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Echoes in the Night

David Wright [1] has been back with the Mets since Monday. The Mets have been back in first place since August 3. The Red Sox are back in Queens to play the Mets for the first time since July of 2001. Charles Prince is back and sort of in the middle of all this for the first time since not long after the first time the Red Sox were in Queens to play the Mets, which was in October of 1986.

Also, Charles Prince — “Dad” to me — is back in the hospital.

You, gentle reader, may recall Dad spent the end of May and all of June recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. After that, he went home; he went for blasts of radiation five days a week for three weeks; he took a chemo pill every night for 21 nights; and he underwent an MRI to see if it did any good. One month ago today he received an excellent report. His oncologist proceeded to map out a treatment plan for the year ahead. In May and June, mind you, nobody was talking about a year from late July.

About eight seconds after I absorbed how good the news was, I texted a friend who’d asked if I wanted to go the Mets game that night. I had told him I couldn’t let him know until early Wednesday afternoon, July 29, at the conclusion of Dad’s appointment. If my father’s bill of health wasn’t relatively clean, I couldn’t just compartmentalize and catch the 5:11 to Woodside. What he has doesn’t exactly go away. The word he got, however, was that his cancer was as close to pushed into foul territory as his cancer could be, all things considered. So, “yes,” was my texted answer. Yes, let’s go to ballgame. I can do that.

I had to do that if for no other reason than symmetry. Ten weeks earlier was the bad news. Bartolo Colon [2] was pitching that Wednesday, May 20, and I was supposed to go. I had to back out. Colon got shelled. Dad was 48 hours from surgery, the surgery that led to the hospitalization and the rehabilitation and the physical therapy and the radiation and the chemotherapy, all of it at age 86.

Ten weeks later it was a Wednesday again and it was Colon pitching again and this time I made it. Colon got shelled again, but that was all right in context. Wilmer Flores [3] did and didn’t get traded that same night. It became the news that dominated my waking thoughts well into Thursday. That sort of concern could now that I didn’t have to dwell on what might be wrong with my dad. Things seemed to be going pretty OK for him.

And that lasted three weeks. On the evening of August 19, yet another Wednesday, I got a call. It was back to the hospital for Dad. It wasn’t precisely tumor-related but it’s hard to say it wasn’t connected in some fashion. The treatments he received to send the cancer into foul ground came with risks. Immunity went down. There was a fever. There was a persistent cough. There was no avoiding a return trip to where he didn’t want to go.

There was pneumonia, it was diagnosed. Breathing issues. Heartbeat issues. Discomfort, to put it mildly. Pain, to put it bluntly. A not particularly patient patient at the center of it, while those who care for him and about him circled and hovered and tried to convince him that if he would just put up with what medical professionals are trying to do for him, he’ll be better off for it soon.

He’s not really buying it, but we’re still selling it. He remains in the hospital. As of this writing, it’s his tenth night-into-morning there. I was with him as that first night steamed relentlessly into morning, his coughing growing frequent, his patience growing short, his theatricality emerging. (I’ve learned, among many other things lately, that when somebody repeatedly announces he is “at death’s doorstep,” he’s actually quite alive and if not well, then at least not going anywhere anytime soon.)

I’ve been with him practically every night since he was admitted, which was in the hours following that horrible loss in Baltimore [4]. At least I assume it was a horrible loss. I was preoccupied with a coughing, consternated octogenarian. I noticed the result from Camden Yards. I divined a home run had been given up by Carlos Torres [5] to create it. It was Carlos Tsuris at his most troubling, but I had my own tsuris to deal with.

The next night, Dad was settled in, however reluctantly. I came to see how he was doing. The visit was fairly short. The Mets were off.

Then, every night but one since then, there’s been him and me and good old televised sports. In deference to his prevailing tastes, we watched entire exhibition football games last Friday and Saturday. He prefers football to baseball. He prefers many things to baseball. That was OK. I like football, too, even if it doesn’t count and there’s actual first-place Mets available on the same TV. The important thing was we had something to watch together and I had brought with me an iPad with the MLB At Bat app. When you’re in a hospital, with its many voices yapping and its many machines whirring in the background, it’s not rude to inject the murmur of Howie Rose and Josh Lewin from Colorado into the cacophony. As we pretended what the Jets on Friday and the Giants on Saturday were doing was somehow significant, just enough of a shout emanated from my iPad to get Dad’s attention.

