What’s your favorite season?
Some simply answer “baseball”. I always answer fall. Fall seems to represent the ending of the vibrancy known as summer, it ushers in a time hushed by the blanket of leaves on the ground. Fall has a contemplative quality – with less hustle than the summer and not quite the bustle of the holidays. Fall is also the ending of baseball for the year, which makes me feel bittersweet. Looking past the green outfield to the sun glowing on the river I know one more season has been wrapped up.
I was granted the opportunity to announce three games of the 2017 Great River Challenge. I came only as a spectator last year so it felt good to once again be “The Mouth” of Challenger.
As I announced the names of the sponsors listed on the back of my tee-shirt; the names of the individuals, businesses, and organizations rolled off of my tongue with great familiarity.
These are names which have supported The Great River Challenge for many years and some have supported local Challenger Little League for twenty-five years.
During that quarter of a century we have seen Dolly the sheep, horrific school shootings, the fascinating internet, the tragedy of 9/11, ever-present smart phones, and the Cubs win the World Series. We have seen loyal fans stand by their team in all the lean years and whoop with joy at the victory.
We have seen fans support Challenger teams for a quarter of a century. This is true loyalty. You have not only supported CLL, but have made it possible for CLL to exist.
I am talking about the names on the back of my shirt, but I am also talking about the fans who are family. The fans who burst with pride year after year as they watch their favorite CLL player on the QC River Bandits’ diamond. I am also talking about the biggest fans of CLL- the players themselves! Because of them we get to cheer and spend days in the sun watching the perfect game of baseball.
The loyalty of the volunteers, organizers, and sponsors is what allows The Great River Challenge to continue. As a fan, I am grateful for your loyalty.
As a loyal fan I have watched some of these players for 25 years. I have seen the changes in them and in their families throughout the years, but the constant through all the change is loyalty.
~People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. ~Rogers Hornsby
I’ll let the fall tuck our baseball equipment in the bag on a shelf to lie low through the bitterness of winter, until the warmth of spring brings the loyal players and fans out to the sandlot once more.
I wrote. I deleted. I pondered how to write a post about Challenger Little League’s 2016 Great River Challenge less about me and more about others. I wanted it to be about the passion of the parents, the exuberance of the players, the eagerness of the volunteers, and the glory from the fans. I found out I couldn’t discuss this day without it being about me.
As this day was looming in front of me on the calendar, I had much trepidation about attending. I have always had a purpose for being at these games. I had a daughter who was a player and I had a function to fulfill during the games, but this year I had neither. For anyone reading this who is not aware; my daughter, a Happy Joe’s Challenger Little League player, died unexpectedly earlier this year. She loved being with her friends and playing America’s game, especially on the River Bandit’s diamond. The league has been tremendously supportive of us, for which I am grateful. Yet, I was fearful of attending this event. I suppose I had fear of feeling envious of the other parents who had children playing, fear of feeling useless due to not participating in my usual capacity, fear of feeling alone without my daughter playing, and fears which are too dark and deeply hidden to bring to the surface to try to analyze or share publicly.
The day of the 2016 Great River Challenge games was the perfect Mid-western September day. Even though storms had been predicted, we ended up with white puffy clouds in a blue sky which reached down to meet the lush green field and the smooth river reflecting the same clouds and the arches of the bridge.
Hearing the chatter of the players as they walked through the fence, onto the diamond at Modern Woodmen Park was delightful. The excitement to be playing ball in that special place rang clear, but this year I noticed a different excitement. I am sure it has always been there, but I was seated closer to the diamond and had a different perspective which allowed me to notice. What I saw was friendship and camaraderie between people. Coaches were kindly giving instructions to eager volunteers. I watched players giving hugs to other players or high-fives accentuated by giant smiles to coaches. I experienced hugs, smiles, and tears from players who had not seen me for a while. They remembered me. They remembered and missed my daughter. Nothing could have moved me more. I felt ridiculous that I had feared returning to this, to these players who are the bravest people I know. These athletes face fears everyday that put my fears to shame: fears of isolation, ridicule, physical pain, hunger, and of not being able to do things so basic that you and I don’t even realize…well, some of you do realize, because you are their parents. You, their parents are the second bravest group of people I know and you just keep doing it all because that is what needs to be done. You, the parents have not only supported me through these past months, but for all of my years associated with Challenger Little League. Golly, the past twenty-four years. You, their parents welcomed me on the day of the Great River Challenge. You welcomed me with smiles, hugs, and tears showing me where these players learned their compassion, and showing me that CLL is more than a sport, more than a pastime; it is a family. It is the family of Challenger Little League. We are a family of folks related by the common bond of our children. We are siblings who have grown up together, just as our children have. We have learned from each other and leaned on each other over the years, and just as my blood siblings reminisce at holiday gatherings, we have stories to tell when we are together. Memories of our growing years, of our children’s growing years and no matter who is missing from our family we will always have those memories. Memories we get to cherish because there is a game called baseball.
