Is the one I feel sorry for. Every time. Yes, it can be hard to be the batter’s mother, especially when there are two outs and the bases are loaded and you have to watch him go down on a called strike. That can sting for a while, especially if you’re sitting with your team, among the parents of the stranded runners. And yes, I’m sure it’s hard sometimes to be the first baseman’s mother, and the catcher’s mother must have some aches and pains by the time the game is over—but the relief pitcher’s mother, man oh man, that’s a totally different level.
All of them, any of them, great and small. I feel sorry for Mariano Rivera’s mother, wherever she may be, even though I trained in Boston and settled near Boston and dutifully hate the Yankees. And I feel sorry for Trevor Hoffman’s mother, if she was watching when he blew the save in the ninth inning of the 2006 All-Star game. When she saw him give up that hit, and then the next two, and lose the game, after he’d been right there, two outs, and two strikes on the next batter, do you think his mother thought, oh well, what the heck, he’s still a Hall of Fame closer? I mean, he was, of course, but that’s not what she was thinking, not right there and then.
My kid doesn’t pitch at all, starting or relief. Never has. But here’s what I imagine: you sit there, watching to see if your son will get to play. And of course you have to want your son to get to play, that’s only human, cause what’s the point of watching the whole damn game if all you see is other people’s kids swinging bats and making catches and throwing people out and stealing bases? But when you’re the relief pitcher’s mother, you know that your son will only come in when the game is on the line. Maybe the starter got tired as he got toward the end of his pitch count, and maybe he loaded the bases. Oh, yes, you might tell yourself, even if those runs score, they won’t be charged to the relief pitcher—but the truth is, every other person watching the game will think it is the relief pitcher’s fault. Blown save. Or on the other side, how about when the starter has pitched brilliantly, no runs given up at all, or one run given up, and you know that if your kid blows it, and the other team scores, people will shake their heads and think about how his teammate really had his stuff today, how he held them inning after inning, and then, wouldn’t you know, along comes the relief pitcher and everything goes to hell.
Here’s the thing I am ashamed of: when I go to my son’s Little League games, and I am sitting in the bleachers with all the other mothers and fathers from his team, I act like I have something to prove. I do, I act like it’s a big deal that I even made it to this game, because I am so busy and so important. I mean, lots of the parents are in and out of praying mantis posture, checking their phones every couple of minutes, especially when their kids are not at bat, but they don’t talk about it. What I mean is, okay, they aren’t paying attention to the game, but neither are they showing off.
I didn’t used to do this, I don’t think. I used to come and sit in the bleachers with my husband, Jake, and Jake was better than I was, always, at knowing the names of the other parents, and who belonged to which kid, so I would follow his lead. When he said to someone, wow, that was a great catch Dennis made, I would know that must be Dennis’s mom. And that was Dennis, who just made the great catch. But now we are separated, and Jake has signed on as an assistant coach, so he spends the game on the sidelines with a clipboard, and in this way he has left the bleachers, and all the parents, to me.
So now I do this stupid thing when I get to the game. I make a big flap, and I can feel myself making a big flap. Check my beeper, like I want them all to see me checking my beeper, and then pull out my cell phone and check for messages, then this whole performance of dialing my service to tell them I’m at my son’s Little League game, but my beeper is on and so is my phone, call if you need anything. I mean, of course they will call if they need anything, that’s why they’re an answering service.
I can feel myself putting on this performance, can feel myself saying to everyone, look at me, look what I am. I am the busy surgeon who still has made time to come to her son’s games, that is who I am. And when the other parents talk to me, it seems like the only thing I can say to them is how hard it was for me to get here, how I hope I don’t get paged, how I have some very sick patients I’m worried about. I mean, it’s not that these things aren’t true, they are always true, but still, why can’t I stop myself saying them over and over? In my own ears, I sound faintly hysterical. But I don’t seem to have any other way of talking to the other parents. The best I can do is face front, feet solid on the bleachers, leaning forward, elbows on my knees, and give the upbeat, encouraging, always positive cheers that we are allowed to give at these games: “C’mon, Braves! Yay, Braves! Go, Braves!”
