ATLANTA — I took my father to a baseball game Friday. It was his last. He is 87, dying from congestive heart failure and has been in the care of a hospice nurse for two months. We know what lies ahead shortly. And yet, this is not a sad story.
Not in the least.
Some 40 years ago, just down the block in what is now a parking lot, my dad introduced me to Major League Baseball. By taking my hand and walking with me on what was a perfect day — at least as far as I remember — into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he opened a door to a world that has become my passion and my life.
I wanted to simply try and repay him by taking him to one game as a way of saying thanks.
It was going to be my Father's Day gift to him. Instead, it is about a gift he gave me.
This whole idea arose during spring training. Dad, who celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary to my mother in December, was in and out of the hospital on a couple of occasions because of fluid retention and what we assume is the continual decline in his heart function. One morning, his doctor called me in Arizona.
"Evan, I think you should be prepared to lose your dad fairly soon," he said.
I thought I had been prepared already. He's been in congestive heart failure for 13 years. In 1998, I had rushed back to Atlanta when he took sick and seemed to be failing fast. During that time, Mom and I made burial plans. When I finally had to leave to return to Dallas, he was still in the hospital, pale and frail. I hugged him tight, really thinking it would be the last time I'd see him.
Somehow, he stabilized. Nearly a year later, a new cardiologist performed a second heart bypass on Dad with great results. But I knew then, the next episode would probably be the last.
For 10 years, I'd been preparing myself.
Flood of memories
Then baseball had to get in the way. After the doctor's call, I wandered around the Rangers complex in Surprise, my head flooded with memories of Dad and I at sporting events. As a child, that was our bond. He liked sports, and I loved them.
There was a Hawks game for which he'd prepped me with stories about "Pistol Pete" and his droopy socks. The Hawks played a championship-caliber Milwaukee team that night, but I can't remember what Lew Alcindor or Pete Maravich did.
I only remember walking with my dad toward Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
There was a Falcons game against Chicago. Later, during a five-year "exile" in South Florida after jobs dried up in Atlanta, there was an NBA exhibition in which Artis Gilmore nearly ran over my mom. There was a trip to Yankees spring training when I somehow scored a baseball autographed by both Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. There was a time he indulged me with wrestling tickets to see the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes in a "Bunkhouse Match," whatever that was. We never saw it, though, because I was ejected from the arena for tossing an empty Coke cup at bad guy Jos LeDuc.
When I ask him at lunch Friday about his most vivid memory of us at a sporting event, he says: "Unfortunately, that wrestling match when you got ejected."
I got it: That wasn't very sportsmanlike.
And every year, there was a whole day trip to West Palm Beach to see my beloved Braves play a spring training game. Every spring, I found a game on the schedule that sounded exciting. We'd make plans and drive an hour — seemed like three or four at the time — from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm so I could hopefully see Phil Niekro and Jeff Burroughs and Brian Asselstine. Hey, it was the late 1970s, man.
Plan takes root
The conversation with the doctor wasn't nearly as depressing as it was inspiring.
I wanted one last chance to spend time at a sporting event with Dad.
The Rangers schedule provided the slightest glimmer of hope. Father's Day weekend, they'd be in Atlanta, which meant so would I. I called my parents.
"Mom, if he makes it until June, I'm taking Daddy to a baseball game," I said.
First, she dismissed it. Then she, in her role of caretaker and guardian, explained all the logical reasons why it couldn't happen.
I didn't budge.
Her response: "Alevei!" It's Yiddish. Basically, it means: "we should be so lucky!"
We were very lucky.
Dad began at-home hospice care in April. It is not a bad thing. The hospice people have reduced his medications dramatically. It may make it more difficult to prolong his life an extra couple of weeks or a month, but he is now more alert and energetic and he can, to some extent, enjoy what days remain.
For him, though, enjoyment these days is mostly a bingo game. Or an outing to Costco, his favorite store on the planet, to sample foods and drive the electric cart while picking up household supplies.
On Friday, when I see him for the first time in two months, he looks hunched over, but more steady on his legs than before. He hugs me close.
