“Daddy doesn’t want to go.”
“He’s going,” I told my mother grimly. “Period.”
She’d been arguing with me all week about this trip. “You just don’t understand the disease,” she’d told me. Frequently. “He gets nervous around crowds . . . I really don’t think he should go. I’m sorry. But you just don’t understand Alzheimer’s.”
This was hard to argue, because it’s true I’m no specialist. But I’d read more than a few things about Alzheimer’s Disease in the years since we’d been told my dad had it. Also, I knew him. He’d be fine, said I. The expert.
“Mom,” I said. “He likes watching the Pirates play. He likes baseball. If the crowds bother him, if he gets too nervous or upset or if he hates it, we’ll leave. But I really think he’ll be fine. And I’ll be with him the whole time.”
“Oh, yeah? What about when he goes to the men’s room, you going to be with him then?”
“I’ll wait right outside.”
“What if he gets scared in there? Or confused?”
I sighed. “Maybe I can ask an usher to go in with him.”
“Oh, sure.” Cigarette inhale. “You tell some usher he has dementia and next thing you know, he hits him over the head and takes his wallet.”
“Mother,” I said. “God.”
She blew out a breath. “I don’t know,” she said. “The problem is, you don’t live with him . . . you don’t know what he’s really like. And you just don’t understand the disease. You don’t understand Alzheimer’s.”
I knew what she meant. Not living with him meant I didn’t see him every night, when he tended to get agitated. I didn’t have to deal with his insistence on taking the garbage to the curb on the wrong morning, every single day except the right one. I didn’t answer his questions over and over and over, day in and day out.
I did know what she meant. But I also thought that catering to this disease – always, unceasingly, world without end, amen – might not be the only way to go.
And so I gave my mother the best response I could think of, at the moment.
“Fuck Alzheimer’s,” I told her.
And that, weirdly enough, was that.
And so it was that on July 1, 2014, I arrived at my parents’ house to find my dad all cleaned up and ready to go, baseball cap perched atop his head, light jacket clutched in shaking hands. It was July and there was absolutely no need for any type of outerwear, but the shaking was really all I could see. What, I wondered, was wrong with me? Why was I doing this? Did I really need to subject my father to torture just to get one more memory for myself?
“Well?” said my dad. “We going, or what?”
“I guess,” I said. “But . . . I mean, are you okay, Dad?”
“Yeah, I’m all right,” he said. “Why? Are you all right?”
He was halfway to the car when I finally said, “Yeah . . . I’m fine.”
And so we went.
The first Pirate game I attended was the home opener in 1980, played at Three Rivers Stadium against the Chicago Cubs. It was a chilly day in April, and my dad had gotten me excused from half a day of school in order to be there. Dad still had all of his brain back then; Willie Stargell still played first base. Bert Blyleven pitched this particular game, to be relieved first by Grant Jackson and later, Kent Tekulve. This Pirates team was coming off a World Series win the previous October, and the fans let them know they hadn’t forgotten it. At the age of nine, I’d never heard anything like it in my life.
“How about that, Mis . . . that’s really something, huh?” my dad said. “Jesus Christ, that’s amazing. You hear that, Mis?”
It was amazing, and made even more so by Mr. Vince Lascheid, Three Rivers’ long-time organist, who every so often would play three repeating chords – “Let’s! Go! Bucs!” – that would drive the crowd into even more of a frenzy. It was like magic, that organ music. Three Rivers Stadium has since been torn down and Vince Lascheid passed away in 2009, but they play recordings of his music at PNC Park to this day.
Anyway. Time passed, as it does, and I went from liking baseball to loving baseball to being entirely obsessed with baseball. By the summer of 1983 I had shoe boxes full of baseball cards, a scrapbook quickly filling with ticket stubs, and a firm opinion on designated hitting (for the record, I was against). Thanks to the collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, I also had a newly unemployed dad, with plenty of free time for baseball. And nearly as important, I had a brand-new Kodak Disc camera which my cousin John and I used to take photos during the Pirates pre-game batting practice. I remember thinking that the super-professional look of the Disc camera might very well lead them to believe I was a professional myself; a young journalist, perhaps, new to the local baseball scene, or maybe a movie scout on the lookout for the cast of the next Angels in the Outfield. Interestingly enough, it actually would be my camera that gained me entry into the fast-paced world of 12-year-old MLB groupies, though not in any of the ways I’d imagined.
John and I were doing our usual batting-practice-stalker routine when we noticed a Dominican gentleman weaving through the seats, headed our way. Turns out my sleek and shiny Kodak Disc had caught his eye.
“My name is Luís Deleon,” he told us. He also told us that his brother, José, was making his first major league start that day, as pitcher for the Pirates. He wanted photos of this momentous event, obviously, but had either forgotten to bring or didn’t have a camera. I forget which, but no matter. We immediately raced back to our seats to tell my dad, Luís in tow.