The Braves were not having a good season and neither was my son and neither was my whole family, I guess you would have to say. This was William’s second year on the Braves, and he had spent the whole previous season playing left field, but he was hoping to move into the infield this spring. He wasn’t bad at third base; he had a pretty good sense of strategy, and he could usually make the long throw to first, but what he really wanted was to be shortstop, and there was no question, he just wasn’t fast enough. William is one of those boys who look as if they should be fast; he’s wiry and bouncy and all, but there’s always something slightly uncoordinated about him. There are boys who move across the field graceful as deer, every muscle pulling smoothly, and then there is William, who works as hard as he can, but somehow you can tell he’s working. And besides, the Braves had a shortstop already, Max Bishop, back from last year, speedy as ever, and now noticeably taller. It seemed to me that they could have given William a chance at third base, but third base went to Mark Manookian, who had filled out a little and had some real power now when he threw, not to mention when he hit.
The funny thing is, if I know anything about boys, and I think at this stage in my life that I probably do, the relief pitcher himself is probably there bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, hoping, put me in, put me in, put me in. And the relief pitcher’s mother, I would bet you anything, wants to see her son go in when there’s a huge lead, six or seven runs, so that even if he gave up a grand slam, the score would still not be tied, the save would still not be blown (if you asked, I bet every single relief pitcher’s mother has made that same calculation, watching her son go in with runners on base; I bet Mariano Rivera’s mother thought that way, and Dennis Eckersley’s mother, and Billy Wagner’s mother, and of course Koji Uehara’s mother over in Japan). But the relief pitcher himself, whether he is twelve or twenty-four or even thirty-six, is probably hoping for a tense situation, a narrow lead, a chance to show what he can do. If he weren’t hoping for that, I suppose he wouldn’t be playing this game. No one would want to be the player who only gets put in to win the game that’s already been won, or to lose the game that’s already been lost.
William was very excited when the coach promised that on Friday, against the Dodgers, he could play third base. He thought he would probably get to play for the whole game, he told me, because there were going to be so many kids going away for the long weekend, not just Mark Manookian but three or four others. Would I be there for the game, he asked, more than once, and I promised him that I would. William was not doing very well with the separation, his father and I had agreed. He seemed younger to me, like he had lost a little ground in his struggle to move forward out of childhood. He was nervous and clingy and he asked things too many times, and he kept chewing the knuckles of his right hand, almost stuffing the whole fist into his mouth. I would tell him to stop chewing on his hand, and when he took it out there would be deep teeth marks, grooves right above the knuckle bumps, grooves that would not fade away for several minutes. When I got home later than I said I would, and I have been getting home later than I said I would for longer than William has been on this earth, William had taken to paging me, to ask if I was all right.
So I promised him that I would be there on Friday, and be there on time. And wouldn’t you know, it turned out to be hard to keep my promise. Wouldn’t you know. Early that morning, a crazy lady driving on the Mass Pike saw Jesus, right there in the front seat of her SUV, and he told her to get off the road immediately, so she swung around and headed off down an on-ramp, and rammed head-on into a van with six college girls in it, on their way to tutor new immigrant children in Waltham. They brought all six girls to us, and two were just fine, a little scratched and scared, two were pretty banged up, and two were bad. I ended up helping with one of the middle two, who started to act like she had an internal bleed after she had been initially stabilized, and because all the trauma surgeons at that point were locked up with the two critically injured
girls, I took her to the OR and went in and found the liver laceration that had been missed the first time around, and we got her fixed up. But then, just like in a bad joke, I had to jump into my own car and drive a little dangerously myself, to get to the game. The lady who saw Jesus in her SUV, by the way, walked away without a scratch, which just goes to show you that it’s good to have friends in high places.
As I said, the Braves were having a lousy season. It’s kind of luck of the draw with kids this age, or luck of the hormones. The kids returning from last year either hit their growth spurts or they don’t, and if they hit them, then you go into the lottery for coordination, height, muscle control. It wasn’t any one person’s fault, but compared to other teams in the league, the Braves had too many kids who were still little and weak, too many who were tall but gawky, too few who were actually strong and in control of their bodies. Next season, the wheel would spin again.
So, yes, I did make it to the game, and no, I didn’t hit any other cars along the way. I parked, not well, in a spot that may not have been completely legal, and I ran all the way along the edge of the park, passing two other baseball fields with games beginning, until I pulled up, panting, in front of the bleachers where the other Braves parents were sitting.
When I was growing up, we lived in New York City, and my father cheered for the Mets (never the Yankees), and the relief pitcher I remember there was Tug McGraw, and my father explained to me that a pitcher like that was called a fireman. You brought him in when there was trouble, when the starting pitcher had gotten tired and was making mistakes, so there were runners on base—that was the fire, and the fireman put it out. I haven’t heard anyone call a relief pitcher a fireman in my adult life, and my father died before he could watch William play baseball. Maybe if Jake and I hadn’t waited until we were through with residency, and then waited some more. And of course I didn’t think about baseball players having mothers when I was a kid. Believe it or not, I thought baseball players were grownups.
