On the baseball diamond, a mom learns to stop fearing her son growing up.
In my eighth year of motherhood, I was sitting on a hot concrete bench under a blazing Southern sun adding to my already generous freckle collection. In front of me was a baseball field covered with boys of all shapes and sizes. At my feet my youngest, age four, my Romeo with his coal black eyes and eyelashes long enough to scrap the underside of the moon, plowed a fire truck through the dirt.
On the field was my other boy, tall and strong, fair-skinned, orange-haired. Blue eyes. When I look into his eyes I think of my great-grandmother who always thought blue eyes and red hair was the most beautiful combination in the world. This boy, my oldest, was heading up to bat.
With a crack, the ball sailed through the air and a cheer went up from all the moms and dads and coaches. He began to run. First base, second base—then suddenly—something went wrong. I don’t remember now what it was because what happened next knocked every memory of that moment out of my head except one.
My son kicked up dirt as he grimly shuffled off the field to the dugout. One of the coaches caught him just as he crossed the baseline, but before he could reach the dugout. He grabbed him by the shoulders and squared him up until their noses are about two inches apart.
I scooted to the edge of my seat ready, at the slightest provocation, to fly up on that coach like the most insane soccer-mom banshee from Hell. My heart raced.
The coach started in. “Do you know what you did wrong?” My son nodded and looked down at the ground.
With a gentle shake of my son’s shoulders he commanded eye contact. In the background I heard another crack of ball against bat and a cheer. It drowned out the conversation that held me, but suddenly the image was transformed.
This man, talking to my 8-year-old son as he would speak to another man, demanded in a respectful way that he do his best, that he be his best, that he be a good team member, that he rise to meet challenges.
My fair-skinned boy with his delicate dusting of freckles, sun-kissed, set his lips determinedly. He nodded at whatever the coach had to say then straightened and stood an inch or two taller.
And as I watched them I was reminded of a phone call I had with my mother-in-law six years earlier.
My oldest had just begun to transition from baby to toddler, and I had fallen into a funk. I adored this precious baby and he was leaving me, growing into something different, someone different. I loved the new guy, but missed the old guy, even grieved for him at times.
In this mood I didn’t see the point of motherhood. You have this blessing come upon you, you care for him, let him consume you, turn your life upside down and suddenly in 18 years which seems more like 18 hours he is packing his toothbrush, his clothes, his favorite book—his condoms!—and you stand on the porch crying because he’s leaving you.
He’ll head off into his life and you hope he will be a fabulous human being and you hope he will leave the world a better place than it was when he came into it, but there is a chance he will just be an average human being with a big carbon footprint who forgets to call you on Mother’s Day. Or worse.
My husband’s mother had called on a particularly bad day, and I asked her: How does she reconcile that her son is all grown up? How can she bear that her little boy doesn’t exist anymore? Does she miss him terribly? Does she grieve for him?
I could tell by the silence on the other end of the phone that she was bewildered by the questions. And subsequently I felt stupid and filled with regret that I’d even asked.
So, I put it out of my mind, or tried to, for months, then years. In unguarded moments the thought would peek around the corner like an evil leprechaun and plague me with more visions of me crying on the front porch. Eventually, my second son arrived and there were so many new challenges. No time to do much but put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving.
Time sped forward, and there I was, in the hot summer sun, watching as my freckle-faced 8-year-old boy kept solid, unwavering eye contact with his coach.
And then I saw it—I saw the layers of him—the baby, the toddler, the pre-schooler, the boy who graduated from kindergarten, the one who learned to read, the one who lost his baby teeth, the one who made it halfway to home plate after hours and hours of batting practice. They were all there, transparent, three-dimensional, like nesting dolls.
And I realized the reason my questions were so ridiculous, so alien is because my mother-in-law knew, but couldn’t explain, that you don’t have to grieve for your loss because there is no loss. This boy is just layers, like a rich archaeological dig, the sum of those layers of love, of discipline, of fun times, of hard times, of learning and experiences.
I watched the coach slap him on the back and send him into the dugout where he was jostled by his friends, all elbows and nudges. I smiled and drew circles in the dirt with my foot next to the roads my youngest was carving out with his truck.
“Yer messin’ up my roads, Mom.”
During the next round my oldest was up to bat again. I was awash with a new found serenity. He sidled up to the plate and planted his feet squarely, rocking back and forth to achieve his perfect balance. Elbows up, a couple test swings. He nodded to the pitcher. Ready.
The ball flew, the bat sped forward, the batter’s form poetry as metal met leather and with a loud pop the ball torpedoed between flailing players desperate to catch it.
My son began to run and I began to cheer. I cheered for him, but I think I might have been cheering more for me, for us, for a future free of looking back with sadness, but now only fondness, at the worst—nostalgia.
I cheered as he veered across second and didn’t slow a beat, just like Coach had taught him. On to third, the coaches screamed for him to run. A slight pause rounding third and I slid forward on that hot, rough, blazing bench. Halfway to home, he turned to look back. The ball was coming, coming straight for him, coming straight for home.
I leaped up and ran to the fence, hooking my fingers through the chain link and screamed, “Run run RUN! AND DON’T LOOK BACK!”
As he crossed home plate, I cheered for him, for us, as he thrust his fists toward the sky and whooped long and loud. And from the dugout came a roar as the boys raced onto the field, victorious.
This essay was originally performed live for Tales from the South, an internationally-syndicated radio program.
Photo: Edwin Martinez/Flickr
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