There’s usually a moment or two in the days between my posts when I worry that I won’t have anything to write when my spot comes due. In six months now I’ve yet to sit down to the keyboard with nowhere to go, but still that subtle anxiety presses its knuckle into the center of my diaphragm as if to fret, “What if your best contributions are behind you? What if there’s nothing meaningful left in the tank?” “Denouement,” the pressure throbs in 3/4 time: de-noue-ment, de-noue-ment, de-noue-ment...
But then—maybe while revising a comment I’ve penned that comes across as too harsh—the way-in dawns on me, sometimes agreeably like the first breeze of a just-cooling summer evening, sometimes disconcertingly like a spider web to the face in darkness.
In the hours before Opening Day last week, while a few of us on The Dodger Thread waxed poetic about our favorite players, I voiced my concern about the playoff history of the Dodgers’ newest big-money acquisition, to which you, Hoke, replied, “Well, Kersh won’t feel so alone in that category, then.”
I saw a shade of red.
Exactly this sort of rhetoric threatens to forever taint Kershaw’s legacy for the casual baseball fan. What’s worse, the last image we have of him from this past season fits right in with the narrative: our surefire hall-of-famer on the bench with his head in his hands having just <quote-01>surrendered back-to-back homeruns<quote-01> and the lead in a playoff elimination game.
I felt, I think, the same sharp impulse to intercede that Cooter did months ago when Pat used the new f-word while referring to a trio of portly Rancho Cucamonga protestors on this same group text.
“How dare you,” I texted back, a humorous exaggeration but in keeping with my actual outrage. You tried to provide some context for what you meant, but I was having none of it, calling you “part of the problem” and a “fucking Twitter troll.”
“You’re yelling at someone else over my shoulder, buddy,” you wrote back.
You were right and wrong. Certainly, I was redirecting months of rage for anonymous shitposters towards a more trusted and receptive audience, but in bringing Kershaw into our conversation out of nowhere and for this particular reason only, you were—however unwittingly—joining their ugly ranks.
Don’t get me wrong, <quote-02>I appreciate the impulse to kick an enemy when he’s down better than most<quote-02>. You likely both remember how gratuitously I quote from <quote-03>The Karate Kid<quote-03> in Pat’s chapter from Tetherball Chimes: “Mercy is for the weak! Here, in the streets, in competition, a man confronts you—he is the enemy! An enemy deserves no mercy! Strike first, strike hard, no mercy!” These lines erupt from the villain of the film, of course. But there remains, I think, room for interpretation—at least with the first claim. Sure, Sensei Kreese is implying that only someone who is weak shows another mercy. But the statement could also plainly mean that the weak are deserving of our mercy: mercy is for the weak. The weak warrant our mercy, the vulnerable do.
Then there’s the enemy stuff.
If Kershaw is your enemy—perhaps he’s dominated your team for an entire decade or struck out your favorite player in a playoff elimination game—then I understand the urge to kick the man when he’s down. If your nearly invincible opponent reveals his Achilles’ heel, you aim for it. In Kershaw’s case, his detractors gather and amplify every convenient detail about his playoff performances and ignore the inconvenient ones. I get it. But if you are Kershaw’s enemy—Kershaw, married to his high-school sweetheart, humble benefactor of countless schools in Africa and countless ballfields in impoverished neighborhoods, a man who thanked Yasiel Puig by name in his MVP speech, who has now championed the <quote-04>Black Lives Matter<quote-04> movement even though he is a <quote-05>wealthy white evangelical<quote-05> from Texas—<quote-06>if you are that man’s enemy<quote-06>, you are also mine. And while I cannot do much when faceless avatars chime in with the same sad one-liners whenever Clayton’s name surfaces, I will not let my own friends throw added weight atop the dogpile, especially now when he’s at his weakest—his most vulnerable.
This is probably why I’ve grown so attached to him—this profound and lingering failure on the back page of his prodigious resume—an attachment that has only intensified since the revelation of the cheating scandal that almost certainly stole from him not only a World Series ring but an MVP trophy. After all, the Hollywood redemption story was there for the claiming in 2017; he’d written it himself. What’s worse, he hadn’t tempted tragedy in Game 5 like an Oedipus or a Lear; his was not a sin of hubris but, at worst, naivety: the victim of unthinkable circumstance, fortune’s fool—a bad luck loser.