This is just a drop in the bucket of what I could tell you about my perspective, about my gratitude, about my Challenger League family. With a gratitude that moves me to weeping, I thank everyone responsible for this glorious day for the bravest athletes I know.
For more than half of my life as I blew out my candles, I only had one wish. I wished for Katie to no longer be hungry.This was my constant wish, not just for candle-blowing time. Now she isn’t. My wish came true, not quite how I had imagined it would, but it came true. Tonight, at age 57 I needed a new wish. It came to me quickly. I wish everyone would have the opportunity to fully understand how much they are loved. It is a humbling feeling, one which will have you thanking your lucky stars, Almighty God, or your deity of choice. Every day since Katie died earlier this year, I have experienced love, care, and generosity from family, friends, neighbors, and almost strangers. There are so many people I have not yet thanked, so if you are reading this and have heard nothing from me, please know I am eternally grateful for whatever you did or provided for me. The magnitude of the love is overwhelming and inconceivable. It is also completely palpable. Grief is the hardest thing I have ever done. I was completely unprepared for grief. I have often stated, and still believe I have been in mourning since Katie’s birth. I mourned the child I expected her to be, the child I had planned on having and raising. She wasn’t who I was anticipating. That form of mourning did not prepare me for the slap in the face, punch in the gut mourning in which I am currently engulfed. I vividly remember the lecture and book by Kubler-Ross, but I don’t remember ever once being told how physical the grieving would be. I know I was never told that somebody who loves me would do my laundry or dishes or carry my purse and open my doors because I simply have no strength. Often I feel like a pile of tar in the middle of a Disney World parking lot on a 110 degree day. The Disney World reference is intentional, because I often think the rest of the world is running on Disney happy place steroids…..while I am the tar. People have been able to temporarily love me out of the tar state. Love has been made visible to me. I don’t wish the death of your child or any other calamity which might be the opportunity for you to realize the depth of love others have for you, so instead I wish you would be open to love whenever it knocks on your heart. Watch for love. Recognize love. Accept love. This I know…wishes come true. Allow yourself to be loved. Allow others to love you. It is, after all, my birthday wish.
Katie has always been difficult to buy for, for any holiday or gift giving occasion I would wrack my brain trying to come up with a decent idea of a gift for her. I always wanted to find something to make her happy, but my gifts were never food. Instead, my gifts were Uno cards, a new game, a movie, craft supplies, or music; all which she was happy about, but I never felt like I was able to give her what she really wanted. I never thought what I could give her was good enough. Today, I think I chose good enough. Today, I understand I gave good enough.
One thing about me which was bothersome to Katie is the fact that I am a procrastinator. If taxes don’t have to be done until April 15th at midnight, I’ll turn them in at 11:55pm. When I think of something that needs to be done, I figure I’ll do it sometime this week. When Katie thought of something that needed to be done, she wanted to do it immediately. Our sense of time, or rather our sense of the importance of time differed. Perhaps she knew tomorrow wasn’t promised, it should be done today.