The Braves so far this season are one and five. And the only win was against the Angels, who lost both of their best players this year, one because he moved to Pittsburgh and the other because he broke his leg in Colorado skiing with his family during spring break, and so the Angels have yet to win a game, or even come close. Today the Braves are playing the Dodgers, who are four and three. The game is just beginning, as I come panting up to the field. The Braves are up first, and they manage to get two guys on base, both on walks, but they don’t score. And so they take the field, and there is William, standing on third base, the dearest thing in the world, and I check, automatically, to make sure that his shoelaces are tied and that he is not chewing gum. No, actually, he is chewing his knuckles. When I did my time on the orthopedic service, as a surgical resident, one of the other residents told me a story late one night about a kid who was chewing gum, playing baseball, and got hit in the chest by a pitch, and gasped, and sucked the gum into his trachea, and died, because the gum blocked his trachea, and the stickiness of the gum made it impossible to move it, no matter how they whacked him and Heimliched him. We were up late together in the lounge, waiting for a transport from a community hospital, a guy who had fallen off a ladder posting numbers on the scoreboard of a high school baseball game, that was how the subject came up. Supposedly, he had fractured a femur and also had a compound radial-ulnar break and maybe some ribs.
“The kid needed a trach,” I said, of course. “They should have trached him.” And we nodded at each other; we were two relatively young people who liked to fix things. We were also at some risk of falling in love, and this was how we staved it off, the two of us, in the hospital at night; I was living with Jake, though not married yet, and the other guy was a church-going Baptist with a two-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife, the kind of guy that the women in my program liked to gripe about, because someone had already made it her mission to smooth out his life and ensure his reproductive success. He had a graceful dancer’s body, among all those jock orthopedists, with long legs and long narrow feet and long fingers. We never acknowledged that we were watching each other. The few times we were on call together, he slept in the senior surgical call room, so I could have the junior room to myself, and we never said why.
I still like to fix things. I still like to believe that things can be fixed.
So the Braves were having a bad season, but they did have one pretty good pitcher, Jason Feldenkreis, and we got through the first three innings okay. By okay, of course, I don’t mean that the other team didn’t score, because they did, they scored four runs in three innings. On the other hand, the Braves got three runs, and my son was even implicated in the third one, because he had conveniently walked to lead off the inning, and then got to second on a genuine hit, and made it home when the other team’s center fielder missed what should have been a pretty straightforward fly. So that made it already a good day for William; he got to play the whole game, he got on base, he scored.
Fourth inning, and Jason Feldenkreis is suddenly spectacular, like he’d been just warming up till now. Suddenly he is doing that thing that boys this age can do, where you see them grow into themselves as athletes, handle the ball with genuine skill and strategy. His whole body twists into his windup, starting slow, as he rocks back onto his right foot, as he pulls his left arm back, as he rocks forward, moving faster, inhabiting his body in some new way, some way that none of us who are watching can ever hope to feel, as he locks his head into position and lets the ball go.
Strike one, strike two, strike three. The second batter is one of their two big sluggers—this one is literally a big kid, the other is small but very powerful. The slugger obviously wants a piece of one of those fast hard pitches, and he swings twice at pitches that are clearly out of the zone, with his coach yelling at him, Caldwell, wait for your pitch! Caldwell, make him give you a good one! So then, of course, Caldwell leaves the bat on his shoulder and Jason whizzes one right by him, caught looking, strike three.
As the third batter steps to the plate, the mother next to me murmurs, “What a pity, Jason can’t have very many pitches left.”
The father on the other side of her disagrees: he hardly used any pitches so far this inning, he might still have another inning’s worth in him.
No, says the mother next to me, I don’t think so.
I twist slightly to look at her. The coach’s wife. Her name is Karen, and she is, I’m afraid, exactly the kind of woman I am always trying to impress with all my bustle, because when I turn to look at her, and realize she is tracking Jason Feldenkreis’s pitch count, what comes to my mind is a completely uncalled-for remark about the ways that college pitchers nowadays are having Tommy John surgery, and we’re seeing all these overuse injuries we never used to see. Please note that we. What is in me, these days, that I need to posture in front of Karen, the coach’s wife?
She smiles at me. She is a pleasant-looking woman, lightly freckled, kind of like a kid herself. I figure she is a little younger than I am. She wears blue jeans and one of those handwoven blouses that let you know she probably shops over on the organic side of the aisle.