So I pledged vengeance: “One day this season, I’ll emerge from the shadows and strike you so hard, you’ll think to yourself, Damn. What did I do to deserve that? And then you will remember this day.” For good measure, I added, “Watch. Your. Back.” And yet, all three of us know how unlikely it is that I’ll ever seek revenge. After all, Hoke, you are just as naïve and as lovable—just as routinely vulnerable and as easily beguiled—as <quote-07>my beloved Kershaw<quote-07>.
Perhaps I’m drawn in most intensely to unabashedly vulnerable people; you certainly fit that bill, Hoke, as do Pat and Kristen. Their vulnerability pairs well with <quote-08>my knack for permanence, my air of indestructibility—we benefit from each other<quote-08>. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you and I, Wuck, clash more often in these letters than do Hoke and I. You are less comfortable being vulnerable—need we return to your therapy thoughts?—and definitely more suspicious of my apparent resilience.
Maybe I can say a few things in its defense?
If I search my distant past for evidence of something like an inherently resilient predisposition, I think I can find enough for a strong case: refusing to be bullied by lumbering Ryan McKee at age five, <quote-09>fighting for and winning the affections of Lane Sizemore in first grade<quote-09>, resisting Ava Capossela’s rigorous attempts to make me print right-handed. But coming to terms with my father’s impending death nearly on my own, dealing with what transpired afterwards with my mother—these episodes informed my resilience more than any other, helped to harden an impressive callous, <quote-10>armor serious enough to render me impervious to most daily anxieties without totally disconnecting me from the world of emotions<quote-10>.
Detailing the play-by-play of that period in my life would feel more perfunctory than masochistic, but the passage of time has solidified for me the most indelible, perhaps most formative, moments:
I remember first a handful of evenings alone in my bedroom eating TV dinners I’d warmed up for myself. My favorite was the Stouffer’s Fried Chicken Breast and Mashed Potatoes; the good folks at Nestlé don’t make it the same way anymore. Back then the mashed potatoes came not with gravy but a dusting of paprika. For a few of these nights, Conch must have been at the hospital with my dad; more often, though, she had shut herself away in their room, watching TV maybe, crying for sure.
“I’m going to be doing a lot of crying,” I remember her telling me early on.
I remember also an afternoon at the mall—late July or early August of 1993, it must have been—shopping for my dad’s birthday present. I was typically eleven, exasperated by doing anything that didn’t revolve around me, especially at a place where I could satisfy so many of my desires. I wanted a Hot Dog on a Stick, to browse the newest Sega CD games at Software Etc. and Babbage’s, to find the No Fear shirt with the raddest slogan at Pacific Sunwear, to spend five dollars playing Street Fighter 2 at Time-Out, to buy yet another <quote-11>Yomega Brain at Natural Wonders<quote-11>. I’m sure I was being pretty obnoxious, failing utterly at reading my mother’s desperate and exasperated energy.
“Maybe next year you won’t have a father to complain about shopping for,” she snapped.
I was totally dumbfounded.
<quote-12>“What are you talking about?” I kept asking her. “What do you mean?”<quote-12>
She wouldn’t answer, playing up her frustration with me. I understand now that she immediately regretted saying such a thing, that it was easier in the moment to pretend she hadn’t.
The next vivid memory is of looking for an Allen wrench to tighten a wheel on my Rollerblades and stumbling across a stack of books, On Death and Dying and Badger’s Parting Gifts most memorably. If they ever told me he was dying, I don’t remember it. I think my mom’s sister eventually did; I’m not sure how long I’d known before that—weeks, at least. I’d put the pieces together, begun steeling myself for the inevitable. Maybe my mom was in the room or nearby when Aunt Carm told me. Again, I don’t remember.
Anyway, my dad wouldn’t have been a part of it; I remember him stumbling down the hallway to his bedroom, little more than a skeleton with sinew and skin at that point, assuring me as he struggled past my room that everything would be okay. I must have looked upset; I don’t know why else he would have said anything. Maybe he saw something in my eyes as I watched him.
