On the happy occasion of my special son's birthday, I thought I'd post this essay on him that first ran in Catholic Digest magazine and has been reprinted since in a number of places, including in my memoir, My Father's Game: Life, Death, Baseball (McFarland, 2008). That book talks about my father's baseball career, and what it was like for his wife and children to live in a family so centered around baseball, and also about the challenges I faced as Dad's
During even the toughest of those times, Dad still doted on my son, and their relationship was a great one. Most of the happier moments of that year came, in fact, from Richard Jr. and his ability to make his grandpa smile.
Thinking of Richard Jr on his birthday, and remembering his grandpa, leads me to reprint this story. Enjoy:
Scattered dark clouds threaten rain, but it's a Sunday afternoon and for me and my boy that means time for the weekly game. I have enough writing deadlines to get me near panic, but I ordered my priorities twenty‑three years ago when the boy's mom left us, and I stick with them. Hoops it is.
We grab the ball from the garage floor where it's cornered by the Radio Flyer and his red Huffy bike and walk out toward the driveway and the street beyond and our one‑block walk to the courts in the small park I can see from my office window.
We walk over the road's culvert that connects one canal to another in our island neighborhood. A young guy and his wife, out for a ride on their expensive bicycles, straddle their bikes on the north side, watching the water emerge from the culvert's opening.
I know them vaguely as neighbors, I've seen them drive by in their Volvo, all smiles and friendly and perfect. Things aren't cheap here, the young couples that can afford to buy into this neighborhood now have made their money early. We have a lot of lawyers and young doctors and commercial airline pilots and their stay-at-home wives. This is a nice, safe place to raise a couple of kids.
Twenty yards farther out the canal widens into Boca Ciega bay, and from there to huge Bay and then out into the open Gulf. Right where they stand, though, the water is narrow, confined to an orderly flow.
"What you see in there?" my son asks them.
"Saw a coconut float in that end," the guy says, pointing to the other side of the road, "and we're waiting to see it come out this side. But I think the tide changed or something right while it was in there."
"I check," my boy says, and hustles over to the south side. He likes to be helpful. There, cautiously, he leans over to look down. He has a bit of a height thing. He can do it, can stand on high places and look out to see what's there. But he doesn't much like it, he's a lot more comfortable down where things are solid and straightforward and dependable.
Now, though, he manages to lean over a bit and take a look, his curiosity overcoming his fear. "No. I see nothing," he says, and stands back up straight, proud of himself. "I sorry for you," he adds pleasantly, and backs away from the edge. The couple just smile at him.
We walk on, my boy in front leading the way, dribbling the basketball, alternating his right and left hands as he sends it down to the cracked pavement and stops it on its way back up to send it down again and again. He’s something of a master at this, at walking along, holding the dribble.
My boy has Down syndrome. In a week he'll be twenty‑eight. He's put on weight in recent years, but he's still in pretty good shape for a Down's kid. He plays basketball every day, does his fair share of walking. He holds down a good job at McDonald's, too, flipping burgers and cleaning the place. Twenty hours a week. He's been there five years. I'm proud of him beyond speaking.
We get to the courts and loosen up. I miss a few from fifteen feet, and then back up a step or two and hit, count 'em, six in a row from the three‑point line. The rim enlarges, becomes a huge, wide open canyon for me, and the ball just drops through time after time while my boy feeds me.
"Wow, you a hot man, my dad," he says. And then I miss one, and then another, and he laughs. I laugh with him. These things never last.
He takes a few shots, misses them all badly, and then comes in for a lay‑up. He misses that, too, the ball rimming out.
He shakes his head, walks over to the head of the key, does his favorite little turn‑around move, and launches one from eighteen feet. Swish.
I feed him and he hits six of the next eight, five of them clean swishes that hiss as they go through the netting. "I on fire," he says with delight, and I couldn't agree more.
We decide to play just one game today, to fifteen by ones, switch, take it back, call your own fouls, win by one. We both know the jargon, we're both intimate with this game. Once, years ago in St. Louis before we moved down here to the beach and the heat and the summer showers that come early some years in April, I watched him play in a Special Olympics game against a team of high‑functioning kids that should, by rights, have blown my boy's team out.
But the kid was in his zone, as they might say today.. He hit two jumpers, a couple of those turn‑arounds, stole the ball once and raced the length for a lay‑up, and went on like that for the whole game. His team lost, but only by six points. My boy had eighteen of his team's twenty‑two points. At game's end, exhausted, he sat on the court floor while every single player from both teams came over to shake his hand. On the sidelines, watching, I cried.
His mother left us when he was five years old. A new boyfriend, a big motorcycle, some excitement, and no more having to deal with disappointment. I'd thought we had a pretty good marriage going until that day she was late picking me up at the university. When she came by in the Volksie van things were strangely tense until we got home. Even our boy, in the back seat, just sat there, quiet, his eyes wide. Later on, I figured out what he'd seen.