“It’s been so great having Jake help out with the coaching,” she tells me, in that mother-of-the-team way that the coach’s wife can put on. “I never really got to know him last year, but he’s just wonderful with the kids.”
I nod. Is she telling me how wonderful Jake is because she thinks he and I are still together, and therefore she is complimenting one of my possessions, or is she letting me know that he’s doing okay, in case I was worried, or has she heard from him some very unfair story in which I am the villain and she is taking sides? It’s a little awkward, not knowing.
The third batter takes a ball, a called strike, another ball, and then pops out softly to the first baseman, and we applaud loudly: way to go, Jason.
And then in the top of the fifth, the Braves take off. They bat right around, getting hits, walking—William comes up with two kids on base and one out, and he manages a real true base hit, right up the middle. Drives in both runs and comes to a halt on second base looking serious and jubilant, all at the same time. Karen and I and all the other parents had jumped up to cheer, of course, as the boys ran home, and as we sit down again, I see Jake, who has been pounding boys on the back, turn to look toward the stands, and I meet his eyes—we can exult together for William, there haven’t been many such moments this season—but I have the funniest feeling that he is actually looking over at Karen, next to me.
They are having an affair, I think suddenly. They are sleeping together. He knows the coach’s schedule, and when the coach isn’t home and the kids are at practice, Jake is with her.
I don’t know how I can be so sure. It’s not the kind of thing I go around thinking; I’m not a naturally suspicious person. It took me forever to become suspicious about Jake’s drinking, when I had all kinds of clues. I wonder if somehow I can smell my husband, sitting next to this woman who I am so sure has been with him, naked, in the very recent past.
The rally fizzles after William, and he is left on second base, but the score is seven to four going in to the bottom of the fifth inning. And sure enough, the coach pulls Jason after he fans the first batter; pitch count maxed out. We applaud Jason, all of us parents, rising to our feet again. He has held the other team to four runs, and we are sorry to see him go. Every new pitcher in a Little League game is a complete unknown; someone who pitched perfectly well last week can come in today and walk the next seven batters straight. That’s life, that’s hormones and growth and growing up, that’s baseball.
And then I realize that the relief pitcher will be Karen’s son. That is, the coach’s son. My experience is that the coach’s kid usually pitches, or maybe pitchers’ fathers tend to coach. And almost always, the coach thinks his kid is a slightly better pitcher than he really is, of course. I understand that totally; I think William is a better third baseman than he really is. Remember how I said he can usually make the long throw to first? Well, he can sometimes make the long throw to first, is what I should have said, but every time I see him make it, I think, look, he’s growing up, he’s getting stronger, he can really do it now. But that is not how it works, not growing up, or life, or baseball.
So, Karen’s son. I want to call them Karen-Coach-wife, and Dennis-Coach-son, but that would be unfair. Dennis O’Connor, left-handed sandy-haired kid who likes to clown around, and gets pulled up short every now and again by his father, Coach O’Connor, showing that he isn’t playing favorites. But Dennis isn’t clowning as he takes his warm-up pitches. He is concentrating, he is throwing hard, and after each pitch, he takes off his baseball cap, flaps it once or twice, and puts it back on. He would like to win this game, of course, we all would; we are tired of telling our kids, game after game, that sportsmanship is what really matters, good game, good game, good game.
My beeper goes off, and I want to apologize to Karen for interrupting the concentration of Dennis warming up. I also want to ask her, casually but abruptly, whether it’s true what I hear about her and Jake, in the tones that people use to ask me that same question. It seems to me that if I asked it in exactly the right what’s-this-that’s-going-around tone, she might just answer, well, yes, he’s a good-looking guy and he seems to have a lot of time on his hands these days, and you know how after twenty years, you can use a little change of pace? I fed him my special herbal tea, she will say, better than Viagra.
Instead, I slide my way down to the very end of the bleachers and return my page. Just the resident, calling to update me, as I had asked her to. The girl we took back to the OR is looking good, she says, vitals are rock stable, a second post-op crit is good, she doesn’t seem to be bleeding. What are your parameters for transfusing her, I ask, and she answers me, reasonably, competently. Dennis throws his first real pitch, and the batter swings wildly: strike one. The parents cheer, and I say to my resident, “Sorry, I’m at my son’s Little League game.”
“Sorry to bother you,” she says, and I assure her that I want to be bothered, after the scare that girl gave us when she started bleeding, in fact, I’d like another call after they get the next set of labs.