“Jesus Christ, that’s your brother out there? Pitching?” said my dad, beside himself. “Yeah, you can borrow her camera, take it! Mis, give him the camera. . . Jesus Christ, Mis, did you hear that? His brother plays for the Pirates!”
What followed was a summer that most young girls would have found – well, probably deadly boring actually, but that my dad and I enjoyed immensely. There were tickets to home games, courtesy of José and Luís, where we sat amongst the Pirates’ wives and families just like we belonged there. There was a baseball passed around the locker room to be signed and then given to me. There was a trip to the home of Pirates catcher Tony Peña, where I was at once awed and mortified to be in the same room with several Major League Baseball players, my father, and the blatantly exposed male anatomy of Tony Peña’s young and diaperless son. How this all came to be is kind of a mystery to me; I mean, crappy outfield tickets to one single game would have been overpayment for the favor of using my stupid camera. Prime seats at multiple games plus all the rest of it – well, I feel safe in assuming I will never again be a part of quite such a profitable exchange.
It was true, too, that Luís seemed to really like my dad. This was also a mystery to me. Not because my dad wasn’t likeable; on the contrary, most people got along with him just fine. But it seemed to me that a twenty-something single guy, hailing from somewhere as exotic as the Dominican Republic, wouldn’t have that much in common with a middle-aged native Pittsburgher with a twelve-year-old sidekick.
Be that as it may, and now owing our own huge debt of gratitude to Luís and José Deleon, this was a summer my dad and I talked about forever. Or at least, until we didn’t anymore.
Because, of course, he had forgotten.
Anyway. Back to 2014.
We’d arrived at PNC Park with plenty of time to spare and found our seats; now Dad waved at the Pittsburgh skyline, visible beyond the right field fence. “Boy, this is something else,” he said, clearly in awe. “All those buildings . . . man, that’s something. Who are we here to see, again? Is it your kids? Are your kids playing today?”
“No, Dad,” I said. “We’re here to see the Pirates play.”
“Oh,” he said. He looked confused. “The Pirates.”
“You know, the Pirates you watch on TV? The Pirates? The baseball team?”
He still looked confused, trying and failing to take it all in. His lips were trembling, as they tended to do when he was nervous. Meanwhile, my heart was sinking.
“You okay, Dad?” I asked. Again.
“Huh?” He looked at me. “I’m fine, yeah. I just . . . I was never here before, I don’t think.”
He actually had been there before, several times, but there’s no sense (or kindness) in trying to remind him of things he obviously will not remember. Instead I just said, “Yeah, well, this is where the Pirates play now.”
“The Pirates,” my dad said. “Huh.”
It had been a pretty hot day, the high temperature nearly ninety, but our seats were in the shade and a steady breeze blew in from the river. The stadium was full but not overly packed, and I was unusually glad for the half-row of empty seats in front of us. The Pirate Parrot was on the field, running and mugging and waving and cheering. I have always been one to avoid direct interaction with mascots of any kind, and so normally I was mildly entertained by his antics but also glad for the distance between us. Today, though, I found myself watching him with a slightly more loving and grateful eye. We’re all just here to have fun, his capering seemed to say. That’s all. There’s nothing to worry about.
I mean, I knew there would be no re-living of the past. I really knew that. Because in my dad’s case, there is no past; there’s only the confusion (or rarely, clarity) of the moment. A lot of dealing with Alzheimer’s is working with what you’ve got, trying to see and appreciate the best of the person that the disease has left you with. So I was entirely prepared for that.
Which meant, of course, that I wasn’t prepared at all.
Go fucking figure.
So here we were, back where we started, me and my memory-free father. At the ballpark, watching the Pirates play. Or watching my kids play. Depends who you asked.
And so the game started with a threat from the Diamondbacks but no score, and then the Pirates went down one-two-three. “Where do I see how many outs there are?” my dad asked me, and I showed him. And then showed him again, and again and again. This was fine; this was to be expected. It was if he stopped asking that you might need to worry.
It was during the third inning that I noticed he had, in fact, stopped asking, and was instead looking up at the scoreboard on his own. I’d hardly had time to consider this when he called out, “Double play! Mis, we need a double play!”
I looked at the scoreboard myself; one out, and a man on first. I looked at my dad. I realized that it wasn’t a huge analytical leap to know that a double play would be ideal right then. But this was a man who had recently eaten hand sanitizer. And offered my six-year-old son a beer.
Huh, I thought.
By the bottom of the fifth, the game was not looking too promising: Arizona had scored two runs in the top of the inning, and the first two Pirate batters struck out. Luckily, the Diamondbacks did little to nothing for the rest of the game, but then, neither really did the Pirates. By this point, though, I was way too absorbed by my dad’s reactions to the game to be especially concerned with the events of the game itself.
“Base hit . . . aww, son of a bitch,” he said, when a line drive by Neil Walker went straight to the glove of left fielder David Peralta.
