following Ken Arneson
My whole family is in New York right now–mom, brother and sister, their spouses and my niece. I’m at my sister’s house, taking care of her dogs. It’s a bit lonely here, but not having a dad is kind of liberating today. I have nowhere to be except by his graveside. I have what feels like all the time in the world to reflect on his life and our mutual love of baseball.
He was a great man. He was beloved by many and he had an ability to draw people close–to get them to trust him. He never took advantage of that. He loved to talk to people, but felt most comfortable with the ones he loved. He loved his mother and struggled at times with the guilt he felt caring for her. He loved the finer things in life. He loved golf too much. He lost his brother, business partner and best friend, Billy, in the mid-90s and struggled with that for years. He had a huge collection of wines, some of which he told me to save for my wedding (when I was 15) and my sister’s unborn daughter’s wedding. He loved telling people what they should and shouldn’t do.
He also had some hard luck. After he retired, he went to get his knee repaired and then found out he needed heart surgery. Just months after getting heart surgery, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 60. He died 14 months later.
His greatest love, besides family, was baseball.
His father had taught him the game and he taught each of us–my brother, my sister and myself. He preached the beauty of the game. We watched the Dodgers for years. His father had season tickets and passed them down to him. Now they’re split between the three of us and our mom.
Of all the times to die, he died the day before the 2009 NLCS began. The four of us (myself, my mom, my sister and my brother) went to game 1 the next night and it felt like the Dodgers needed to win. They needed to win for us. They owed us. They owed us that moment that I never got to have with him; that transcendental victory and happiness. They owed dad.
Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.
Someone told me right after he died that there’s going to be grief and sadness, but that the grief goes away eventually. And while emotions are tethered to us–that we can have moments where we laugh on our saddest days and cry on our happiest days–it’s important to feel those feelings.
And it’s easy to experience something traumatic and try to blow it off.
I remember very vividly the day he said he was going to stop fighting the cancer. He had slipped at home and hit his head on his dresser. This was the second time in two months he had fallen. There was a lot of blood because of the blood thinners he had to take for his heart.
He immediately said he didn’t want to fight anymore. My mom, who had worked so patiently to help him since he was diagnosed and listened to him cry in pain every night despite the pain killers, accepted it. She was told to by the doctors–this is his fight, not yours. When he says he can’t fight anymore, you say “OK, I understand.”
My brother, sister and I asked him to think it over–that maybe he was thinking more about the pain than about the possibility of recovery. My mom said we have to respect his decision. It’s his to make. My brother and sister immediately held her responsible. We needed to hear it from him.
He asked to speak to us the next day and said the generic: I’ve had a great life, but I can’t fight anymore. And my first thought was “I’m never going to see the Dodgers win a World Series with him.”
The last days dad was alive, he was barely able to speak. I remember interstitial statements and moments from this time, like the last time I got to see him as him, standing up and walking around a month before he passed and asking me “How are you doing.” We were watching Law and Order and Dancing with the Stars and other shows that didn’t deal with every day problems.
A few days before he died, my brother, sister, mother and I were in the kitchen talking. Mom asked us if there were any questions we had for dad before he died. For the next 15 minutes, my head boiled over with questions. What was Berkeley like in the ’60s? What was his favorite moment as a Dodger fan? What was his favorite part about raising us? Who was the most influential person in your life? What did you love the most in your life? I didn’t want to regret not taking this opportunity.
I ended up asking the only question I knew only he could answer: “What was it like in grandma and grandpa’s house as a kid?”
He smiled the biggest smile I’d seen from him in weeks and said “They hated the Yankees.”
Those were his last words to me.
The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.
Grief affects us in odd ways. Loss affects us in odd ways.
On June 27, 2010, about eight months after he died, I was at a Yankees-Dodgers game. Dodgers had a four-run lead heading into the 9th inning. You probably know what happened next. Broxton blew the lead. At the top of the 10th, Robinson Cano hit a home run to put the Yankees ahead. A 12-year-old Yankees fan and his father moved down to the seats behind us. The toeheaded boy, who smiled like this was the greatest joy in his life; who looked like he had never had a single problem in his life, began taunting the Dodgers and their players. His father put his arm around his boy and joined in. The Yankees had won the World Series only a few months prior.