Those are probably the last words I remember him speaking. I remember feeling sorry for us both, sad that he was kidding himself.
I remember trying to help him up from his recliner one night toward the end, Conch looking on teary-eyed from her spot on the couch. I’d been on the carpet drawing superheroes.
When he died it was a relief.
It’s incredible how the feelings from this period in my life return to the middle of my chest so unmistakably while writing this. What’s the word for this? The mechanism is nostalgia but not the effect; the difference is like that between awesome and awful.
He died late on a Monday night—Valentine’s Day—and his funeral was that Saturday. <quote-13>I was back at school the next Monday<quote-13>. I remember feeling a lightness that first week back, happy that I wouldn’t be returning home to a dying parent, glad for the distraction of friends and four square and ancient Egypt. But I guess I must have appeared too normal, like I wasn’t accepting my new reality with the requisite gravity, because soon a team of adults from St. Mark’s convinced Conch that I should be going to therapy.
To this day I maintain that I didn’t need it. I’d begun coming to terms with my father’s impending demise far earlier than anyone realized. Not only that, but he had spent the last week of his life either howling in pain or delirious on morphine. Who wouldn’t prefer not living with a person irredeemably suffering? That I was the only kid I knew with a dead parent sucked, absolutely. But what good would it do to wear that on my sleeve? Life was unfair, a crapshoot, and I had gotten a bad shake. I got it. I cried plenty in the days and weeks leading up to his death and a bit afterwards, as well. I wasn’t irrationally angry or overwhelmed, just reasonably cross at life in a way only time would heal. Should I not have shared laughs with my classmates after his funeral? Did onlookers think I was in denial when I told his surviving brothers and sisters how much pain he’d been in at the end, when I assured them that he was in a better place? Frankly, I think Conch could have had my back more staunchly; of course, I didn’t realize then how overwhelmed by everything she was. I don’t think I should have been made to know for years, ideally. I was eleven, for Christ’s sake.
In the end, therapy for me had two lasting effects. First, it made me even more hesitant than before to share my thoughts and feelings when times are hard. Doing so simply doesn’t make me feel any better. I have a rich inner life and an active dialogue with the universe. Some might argue that those months in therapy helped me become more in tune with myself. Yeah, I’m sure I was doing really profound personal work at twelve years of age. Go fuck yourself. I wanted to be left alone with my thoughts when I was five, and I want to be left alone with them now. People really hate it when you don’t need them.
Second, therapy brought about the swift and absolute end of my childhood. Again, I was plenty vocal about neither wanting nor needing therapy, but no one would listen. So we went to therapy—my mother and I together—we. Maybe if I’d gotten to endure grief counseling on my own, things would have turned out differently—I would have turned out differently. But it became clear during the very first session that therapy would be as much for Conch as it was for me. “Art therapy,” she called it—Anne, “my” therapist. Actually, the art stuff was pleasant enough—making a mask, molding with clay, drawing. But as the sessions wore on, the art became less about delicately revealing my struggles to the adults in the room and more about giving me something to distract myself with while my mother vomited her every sadness, fear, and anxiety into the space between us on the couch and Anne in her chair.
I have no doubt, really, that these sessions were good for her. She has very positive memories of the whole thing. I do not, even when that night of the week always started with a trip to the comic book store and ended with fast food. Nothing could make up for seeing how sad and broken my remaining parent was, could atone for the unconscionable vulnerability she made me privy to in those sessions, how she wished she’d died instead of him, <quote-14>how she’d kill herself if it weren’t for me<quote-14>, how clueless she was about her future—all reasonable reactions for a woman of forty-seven who’s just lost her husband of twenty-four years—but not in front of her only child not yet in junior high.
Luckily, it did not fuck me up, but it did grow me up.
I started worrying about her. I started realizing how critical my existence was to hers. I began checking door locks before bed, making sure she was breathing when she slept, <quote-15>sitting upright and securely buckled while riding shotgun when she was driving to ensure that I alone wouldn’t be killed in a traffic accident and cause her to take her own life in the way she detailed during therapy. Most of sixth grade was like this, all of seventh<quote-15>.
