The Sky’s the Limit by Alice Lowe

old, tattered baseball in field of grass, lonely

Flickr Creative Commons: Miles Kent

“Take me out!”

There was always baseball. Lofting balls to him in the back yard, showing him how to grip and throw the ball with his stubby fingers. He started with T-ball at five—tiny tykes swinging eagerly, determinedly, sometimes tearfully, in a fierce contest with a stationary ball—and stayed with it through the finely honed and competitively groomed “majors,” the top rung of Little League. I see him in sequential incarnations, from the little fair-haired imp scampering around the bases, grinning into the stands, to the brawny teen with a cocky manner that seemed more for show—or was it protection?—than a reflection of self-confidence. His teams and games and seasons mix and mingle in my mind. He wore a different uniform each year—Padres, Rockies, Cardinals—and I, his adoring and adored aunt, was a faithful and abiding presence in the stands, sporting the caps and colors of his teams.

We had a singular relationship from early on. I represented a steady and cool—in both senses, calm and hip—presence in his life. As an aunt I was close but not too close, that small degree of separation adding to our mutual comfort. As a lifelong baseball fan, I was delighted when he took to the game with enthusiasm, and it became a sustaining link between us. He believed that I knew more about baseball than just about anyone he knew, certainly more than any other female. We would talk players, team standings, trades, strategy, scores, and stats. I had to stay on top of my game to secure my image and that of all womanhood in his eyes.

He became a good ballplayer, an able but erratic pitcher. He was either on or he wasn’t, and all of us—his entourage, an amalgam of parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins from both sides of the family—could tell by the way he carried himself when he took the field; his transparent facial expressions telegraphed his moods to the stands. In the early years, the boys (and occasional girl) were rotated in and out regularly no matter how well or how poorly they played. It was more about fairness then, giving everyone a chance. On one of his off pitching days, he was getting bombarded and, visibly miserable, wanted to be rescued from an embarrassing performance, but the coach left him in for two innings that seemed like slow torture of the dripping-water or crawling-ants variety. After giving up a bases-loaded home run, he mouthed to the coach, “Take me out!” He complained about it afterwards, but I wasn’t sympathetic. “It’s good for you,” I said. “You have to learn how to lose as well as to win.”

I watched him and the other boys grow up on the ball field, each year a little taller, more adept, more intent. When they got to the majors, 13 and 14 year olds, they were no longer little rascals at play. Competition was fierce, the coaches were focused on winning, and the tension in the stands was palpable. In a winner-take-all championship match against their league rivals, he was sent in to pitch with the game tied near the end of regulation play. Sharp and focused but visibly tense, he held his own, but every pitch seemed to carry the weight of eternity, glory, or humiliation. When they went into extra innings and he was still on the mound, his mother and grandmother were too jittery to stay in their seats. They paced back and forth alongside the wooden bleachers, moving out of sight range each time a batter came up to face him. You would have thought they were outside the ER during an emergency appendectomy. Too nervous to watch each unfolding pitch, they tuned to the sound of the crowd for clues. “What’s happening?” “I can’t look!” “Was that a strike?” The game was a cliffhanger, and I sat on the edge of my seat, transfixed by every move. They went 12 or 13 innings in all, and the coach relieved him with a fresh pitcher. They won the game, but that seems irrelevant now. It was a game for the scrapbooks, a story we would tell and retell in later years.

Competition was intense in high school, and when he didn’t make the team on his first attempt, he gave up baseball. He found it frustrating when things didn’t come as easily to him as they had when he was younger, and I was disappointed that he didn’t seem willing to make more of an effort. Baseball was part of the glue that held us together, and he lost interest when he was no longer playing. We still shared an allegiance to the New York Yankees, even though his friends and the men in the family razzed him about it, thought it uncool to cheer that reviled team of ostentatious wealth and too many winning seasons, as well as disloyal to our own San Diego Padres. But now the many distractions of high school and teenage life spirited away his attention and enthusiasm. He would humor me as I tried to engage him in baseball banter, hanging onto a thread. He was growing up, and I had to let go. But it was hard.

 

“You’re my cool aunt”

My head jerks up every time I hear the swoosh of the sliding doors or catch their movement out of the corner of my eye. I inspect every burly, fair, short-haired young man who walks by. It’s no small thing that I’m meeting—hoping to meet—my 19-year-old nephew here on campus. He didn’t show up last week; will he today?

