Down two runs with two outs and the bases loaded in the last inning, my son stepped to the plate. Aedan’s “Mudville” moment weighed on me the minute he dug his cleats in the batter’s box. He would either make the final out, or be swarmed by teammates after a clutch hit to win the game. I peered through the chain-link barrier separating me from where he stood, knees bent, wagging bat pointed skyward. I watched him embrace his challenge, ready to accept either outcome.
Dents formed in my fingers as I squeezed the fence and fixed my gaze on him, hopeful he would not freeze in the moment. I longed to be in the box with him and whisper it would be no failure to make the final out. I believed the only regrettable outcome would be not trying for fear of a negative outcome. A game-winning hit ranked second behind staring the moment down without blinking.
Custodial fathers might have taken such a moment for granted, but distance created a need for me to savor every detail. Divorce rendered me bereft of good night kisses, rides to school, and glances into Aedan’s eyes as he recounted his day, so I imprinted every nuance into memory. I was not only present in this moment for him; I craved it to validate my fatherhood.
As I experienced a blend of excitement and angst, memories of my brief little league experience tainted the moment. The steel fence on my field separated me from dads of other kids while apathy kept my dad in bed. It was my misfortune early morning games started too soon after last call, and he was unaware his absence shredded my confidence.
On Saturday mornings my dad festered in the stench of the previous night’s excesses while I caved to fear five blocks away. I managed one hit in a two-season career truncated by futility and was out of baseball forever by age ten. In the field, I prayed the ball never found me, but it found me often enough, and errors forced coaches to stick me in right field, the Siberia of little league baseball. At the plate my bat stayed glued to my shoulder, and after I struck out, I moped toward disappointed teammates, my dragged bat leaving a trail in the dirt.
Unattached relationships between fathers and sons are generational in my family. My grandfather deprived my dad of love, choosing booze over his son. I knew my father loved me better than his dad loved him, and as I aged, I learned he loved me the best way he knew how. When I was a new dad, I behaved likewise, and paid a steep price. I was younger, absorbed by ego, and convinced there were moments to waste. Divorce taught me a lesson about abused privileges, and in its aftermath, I learned my flaws were not innate, but had been passed on to me from my father who also learned them. When I recognized our family pattern, I was haunted by the possibility I could teach similar behaviors to my son, and made a promise to myself I would break the pattern.
Aedan worked the count full, and I swelled with pride even when he fouled off a pitch. I muted cheers, and smiled when he glanced my way, desperate to spare him feelings of desertion. Whether he took a pitch down the middle, or swung and missed, I wanted him to know I was present. I often fantasized about my dad walking me to our beige Chevy; arm around me, offering to take me for ice cream in victory or defeat. Instead, I walked home with teammates, and listened to them brag about their highlights. Because I never had a standout moment to share with my father, I welcomed his poverty of questions about my games.
On the sixth pitch he saw, Aedan swung with helmet shifting force, and lined the ball inside the third base line. My scream startled other parents, but excitement shielded me from embarrassment. Hanging from the fence, I watched him race toward first base, wide-eyed, raising dirt clouds with each stride as runners on second and third raced toward home, and he reached first where he stopped and looked my way. I touched my heart with my index finger and pointed at him; he smiled back, and then turned to watch the winning run score.
When the deciding run crossed home, I stormed the field and squeezed Aedan as teammates pushed through me for hugs and high fives. When the excitement waned and the crowd disbursed, we walked to our car bound at the hip, and I wrapped my arm around him.
“How does it feel to be the hero?” “Did you feel the vibration of the bat through your arms?”
He could not spit answers before a new question burst from me.
In our car, I showed him the ball and explained how I found it at home plate after the game. It is the most valuable piece of memorabilia I own, and I keep it in my glove compartment. If Aedan ever doubts himself, I can show him the ball. When I feel distance diminishes my role as his dad, the ball reminds me of my necessity in his life.
After my little league failures, fear of failure kept me from organized sports, but my son is not afraid to try, nor is he afraid to fail. It is success in itself, and eclipses my achievements the way dads hope sons do. I look forward to the day he gets to watch his own bat-wagging child, untainted by melancholic memories.
As a child I blamed my dad because I assumed dads were born knowing how to be dadly. My errors as a father reminded me how wrong I was, and I realized how hard it is to teach lessons we never learned. In retrospect, my father and I have both made incremental improvements, and we had to fight hard to do so. Looking forward, I believe Aedan will follow suit, and he will be the dad who kills our curse, and starts a new trend of fathers who will never mourn lost opportunities.