God I just wanted to punch that kid in the face.
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.
There was still some hope in that 2009 NLCS when the Dodgers won the second game of the series. The third was a wash, but the fourth looked like the Dodgers’ to lose. Maybe we were going to be rewarded for our faith in the team.
The Dodgers were winning in the bottom of the 9th. Broxton got the first batter out. Then gave up a walk to Matt Stairs. OK, that’s fine, don’t want to lose the game to Stairs again.
Then he plunked Carlos Ruiz.
Then he got Gregg Dobbs to line out. Sketchy, but it was the second out. Maybe this was going to happen. The situation was as tenuous as my hopes for it fierce.
Then Jimmy Rollins hit a laser beam double and both runs scored.
The Dodgers lost again in the NLCS, crumbling spectacularly again, to the Phillies again, this time in the bottom of the 9th with a lead. Game 5 was destined to be a failure.
I asked my brother to turn off the TV as soon as Rollins got the hit. The Phillies players were celebrating loudly, obnoxiously, for the fucking second year in a row. Shane Victorino, with his eyeballs almost popping out of his head, screaming “YEAH!!” My brother asked why. Then I demanded it. The room was silent. That was it. They’d lost. I’d lost. How could they. I couldn’t do this for my dad. The failure was inevitable. I should’ve seen it coming. Why didn’t I prepare myself for it.
The roiling sea within me raged and there was fucking nothing I could do about this.
I shut down. I spit in the face of baseball right before it swallowed me whole. And then I didn’t watch anything on the sport I loved–that my father loved–and his father loved–again for two months.
The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.
The thing you hate about someone can be the thing you miss the most. My dad dispensed advice to me whether or not I wanted to hear it. When I was 22, I just stopped coming to him with my problems. When he died, I didn’t know who to turn to. The greatest irony.
Around December, I was beginning to cool off. But I remembered something that my dad had told me about Hank Aaron, about him being one of the players he respected the most. I decided to look it up on Baseball-Reference. And would you look at that? His numbers were incredible!! Do you see that spike he had in his final four years? Ridiculous! I dusted off an old blog I hadn’t written in in a while and started posting about baseball history. I began researching all the things my dad loved about the sport. Jackie Robinson was known for breaking the color barrier, but did you know he was an elite 2B, on par with Chase Utley? Did you know Hank Greenberg’s swing looked a lot like Barry Bonds’ in his prime? Both were so fluid and powerful. Did you know Dee Gordon has the exact same skill set as Maury Wills? There was a lot more to learn.
He gave a lot of lessons, but his longest-lasting lesson was this: I don’t believe in God, but I know when I do prayers [and he pointed to his chest here], I can feel Billy is next to me.
When I’m at a baseball game, I can feel dad there. I can hear him talking. I can hear him shouting, “You’re a bum!!” at Juan Uribe. I hear his voice again and it’s the thing I’ve been missing the most. Not the winning or the shared moments, but the conversation.
Baseball has never been about winning or losing. The problems you have are still there when the game is over. It was something he had told me for years and I never truly believed, but I know that now.
The biggest difference between when he died and now is I can say this: I miss my dad.
Most of you reading this probably don’t know how hard that is to type. To realize. It was so painful to realize myself that I almost punched a 12-year-old kid.
While I never got that magical moment, I can look back on these events in my life and not feel the bitterness that Ahab felt–the bitterness that swallowed him whole just before the whale took him down.
I’m happy for that 12-year-old. I’m happy for his dad. [Fuck the Yankees anyway.] I’m happy for the time I had with my dad. I’m happy he instilled in me the values of family; of empathy; of caring; of love; and of baseball. I’m happy I get to talk to him still in my own way.
Looking back on this has been bittersweet; but while there’s sadness, there’s no more grief.