“Baseball is a game of the long season…”
– John Updike’s essay about Ted Williams’ last game
Even as his life was ending, my dad nonetheless envisioned a future. He’d lie in bed, oxygen tubes up his nose, and I’d sit on his bed’s edge, and we’d talk about the things we hoped to do. One day, in April of 2010, he told me about an idea that seemed especially important to him.
“Let’s go back to Fenway Park,” he said. “Let’s go to a game. It’ll be just a boys’ trip. You, me, some of your pals. I hope your mother would be okay with that. I’m sure I could talk her into it.”
We imagined the trip and talked through the logistics. Our seats would be way closer than anything we actually could’ve afforded, a few rows back on the first base line. It’d be me and my dad, and then definitely Kyle, my dad’s favorite of my friends. We’d have our Red Sox caps on, the brims shielding our eyes from the sun. We’d point toward the left field wall they call the Green Monster. We’d talk about how Ted Williams used to play over there and paraphrase that John Updike essay. It’d be a perfect day for a game, partly cloudy, seventy-five degrees, a light breeze.
A month later, my mom and I left my dad’s body in the bed where he died, in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and drove straight to Fenway Park. It was early, no later than five in the morning, and light was falling upon the world around us.
There’s no logic in the early moments of grief. Nothing makes sense. Where has the beloved gone? He can’t have gone far. He was here a second ago. If he’s no longer in that bed, maybe we’ll find him elsewhere. He’s probably on his way to Fenway, just like he’d planned. Is there a game today?
My mom parked in front of the statue of Ted Williams, my dad’s hero. I looked at the outer wall of the ballpark and saw the big plaques of the retired numbers of retired players. Ted’s number, the number nine, stood apart.
“Go stand under the statue,” my mom said.
She took some pictures of me on her phone. I stood under the statue, and under the number nine, pointing up at it. I see those pictures now and I can’t believe how young I looked: my eighteenth birthday just two weeks behind me, not a hair on my face, my baggy clothes hanging off my lanky frame. The sky grew brighter, more cars appeared on the road. I started shaking.
“Dad, Dad, Dad,” I said. “What the fuck, Dad?”
My mom and I didn’t return to Fenway Park until one year later, on the anniversary of my father’s death.
When I think back on that year, my memories divide roughly into milestones of grief: the first birthday, the first Christmas, the first Notre Dame football game. I found myself doing things that made me feel closer to him. The return to Fenway was to be the finale. And, to make it more special, we worked our connections to get a tour of the ballpark. We awoke early on the morning of May 5, 2011, climbed into my mother’s car, and began our trek back to this hallowed site.
Throughout his life, my dad made many trips to Fenway, but none was more important than his pilgrimage of September 28, 1960: Ted Williams’ last game. Twenty-two years old then and having just ended his own baseball career—he played second base for an Orioles’ minor league squad—a young Bobby Glidden was one of the 10,000 or so spectators in attendance. Another was a twenty-eight-year-old John Updike.
Updike wrote about the game in his essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” That essay has long been part of my life. From the time I was able, my dad would have me read it to him. I was always amazed at how the words moved him. Looking back, that’s probably when I understood that I wanted to write: I wanted to move my dad in a similar way, with words of my own.
On the way to the ballpark, I was lost in thought, wondering what this day, this anniversary, meant. A year had passed. Was I better for it? Had I learned anything about life? About the human spirit? I wasn’t sure. I was mostly exhausted. I stayed drunk as often as I could.
After we parked and started walking, my mom removed a small glass jar from her coat pocket.
“I brought your father,” she said. She handed me the jar, and I put it in the back pocket of my cargo shorts.
“Didn’t they say you couldn’t do this?” I asked.
“Just in case,” she replied.
We arrived at Fenway’s Gate D at 11 a.m., as we had been instructed to do. Our tour guide, a tall blonde woman, Ann, wearing a red Red Sox jacket, welcomed us.
“Come right this way, follow me,” she said. “Oh, and just a reminder: We don’t allow the spreading of ashes on the field. The demand would be too great.” I was relieved to hear this; the matter was settled.
The first stop on the tour was the left field warning track. I tried to take it all in: Here, right here, is where Ted Williams played his position. I thought of Updike’s description of Fenway: “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” In the distance I saw a groundskeeper tending to the infield dirt. I could tell my mom wanted to find a way to drop the ashes right where we stood.
“Let me take your picture,” Ann said.
My mom and I posed in front of the thirty-seven-foot left field wall, affectionately known as the Green Monster, smiling in our blue Red Sox sweatshirts.
Ann took us through a “secret door” from left field into the inner structures of the ballpark. She walked us up some stairs to the top of the Monster, where seats had recently been installed. In Ted’s day, there was only a net to block homerun balls from landing amidst the Boston traffic below. My mom stood silently thinking. I could make out the lone red seat in right field, which is where Ann took us next.
A few other fans were there, too, also on tours. A young boy wearing an official Red Sox cap with a comically large brim talked to an older man, probably his grandpa.
“Why’s that seat red?” the boy said.
“That’s where Ted Williams hit the ball,” the grandfather replied.
The boy sat in the seat and the grandpa sat beside him, and the two sat looking out at the field. I looked at home plate and imagined what it must have been like for my dad to witness Ted’s final at-bat.
It was the bottom of the eighth when Williams stepped into the batter’s box for the last time. Updike: “The air was soggy; the season was exhausted.”
As Williams approached the plate, the Fenway crowd rose to their feet. The air was dense with expectation. “Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark?” wrote Updike. “Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand.”
