The first memory that came back to mind as I neared my old home was the feeling I used to get when I sat outside the principal’s office back in high school. It was usually a short wait, no longer than five minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I noticed every beat of my heart, and every bead of cold sweat that would run down my arms. As the second hand on the clock inched forward, my imagination would take control. I would see not the principal who smiled at every assembly and told funny stories of his youth, but instead Lucifer himself, wielding his pitchfork as he led me into the fires of Hell.
It had been years since I had felt that kind of intense fear. Yet now, it had come back, many times stronger. For the first time in forty-five years, I was going to see my father.
In my youth, Dad and I got along. In fact, up until I left for college, I doubt there were many boys closer to their father than I was to mine. Mom had run out on our family when I was seven and, despite having to work two jobs to provide for the family, he made sure he always spent time with us. He took us to the movies every Saturday night, and if we had the time, we would go bowling afterwards. My father was a meticulous bowler; fine tuning his every roll with the intensity of Michelangelo working on a marble sculpture. Each shot was a masterpiece, and rare were the shots that knocked down less than eight pins. My father was a perfectionist in many things, and bowling was one of them.
If bowling had been one of my father’s obsessions, his true passion was baseball. He knew every nuance of the game, and would even read the major league rulebook as a hobby. We used to practice pitching in the very fields I drove by now. My father seemed to know how every movement would affect the path of the ball as it left my hand, and the minute adjustments he would make to my stance made all the difference. Yet, even as I felt I was getting better, my father would shout advice on almost every throw, catch and at-bat.
“C’mon Sean, I know ya can throw better’n that!”
“Ya gotta hustle if yer gonna catch the ball, son!”
“Yeah! Got tha speed goin’ now, kid… yer gonna go places with that fastball!”
A tear rolled down my cheek as I remembered everything we had been through in those fields. The games of catch that evolved into a clinic on pitching were all still fresh in my mind. My old man threw hellacious curve balls and fastballs, and could have been in the pros, had it not been for an errant pitch that shattered his right knee. He saw a similar gift in me, and encouraged it as much as possible. In many ways, Dad would live his dreams through me. That was perhaps the main reason our last disagreement had been so violent.
“Whatta ya mean, yer quittin’?” I envisioned my father actually coming through the telephone as he screamed into it on his end.
“I need to concentrate on my class work, and—“
“Son! Ya can get a pro contract with the skills ya got! Ya don’t need an education!”
“But what if I get hurt? What do I have to fall back on?”
“Yeah… Heaven forbid ya end up like yer old man, right?”
I winced at his words. “… that’s not what I said.”
“It’s what ya meant! So, what tha hell are ya gonna do with yer life?”
“I’d like to be able to teach English in high schools. You know I’ve always enjoyed reading, and—“
“Yeah… just throw away yer future for something stupid. Did I do a hell of a job raisin’ ya…”
“You did a good job raising me. I’m just going to take a different path than what you saw.”
“That different path is gonna ruin ya, I already know it.”
“I don’t think so. I have to try…”
“Try. And fail. And don’t come whinin’ to me when it happens!”
With that, the connection clicked dead. That December, I received the first Christmas card marked “return to sender” in my father’s handwriting. Every phone call I tried to make, he hung up when he heard my voice. After three years, I finally stopped trying.
As I drew closer to the old farm, I began to doubt the wisdom of coming. Would the argument be fresh in my father’s mind, even after all this time? My sister had assured me he wanted to meet, but I was still unsure. Would he accept what I had made of my life?
The thoughts came to an end as I came upon another field. There stood my father, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and a wry smile on his face. He wore a pair of tattered blue jeans and his typical long sleeved flannel shirt. He regarded me with a raised eyebrow as I made my way towards him.
“I was wonderin’ when ya’d get here.”
His hair had grayed, much like my own had started to lately. His skin had wrinkled with age, and looked like leather due to his years of smoking. Still, the fire in his eyes remained, in spite of his advanced age. He shook his head as I reached him, and took a long drag from his cigarette. I started to speak when, as it had happened so many times before, he spoke first.
“I was wrong.” The words seemed strange, especially to come from my father. I had never known him to admit wrong in anything he had done before. “I’ve been watchin’, and I’m proud of what you’ve done with yer life.”
“Of course! Becky’s sent me pictures every Christmas. I admit, I didn’t look at them, at first, but eventually I did, and I started askin’ her how you were doin’. I was too damned stubborn to admit that maybe ya were doin’ the right thing on yer own, but I’ve been proud of ya, even if I couldn’t muster up the courage to tell ya myself.”
I look at him strangely. “So you do approve of what I’ve done with my life?”
“Ya put lives on the right track, and that’s not something that a lot of people can say they’ve done. Ya’ve changed people for the better.” He paused for a moment, and then smiled again. “Didn’t hurt that ya coached the baseball team at Eisenhower for ten years, either.”
I smiled back at him. “I thought you might have liked that.”
“Ya did a good job with Sarah and William, too. I see Sarah’s makin’ quite a name fer herself in Hollywood.”
“Her last movie opened at forty million.”
He took another long drag off his cigarette, and looked at me again. “I always knew ya’d go places, son. I just never thought ya’d go there without me.
“That’s not true. I wouldn’t have made it where I did if it hadn’t been for your guidance.”
“But ya made it on yer own, son. That’s what matters the most.”
I paused, at first unsure how to respond. “It’s good to see you again, Dad.”
“Good to see you again too, son.” He smiled, then leaned down on the ground next to him, and lifted up two gloves and a baseball. “How about a game of catch? Fer old time’s sake?”
“I’d love to.”