So today, three months from the day my daughter died, I filled my car with ribbon, wire, trinkets, a potted plant in a basket and a giant glittery, lavender shepherd’s hook. I drove to her grave site, well, I drove to the vicinity of her grave site. I thought it would be easy to find. I thought it would be the plot with the fresh, new, baby grass growing on it. Nope. They laid sod! I found a metal circle in the ground that read 221 abcd, I knew she was at 221 b. What I didn’t know is where those plots were located in relation to the metal number circle. There was a wooden stake tipped with red paint sticking out of the ground to the far right of the number circle. I looked carefully at the stake to see if there was any other marking on it. Nope. I carefully walked in all directions away from the stake until I found a faint sod line in the ground. I walked the perimeter of the sod line and was astounded how small it looked compared to how eternally huge and gaping it looked when her casket had hovered over it three months prior. I backed up to look at it from a different angle, I heel to toe walked the length and decided that yes, she is probably right there. Now to figure out where the headstone would be located. I suppose it would be located at the head, but if it is to line up with the others in the row, it seemed like I was standing at the foot. I decided I would put her stuff there whether I was right or wrong. I put the bottom of the shepherd’s hook in the sod line and pushed it into the soil by standing on it with my good foot while trying to not damage my injured foot. I reached up to fasten the sparkly fuchsia tulle bow to the center with pipe cleaners. The sun sent sparkles all around my head as it shone through the bow. The bright blue sky made me happy as I saw it peeking through the white rattan of the basket I was hanging. I stuck “stars on sticks” from her students in the plants’ soil, affixed various trinkets, a crown, a cross, and an angel, then I hung up the zip bag of craft supplies. Inside was yarn, scissors, and pipe cleaners with a note to friends of Katie to feel free to use those items to attach anything they might wish to the shepherd’s hook. I walked a few feet away to take a few pictures. It sparkled and shone pink and purple and was noticeable from a great distance. It was up before her birthday. She would be proud. She would be pleased.
For my daughter’s thirtieth birthday I decorated her grave and it was good enough.
For my daughter’s thirtieth birthday she helped me understand that I always gave good enough.
Rain was forecast and threatening, I had a baby shower at my house the day before, there were several family birthdays and the beginning of school coinciding with the Great River Challenge; all distractions which made it seem like hours at the ball park would be a challenge to fit into the week-end. Due to a propensity for tardiness, construction traffic at attempted bridge #1, and barge traffic at attempted bridge #2 I arrived several minutes late to the ball park. I was quickly handed what I needed and rushed to the press box where I was given a quick lesson on a new microphone before announcing our National anthem volunteer guest singer and introducing the players for Game One. It was then I sat down and took in the glory of the sun glistening on the river, the verdant green of the field flanked by the shining bridge and Ferris wheel, and an unusual coolness for August, but blessedly, could see no rain in sight.
I was grateful I could rush in to do my small part for the day knowing others had planned, organized, emailed, found sponsors, made T-shirts, set up tables and chairs, hauled tents and coolers, and taken care of every minute detail for these games to flow smoothly. I was also grateful for everyone who volunteered time and money to make this day possible.
Throughout the day I had several people with me in the press box; some were returning fans and some were new to Challenger Little League. While I was announcing I could hear snippets of their conversations regarding the games. I was touched to learn of the impact our players had on their lives, on their hearts. I can never make it through a day at the Great River Challenge without tears streaming down my face at some point and it seems other people who are not CLL parents have the same reaction to the poignancy of these games. These fans talked about their lives having been changed by experiencing Challenger Little League. It is a wonder our stands are not packed to capacity. The Quad Cities is fortunate to have this incredible event happening here, I am always surprised there are people who live here who have never availed themselves of this joyous opportunity. Every parent who is ever going to enter their child in a sport should attend our game, their child’s sports experience will be different after witnessing the greatest game in the Quad Cities!
One new fan told me she wished the players wore microphones so we could hear them. She was intrigued by what the conversations might be between the runner on second and the two second basemen. She wanted to hear what words were being exchanged between the “bull” runner being blocked on his way home and the “lineman” blocking him who gave him a high-five after they crashed into each other. She didn’t need a mic to know the encouragement being given from the Augustana pitcher to the batters, it was visible in his smile.
Thank you to all who made the 2015 Great River Challenge a successful, joyous event. Thank you to everyone who came to witness our remarkable players reveling in a day of play on a magnificent ball diamond. I know lives were changed. Encourage your friends to attend next year, they will thank you for changing their perspective on life.
photo by: Alex McGill
“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.” Bob Feller