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Friday, March 31, 2017

May We Meet Again Sometime Uncle Bob...

Lived to see the day...
I can't say my wife's first impression of my great uncle from Chicago was the most innocuous one.

It was right after my Grandmother's death.  My family gathered at another of my great aunt's houses, following the Funeral Mass and interment.

Being the first of her siblings to die, since the family's arrival from Cuba, it was a difficult loss for the older generation.  Funerals have a way of reminding us of our own mortality, especially when it's a contemporary, or someone we have known our entire life. In my family’s case, that usually means alcohol is involved.

As the great W.C. Fields once said, borrowing a few words from St. Paul, "Drown in a cold vat of whiskey?  Death, where is thy sting?"

By the end of the night, my uncle (married to my grandmother's youngest sister), who tipped the scale in the 350 lbs. range, collapsed in a bathroom and couldn't get up.  

Needless to say, it quickly deteriorated into an unrehearsed scene from ¿Que Pasa USA? with people scrambling about the house, cries of “Ay Dios mio,” a couple of men trying to maneuver themselves inside the tight half bath to lift the listless man from the floor and paramedics being called in to save the day; just another night at Aunt Chela’s townhouse in Hialeah!  

My uncle was fine, of course, and, after the colorful episode, was able to get up on his own and sit down on a couch (I’m sure to the paramedics’ relief!), as his blood pressure and vital signs were checked. 

That was my wife's introduction to this bigger than life man, with the loud, booming and powerful voice, who loved to sing anywhere he went and, as a suitor for his youngest daughter, my Great Grandfather confused with the voice of Caruso (thinking the radio was on!); that's Enrico Caruso the late 19th Century Italian tenor. 

My uncle loved to laugh, tell stories, eat, drink and be merry; not to mention, spend time with family.      

Sadly, last week, at the age of eighty-eight, he went to that opera house in the sky.  He passed away as he had lived for most of his life, until his health and mobility deteriorated. He spent his last few hours singing with a male nurse who was caring for him, as his family gathered around his hospital bed.

In fact, in a touching send-off, the nurse sang him, Roberto Carlos' classic, Amigo, after my uncle had taken his last breath. 

The lyrics state:

Tu eres mi hermano del alma, realmente el amigo, Que en todo camino y jornada esta siempre conmigo, Aunque eres un hombre aun tienes el alma de niño, O Aquel que me da de su amistad su respecto y cariño... You are my soul brother; a true friend; who in every way and every day is always with me.  Even though you are a man you have a boy's soul; the one who gives me his friendship, respect and affection...

It was a fitting song for a man who loved life and was everyone’s friend, including my parents, who while dating and early into their marriage, while they lived in Cuba, loved to spend time with my Great Uncle and Great Aunt.  

A memorable Christmas gift...
My father says, he was one of the most generous men he ever met, and was always there when someone needed him, including opening his house to family and friends.  For example, he took in my great grandparents to live with him in Chicago when they came to the U.S.

As I reflected on my interactions with my uncle since his death, the first memory that comes to mind was when my family drove to Chicago for the Christmas Holiday one year in the mid-70's.  My dad, great uncle, cousin and I went to the store to get some supplies for the family and my uncle bought me a calculator!  I had never owned a calculator before.  It was nothing fancy, just a run of the mill calculator, but just the fact that he bought it for me left a lasting impression, much nicer than the impression my wife got!

Another thing I'll never forget about my uncle was that I hated shaking his hand. He had a vice-like grip and loved to squeeze my hand when he shook it, grinding my knuckles together to the point, where at least once, my eyes teared up from the pain!  He was also always asking me to pull his finger!  No, thanks!  You fooled me once, shame on you.

A gracious host and born salesman, he was a great story-teller, sometimes too great and you didn't know where the story ended and his elaborate embellishments began.  He was notorious for his outrageous tales; like the one about the shark in the hotel swimming pool that I took in, hook, line and sinker!

One year, when I was in high school, while visiting my Chicago family during the Christmas break, my cousin and I went out with his friends.  We ended up drinking a wee bit too much, me more than anyone.  When we got home, I went down to the basement and collapsed on the couch.    

Needless to say, the room started spinning, as I heard commotion upstairs; my aunt was upset that my cousin had taken me out drinking and, as I laid there with the room turning faster than my dog chasing his tail, I got sick all over myself; right there on the couch.   I immediately jumped up and rushed to the bathroom.
I remember the commotion continuing upstairs and my uncle assuring my aunt that we were fine.  Then, he came down the stairs and asked me quietly through the bathroom door, "Carlitos, are you Ok?"  "Yes," I answered, as I prayed to the porcelain god and dry-heaved.  My uncle stood outside patiently and, when I finally opened the door, he handed me a towel and a clean shirt so I could shower.

Then there was my cousin's wedding, which till this day, I have never been able to live down; it was probably the most embarrassing and selfish moment of my life (And, believe me, that’s saying a lot.  I've had plenty!).  

