I never really knew my father. I knew him in the sense that most fathers work, like sports, cold beer in the summertime and hot meals in the winter.
He was my partner when we played catch on those sticky July nights; my biggest fan even when I was the losing pitcher.
To the world outside, our common bonds were obvious but behind closed doors I felt he was something of a stranger in my life, although I knew that he loved me dearly.
I moved out of the house in the fall of ‘77 to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, a decision he had been dead set against.
I was going to set the musical world on fire: or so I thought.
“You need something to fall back on, for Christ sake,” he said, shaking his head, “I just hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Looking back, I realize I didn’t have a clue. I was still a child in need of a serious reality check. Twenty-eight years later and I’m still paying for the fact that I didn’t listen back then. My dreams of stardom were just that, dreams. I would scramble for the next two decades trying to piece together something that resembled a normal life. I got married, had children, and bought a house a few towns away from my parents; all the things that defined a normal life. But it has been said that God has his own plan and I now believe that to be gospel. These days, destiny finds me taking care of a father whose brain has given itself up to the ultimate in physiological devastation; Alzheimer’s Disease. The man I knew to be my father is presently crossing into that field of dreams where he will stand alone amidst the emerald green grass of the outfield.
My renewed interest in baseball came long before the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series. It happened because I wanted to get to know what was left of my father. It all began in earnest in 1999; the year after my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My chances to ‘get reacquainted’ were becoming severely limited with each passing day. It was a race with the inevitable clock as my father’s memory was slowly reduced to a frenzied search through an oversized dictionary for words I knew he’d never find. Baseball turned out to be more than just another game for the two of us; it was also a fundamental part of our history and for me, it was a way to get inside the park.
I remember nights when he’d come home from work and find me in the backyard waiting patiently for him with my glove and baseball. He was never too busy for me and I laugh when I see these bleeding hearts on TV whining that their fathers never loved them enough. The time he spent with me was more powerful than many a soft spoken word. I hoped the baseball field could once again become our personal common ground, a wide-open space where we could most assuredly communicate, and a diamond-shaped infield that would become like an extraordinary unearthed gemstone. My father had been a hardcore Red Sox fan for as long as I could remember which left me with a perpetual ‘memory well’ from which to draw.
The year is 1966 and Citgo is running a promotion where every Friday when you fill your tank (32 cents a gallon back then), you receive two 5 X 7 glossies of various Red Sox players. Every Friday night I would wait for him to come home to see who would be the next player to grace the walls of my room. The smiling faces of Petrocelli, Yaz, George Scott and Jim Lonborg were the brothers I never had as my walls filled up with all my favorite players. On Saturdays during the summer, my father and grandfather would sit in front of a small black and white TV set where they’d watch the Red Sox; my dad with his Budweiser, my grandfather with his smoldering 7-20-4 cigar. They’d swear like troopers at the fuzzy grey figures running around on the screen. Neither of them could sit for more than five minutes without jumping up to move the rabbit ears for better reception. Back then my world was black and white, literally as well as figuratively. At the tender age of seven my life still held so much promise. I didn’t know that thirty years later I’d toy with the idea of moving to Australia in a vague attempt to escape from this insidious disease whose name had yet to skulk onto the front page of the New York Times.
With my father steadily approaching the late middle stages of the disease, dialogue was beginning to sharply decline. I watched him one day as he ate his lunch. He was muttering to himself, something I couldn’t quite hear but I knew it wouldn’t make logical sense either way. Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu, all over again.”
That seemed to aptly sum up my fathers life at the moment.
A typical conversation between us would be mostly one way – my way. It made sense that if I was going to talk about something that it should be interesting to him. I’d tell him about the most recent Sox game—who they played, who won, who pitched, who played well, who was currently on the DL, silly stats, home runs… I was admittedly just passing time; it’s what I assumed a son/caregiver was supposed to do. I could never tell if he understood what I was saying but did it really matter? All I had to do was watch the games and I would have something to report back to Dad about instead of talking about the weather. While he ate, I rattled on about the game the night before.
“Lowe got shelled last night. You know…Derek Lowe? The pitcher?”
He looked at me, uninterested and silent.
“…The guy that looks like Billy…your son-in-law…remember?”
He slammed down his fork and glared at me.