I was a student here 25 years ago, when the Commons was a cafeteria-style hall. Now it’s a food court with the same chains you see in the malls: Subway, Starbucks, Sbarro, Taco Bell. I didn’t start college until my 30s, my late start a result of both real and self-imposed barriers. My university years turned my life around, and this campus remains a happy place for me. I still come back to take an occasional class. Now he’s here too, a wide-eyed freshman a year out of high school. His path has been a rocky one, marked by bad choices, the wrong friends, and drugs. We, the extended family, could only wring our hands in helpless bewilderment. We feared he would blow his chances irrevocably and ruin his life, but he seems to have pulled through it and gotten his head straight after just one lost post-high-school year. I’m thrilled that he’s here and hoping that it will be the impetus of a fresh start. We’re still close, the glue has held, and I think he might relate to my experience.

He and his mother, my sister, have struggled throughout his difficult teens, like many single moms with an only child, and now they’re maintaining a respectful distance, giving each other space. It’s important to me to reinforce and cultivate our enduring bond, make sure he knows I’m still cheering him on. I told him I’d be here between 11:30 a.m. and noon after my Wednesday morning class. Last week I waited until after 12:30 p.m. I made excuses for him as I left, disappointed but still hopeful: it was raining; he’d been having car trouble. He told me later that he’d been held up in the computer lab and suggested we meet at Bronx Pizza one day instead. That’s always been “our” place, so it seems fitting, but I’m fixated on meeting here. It feels symbolic. “Please,” I ask. “For me?”

Is he afraid I’ll preach to him? Sure, I want to. I want him to be inspired by my story, the obstacles I overcame for my hard-won education. I want to tell him how it can change his life as it did mine. Sounds like one of those hackneyed “walked 10 miles in the snow” stories, and if he’s anticipating something hokey, can you blame his hesitation? I know he has to generate a unique identity here and in life; he’s creating his own stories and doesn’t need mine. This is his place now, and maybe it needs to be a safe haven, away from family and the past. If he doesn’t come today, I’ll go home and email: Missed you! How ‘bout next week … at Bronx Pizza?

The hall starts to get crowded around noon, and the din intensifies. Students en masse haven’t changed over the years, animated and rambunctious like puppies at Dog Beach, oblivious to their privilege. So much promise ahead of them. And here he is, walking toward me, that sweet smile that has melted my heart for 19 years. Even in the uniform of the day—plaid baggy shorts, a gray hoodie and a baseball cap—I could never mistake him for anyone else. I choke up when he initiates a public hug, but I stifle my emotion. “You’re my cool aunt,” he often tells me; I still have my image to protect. I’m in jeans, sandals, and an SDSU t-shirt, just one of many older students, not too parental-looking. Over his pizza and my salad, he tells me about his classes, and there’s a sparkle in his eyes, a vigor to his demeanor that’s been missing for a long time. He’s enjoying his sociology and psychology classes, he tells me; they help him better understand himself and the way the world works. He’s considering a psych major. I remind him that sociology was my major and psychology my minor; we share that too.

Our time together is easy-going, comfortable. Nothing’s changed. We even catch up a bit on baseball, though I’m hoping that his studies will be an even stronger connection. I don’t show my euphoria and wouldn’t dream of spoiling our camaraderie with a lecture—that’s really not my style—though he listens attentively and laughs in the right places when I entertain him with a few anecdotes about campus life in the ’80s. The old days, as he sees it. He talks about the future, his goals and dreams. He assures me that his troubles are behind him. “I’ve learned from my mistakes,” he tells me. He believes it. How can I do otherwise?

 

“So done with all that shit”

He picks me up in the almost-new, electric-blue Toyota pickup that his mother, grandmother, and I bought him. We had planned to stop for lunch at Bronx Pizza, but he showed up late so now we’re headed straight to the university to buy his books for the spring term that starts next week. He completed one full semester, no flying colors but decent grades. Then last fall he had to drop out due to health problems that resulted in gallbladder surgery. His illness distracted us from inklings that other problems were rearing up, too—signs that he was using drugs again. We brushed them aside, wanting to believe it wasn’t happening, he was just sick. He says he’s well now, fully recovered, but he looks drawn. Maybe it’s the weight he lost when he couldn’t eat, I think, at the same time feeling a knot in my stomach. I expect him to be eager about starting back to school, but when I ask about his classes, he’s not even sure what he’s enrolled in. Huh? I think, as another red flag goes up. What happened to his enthusiasm? He’s distracted, remote, almost sullen. It’s more than his usual moodiness; I’ve seen it before. Dread creeps up on me like swamp water, but I try to hold it back. Maybe I’m over-reacting, scrutinizing too closely, I tell myself, trying to believe that I’m misreading the signs. Knowing but not knowing.