My mom eventually grew stronger, I think—well—but I didn’t need her as much by the time she did. She still paid for everything, cooked dinner and signed permission slips, made sure I went to the dentist and got my shots, but <quote-16>our relationship had become something else, maybe more like siblings<quote-16>. This is not to say that I don’t possess unbearably tender memories of her as my mother—singing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Lemon Tree” to me in the moments before sleep, for instance—but all of these predate my father’s death. What I mean to say, I guess, is that the experience both hardened me to her and endeared her to me. I loved her in a way I couldn’t have before—differently, deeply—with an intimacy many children never possess for their parents. But I resented her differently, also. Resent, I realize, is a strong word; I mean, she’s my mom. For a time, she possessed literally all the love I had in the world. <quote-17>But I can’t pretend those therapy sessions weren’t the death knell for my childhood. I can’t pretend I wasn’t tasked at eleven years old with caring for my mother like she was supposed to care for me<quote-17>.
Probably I’d have been a bad kid—a worse kid, at least—if I’d never heard her speak those things. I would have been more careless, taken more liberties; I would have more willingly disappointed her and others. But how could I disappoint her when I knew how much I meant to her health and sanity? How could I be so selfish?
So, then, <quote-18>did therapy make me “better?”<quote-18> I guess, but not how it was supposed to. Even if it was effective medicine, it took its collateral toll. I won’t reach for a chemotherapy analogy.
That was a drag too.
I slog through all of this not just in defense of my resilience but, I suppose, as a way to make sense of my fondness for vulnerability. My prolonged exposure to Conch’s raw vulnerability was, I’d argue, the most determinative experience of my youth. Now, when a person is truly vulnerable with me—me of all people, so uninviting in so many ways!—I can’t help but become protective of them.
Is this why, if given the opportunity, I’d rather be left alone?
I always say that Kristen is nothing like my mother, that because of the odd circumstances of our relationship—my mother’s and mine—that I did not, as most boys do, marry someone like my mother. I think this is true for the most part. But I also think that Kristen and I owe our compatibility to my years in therapy. Like it or not, that’s where I learned how to embrace something fragile, how to love a person at their most vulnerable, how to support them.
Maybe all of this—in a brutally roundabout way—helps to remind and assure you both that I’m forever your huckleberry, helps to explain my ferocious and undying attachment to you both, to convince each of you that I’d never knowingly allow the ruse at your expense, at least not when you’re at your most vulnerable. Maybe this quality didn’t make much sense before. Maybe now it does.
I hope—for all of our sakes—that Kershaw’s best days aren’t behind him. Either way, I’ll be there in the stands.
Speaking of which, the last Dodger game my father and I attended was in April of ‘93, with my little league coach and his youngest son. I’m not sure exactly what Coach Tom did for a living—he wore a suit and tie, I think—but I remember him getting our tickets “from work” somehow. They were incredible seats, between first and home on the loge level, maybe three rows back. I can remember exchanging multiple glances with my dad that night like, “holy fucking shit, these seats, right!?” Around the sixth or seventh inning, Coach Tom decided to pack it in—it was a weekday and early in the season so a school night too—and out of politeness my dad figured we should walk them out. “We’ll come right back once they leave,” we agreed in glances and whispers. So we made a show of grabbing our things—I like to think I left an <quote-19>over-frozen Carnation malt<quote-19> thawing in a cupholder—and tagged along. When we got to their spot in the lot—they’d used the preferred parking attached to the seats—Coach Tom turned on the radio before settling his son into the backseat. We realized then—my father and I—how far the game had progressed in the twenty minutes since we’d been in our seats. “Already the 8th, huh?” my dad said to me as they pulled away. “Maybe we should just head home too?” I was okay with it. The evening had already been a success: the Dodgers were way up, I’d eaten my fill of Western Bacon Cheeseburgers, and Coach Tom had promised us many happy returns, something along the lines of, “can you believe these never get used?!” I remember us both buzzing with the promise of a summer’s worth of baseball from those seats, both happily <quote-20>listening to Ross Porter or Don Drysdale<quote-20> call the last outs from the am radio on our way out of the ravine, the dependable glow of stadium lights behind us.
Who knew, as we waited to merge onto Sunset, that the click of the right-hand turn signal was in 3/4 time?
He was dying already; <quote-21>we just didn’t know it<quote-21>.
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