“Will do,” she says. “Enjoy the game. I hope your son’s team wins.”
“So do we all,” I say. And as I hang up and slide back over next to Karen O’Connor, I feel ashamed again, like I have been showing off for the other parents, but also for my resident, like I have been overacting some role model role. Look at me, I saved a girl from bleeding out, then I hurried off to cheer on my son, what could be more all-American? Look at me and think of how great it is to be a woman and a surgeon and a mother.
To be a woman and a surgeon, a mother and a surgeon, a wife and a surgeon. Oh, how smart I must be. It took me a long time to realize that Jake’s drinking was truly out of control. As a physician, I guess I am supposed to know something about these things, but I missed every danger sign. I felt irritated, rather than worried, that his late evenings in front of the television were starting earlier and earlier. I didn’t measure the vodka. And I didn’t consider the family history. Jake’s father had a bad drinking problem when he was in his twenties, right after college, I have been told, and he has been sober, in AA, for almost forty years. He and his wife and the other three grown children all live in Chicago, and when we go and visit Jake’s parents, alcohol is not served. They won’t have it in the house. But that’s as close as I have come to true alcoholism, and I let Jake slip deeper and deeper without noticing anything, except maybe some standard long-married resentments about how much time he was spending with the TV, now that we had the big flat screen and all the cable channels, and why were we making love so seldom? It crossed my mind to worry that maybe after twenty years you need a little change of pace, but I was thinking more along the lines of a romantic long weekend off-season on Cape Cod.
Dennis should get the second out of the inning on the next batter’s weak ground ball to second, and the second baseman fields it competently enough, but he holds onto it for a beat too long, and then his throw is offline, so the first baseman has to step off the bag to get it, misses it anyway, and the runner goes to second, where he beats the throw by a rather dramatic slide. The next batter pops up, but the one after that hits a pretty good line drive, which brings in a run. Seven to five. I am carefully not looking at Karen; I know without looking at her that she is staring fixedly at her son, as he stands on the pitcher’s mound, ritually flapping his cap again. I would assume that Karen is a pro at this; that she is not muttering to herself or visibly praying, that she is managing to maintain a smile, if slightly fixed and slightly glazed. Fortunately, Dennis strikes out the next batter, who will apparently swing at anything. I could swear that I can feel Karen relax very slightly, though of course there is still one out to go, and then after that, one more inning.
As far as I know, Jake was never actually unfaithful to me when we were together. The affair that I am imagining for him and Karen is a product of this new and terrible stage of his life, in that awful apartment out behind the strip mall with the supermarket and, God help us, the discount liquor store. I don’t make him take William out there; when he comes to spend the evening with William, or the Saturday with William, I just get out of the way—usually, I go to the hospital, though I try not to make a big deal about that, either—and I let him use the house and step back into his old life. But it is so easy to imagine that when he has to say goodbye, and leave his house and his son, who tends to get sullen and stop speaking, well, I can imagine that he drives to Karen’s house, after checking that the coach is out at a coaches’ meeting. That he sits in her kitchen, which I assume is bright and full of plants. Drinks her special tea. That if they have arranged it right, and all her children are efficiently deployed at soccer practice or band rehearsal or someone’s birthday party, they go into the guest room and lock the door and comfort one another for this bad season.
I don’t really like thinking about this, and I wonder whether I am crazy, to be so certain that I know that this is what is going on. I can see the two of them, naked in that guest room, on the fresh sheets that Karen had ready for any unexpected overnight guest. I have never had such a guest room in my house; I have never had unexpected overnight guests. I don’t think I want them. Jake’s family never visits; they feel it is up to him to come back to Chicago and say hello. My family, such as it is, would have no reason to stay over; we don’t see much of one another, my sister and I, but when we do, she can drive half an hour south from New Hampshire and I can drive half an hour north, and we can meet for dinner in a carefully restored nineteenth-century roadhouse that she knows from the antique circuit, or she can bring her twin daughters into Boston to see The Nutcracker, and we can have Chinese food together first.
I am thinking about the parents of those girls in the van that crashed this morning. The one I operated on was from Texas, and they were still waiting for her parents to arrive when I left. I consider turning to Karen and saying that, saying, can you imagine getting that call, making that trip to find your child in the hospital? Asking it maybe as a way of reminding us both that parents go on worrying and sometimes they have reason to worry, of reminding us both that there are worse things than being the relief pitcher’s mother. One thing that really irritates me about doctors is how we use the bad stuff that we see to grab authority. That’s what I was doing when I arrived at a game and did a big show-off number about my beeper and my patients and life and death; I was letting all those parents know that I wade daily into the muck of the world, I know things you don’t know because I see things you don’t see.