“I’m ashamed of myself…and I’m sorry…I’m…”
He was crying and didn’t even realize it.
I rubbed his back and said, “Dad, what are you ashamed of? You have nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t talk like that.”
He wiped his eyes and continued.
“I guess I just am. I’m here in this friggin’ place and they’re feeding me this…this…this stuff and I don’t like it at all. I just want to go home.”
I tried to muster a smile for him but it was trite at best and he wasn’t buying it.
He hung his head a bit and I could hear him saying the word ‘home’ over and over. He sounded like an enlightened Buddha uttering some endless mantra that I denied hearing. One of the resident assistants came by to claim his half empty plate.
“Walter! Are you done with your lunch sweetie? Walter? What’s the matter honey?”
The girls at the facility are always so good to him.
When he’s in a good mood he calls them his little sheep but today the lost shepherd was not having a banner day.
“Nothing’s the matter…I hate this place…and I want go home. Can you take me?”
The aides have been trained to ignore comments of this ilk as they inevitably lead to a verbal confrontation. I’ve learned that nasty trick as well; it’s called lying.
I lead him to the TV room where I know there’s a game on. It’s my only chance for an exit and he’s started to get clingy. I switch the channel on the TV to the baseball game.
Before I leave, I pat him on the shoulder before I go and say, “Dad, don’t be so hard on yourself, ok? You’re in a nice place, sitting in a comfortable chair, watching a great baseball game. You gotta try and hang in there, ok?”
A woman sitting next to him pointed to me and whispered to my father, “Who’s that?” shielding one side of her mouth with her hand like some big secret.
My father laughed and said, “That’s my father.”
I smiled knowing he wasn’t far from the truth.
My fragile vulnerability in dealing with and trying to comfort my father came to a rolling boil for the day as I sat outside in my idling truck. I didn’t know what to do with the anger and sheer frustration anymore so I cried. I was all out of answers. The irony was that the end of the story had only just begun.
My father had been living at the facility for approximately one year and things were going well; he seemed happy, content and generally pleased with his new living arrangements. One early afternoon on my day off the phone rang. The quivering voice on the other end of the phone said the words that could send chills up the spine of any caregiver.
“Your father is gone. I’m not sure how he got out, but he did. I don’t know what to say. Everyone is out there looking for him. I am so sorry. We’ll find him…I’m sure we will.”
He’d gotten out when landscapers working the grounds carelessly left a gate open. My father obviously seized the opportunity for freedom and had been gone for approximately 45 minutes before anyone even knew.
It was time for search and rescue.
It would be dark in about four hours and the thoughts of my father roaming the streets of the city scared the hell out of me.
How must the world appear to him?
Where would he go?
How far had he gone already?
I got in my truck and headed over to the area near the facility to scan the streets and backyards for my father who’d done the unthinkable and gone MIA.
The role reversal of father and son was now a stark reality.
I stopped anyone I saw walking in the area and described him before giving them my cell phone number.
My father was a short man roughly 5’6”, wisps of gray hair on the sides of his balding head. He wore glasses and walked like Charlie Chaplin.
I told mailmen if they saw anyone that fit that description—anyone—to call me.
I checked various parts of the city where I knew he once lived thinking that he might try to go someplace familiar.
I felt as lost and disconnected as the illness had made him.
I drove through every city park thinking he may be just sitting on a bench feeding the birds or maybe watching the strange world pass by.
I’d see an old man that looked like him and my heart would race.
I drove in circles for what seemed to be an eternity watching the sky grow darker wondering if going to a local TV station might help the cause when my cell phone rang. They’d found him.
“Where did you find him?” I asked.
“Route 20, in Auburn, two miles from the Oxford town line. Mary found him, she works in the kitchen and was on her way here and saw him walking on the side of the road. Thank God for Mary. Your father should be back here in about 20 minutes. We are so sorry.”
It was remarkable when you really thought about it. He had traveled nearly 15 miles away from the facility and yet there was a part of me that really didn’t want to know how he did it. He was simply playing baseball; he was trying to get home.
He lived in Oxford for 50 years before I lovingly exiled him into a secured facility.
He had been less than three miles from the house where he raised me.
I was angry as hell with him but how do you discipline a 73-year-old man who doesn’t know any better?
When I got there they were feeding him supper.
He looked up at me, an innocent but guilty child. He was smiling.
