Yankee-blue balloons moving further and further into the stratosphere. I looked at my son, and the sons and daughters of others and I beheld a beauty indescribable.
Oh, if life could imitate art we would have seen, that radiant Tuesday evening, Stevie, receiving his wings in some heavenly arena flooded with light. Even as we left a hole in our lineup indicating no player (visible) in center field, we should have known we would win. Fly-balls – shallow or deep, it didn’t matter – hung in the air, giving my team all the “awe-time” they needed before, yes, God willing, Stevie caught the ball.
ACT I – SILLY LITTLE GIRL
I just got your e-mail, two weeks before commending your step-father’s ashes to the ocean. I say e-mail but knife is the better descriptor because it sliced me up nicely. It would have gotten you an ‘A’ in a Benihana school of knifery; so precise around the edges but dense and delusional at the center where the truth certainly lies – waiting for reinforcements.
Calling you delusional is my only accusation to fling – as I watch you unwilling to turn your wasted unicorn around. I am hoping you are smart enough to study the landscape and choose another more soul-soothing direction. But no, it is so much easier for you sit, blocked by the four walls of your 40 + years of emotional poverty and blame me.
I want to tell you that success is a terrible, terrible thing to achieve in a miserable family such as ours. It goes back to a mother (your grandmother) who held her six candles burning at both ends in her own need for love and survival. She was a mother who fought long and hard for the protection of her family. I used to think that is why she so fancied the acrylic nails because they covered the blood-stained natural nails worked to the quick with responsibility. And towards the end even she would admit to parental failings. Even so, I suppose I always felt loved – even if I had to fight for it. Feeling loved was enough – should have been enough for all of us. And, my niece, I honestly thought if I took you under my roof, held you close when you needed, showed you the world (as much as a 27 year-old aunt could anyway), point to a future of hope that you would come to see these deeds wrapped in a package labeled LOVE. Now I see, for you, that package never arrived. My love was not enough. I am not that naïve to believe ours is a family unique; in happiness all families are alike. It is misery that brings about unique permutations that frolic legless, twisting, slithering throughout the human body waiting for the right moment to escape in word or deed.
And so it goes. Your misery escaped as you tapped out your love-less message of loss with fingers wrapped around your machete sentences; wildly swinging as you cut me up before serving me up; “If I’ve said anything to offend you I apologize….I love you and respect you…” If this is love – please keep it to yourself. Without a doubt, you have the greater need.
I can’t even cry at your version of truth. I’m just left with a deep, deep sadness at the vision of you swinging wildly at your faux-memories – slicing and dicing both ways through a forest of half-truths – cutting each blade below the root.
Silly, silly little girl.