Karen is holding her breath; I felt her breathing before, and now I can feel her not breathing. Dennis is behind on the count, three and one, and this batter does not swing indiscriminately. And there is a runner on second; if he walks this kid, then the tying run is on. Come on, come on, you can do it. Karen raises her voice. “Throw strikes, Dennis!” she calls. She manages to say it with some dignity; she doesn’t yell. It sounds like she is giving him advice, good advice, advice he would do well to take.
Strike two, fouled off. Long pause, flaps the baseball cap, flaps it again. Looks back and forth with his catcher, nods significantly. And then he really burns one in, harder and angrier than anything else he’s thrown, sends it right past the batter and into the catcher’s glove. Called strike, inning over. I turn to Karen, and we smile at each other, slightly tremulously.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she says to me, shaking her head slightly. She has dangly beaded earrings, pale blue crystals that catch the sun and dance around her face.
“I know,” I say without thinking. And I think, I do not ever want to be the relief pitcher’s mother.
“He’ll be so glad he got the chance to pitch,” she says. Shakes her head. She is looking, I think, right at Jake. Of course, he is standing with her husband, the coach, and they are talking to her son, the relief pitcher. But I could tell when she stopped breathing, and I can tell where she is focusing; I am right about this. I can see when tiny blood vessels start to bleed, out at the edges of the surgical field, and I can see this. See, there I go again. I know things you don’t know because I see things you don’t see. She is looking at Jake’s neck, where it comes rising out of his Braves T-shirt; he has had a recent haircut, and a good one, and his hair ends high on his neck in a thick neat wedge. His hair may be getting silver at the edges, but it is still nice and full and soft; not like the coach, who is well into his male pattern baldness. She is looking at my husband’s neck, and his good strong shoulders, and she is remembering things that she has no right to remember. Or else, of course, I am going nuts.
I felt like I was going nuts when I finally did realize about Jake. It was when I found the vodka in the water bottle, of course, that I actually knew I had to do something. Jake would get this expensive bottled water, shipped from Iceland, which he bought in big plastic-wrapped job lots and kept in the garage. I was used to seeing a bottle or two chilling in the refrigerator for him to take to work in the morning, though personally I never touched the stuff. Jake said it tasted better than other water, purer and less chemical. I thought it was an affectation. But one morning, as William was eating his cereal, I looked in the refrigerator to see if we had more orange juice, and I knocked against an imported Icelandic water bottle, caught it, to keep it from toppling, and realized that it had been opened, that the top wasn’t fully screwed back on. This didn’t make sense, since the bottle was full, and since I was already holding it, I took it out, and took the top off, and for whatever reason, I sniffed it. They say that vodka has no smell, and maybe that’s true if you mix it with orange juice, but sniffing a bottle of vodka has a different non-smell than sniffing a bottle of glacier spring water. And this was the bottle my husband was chilling to take to work with him. When I smelled the vodka, suddenly everything came together, and I understood that life as I thought I knew it was about to end. How else would you describe the experience of realizing that you had to go confront your husband and tell him you couldn’t let him go to work, that you were about to call and report him as an impaired physician. And as I realized what my assignment was, I also found myself thinking of all these tiny things—the nights in front of the TV, but also the time last week when I heard he hadn’t shown up for a conference where they were expecting him to present, and the way one of the scrub nurses had looked at me the week before at the OR sink, the tone in which she had asked me, how’s it going, is everything okay? She had put a funny emphasis on the okay, I had thought so at the time. Jake didn’t operate at the hospital where I operate, but nurses know one another, and news travels.
The Braves seem to be a little tired—or a little worn out. They don’t add to their margin in the top of the sixth; three up, three down. It hardly seems like we have had any time to rest, and then it is the bottom of the sixth, the last inning. Still seven to five. If Dennis can get three outs without giving up two runs, the game is over. It’s such a simple calculation. I know that next to me Karen is making the same one, and across the field in the other bleachers, the Dodgers parents are making the opposite calculation: if the pitcher gives up two runs, the game goes on. If he gives up three, we win it here and now. I know how hungry they are for this, those other parents; they are quite literally hungry, as are we, over on our side; we are all hungry for dinner, but half of us will eat victory dinners, and the other half will chew on something else with our children.