“Dad, what the hell is going on? Where were you? I’m sorry but I’m really upset…are you ok?”
He shrugged his shoulders like a rookie pitcher indignantly shaking off the sign for a 3-2 curve ball. I knew it wouldn’t make any sense to him but I said it anyway.
“Don’t do that to me again.”
I was too angry for tears.
Most days I consider myself his protector, his designated hitter of sorts.
I read sections of the local paper to him, a selfish desire to try and keep him living in the present.
One day he took me by surprise and asked me, “How’s Ginny?”
My mother’s name never came up much after he reached the late middle stage and I was taken back. I asked him to tell me something nice about her.
He shrugged his shoulders and gave me that blank ‘I didn’t start this you did’ stare that he’d somehow worked out to perfection.
“You can’t tell me one thing about Mom?”
“Anything. Describe her eyes. Tell me her favorite flower. Anything.”
“I used to love her.” He stopped.
“Used to?” I asked, curious.
“I can’t remember her anymore.”
He was having more difficulty lately remembering details.
I told him about the time we stayed at a beach house in Sandwich on Cape Cod.
We had never stayed right on the beach and it was wonderful to look out any window and see the ocean.
I told him how I woke up one night in the middle of a deafening thunderstorm and found Mom sitting on the front porch watching it, mesmerized.
She loved the thunder and lightning calling it God’s nighttime entertainment.
The bolts of lightning bathed the entire shoreline in pure white light before blackness filled it back in. I was describing my father’s life—brief moments of clarity amidst absolute darkness.
My mother would look out at the mysterious ocean, the white-capped waves creating a broken and silent rhythm that lulled her into a heaven on earth.
I was doing my best to recall small details that might trigger some type of reaction, some unreleased pocket of emotion that I could attach a memory to but after all was said and done he looked as he had before I’d begun—bored.
Here was a man that had lost everything you could possibly lose: his house, his license, his friends, and his soul.
While modern day medicine provided temporary hope, it would never give him back his life. That my mother had been diagnosed with the same disease five years prior to my father left me fuming at the world.
I lived by Mother Theresa’s phrase: God never gives you more than you can handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.
The Red Sox beat the Yankees in a come from behind four game streak that set the baseball world on fire. I was in a good mood the day I went to see him to tell him the good news. I found him in the common room with his head down, sleeping.
Changes in his medication had transported him to a place a few doors down from ‘snowed’ on the vitality meter. I gently woke him and we walked down to his room.
We sat down in his small bathroom as I lathered up his face.
As I shaved his rough beard, I spoke of memories; the little league games of days gone by drifting through my mind, the buttery aroma of fresh popcorn and grilled hot dogs strangely making my mouth water.
It was customary after every baseball game to get a hot dog with yellow mustard and a cold Coca-Cola.
I still haven’t figured out how he got to every single baseball game I ever played.
I once again tell him about the weather, what month it is, what year it is, my vain attempts to engage him in a conversation I know we’ll never be able to have.
I straightened up the clothes in his closet and noticed an old shoebox buried beneath the extra sheets for his bed.
Pictures, I thought, as I reached for the box that said Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars on the outside.
I was right about the pictures but there was something else—an old baseball.
There was some faded writing on it.
May 27, 1971 Beat Bayer Fuel 5-4! What a game! Hit my first Home Run!!!
My heart was beating faster as I traced the outline of the blood red stitches with my fingertips trying to remember the feeling of a curve ball, a memory of that day.
The little boy that had been inside me was long gone; player turned to manager.
Getting to home had turned into getting from day to day.
Over 35 years had elapsed since I’d played that game and I knew that my Dad had been there, rushing from work, one thousand other things on his mind.
But I had been the most important thing that day.
My father still gets through the days but the fight in him is gone.
While I remain his sole advocate, part of me has sadly stopped rooting him on because the battle seems so futile.
As I leave the assisted living facility, I quickly look in on Dad, still fast asleep, hopefully in some emerald green field of dreams where he walks normally and thinks like the man I almost once knew.
Maybe I’ll tell him again the next time I visit that the Sox have won the World Series.
It’s one of the only saving graces of the disease.
I like to think that for my father there’s perpetual hope because in his mind, spring training is always just a few short months away.
© Michael Murphy 2006