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Two months ago the announcement brought back many memories. Next Aug. 13 in Dyersville, Iowa, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees will play a regular season game at a most irregular place: the site where Kevin Costner starred in Field of Dreams (1989).
I’ve watched it many times. If asked to name my favorite movie, I might say The Great Escape or The Right Stuff, but my wife tells me to fess up: It’s Field of Dreams. Flawed though the movie is in many ways, it always chokes me up. Although called “a baseball flick,” the underlying motif is father-son relationships. At the end, Costner’s character asks his dad, “You wanna have a catch?”
My lifetime catches with my father: zero. He had no interest in baseball. I never played until I was 11. At that point I was a fat kid with a lazy left eye, so my batting average during one year of Little League was .182, if I generously count as hits what were probably errors.
Still, I wanted to be at least a decent fielder, so I nagged my father to come out on the street and throw me some ground balls. I said “street” because we lived in urban Massachusetts and had no backyard or nearby green space, which meant a missed ball would go rolling and rolling—and that contributed to the missed opportunity.
One day, finally, my father agreed. We stood in front of the house in which we had an apartment. I walked 20 yards away. He threw me a ball that bounced twice before it should have hit my glove—and I missed it. Embarrassed, and blaming my father rather than myself, I ran after it and yelled over my shoulder something like, “Why didn’t you throw it straight?”
Talk with each other while you still can, and thank God for wiping away tears.
When I picked up the ball and turned around, he was walking up the steps to our front door. He went inside. That was it. We never again even started at catch. Nor did we talk much—and once I became a teenager, we spoke hardly at all.
Cut to October 1984. I was 34. He was 67—and dying of bladder cancer. I lived 2,000 miles away and flew to Boston with the public goal of providing some comfort and help, but my private motive was selfish: to learn why he had moved from brilliant youth just before World War II to postwar failure, at least in the eyes of my mother, decade after decade. That was a mystery.
One evening we sat on a Danish modern couch in their apartment. After some perfunctory remarks I threw him a question about his dropping out of graduate school. The question was harder and curvier than a polite inquiry should have been. He got up and walked away, saying over his shoulder something like, “Why don’t you mind your own business?”
I put away the conversational ball and went to sleep. The next day I asked no more questions. My father and mother drove me to Boston’s Logan Airport. He wore a baseball cap because chemotherapy had left him bald. I pulled my suitcase out of the trunk, shook his hand, leaned over, and whispered in his ear, “I love you,” because that seemed the right thing to say to a dying parent.
I never saw him again. I wish I had persisted in my questioning. I should not have so readily given up, both for true love and to gain true family history.
This month of October is the 35th anniversary of our nonconversation. Several years ago I interrogated surviving relatives and obtained some old records, so now I have a theory about my father’s change, but the mind-witness is long gone. In the magic of Field of Dreams, the son and the dad finally have a catch. That catches my tears, every time.
What’s the takeaway for parents and children, as they anticipate get-togethers at Thanksgiving next month? Have a catch, or a family touch football game. (Or tackle, if you must.) And at Christmas? Talk with each other while you still can, and thank God for wiping away tears.