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Friday, August 1, 2008

Dear Dad,

I’m writing to you this evening from a provincial dormitory-style room so small that I can nearly touch opposite walls with outstretched arms. While it lacks tangible luxuries, the panoramic views of the Mississippi River and Illinois farmland combined with the solitude of a Jesuit retreat house create the perfect environment for prayerful reflection – something of which I’ve been in great need for decades.

The White House, as the Jesuits call it, consists of several historic limestone buildings on 75 river-bluff acres in south St. Louis County. The retreat provides “a three-day silent journey with the Lord” (brochure lingo, but fairly accurate) for men of Catholic faith. It comes at a good time for me.

As tonight’s dinner was being served – prior to one man scratching his back with a fork (under his shirt) and another one shoving two chocolate chip cookies into his shirt pocket – an “inspirational” CD broke the silence. Emanating from ceiling speakers over every meal, the CD’s they play range from operatic hymns and Franciscan chants to readings and monologues from priests, such as the one this evening.

Tonight’s CD focused on regret… well, one particular type of regret: failing to share your feelings with loved ones before it’s too late to do so.

You were the first person I thought of.

One of my mantras when teaching students how to write vividly is “show, don’t tell.” I could say,  “I love you, Dad,” and that would be the truth. But “telling” you would fall so incredibly short of “showing” you. So, here it goes…

As you know, I coached Charlie from kindergarten (when he consistently lined fastballs past my face) until third grade (when he started losing confidence, interest, and friends). He knew back then that I loved baseball, and he knows today that I still do. Charlie tries his best to watch games with me, but he’s just not into it, not even at the beautiful new Busch Stadium, appropriately dubbed “baseball heaven” by the Cardinals’ marketing executives.

What breaks my heart more than him walking away from the game or lacking interest in watching it with me is when he says – usually when I’m playing catch with Andrew – “Sorry I quit, Daddy.” Ouch. So, when he called me at school one Saturday morning – “Daddy, I was wondering if we could go to the batting cages when you get home” – I just about cried. True story.

I walked in the house and called down to Charlie, fully expecting him to have lost interest in the idea by now. Instead, “Ready to go, Daddy?” swirled up the stairs and into my ears, like an old song you haven’t heard for years that still makes you smile. “Let’s go,” I said, hoping to save him from another wasted afternoon with Satan (alias: GameCube) before it was too late.

I grabbed my bat, the one I still use in the 35 and older league (or 35 pounds over league). Although we own more than a dozen aluminum baseball bats, Charlie had outgrown them all – with the exception of mine, which I’m sure he’ll be swinging in six months at the rate he’s growing. Naturally, I did what any father who desperately wanted to preserve a potentially perfect moment with his son would do; I went shopping, first to Toys-R-Us – too small; next to Target – too big; and finally to Sports Authority – just right.

We drove a few miles, talking with – not “to” or “at” – but with each other the entire time. We stopped at a converted cinder-block warehouse freshly stocked with a dozen pitching machines. Charlie hit first. It’s remarkable to me how well he can still hit after a six-year hiatus. There were holes in his swing, but I said nothing. No “pivot that back foot;” no “keep those hands up;” no “follow through that swing.” Not today. There would be no correcting, no fixing today. Today would just be me and Charlie, father and son, playing ball.

The previous weekend after church, as Charlie and I waited at the mini-van for the rest of the family, a friend offered me two Cardinals tickets. I enthusiastically accepted, as a drunk would accept free whiskey. Maybe a half-dozen times a year someone will offer us free Cardinals tickets; so, although I was ecstatic with the offer, I wasn’t surprised. I was stunned, however, with what followed.

“Hey, Daddy,” he said. “Maybe we could go together.”

Just about cried again. True story.

As if soaking up two perfect hours on Saturday wasn’t enough, I basked in the sun of Charlie for the entire Sunday afternoon. We left the house early, first stopping at Walgreen’s for snacks. Without the pit stop, I’d be forking over nearly 50 bucks at the ballpark for a few measly hot dogs, two “souvenir” cups of ice and a hint of Coca-Cola. We hit the highway two hours before game time armed with a pound of Twizzlers, a bag of peanuts, two boxes of Chocolate Chip granola bars (how’s that for an oxymoron), and seven packs of baseball cards (the old-school kind with stale slabs of bubble gum).

Leaving that early was pretty foolish, actually, since Charlie had never managed more than six innings at a Cardinals game. If that were the case today, we’d be leaving before the third inning, which would normally frustrate the bejeebers out of me. Hell, I get ticked if my buddies want to leave before the final pitch. Not today. There would be no required innings, no time commitment today.

We drove downtown – talking with each other the entire time – and paid $5 for a spot in the City Hall lot about a mile from the stadium. They charge $10 a hundred yards away. Just a bit further, it jumps to $15, then $20 in the snooty hotel garage across from Busch. I brought my fiscally wise decision to Charlie’s attention, partly to teach, partly to boast. He smiled back in approval.

Super-dad!