“Big doings in the Mets game?” he asked.

This was during the second 14-9 game in two nights [6]. Of course there were big doings. I affirmed their existence. Then we went back to watching — or looking in the general direction of — football.

Monday night came an extraordinary offer when I showed up somewhere before 7 PM. If I wanted, he said, we could watch the Mets game after Jeopardy. You don’t screw with the sanctity of Jeopardy, you see. You also don’t see my father reaching out to watch baseball with me. Circa 1986, it was second-nature, but that was an aberration. He was into those Mets. My mother was into those Mets. Who wasn’t into those Mets? The attachment actually lasted through the remainder of the 1980s, but it wore off in 1990. My mother died that season. When she passed, so did my father’s surprising interest in baseball. He had never shown much affinity for it prior to the days of Davey, Darryl & Doc, his scattershot claims of childhood Dodger fandom notwithstanding. I guess I wasn’t shocked when he detached from this thing we briefly shared, but I was quietly sorry he had. I had enjoyed sharing it with him.

Now, a quarter-of-a-century later, it was back. Sort of. Very sort of. But what a time for it to be even very sort of back, with the Mets seeming less ridiculous and far easier to explain than they’d been for an eternity. How apropos that our first game intentionally viewed in tandem arrived on the same night David Wright returned [7] to genuine baseball activities.

This is how you watch a baseball game in the hospital with your father who can’t get out of bed: You turn it on after Jeopardy, the Phillies already ahead of the Mets, but that’s all right, it’s still early. You get excited because you see Wright approaching the plate for the first time in more than four months. You warm to the sight of him doing that little one-two high step of his to get loose. You take in the majesty of No. 5 in the batter’s box.

And then you respond to your father who needs some help with a certain function that he’d much rather attend to for himself, but he can’t get up, so he has to use that thing they give you instead. You pull the curtain around his bed and you take care of certain receptacles he has just partially filled because, game or not, the reason you’re visiting him in the hospital is to be looking out for his well-being. So your attention is drawn from the TV as you take that receptacle to the bathroom and empty it and grab him a few paper towels and then you wash up and you come out and you look up at the TV…

…and you see David Wright circling the bases. It dawns on you that you just missed his first real swing and therefore his first home run because you were disposing of the contents of what you’d otherwise identify as a small, unfortunate lemonade pitcher but you now recognize instantly as a hospital urinal.

Yet you somehow don’t mind, because a) David Wright has just homered; b) they show replays; c) you’ll never, ever forget where you were when it happened even if you didn’t witness it in real time; and d) now that certain functions have been attended to, you’re going to sit back down and watch a whole bunch more innings with your dad.

That’s what the past week has been like for me and the Mets and my father and anybody else who has drifted into our orbit. His home health aide, who has kindly signed on to spend overnights overseeing the nocturnal elements of his recovery, has joined our viewing parties, such as they are. Dad nods off. The aide asks me if it’s eight innings for a full ballgame or nine. Nurses come in with medications and monitors. He wakes up to give blood or get blood. Innings are missed because a CT scan is ordered and executed. Urinals need to be used again, and if somebody else of an official capacity is on duty, I tiptoe out into the hall with my app and let him do what needs to be done in what qualifies as privacy.

Even with all that, it’s been a helluva week. I’m watching the Mets with my dad. My dad is sort of into it. Sort of. Very sort of. He focuses on the graphics. He noticed the number of pitches is posted along with the score. When did they start counting pitches, he wants to know. He doesn’t remember them doing that before. In the last 20 years or so, I tell him, throwing in a quick tutorial on what it’s supposed to accomplish and a quicker editorial that it doesn’t accomplish all that much. He’s regularly confirming the inning, how many outs there are and “the count”. I love hearing him ask, “What’s the count?” It’s a baseball phrase. My dad’s using a baseball phrase in conversation with me.