A few weeks later, after the initial shock of her leaving had gone numb for the two of us, I sat my boy down and told him I’d be there. Always. He told me the same thing and we shook on it.
God knows I’ve screwed some things up since then, but never that. I said always, and for him that means right to the end, whenever that comes. The experts figure all Down’s kids will get Alzheimer’s. They also figure most will be dead by the time they’re fifty or so.
Me, I’m no expert, but they also told me, way back then, that'd he'd never read, never hold a job, never amount to much at all. An institution, they said, would be best. Now, when he reads me the Cub scores or looks at the movie ads, I allow myself to remember those days and I smile.
We start our game and he opens up a quick four‑nothing lead, hitting three outside jumpers and a lay‑up. I'm ice cold, missing everything, and badly.
I finally make one, a banked‑in jumper from the wing, and then he answers with a turn‑around to make it five‑one.
As he hits that shot the sun comes out and at the same time it starts to rain. In a surreal tiny downpour that must have started on its way down while the cloud was in just the right
spot, we continue playing, the rain hissing into a low cloud of steam on the hot court as the sun bakes it off.
We don't stop. Our summer rules are that we play no matter what, unless there's lightning, and this weather is so like summer that count it as July, not April.
He hits a few more and then he misses one badly as I finally get hot, hitting from outside, draining three in a row from that spot on the wing, climbing back into the game until I tie it at eight‑all.
We trade baskets for awhile, both of us staying hot in the warm rain and bright sun. The rain eases to a drizzle, then a mist, and the sun dries the court so fast that the only wet spots are those in the shadows from the basketball standard, where there's an arced wet spot that comes out toward the free‑throw line. It’s a little slick there and we have to be careful of our footing. It’s not a problem for him, really, since he’d rather shoot from outside anyway. He loves the sense of drama you get from taking that long shot.
Me, I like to drive across the lane and come under the basket for a reverse lay-up, but the slick spot scares me. I’m old enough now to be cautious, so I hang around the perimeter, taking what I can get.
It's ten‑all, then he runs off another streak and gets up by four. I play a little harder on defense, I don't want it to end this way.
He takes a long jumper and clangs it. I get the rebound, back out, launch a bomb from out there and get it to rattle in and it's fourteen‑eleven.
He misses again and I make it fourteen‑twelve. I'm talking all the time now, doing a play‑by‑play, trying to add to the excitement. "Now here comes Dad, trying to get back into this thing. He fakes a move to his left, pulls up for a jumper, and....hits it! And now it's fourteen‑thirteen and Rich is rattled, you can sense it folks, the kid is really rattled."
"I not rattled," he tells me, “I a good player.” He flips me the ball to check it. I flip it back and he starts his dribble to the right, switches left, does a complete three‑sixty spin and lets a runner go. It rims out.
I get the rebound, take it back to the line, turn and let it fly. Swish.
I go nuts. "It's fourteen‑all folks, and this is a thriller. Next basket wins and you have to figure it's Dad who'll get it. The momentum has switched. You can feel the tension as Rich grabs the ball and walks back to the line to put it in play.
"He dribbles to his right. Nothing there, Dad is playing great defense. He knows this boy's weaknesses. He knows he loves to go to his right and hit that runner.
"Rich comes back to the middle. Nothing there. He backs up, backs up again. He's way outside his range now, folks. No one could hit one from there."
And he looks at me. He smiles. "I like it," he says, and he brings the ball up with his right hand, cradles it on the side with the left, brings the elbows down and then brings them back up, pushes with his arms and then the wrists and launches it, a good two steps behind the three‑point line.
I turn to watch it go, arcing through the steam and the thinning mist and the sunshine, arcing right through all the special schools and the amoxicillin and the missing mom and the kids poking fun and the trouble with speech and with reading and with math. It arcs through all of that and finds its way home, rattling off the rim a bit, then settling through for the game winner.
It's the NCAAs and the NBA Finals all wrapped up into this weekly exquisite moment. He dances with joy, his arms in the air.
"Yes," he shouts, then "Yes!"
He runs over to give me a hug. I congratulate him on winning the Big One and hug him back. His sweaty face is filled with a huge grin.
For twenty years we've been doing this, the two of us.
But now I have to go. He's going to stay behind and shoot some more, just for practice, just for the joy of playing the game, of being able to play the game. But I have these deadlines.
On the way back I look for that coconut, checking the north side and then the south. Nothing there, so the thing must be trapped in the middle somewhere. Behind me, as I walk to the house, I can hear my boy playing, the ball against the drying pavement, the moment of silence as he must be picking up the dribble and taking the shot and then, I can hear it as I walk away, the swish as the ball goes cleanly through the cords.