"Are you excited about tonight?" I say. "Because I am."
"I'm excited to be with my son."
There are moments when I think this has become an exceptionally bad idea. He doesn't sound nearly as excited as I feel. His vision is so impaired now that when he squeezes lemon into his Diet Coke at lunch, he misses the glass by a couple of inches. His hearing is so impaired, he asks for repetition of almost every statement. If he can't see or hear, how can he enjoy the game?
On top of that, I realize you can't account for everything shortly after we leave their apartment. I think I've got everything covered: wheelchair, handicapped parking, covered seats, a portable oxygen tank and the hospice number in case anything goes wrong. But I forgot to pack an umbrella and as we head downtown through miserable Atlanta traffic late Friday afternoon, it starts raining. Hard.
Just before we arrive at Turner Field, the rain stops. A cool breeze is actually blowing instead of the humidity that enveloped as we left their apartment.
As I wheel him into the stadium, I feel almost the same as I did on that summer afternoon in 1971 when Dad walked me by the hand into the stadium. I feel like everybody's watching us. And I feel an intense pride.
We take our seats behind home plate. I ask him what he can see, and he says only silhouettes of the players. He can hear the crowd noise, but not the P.A. announcer's lineups.
He asks how Scott Feldman, one of his favorites, is doing on rehab. When Michael Young comes to the plate he says, "he's a helluva hitter isn't he?" He asks how that "fella who left for Philadelphia is doing." I say "Cliff Lee? They hardly think about him."
I give him brief descriptions of plays, though a lot of time is spent in silence. He looks at a field he could see clearly 40 years ago. I look at my dad and see him as he was 40 years ago.
Tradition takes hold
He wants peanuts, just as he always does at the ballpark. I'm a little worried they will frustrate him. Does he have the manual dexterity to crack them? Does he have the vision to separate shell from nut? Are they too salty for somebody whose body retains fluid like a sponge?
I get them anyway. He shells and pops them into his mouth like a pro. Nelson Cruz doubles to give the Rangers the lead.
"Cruz," he says, "he's a pretty fair hitter, isn't he?"
He goes back to popping peanuts.
I go back to my brief descriptions of plays, leaning in ever closer so he can hear. An inning later, I instinctively lay my head on his shoulder, my arm wrapped around his shoulder. He is still popping peanuts.
By the fifth inning, Dad is checking his audible watch. When the inning is over, I ask him if he's ready to go.
"Yes," he says. "I think so."
On the way out, I notice a photo collage of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium's history. We stroll by it. The first photo is an aerial shot of the stadium and tiny specks are crawling along the plaza toward the stadium. That image of us walking to the stadium for the first time flashes through my mind vividly all over again. Now, however, it is joined by a new one: Dad and I, together at his last game.
I wheel him to the car. We listen to a couple of innings on the way back to the apartment.
I call mom to let her know we are heading back.
"How's he feel?" she says.
I repeat the question to my dad.
"A, number one," he shouts.
Mom and I laugh.
I take him home and hug and kiss them both.
"Son," he says, "thank you for taking me to the game."
No, Dad. Thank you.
Last June, Dallas Morning News baseball writer Evan Grant
took his ailing father to a baseball game in his hometown of Atlanta. At
that time, doctors didn’t think his father, Sheldon, would make it
through the month. Grant wrote an emotional piece about his father and their relationship to each other and to the game of baseball. (Warning: grab a tissue.)
I’ve known Evan and his family for a long time. Sheldon was a gentle
man with a fighting spirit. When doctors told him he couldn’t do
something, he did it anyway. When they told him he had a year to live,
he lived five more.
And then another.
Evan was in San Francisco yesterday getting ready to cover the
Rangers game when he got a call from a nurse who said his father had
taken a turn for the worse. He jumped on a plane and flew to Atlanta. He
got to his father at 10PM last night. Evan and his mother, Rhoda, sat
by Sheldon’s bed sharing life stories. Sheldon gave up his fight at
4:15AM (CST). He was 88. I just re-read the piece Evan wrote last year
and it cleared my head of some of the silly things I think are important