When the Mets are winning, it’s great. When the Mets are losing, they can still come back, so it’s still good. When he calls my sister or his significant other during a commercial, he tells them, “I’m helping Greg root the Mets on.” When I hear a pause and then him saying something like “Yeah…well…” I smile that I’m the only one who seems to get what’s going on. No, he wouldn’t be watching baseball without me in the room. No, our relationship was never going to be the stuff of a Donald Hall essay [8]. But fathers graciously, maybe grudgingly, watching ball with sons — even sons who keep assuring them “we can watch something else if you want” — is never going to lose its pull, even when the father is 86 and the son is 52.

When it’s getting late and he’s truly out of it, I deliver a peck on the forehead and promise I’ll call to let him know I got home all right. Thursday night [9], I stayed through eleven innings. When Daniel Murphy [10] drove in Carlos Torres in the thirteenth, I clapped heartily at the first stop light I came to on my mostly deserted roadway of choice. With my window rolled down, I could hear my applause echo back at me in the night…the sound of four hands clapping. It gave me the kind of chills you wouldn’t wish on anybody in a hospital.

At the next stop light, I found my eyes welling up just a little. The Mets were winning by a little more and were clearly going to win again. The Mets were going to lead the Nationals by a lot. Concurrently, Dad’s most obvious pneumonia symptoms were fading. Except for some coughing that he couldn’t shake.

And there was that heartbeat business.

And, oh, the pain he was in on one side of his stomach that turned out to be from the blood thinners they had been giving him to help with the heartbeat.

And there were those intermittent declarations that he wished death would come and take him already (which mysteriously quieted when it was time for Jeopardy and he was answering questions with a question with the flair of a returning champion).

And he keeps taking the oxygen tube out of his nose, which he’s not supposed to do, but it’s so irritating and how is he supposed to sleep with it in?

And his short-term memory definitely doesn’t collate like it once did.

And there’d be another X-ray, another CT scan, another round of poking and prodding from another stranger whose name wasn’t sticking with him, all that activity he couldn’t keep track of and couldn’t stand and who could blame him?

But the Mets were winning. It wasn’t just the Mets winning and me responding positively to it for the usual reasons associated with diehard fandom. It was now enmeshed with something more. Throughout my father’s illnesses this summer, the Mets have been a lifeline for me. Some nice people responded to my revealing his situation [11] in May with the sentiment that at times like these, when family is at stake, you realize what’s really important.

I didn’t contradict their rationale, but the more I became immersed in his battle to get and stay better, the more the Mets came to mean to me, as if they could mean any more to me after 47 consecutive seasons in their company. You need something to think about that isn’t the worst to ponder. You need something to dwell on that takes you away. You need something you find so much meaning in that when it starts to go unfathomably well, you can’t believe how happy it makes you.

And when, after 25 years of shunning it, somebody close to you suddenly decides he wants to resume sharing it, you realize it can’t be wholly unimportant.

Friday afternoon I spoke to Dad on the phone. Are the Mets playing tonight, he asked. Yes, I said, they’re playing Boston at home. “That’s an unusual matchup,” he observed, perhaps recalling when they played in unusual circumstances in 1986, perhaps just showing what he knew about traditional league alignment. I agreed that it was unusual, but declined to elaborate or editorialize.

You can come watch it here tonight, he advised — “if you want.”

Yes, I told him, I want to. So I did. And even though the Mets lost this unusual matchup to Boston in unusually irritating fashion [12] (“remember when you asked me the other night about pitch counts?”) — and even though, when he saw a hand-made sign at Citi Field that said “Welcome Back David,” he had to ask, “Who’s David?” and “what is he being welcomed back from?” — I can’t say I was sorry to have taken it all in where I did.

In a hospital room.

Amid a steady flow of built-in interruptions.

Within earshot of other people’s parents’ respiratory struggles.

From a chair next to my dad.

With enough medicine and any luck, these visits soon won’t be necessary. I’ll be watching the Mets from my living room, he’ll be watching probably something else in his. Until then, our first-place ballclub looks pretty good from this place fate has compelled us to meet on a nightly basis.