Bottom of the sixth. There is Dennis, out on the mound, looking very small and very young. Doing that thing with his cap. His hair stays plastered to his head when he takes the cap off now, held down by sweat and concentration. Karen is fixed on him again, beaming her messages to his brain, his arms, his muscles. The team has fought through this game, through this whole season, and it is all up to you. So speaks the relief pitcher’s mother, whose most intimate thoughts are open to me. She is not looking at her husband, or at mine.
I didn’t actually have to be the one to report him, in the end. I would have done it, and he knows that—I told him I was going to do it. William got picked up by the early-morning car pool, which takes the kids who go to early morning drop-off, something the son of two surgeons comes to know very, very well. And I sat in our kitchen and told my husband, I cannot let you go in to operate, I don’t think it is safe. He yelled at me and he blustered and he accused me of betraying him, and then finally he told me that his longtime OR nurse, June Kowalski, had already reported him, that his OR privileges had been suspended two days earlier, pending an investigation. This had all happened, and he hadn’t told me. And I just want to say, for the record, that I did not throw him out of the house, although I was tempted, especially when I thought about the driving. About him driving William to school, or picking him up, or taking him to baseball practice, with one of those water bottles in the cup holder.
I said to him, we can work this out, or we can lick this thing, or whatever it is you say when you aren’t sure you believe it, because you don’t understand remotely, in the first place, why this is happening. I don’t drink and I don’t like the feeling of being drunk and I knew something was going on that I didn’t understand. And I don’t like things that I can’t understand. And when Jake said, the next day, I can’t live with the way you’re looking at me, and thinking about me, I have to get out of here and see if I can put things back together, I was both glad at the idea of not seeing him and angry that he thought he would do better away from me. Or maybe I am making it too simple. I know that I was feeling like I hated him, and he might well have been hating me, and all the while he was going to hearings and committee meetings and having his OR records reviewed and registering with the Massachusetts office of impaired physicians. And, I suppose, thinking about how this would always be part of his record, something he had to declare on every form he ever completed, for license, for privileges, for malpractice. And, of course, he wasn’t operating, and only you surgeons out there will understand what that means. And living with me, I realized, would have meant watching me go off to the OR several days a week.
First batter. Stocky girl, black ponytail, businesslike expression. Lets two pitches go by, both too low, one actually in the dirt. Dennis not looking so great. The third pitch is slower and better placed, and she deals with it efficiently, smacking it into left field. Overruns first base, but doesn’t actually try for second. I find this slightly chilling, though it probably just represents a good base-running decision by their first base coach; it’s as if they know they don’t need to try and stretch out the hit.
As indeed they don’t; Dennis builds it to a full count and then walks the next batter. Two on, none out, seven to five in the bottom of the final inning. The Dodgers parents are making a fair amount of noise over there, so we in the Braves bleachers do our best. Come on, Braves! You can do it, Braves! Yay, Dennis!
“Throw strikes,” Karen calls. “Just throw strikes.”
And over near the field, I can hear her husband yelling, “Settle down, Dennis, settle down now, guy. You can do it, just keep it over the plate. Settle down out there, solid defense, now!”
Next batter, tiny guy, obligingly pops it softly to third. And there is William, and for a couple of seconds I forget how glad I am not to be the pitcher’s mother, because I am waiting to see William catch the ball. And when he does, I feel a relief so strong and exhausting that I could turn to Karen and hug her. But I don’t, of course, not just yet. Two on, one out.
“Good catch,” she says to me, meaning William, and “He’s doing great,” I say back, meaning Dennis.
Caldwell again, their slugger, the one who struck out looking in the fourth. I helped save someone today, I think to myself, watching Dennis go into his windup. I may not be as in control as I thought I was, my life may not be everything it was supposed to be, but I did help save that girl, and shouldn’t that count? It’s not empty showing off to sit here and think of her. Jake and I, in our different ways, we thought we were so in control, didn’t we?
A double play, I think, with as much force as I possibly can. Let this next batter, Caldwell, ground it to second base, let him step on the bag and throw to first. Game over, everything done. One pitch, one swing, and we can all go have dinner. In fact, double plays are quite rare in Little League; the fielding isn’t generally up to it. And we’ve reached that stage where the game seems to be slowing, maybe because we are all willing so hard, the hungry parents on both sides of the field: strike him out, get a hit, catch the fly, beat the throw.
Oh, shit. Oh, no. A long fly ball, well out into center field. The center fielder runs for it, but can’t get to it. The dark-haired girl scores easily from second, but the relay is effective and the other runners have to stop at second and third. Seven to six.