Three pitches—that’s all it took. The first went wide, the second one Williams missed, and the third etched itself in history. “It was in the books while it was in the sky,” wrote Updike—a home run, maybe the most famous home run ever hit in this ballpark. Witnessing it, my young father bawled. His favorite part of the Updike essay, the part he always wanted to hear me read, was about Ted’s reaction to what he’d just done. “He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap.” My dad remembered the roar of the crowd exactly as Updike described it: “a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved.” Ted stood his stubborn ground, refusing to salute his fans.
“But immortality is nontransferable,” Updike concluded. “The papers said that other players, and even umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and he did not now. Gods do not answer letters.” That line, right there, about gods and letters. My dad loved to quote it. Whenever I read it to him, his eyes would shine, and he’d be there again, back in that damp afternoon, back among the weeping faithful, a grateful witness to a miracle.
My mom and I found our seats along the first-base line and sat watching the players warm up. She bought us some beers, and we sipped them. I watched Dustin Pedroia stretching. I felt something akin to resignation. We’re here, I thought. We’ve done it. We’ve made the trip. My mom and I talked, but the conversation was stilted. What was there to say?
As it happened, the choir from Eaglebrook, my fancy middle school, was there to sing the national anthem. “Your father would love this,” my mom said. She was right: He’d been so happy that I got to go to a fancy school like that. On my first day of sixth grade, he looked at me in my school dress code—a button-down and khakis—and said, “My son goes to a private school.” I thought about that as the kids sang. The game was soon underway, and the Red Sox were soon trailing by a lot. By the seventh inning, a light rain began, and the Red Sox had fallen behind 11-0.
“Let’s go,” my mom said, but didn’t specify to where, and I followed her to the stairway leading to the Monster Seats. The rain had just stopped. “Let me have the ashes,” she said. “I’m getting your father on the field.” She put the jar in her pocket and ascended the stairs.
It could have been the beer, and it could have been the way the sun was hitting the wet grass, but the world seemed aglow. I felt calm, but confused: Did she intend to dump the jar’s contents onto the field in the middle of the game, with cameras rolling? That seemed ill advised. I distracted myself by taking out my phone and playing with it. I clicked on my voicemails, put the phone to my ear, played one my dad left me right before he died, on the night before I was competing in a track meet.
“Hey Bill, it’s me, Pops,” I heard his voice say. “If you’re asleep, good, I’m glad you are. And good luck in your meet tomorrow. You know I’ll be there in spirit, pulling for you. Okay? Bye.”
“I’m here, dad,” I said. “Just like we planned.” I went up the stairs to retrieve my mom.
“Mom, please don’t jump,” I said. I was sort of kidding.
“Just don’t try to control my actions when the game ends,” she said, looking irritated. At the game’s conclusion, we made our way down the stairs. I was no longer calm. I had no clue what this woman was capable of, and I wanted no part in her scheme. To me she resembled a child throwing a tantrum, defiant at not having gotten her way. She leaned against a wall, glanced back and forth, and gestured toward the door Ann had shown us earlier. “You have to watch me in case I slip out,” she said.
“Slip out of what?”
“Just be quiet and wait!”
“The door’s probably locked now, anyway,” I told her. The words had hardly left my mouth when a slick-haired man in a Sox jacket strode past us and through that very door. My mom looked at me, then back at the door. Then she bolted, and I followed, saying, “Just go, just go!” We soon found ourselves in a big garage-like structure among groundskeepers and other Red Sox staff.
“Act like we’re supposed to be here,” my mom said. From where we stood, we could see the opening that led straight onto left field. I couldn’t believe I’d become complicit in my mother’s crime; it didn’t seem fair. We walked toward the field, affecting an air of calm indifference, as if to say, We’re here all the time. Don’t worry about us.
At any moment, it seemed, we would be noticed and stopped. But we weren’t. We made it all the way to the edge of the concrete floor beneath us, a step away from left field. The air was soggy; the first year without my father was over. My mom held the jar in her hand, unscrewed the lid, and poured some of her husband’s ashes into her hand. She looked at me, and said, “You’re going to do this with me.” She poured the rest of my father’s remains into my right hand, and together, we stepped onto the field.
She went left, toward the wall, and I went right, toward the infield. The grass around us glistened with the moisture of recent rain. I saw the ashes flying from my mother’s hand to the ground below. I followed suit, opening my hand, and a light wind blew some of my father into the air. I decided to be more deliberate, turning my hand over and letting the ashes fall onto the outfield grass. The experience couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but it felt longer, much longer, and by the time I saw the slick-haired, sunglasses-wearing Sox employee waving us down, the task had already been accomplished. My mom and I looked at each other and lifted our arms, as if in victory.
“Who are you with?” the man said.
I wanted to say, “My dad,” but instead I muttered something about the tour we’d been on and how we wanted to take another look. The man shook his head and walked away.
“Every true story has an anticlimax,” Updike wrote toward the end of his Williams essay. “The men on the field refused to disappear, as would have seemed decent, in the smoke of Williams’ miracle.” The game had to continue. Life had to go on.
My mom and I stood in an aisle of seats in left field, along the third-base line, to look at our newly formed gravesite. The exhilaration of a moment before had mostly subsided, and I was starting to think about the long drive home, and I was feeling hungry. My mom looked at me, and I saw that she was crying. She hugged me and shook.
Sometimes I think about the trip my dad had envisioned for us and wonder what would’ve happened. It would have been a nice enough time, I’m sure. But no joy on this side of eternity is ever fully consummated; even our brightest moments are colored by sorrow. So that trip would have been marred by my recognition of its being the last time I’d see my dad enjoy a game at Fenway, and remembering it, I would probably have wished I’d been able to enjoy it more. As my mom and I hugged, and then stood looking at the field, I was overwhelmed by the awareness of what was missing: Him. The feeling was, Okay, Dad. We did it. You can come back now. But immortality is nontransferable. Gods do not answer letters.