“Jesus Christ, struck him out,” he said when Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke went down swinging.
“Sixth,” he said, when I totally forgot myself at one point and asked him what inning it was.
“HUH,” I thought.
The seventh inning was a dud for the Pirates, and the eighth not much better; with two outs, Russell Martin singled to center but soon after was caught stealing to end the inning. The seeming futility of the game did not, however, stop the crowd from shouting “Let’s! Go! Bucs!” every time the organ chords blasted from the speakers.
“Let’s! Go! Bucs!” my dad chanted with the crowd, clapping his hands and stomping his feet in time with the music. And I sat there next to him. Next to my dad. At the Pirates game.
I don’t know exactly how or why it happened. I do know it’s not likely to ever happen again. But for this brief period of time, this hour or so at the baseball park, my shaking and confused Alzheimer’s Dad had left the building. Sitting next to me now was my dad, my real dad, the dad who took me to my very first home opener and who quite literally spent his unemployment checks on peanuts, and who explained to me that a batter hitting foul ball after foul ball could, in fact, remain at the plate forever.
The top of the ninth was a blur to me, having realized that it was, in fact, the top of the ninth. I’ve never been very good at allowing fun times to come to a graceful, pleasant end. When I was very young, I would cry when it was time for my friends to go home. I cried at the end of the day in kindergarten – every day. Had it been now instead of the 1970’s, my teacher would have surely been obliged to launch some sort of abuse investigation. I don’t recall actually crying at any of the many ninth innings of 1983, but I do remember the pit in my stomach, the loss of enjoyment that came with it being almost over.
Which, in retrospect, was nothing compared to this. No, this ninth inning, this day right now – this was the worst. I needed a tissue but didn’t have one so instead I kept wiping at my cheeks and then drying my hands on my jeans.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered my dad, as the Diamondbacks’ Gerardo Parra hit a line drive to center field. Nick Ahmed came up next and singled to right, putting men on first and second. Clearly the Pirates were going to lose; now it was just a matter of how badly. Not that it mattered to me. This was no longer a game but instead just a show, one that would end however it ended, win or lose, the point being that it would, indeed, end.
“Triple play!” my dad called out, and though the Pirates did not comply, they did get out of the inning with no further runs scored. Still. Two runs down in the bottom of the ninth after two hours of fairly uninspired play was, well, less than inspiring.
Neil Walker led off the bottom of the inning with a line drive single to center field, and Vince Lascheid’s organ music once again filled the stadium. The crowd, ever hopeful, rose to its feet as pinch hitter Gregory Polanco stepped up to the plate. “Let’s! Go! Bucs! Let’s! Go! Bucs!”
Polanco’s single to left drove Walker to second, and though the stadium was half-empty by now, the cheering and whistling and hooting and hollering was as loud as I’d ever heard it. The Diamondbacks’ coach visited the mound briefly, replacing Wade Miley with Addison Reed. The cheering continued. Everyone remained on their feet.
“Man on first and second!” my dad told me. “Home run, Mis, we need a home run!”
Josh Harrison’s line drive was caught by center fielder Ender Inciarte; Neil Walker tagged up and made it to third. “First and third, Mis!” said my dad. “Come on, home run! Base hit! Any fucking thing!”
The roar of the crowd was deafening as Starling Marte stepped up to bat; when his double to center tied the game at two, it became a thing unto itself, nearly tangible, engulfing us. Just like that everything had changed, and then a throwing error advanced Marte to third.
“Jesus Christ!” said my dad, hands clasped on top of his head as if to keep the excitement from blowing it off. “Holy shit, tied up! Man on third! Jesus Christ!”
Four pitches later Andrew McCutchen had been intentionally walked, and Ike Davis stepped up to bat, pinch-hitting for Gaby Sanchez. We were still standing, everyone was still standing. It was one game, not even a particularly important one, one single game out of one hundred and sixty-two. But a World Series-level fervor charged the atmosphere. Also, I could not stop crying. But whatever.
“Base hit!” my dad called out, and wonder of wonders, Ike Davis hit a single, scoring Starling Marte and winning the game.
The crowd erupted, cheering, whistling, high-fiving, hugging, and my dad turned to me, beaming. “They won,” he said, thankfully either not noticing or not understanding my tears.
“Yeah,” I said. “They did.” And I would like to report that here, my dad and I hugged, and shared a moment of joy and satisfaction and mutual much-loved memories. That he was more than just himself for that moment; that he was himself plus his history, as all of us are meant to be. That I actually did have my real dad back, for even just that short time.
What actually happened was that we walked out of the stadium and back to the car, the night air still echoing with the crack of the bat and the sound of the organ music, and the further we got from the stadium, the more confused my dad became. By the time I got him back to his house, he was wondering aloud why we’d been at church for so long.
It had been good, and now it was over. But, it had been good.
And, in any case, my sentiment remained the same.