by Hugh Gilmore
This happened on one of those endless Saturday afternoons that a newly divorced dad dreads: getting caught with nothing to do but listen to my own heartbeat. I lived alone. At 2 p.m., bored and lonely, I went to the kitchen window and looked out over my parking lot at Green Tree Run, the condo where I lived in Roxborough.
I watched a thirtyish man pull up and park. Minutes later he walked back to his car, a little girl – his daughter, I knew – holding his hand. They drove away. Custody day, visitation rights. Daddy day.
I got away from the window. I’d stayed up late the previous night, reading Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus.” I’d timed my page turning so that as the clock struck twelve in my living room, Mephistopheles, the Devil’s rep, would come to claim the soul Faustus had sold.
That had been genuinely thrilling. I couldn’t wait to teach that play to my students at Haverford High School on Monday. I was the kind of inspired teacher who lives for his students, who leaves the parking lot on Friday afternoon as late as possible, who dreams of Monday mornings as the most golden hours of the week.
That’s not hard to do when you live alone through your own fault. And feel guilty and shunned, feel like a failure in general and take your weekend sadness as just punishment. In short, just another divorced daddy on his non-custodial weekend.
Actually, it was even worse. My son, Colin, was now eighteen. At that age young people cling to one another and try very hard to keep parental contact to a minimum. There were no scheduled shared-custody visits anymore.
Colin lived only a few miles away in Wyndmoor, in the house where he’d been born. We had an acre of ground in the back. We were the equivalent of the neighborhood athletic field. I was out there every day with “the boys,” chalking the field for baseball or football or soccer or Wiffle ball. I was the coach, the quarterback, the wide receiver, the water boy, and the snack maker. A real backyard dad.
And then I made the mistake of thinking I could stop living there but still be a hero. Now, in order to get into that backyard, I’d need to make an appointment. I’d need to knock on the door of the house I’d painted and mended so often it felt like my oldest, most favorite pair of jeans. I was little better than a stranger – someone not from around here. Not anymore.
And thus I sat on a Saturday, errands finished, apartment cleaned, tired of reading, too depressed to want to go somewhere “fun” like a museum, or nature walk, or movie. And it was only two in the afternoon.
The phone rang.
It was my son, Colin. The guys were playing basketball at a nearby middle school playground. “Do you want to come over?”
“Yes, sure.” I changed right away.
As I drive down Ridge Avenue to go over Bells Mill Road I pass a bank thermometer that says 93 degrees. I’m wondering what this is about. They have never invited me to join them since I left home – left them.
Young guys do not invite middle-aged guys, especially parental units, to join them in a game of pick-up, even if they’re short a man. I don’t know what they were thinking. I only know I’m flattered as can be. I think. I hope they’re not playing a joke on me.
I pull up. They’re waiting, casually taking warm-up shots. As soon as I walk up, they pick sides and we start. Colin, Damien, and Joe against Stosh and Dave and me. We start running around like crazy. They’re younger, which means quicker in their moves, but I grew up in West Philly and thereabouts. I’m relentless. A ballhawk. No one I’m guarding can ever relax.
We’re all sweating like crazy. When we crash into one another for a rebound, it’s a greasy mosh pit kind of feel. It feels great. I am so happy. They pass to me when they have the ball. They cut for a pass when I have the ball. The old teamwork is coming back. I’m going all out, no slack. No easing back.
The ball goes back and forth. I know they’re better than I am, but I want to be respected for my energy, my stamina, my hustle – those are my issues, not theirs, but I feel that when you’re a father you can lose, you can be beaten, but you must resist letting yourself be measured for as long as you can.
This is great. I’m with my son again. He invited me here. And the guys. I can’t believe it. I could run around like this, shooting and passing and crashing and sweating and laughing, forever. I am so pleased. So honored.
Colin has the ball – he comes driving toward me. I’ll steal the ball, or block the shot if I can, but he protects the ball, and keeps coming, gets his shoulder past me and leaps up to deliver the ball – a move, an attitude, really, I’d worked on so much with him: don’t be nice about it, force yourself, show your power – and now he does. I am so impressed he’s found the will to do this. I’m really pleased.
The ball goes up and drops through cleanly. Score!
We played for about two hours, and then we all shook hands and clapped shoulders and I left. I went back to my apartment and showered and sat and smiled and felt good about what I felt was my homecoming day. Winter came. We’d been lucky to get that one game in.
Colin died the following spring, four months shy of nineteen, no match for a drunk driver with tons of steel behind him.
And that was it. That one game. But that day, when they seemed to have forgiven me, and invited me into their lazy Saturday afternoon, will echo in my heart forever. It was the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.
I just wanted to say that out loud since Colin’s 42nd birthday would have been yesterday. I just wanted to say thank you across the distance.
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