He brightens when he shows me his new tattoo. “You’re the only one who won’t give me flak about it,” he says with a conspiratorial smile. He holds up his left arm: no illustrations, no flags or daggers, just forward-slanted blue script running from inside his elbow to his wrist: “The sky’s the limit.” It’s a reminder, he says. To inspire him. “It’s true, right?” He looks for my approval. I play my part and agree cheerfully, but my heart sinks. Is that him talking or is it drugs? Here we go again…

The sky isn’t in reach or even visible from his cell at County Detention, where he surfaces six weeks later. Part of a complex of courtrooms and law enforcement facilities, it’s a campus of sorts but a world away from the university. We saw it coming, but what could we do? He swerved back onto that rocky path, seeking shortcuts, instant gratification, heedless to all warnings and advice. He’ll be there for a month, after which he’ll go into an intensive year-long drug court program. He can’t send email, and phone privileges are limited, so I challenge him to write to me—“Yes, write, as in pencil on paper,” I say. “What else do you have to do these days?” And to my surprise, he does. We have a priceless interlude, exchanging several letters over the next few weeks. He writes openly and eagerly, covering sheets of lined yellow legal paper on both sides with his neat schoolboy cursive. With time to contemplate and to measure his words, he expresses himself in thoughtful and articulate prose. I see how this could be a great outlet for him, a kind of therapy, and I encourage him to start keeping a journal, to write poems, stories.

He writes that he’s feeling clear-headed and wants to stay that way. Like it’s a revelation; like it hasn’t happened before, I think. In his first letter, he says: “I let the drugs get control of me again. But I am so done with all that shit! I know those are just words, but I’m going to show everyone how sincere I really am this time. I can’t be held down when the sky is the limit.”

Words and slogans, indeed. But he is sincere—today—and I won’t let him down. He knows I’m still his cheerleader, win or lose. But I’m going to challenge him too, as I always have. He’s in a place, mentally as well as physically, where he’ll listen. Rah rah, sis boom bah! I applaud his awakening, his upbeat attitude, his resolve, but… “My sweet,” I write, “we’ve been here before. You mean it now, but you meant it the last time and the time before that. We’re all pulling for you, but you’re going to have to prove yourself. We need more than promises.”

It’s easy to put labels on his problem. He’s a good kid, and he’s smart, but something’s got hold of him. Addiction is his mother’s belief, and she’s finding solace in Al-Anon. The system appears to concur—a 12-step program is part of his sentence—but what does it mean on a day-to-day basis? Accepting it, sure, but the time comes to take responsibility and, as he likes to say, “Man up.” Stay in the game, tough it out: no one’s coming in to relieve you. I ask him, “What’s different this time?” He’s thinking and praying and reading, he says. Self-help, so-called inspirational books—Tough Times Never Last but Tough People Do—and the Bible. “I truly believe that if I stay in touch and connected with God, I can do it,” he says. Well, whatever works, I think, though he’s invoked this God of his before, always at low points, always with short-term results. “I know you can do it,” is what I say to him. Rah.

“It’s fun,” he says, this usually taciturn lad, “sending and receiving letters.” Our missives wing back and forth every week. “We share a relationship like no other,” he writes, melting my heart anew. He even picks up the baseball analogies: “I’ve let my team down, but I have to show that I can still be a winner,” he says. The language is applicable, and I rejoinder, something about coming from behind. He looks to the future, talks buoyantly about his plans and goals again. Yeah, but right now it’s easy, is what I think. No temptations, nothing to get in the way. What will he do when his freedom is restored, when he has to make choices again? How many wild pitches can he throw and still stay in the game?

In his fifth and last letter he’s optimistic. A little scared and nervous about his pending release, which I find encouraging. Humility has replaced that wise guy hubris that leads to trouble. “Trust me. I’m going to see this through,” he says. He’s going take charge of his life, focus on his future, on that sunny sky. He’s going to get his head straight, find a job, go back to school. “One day at a time,” he says, adopting AA parlance. He asks me to “Keep the faith,” and it’s a plea for one more chance. He’s asking me not to give up on him. I’m so tired, worn out from worry and the strain of contrived enthusiasm, from hiding my cynicism—or perhaps just realism—but he needs my support, and what else can I do? Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded… I swallow my qualms and take my place in the stands, still a faithful and abiding presence as he prepares to get back into the game.

alice lowe outside with plant in backgroundAlice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, Hobart, Middlebrow, and r.kv.r.y. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction” was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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  • Susan

    What a beautiful post Alice. I’m rooting for team Alice!

  • Faith A. Colburn

    I love this piece. I have a nephew who was a terrific athlete. Basketball. Was being scouted as a sophomore in high school by a major land grant college. Then he lost his leg in a stupid shooting accident when he broke every rule of tun safety ever concocted. I live far enough away, I don’t see him often now, but his mom says he does drugs from time to time . . .