I can see Karen’s hand, bunching up the fabric of her blue jeans, there at the side seam, along her thigh. The game is slipping away, we can all feel it, just as the other games have slipped away, just as the season has slipped away, just like so much more has slipped away. There is William, covering his base, now with a runner, the tying run, occupying the bag. There is William, who two nights ago confronted me to ask, are you ever going to let Dad come home, and wouldn’t listen to my answer, but who woke me in the middle of that same night to tell me that his stomach hurt, and he thought maybe he needed an operation. I wonder if in some small improbable corner of his brain, he imagined Jake and me fixing it, operating together, as in fact we never do. I don’t think he knows that Jake’s OR privileges are suspended; certainly I haven’t said anything about it. But, of course, with our carefully friendly, united-front spirit, we’ve left the poor kid with no real reason to explain why his world has ended. Daddy and Mommy love you very much, but right now they’re having trouble living together. That happens to grownups, sometimes. Even in the morning, when his stomach had stopped hurting, when he was agreeing with me that there was no reason he couldn’t go to school, when he was eating waffles, William asked me again, are you sure I don’t need an operation?
My point is, there are these moments when it all can slip away. And we are in one of these moments now, and I am morally certain that I will have to sit there and watch the boy who is the tying run take off and leave my son behind, sadly guarding third, and then the winning run will thunder past him, and all I can tell myself is that at least I am not the relief pitcher’s mother. Who is on her feet now, standing in the bleachers, staring at Dennis. Throw strikes, throw strikes, throw strikes.
And he does. Strike one, ball one, ball two, strike two, fouled off, and then a beautiful sharp hard strike three that goes past the batter so fast he doesn’t even move.
Okay, everybody up. We are all on our feet. Probably, over in the other bleachers, the Dodgers parents are on their feet as well, but who cares about them. Tying run on third, winning run on second, two out. As I get to my feet, my hand brushes Karen’s, where she is gripping the seam of her blue jeans, and she grabs my hand and squeezes it tight. Her palm is surprisingly cool, though slightly damp. We don’t look at one another, or at the other bleachers, or at her husband, the coach, or at Jake. We are both looking only at Dennis, the relief pitcher, with the game on the line. We have all of us forgotten every other batter, every other pitch, every other play, forgotten everything that came before. There’s only this.
There are moments when you feel everything slipping away, and then, I suppose, there are moments when you give it away freely. Holding Karen O’Connor’s hand, this hand that I am so absolutely sure was recently all over my husband’s body, I silently offer him up. I will trade his affections, his loyalty, his love, if Dennis can get this final out. I will give everything I have for this final out, for Dennis’s triumph, because after all, that is my son William who stands there on third base, cheering on the relief pitcher, and how can I be less than my son expects me to be?
Strike one—the batter, a wiry boy named Harry, who has been a casual friend of William’s for many years, swings wildly at an outside pitch, and his coach, over on the sidelines, starts screaming at him to wait for a good one. So he waits through the next two pitches, both pretty good, one called a ball and the other called a strike. Now the Dodgers coach is yelling at him, if he gives you a good one, you have to swing! Poor Harry, bet you anything he doesn’t really want to be there. Or was that true, I wonder; would he have jumped at the chance to come up with two on and two out and the game on the line? Was he just as happy to be the batter as maybe Dennis was to be the pitcher? I hoped so, Harry was a nice enough kid, but I also hoped heartlessly that he would strike out and lose the game. I held Karen’s hand and I stared at Dennis, and I thought, one more strike, one more strike.
I’d like to end this here. I cheered for him, I did. I cheered for him to throw that ball and get that strike and win the game for us all, and he did, and I ran down the bleachers, cheering and screaming, as I watched William run in from third base to throw his glove in the air and join the other Braves, dizzy with the unfamiliar joy of actually winning a game. They knew what to do; they piled on each other, hooting and laughing and shoving and smacking one another. And we were all jumping up and down as well, all the parents, cheering as if our problems had been solved and our prayers granted.
Perri Klass is a pediatrician who is currently professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University. Her novels include The Mercy Rule (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), The Mystery of Breathing (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), and Other Women’s Children (Random House, 1990); her nonfiction includes Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor (Perseus/Basic, 2007) and Every Mother Is a Daughter (with Sheila Solomon Klass, Ballantine, 2006). She writes the weekly column “The Checkup” for the New York Times. Her short stories have won five O. Henry Awards; her most recent collection is Love and Modern Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). She is a fervent Red Sox fan.