Not only were we late to the wedding on my account, after getting into a fight with my brother because I wanted to shave with the steam following my shower (we were two of the ushers at the wedding and the entire family had to wait for us so we could drive to the church in caravan, including my great uncle and aunt, because of our petty fight), but, later, towards the end of the night, I started a fight with the DJ and the party ended on a sour note.

Outside, as everyone was leaving, my great uncle tried to play peacemaker.  The DJ was a friend of my cousin, the bridegroom, but I refused to shake his hand, as my uncle asked; too much pride, too much ego and too much selfishness.  I have been apologizing to my cousin ever since.  Unfortunately, I should have apologized to my great uncle and great aunt as well!
In any case, his death made me realize that the older generation is almost gone.  Out of the nine siblings only two remain, my great uncle's wife and another great uncle.  There are also only three spouses left.

Death is difficult.  Although, my great uncle had been ill and they expected the worse several months ago, only to witness a miraculous recovery and an opportunity for a little more time, when the inevitable happened, it was still painful.  

All we can do, as I wrote my cousin, is hope; with the hope that only faith can provide. It's a hope that we will one day see him again, a hope that, in God's Mercy, he will attain everlasting comfort and a hope, as Catholics, that every time we receive Holy Communion, we receive him in the Body of Christ!  

Moreover, death is not the end, it's the beginning.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "End?  No, the journey doesn't end here.  Death is just another path, one that we all must take.  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."

Still, for the family and friends that stay behind, the void hurts greatly and I know my cousins and aunt will be grieving for some time.  

Regardless of the scandalous first impression my wife may have gotten, she later came to appreciate my great uncle, especially the day we were with him, my aunt and cousins at the beach and had to rush to the hospital when her mom called to say her father had suffered a heart attack.  We were still dating then.  My yet-to-be father-in-law passed away that hot summer day. My whole family was distraught and showed my girlfriend, at the time, compassion and empathy. It was another difficult day.   

On a more positive note, as a lifelong frustrated Chicago Cubs fan, which were one of my New York Mets’ biggest rivals for decades, and we spent lots of time arguing over who was better, at least my uncle got to see the Cubbies win the World Series last year.  It took the team 108 years to do it and he was fortunate enough to see the day!

So, farewell, Tio Roberto.  May you already be singing with God’s choir of angels, hopefully not asking any of them to shake your hand or pull your finger, and may we meet again sometime...  

Thomas Merton on Living For the Moment...

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” 

-- Thomas Merton (1915-1968), priest, monk, writer, theologian and social activist, is considered among the most influential Catholic authors of the twentieth century.  He was admittedly agnostic, at best, during his youth, living in Bermuda, France and England with his artist father, after his mother died when he was about 6.  His father died ten years later.  He had a zeal for life, jazz and writing and entered Cambridge University in England, where he lived a life of debauchery, and is said to have fathered a child during one of his encounters.  He left England and enrolled at Columbia University in 1935, where he became editor of the school paper.  It was there that, in his quest for truth and meaning, that he was introduced to Catholic books.  After years of reading and internal struggle, he entered the Catholic Church in 1938. Shortly, thereafter, he started to feel a calling to the priesthood and more specifically to live a life of monasticism as a Trappist monk.  After an initial rejection, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in 1941, where he spent the rest of his life until his accidental death in 1968, while at a East-West monastic conference, which included the Dalai Lama.  He was 53.  During his life, he wrote over 70 books, including his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which is one of the most profound books I have ever read, sold millions of copies and been translated in at least 15 languages.     

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Life, Baseball and My Son...

The Sandlot...
"He's trying to kill us!" my nine-year-old son said exasperated, after his coach made the team run two laps following their game last weekend, even though they won!

I couldn't help but start laughing.  "No, seriously Dad," he insisted, as we walked towards the car.  He always uses "seriously" now when trying to make a point.  "He's really trying to kill us."

"Buddy, that's what coaches do," I exclaimed.

The coach was upset about their sloppy play, including my son getting picked off second with the old hidden ball trick.

"They break the team down," I continued, "then build them up again.  That's what they do in the army, you know."

"Yeah, but those are soldiers, Dad!  We're kids!"

Good point, but I pressed on, "Buddy, he's trying to build character.  He's old school.  By breaking you down and building you up again, the team grows closer together and you accomplish things that you may not have accomplished otherwise.  Don't you remember the movie, Remember the Titans?"  

"That coach was nothing compared to our coach," he maintained.

"Buddy, that coach made them run until they threw up.... and he wouldn't let them drink water!"

My son is a bit melodramatic.  He gets it from his mom's side of the family, my emotions and my brother's acting aside!

At any rate, in one of his favorite movies, The Sandlot, James Earl Jones' character, Mr. Mertle, a former professional Negro League player, who knew Babe Ruth (Yes, The Sultan of Swat, The King of Crash, The Colossus of Clout, The Great Bambino!) and went blind when he was hit in the head by a fastball (before helmets!), says "Baseball was life!  And I was good at it... real good...."

