Snake Bloomstrand recalls his final exchange with a dying friend and the whopper of a tale about the no-strike-out bat.
An old friend called to let me know Jon was near death.
In September, Jon was hospitalized with pneumonia. Soon after, the doctors discovered cancer was spreading quickly through his major organs, spine and brain.
Doctors guessed he had a week to live, a precious three-month journey from diagnosis to an undefined but certain ending.
Jon was 56.
I called his wife Rita. She filled me in on Jon’s condition and I asked how she was doing? His rapid decline left her largely speechless. She said, “I know I’m in shock, it’s going to take time before I know how I feel.”
Rita handed the phone to Jon and we shared a brief uncomfortable moment. How does one begin a final conversation? (Other than awkwardly.)
We’d last spoken two years ago. Despite the circumstances, re-connecting was easy. Friendship, often at a distance worked well for us. One of us would call or occasionally visit and our hearts could instantly span the 400 miles of geography between us.
I smiled remembering a gift he’d given me 20 years ago.
Jon presented me with a scarred old wooden baseball bat. His last name “Fish” was painted in big messy letters on the business end of the bat.
He’d owned the bat since childhood and explained it was a magic bat. “A no-strike out bat.” We shared one of those rare moments when men generously give away something they hold precious. In this case it was a wooden symbol of love and appreciation for me.
At the time I had a house full of eight-year-olds crazy for baseball. I passed the bat to the boys and told them the “no-strike out” myth.
The “Fish bat” became a secret weapon. The boys always made sure it was tucked in with the gear before each game. The boys believed they couldn’t strike out if their hands were wrapped around the Fish bat.
I’d watch them carry the Fish bat to the plate and face down any pitcher with confidence. Each time I heard the crack and watched the ball take flight, I would think of Jon. The simple gift of an old baseball bat kept us wordlessly connected for years. The Fish bat was magical.
I reminded Jon of the Fish bat and explained how the boys spent several summers turning it into a legend. He responded, “No kidding! I remember that bat.” I imagined a smile on Jon’s face.
Once in a while we get a peek at the contribution we’ve made, but seldom see the trail we leave behind.
He was happy to hear my voice yet a lengthy conversation is usually unrealistic near the end of life with one foot in each world. Often all that’s required is to receive reassurance that you are loved, and to know that you left memorable footprints through the lives of those you loved.
I’d recently become a grandfather and joked with Jon, “You’re going to have to call me by my new name.”
“You changed your name from Snake?” he asked.
“Well sort of,” I replied, “Now you can call me Grandpa Snake.”
Jon laughed, and asked, “What did they name the baby?”
“Oscar” I announced, “Oscar Bloomstrand. Sounds like someone you’d meet ice fishing, doesn’t it?”
The phone went silent. I heard Jon call out to his wife, “Rita, tell Snake our grandson’s name.”
“Oscar,” she said.
We ended the conversation—our final conversation—with the truth.
“I love you, Jon,” I said.
“I love you too Grandpa Snake.”