A half-mile into our walk I stopped, patted my pockets and muttered a relatively bad word. “&*#@! Left the tickets in the car, Charlie.” Faster than a speeding bullet, super-dad morphed into stupid-dad once again, and we trudged back to our lot – the one furthest away from the park. But Charlie didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to mind at all. “It’s OK, Daddy.” I smiled back in approval.

We still made it in time to see the tail end of batting practice – to see Chris Duncan rip towering homers over right field; to see Yadier Molina skillfully spray base hits to both sides; and to see Kyle McClellan catch the ceremonial first pitch from a wide-eyed little leaguer. Charlie and I have known Kyle since he was a wide-eyed little leaguer. When my wife was a teenager, the McClellan family lived next door – Terry, Kathy, Matt, Leslie and baby Kyle – and over the years, the family and their babysitter kept in touch. There’s home video of Kyle (a buck-toothed 9-year-old) holding Charlie (a toothless newborn), and Polaroids of Kyle (a scrawny 7th-grader) wrestling with Charlie (a pudgy toddler). At his high school graduation / baseball draft party, Kyle signed his first baseball and gave it to Charlie (who later signed his own name on the other side). So it was pretty cool, Charlie and I agreed, watching our friend in “the big show.”

Once the Cardinals retreated to their locker rooms, we climbed the stairs to our seats, halfway up on the first base side. I reached for the camera to capture the moment then realized that I forgot to insert a photo card. Stupid-dad strikes again. But Charlie didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to mind at all. “It’s OK, Daddy.” I smiled, stuffed the camera bag back under our seats and pulled out the scorecard.

“Can I do that, Daddy?” Charlie asked, unaware of my ritual, my obsession with recording in perfect penmanship every pitch, hit and run of the game. I just stared at him and smiled. There would be no flawless scorecard, no historical evidence today. Instead, I taught my son the fielders’ position numbers: 1 = pitcher, 2 = catcher, 3 = first baseman, and so on. He wrote fly balls (F-8), double plays (6-4-3) and strikeouts (K). We talked about the speed of various pitches – how a major league fastball typically tops 90 miles per hour, while a change-up might dip below 70. Why a pitch outside the strike zone usually follows an 0-2 count, and why opposing pitchers are terrified of Albert Pujols.

The weather was just as perfect, the first sunny-and-70 day of the season. Everything was perfect. Better than perfect. And on the way home – during a brief pause in our otherwise constant conversation – I cried. True story.

So, how does this relate to my feelings for you?

Charlie’s request for me to come home came at a bad time. I was overwhelmed with paperwork, unprepared for next week’s classes, and desperately in need of just a few hours to myself. But I did what I needed to do; I did what you would do. I dropped everything and spent time with my son. Thanks to you, my own childhood experiences continually inspire me to create and appreciate time with Charlie, Andrew and Erin, such as hitting the batting cages and catching a Cardinals game. All of my success at fatherhood – we’ll just ignore the failures for now, OK? –

all of my success is directly related to memories of us.

I remember you playing catch with me in the back yard and attending nearly all of my games.

I remember you taking bike rides around town and down to the river, and you swerving the Country Squire as if we might fall in and drown. I remember you reading silly Dr. Seuss stories and scary Ray Bradbury ones; and playing Pong, backgammon, cribbage and that stupid football game cut from the back of Pop Tart boxes.

I remember going fishing in the fall at Deer Ridge, and sledding down Kenner’s hill in winter.

I remember you teaching summer-school students in the front room, and welcoming stranded Thanksgiving students in the living room. I remember sitting on your foot, holding your leg, and riding all around the house until you were tuckered out. I remember your help with homework, and your smile at report cards.

I thought nothing of it at the time, you know. Children don’t realize the sacrifice – making the choice between graduate school and bowling alleys; between taking naps and flying kites; between grading papers and gluing model car parts.

Well, I know something of it now. And thanks to you…

I play catch with my kids in the back yard, and attend nearly all of their games. I take bike rides around town and down to the creek. When I’m visiting back home I swerve the minivan as if we might fall in the river and drown. I read silly Dr. Seuss stories and scary Tales from the Dark Side ones; and play tennis, backgammon, and stupid video games.

I go fishing in the fall at Whetstone, and sledding at CrestwoodPark in winter. Before they grew too big, the kids sat on my foot, grabbed my leg, and rode all around the house until I was tuckered out. I help them with homework, and (try to) smile at report cards.

But it’s not just what I do with my children; it’s how I do it, as well.

While some fathers insult, berate and humiliate their kids for mistakes on the ball diamond, you never reprimanded me for striking out, walking in a run, or making an error. Nor do I. While some fathers force their kids into a specific sport, activity, faith or career, you never did. Neither will I. While some fathers instill in their kids prejudice, injustice and hatred, you encouraged acceptance, equality and affection. So do I.

I should have shared these feelings with you long ago, Dad. All of your goodness – the very best of Richard Holmes – thrives within your son, and constantly grows within your grandchildren, every day. And I thank God for that.

I thank God for you.

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