As I watch a joyous celebration spill onto Wrigley Field, where the long-suffering Chicago Cubs have just clinched a trip to the National League Championship Series, my mind flashes back to a less happy scene a few days ago.
I flew home this past weekend for a brief visit with my parents on my daddy’s birthday. In a stroke of genius, I connected on Delta through Atlanta, which meant my 10:30 p.m. boarding time turned into 2:30 a.m. This upset me for several reasons, mainly because I’d planned to catch a few hours of sleep, drive to Charleston to see a sick friend, and be back in time for the kickoff of the Clemson game at 3:30 p.m. the next day.
Soon after spotting my mother waiting for me in the wee hours of the morning in the utterly deserted Greenville-Spartanburg airport, I realized I had even bigger worries.
We were going, Mama told me, to the nearby emergency room where she’d dropped off Daddy.
She didn’t seem overly concerned. The cough he’d had all week had gotten worse, she said, and the ER was on the way. Our immediate concerns were finding the car, making the automated credit card machine work, and finding the hospital again.
Once there (piece of advice: Don’t value the advice of a young man in the Waffle House parking lot at 4 a.m. over your Google maps girl), Mama stayed in the car to sleep for a bit. I walked through the dark into the ER, where of course the nice woman behind the reception desk had already gotten most of my life story from Mama’s earlier visit. She directed me to the correct room, and I pushed open the door.
I saw Daddy’s tennis shoes first, then the legs of his jeans, stretched out on the narrow mattress. He was sitting up and awake, his brown eyes open above the salt-and-pepper beard that became mostly salt a while back, when I wasn’t looking.
His voice was hoarse. He wheezed a bit when he breathed, and his cough rattled his chest.
Hours earlier, my daddy had turned 74. I had never thought of him as old. I didn’t particularly want to start now.
Blood was drawn, tests done, scans ordered. The blood pressure monitor beside the bed beeped intermittently. I fetched more water and over-smiled at the late-night staff. A nurse noticed Daddy rubbing his arms in the frigid room and brought a warm blanket, tucking it around his legs.
Another nurse, wearing some of those incredibly expensive but comfortable clog shoes Mama bought me on one of my last trips home, came in and hooked an oxygen mask over Daddy’s face for his second breathing treatment. He grimaced, shook the mask into a more comfortable position, and leaned his head back on the pillow.
The treatment took an hour. Daddy slept off and on, constantly interrupted by the beeps and whirs of the machines. When he drifted deeper, he took the great, heaving breaths characteristic of his sleep apnea, his chest caving in before expanding again.
Half-formed thoughts swam through my brain, clouded by sleepless exhaustion. Not now. Not yet. Please don’t let it … Shit, that beep is loud. It’s cold in this room. Could this chair be more uncomfortable? God, I can’t do this yet.
Someone came in and confirmed earlier news that the CT scan was clear. No clots. No pneumonia. Nothing even more sinister lurking in Daddy’s lungs.
I texted my husband, out of the country for work. I texted my brother. I messaged a good friend on the West Coast, who was still up and provided the immediate reassurance she always does. I watched my daddy sleep.
Eventually, with a diagnosis of bronchitis and a new prescription, we walked out into a chilly gray mist. Mama had popped in a few times but was asleep again in the backseat when I unlocked the car and pulled around while Daddy waited in the rain.
After a stop at the pharmacy, we arrived at the new house I’d also come to see around 9 a.m., roughly 16 hours after I’d boarded a flight in Fort Lauderdale. I noted the many colorful plants in the yard and the beautiful skylights in the living room, then dove under the covers in a pitch-black bedroom and slept like a hibernating bear.
Daddy sounded better when he woke up a few hours after Mama and I. We watched his beloved Clemson Tigers – he graduated from Clemson A&M – cream Georgia Tech, with the occasional flip to see my South Carolina Gamecocks fall further and further behind LSU.
That game was being played in Baton Rouge instead of Columbia after a week of torrential flooding in the town where I went to college and have many friends and family. I had checked on them throughout the week and thought of them as a steady rain drummed on the skylights.
My thoughts drifted farther south, to a hospice room I had printed out directions to at work the day before. One of my favorite people in the world was dying in that room, three hours from where I now sat on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. I knew I couldn’t go see him now, and I was not torn about that decision. I was just sad.
Saturday night was the main sports event: Game 2 of the NLDS between the Mets and the Dodgers team my daddy (and my mama) and I have loved for as long as I can remember. Ace and Cy Young contender Zack Greinke, who all three of us had watched beat the Marlins in June from the front row of the cushioned seats at The Clevelander, struggled early, but L.A. pulled out a win, thanks in part to a hard-nosed, double-play-destroying slide from Chase Utley.
For the record, yes, it was a hard slide, it was late, and it was not at the bag. It was also not enough for the umpires to call Utley out at the time. Ruben Tejada, his back turned to Utley after receiving the throw behind him, flew into the air, and broke his leg when he landed. The play was scary and unfortunate. It wasn’t dirty. Utley is a dirt-bagger. There is a difference. And he’s being punished retroactively based not an action but on outcome and outrage in a move more typical of the NFL than Major League Baseball.
But I digress. The slide kept a crucial inning alive, and truth be told, at that moment, a Dodgers victory mattered more than any controversy.
Earlier tonight, the TV cameras zoomed in on an elderly gentleman in the stands at Wrigley, his eyes fixed on the field with a look of anguished hope. Anyone who loves baseball, or any team in any sport, knows that look. Cubs fans have known it longer than most.
I don’t know if the Cubs will win a World Series in that man’s lifetime. I don’t know if the Dodgers will win another one in my daddy’s, or in mine.
But with the best pitcher in baseball on the mound in a scoreless tie and my daddy feeling better, I have a lot of reason to hope.