While I wasn't as good as Mr. Mertle, for the greater part of my existence, from the time I was nine-years-old, like my son, until about ten years ago, when I last played in a men's league at the age of forty-three, baseball was life for me. Although, my wife may argue it still is!

I often tell my kids that baseball is like life and the conversation with my son reminded me of the first line of the best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, which states, "Life is difficult." And, so is baseball, especially when you have a coach yelling at you and making you run when you're already tired!

They say the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball.  A ball coming in at 90-95 miles per hour, gives a hitter about .4 seconds (yes, that's four tenths of a second!) to see the ball, decide whether to swing his bat and connect.  That doesn't even take into account that you have to square the ball with the bat just right and you have to hit it where nobody is standing or can make a play!

Baseball is a game of futility much like life.  For the most part, you have to fail a lot before you succeed. In fact, the best hitters in the game succeed only three out of every ten times at bat.  And, just when you think you have it all figured out, everything goes to pot.

You can be riding high on the hog in a hot hitting streak, feeling like the Geico piglet with his head out the window, holding a pinwheel, and yelling, "Wee, wee, wee," and the next day, you're in a slump and feeling like you're running in place in a pool of mud, pushing a riffle up and down over your head, as someone is wetting you with a garden hose, and you're crying, "I got nowhere else to go.  I got nowhere else to go...," ala Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Now. every time I say, "baseball is like life," my son shoots back, "No it isn't!"

Hope springs eternal; at spring training with the kids....
He doesn't understand what I mean, which is probably lost on my wife and daughters as well, although our oldest is growing in her passion for the game.  Maybe, she'll be a future Doris Kearns Goodwin, writing books and appearing on documentaries discussing her love for the game that her father taught her to love.  

Anyway, what I mean to say is that, while it can be said about other teams sports, baseball, more acutely than possibly anything else, resembles life itself; one, because of it's long and grueling season, which starts in Spring Training in February and ends with the World Series in November. You can have good days and bad days but there's always a chance for redemption tomorrow.  Two, it's deliberate pace and three, it's timelessness; both in duration (a game always lasts until somebody wins) and history, set upon the canopy of American culture.

There's nothing I want more than for my son to first, love God and the Church but then, to love and play baseball, that simple, yet complex, game played on a clay infield diamond surrounded by green grass (Of course, there may be a wife and kids, a vocation and family to consider but baseball can come a close third or fourth!).

However, at this point in his life, it's only a burgeoning interest at best.

After several failed attempts at playing, where he would be interested one day and lukewarm the next, and would then say he didn't want to play anymore, even though I have never pressured him about playing, I decided to take a harder stance, thanks to the help of my parents, who take him to practice, and told him he had to play.

I signed him up to play in a league without knowing a coach or him knowing any teammates.

There were two main reasons.  I don't want him to be one of those kids that stays at home playing video games or Wii all day, which he most definitely could do, if we let him.  And, I wanted him to learn to be part of a team.  Unfortunately, it's a trait that many people lack nowadays.

He played coach-pitch several times with a good friend of mine in different teams but it was obvious that his interest was tepid and I wanted to change the environment to see if it would make a difference.  

He ended up playing for the academy team of the league.  At first, I thought he was going to reject having to go to practice twice a week and playing a game or two on weekends.  To add to my concern, his coach is a bit fiery and animated, which is something he never experienced before.

But, a funny thing happened.  He started making friends, having fun and, while he is still struggling as he learns to play kid-pitch for the first time, and, as you can see, he is not a fan of the coach, he is actually growing in appreciation for the game; from collecting baseball cards, to watching Mets games on TV, to driving his mom and sisters crazy by throwing a rubber ball against his bed and catching it, to asking me to work with him on weekends when he's not playing (like my father did with me) or having me get my catcher's mitt from storage so that he can learn to catch (he's still a bit scrawny for the position and I told him he needed to beef up!).

Baseball takes sacrifice, discipline, humility, mental and physical fortitude, hard work, patience and perseverance.  Then again, anything in life that's worth doing takes sacrifice and hard work as well. But, like anything, it comes down to loving it and having fun.  

Come to think of it, it's a lot like living the Christian life, which is about sacrifice, self-denial and picking up our crosses everyday and following Christ; sometimes, to places we may not want to go, and falling, but getting back up, and in the case of Catholics, going to Confession, picking up our cross again and starting over; all with love and joy in our heart.

My son still has a long way to go in baseball, in life and in his faith but I'm encouraged.  The other day, he made a great catch, dropping to one knee and snatching a line drive to center-field.  It came on the heels of a near meltdown after striking out.

Hopefully, he'll get it and one day, despite thinking his coach is out to kill him (And wanting to channel the Ham Porter from The Sandlot inside him, by saying, "You're killing me Smalls!"), love will prevail...