In life there are monumental occurrences that act as time-freezing snapshots; the kind of events where, for the rest of your life, you remember exactly where you were when they happened. My grandfather used to speak with reverence about the day he heard that President Kennedy was shot. My mother spoke similarly of finding out about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. For me it was the day I stopped playing baseball.
I was ten years old when I got my first “real” glove. It was a God’s honest big-league Rawlings rawhide and I loved it from the start. My dad, who my mom always called a hard-working man, brought it home from work and presented it to me as if I had won a prize. It was enormous for a ten-year-old. On top of that, my dad had stuck a big red bow right in the pocket. I couldn’t move fast enough to get my new glove on my left hand although I had to spread my fingers as wide as they could go to make it fit.
“Well, J.R., what do you think?" he said smiling. "Is it too big? Should I take it back?”
My dad always called me J.R. even though they weren’t my initials. His name was Timothy William Melesky and so was mine. The J.R. stood for junior.
“Not on your life, dad!” I said clutching my new glove to my chest. “It fits perfectly.”
“Go get my glove out of the closet and we’ll have a quick catch before dinner.” The last words were barely out of his mouth when I, in a dead sprint, ran to retrieve Dad’s glove. His glove was old and worn; a gift from his dad when my father was about the same age as me. He had used the glove all through high school and college and even for a few years as a minor league pitcher. It had been repaired many times but the core of the glove was the same as the day he got it. In my young life, there was nothing I wanted more than my father's glove. That is, until he gave me my own. That day I decided I would keep my glove forever.
With the sun still slightly visible over the horizon, my dad and I had our first game of catch, the first of many. My dad worked two jobs for as long as I could remember but he always found time to play baseball with me. Before long he started teaching me how to pitch. Make no mistake, pitching is a skill you can learn, but to be good you have to have a natural gift. My dad had it and if he hadn’t hurt his arm he might have played major league ball. He told me with "all due humility" that he was the greatest pitcher he'd ever known--until he saw my impossible-to-hit fastball and knee-buckling curve. He was probably biased but he knew his gift had been passed down to me.
By my sophomore year in high school, I had become a starting pitcher on the varsity team with more than 20 scholarship offers including one from Louisiana State University, my dad’s alma mater. It was fun to see how many colleges pursued me. Everyone knew, when the time came, that I would accept the offer from LSU and head south to pitch for the Tigers.
Then it happened, the day that changed my life. My Kennedy assassination; my space shuttle Challenger disaster.
It was a beautiful day in May, the kind of day that baseball movies are made about. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and I was scheduled to start the last game of my senior season. My dad had to work that morning, but he had arranged to get off early to be at the game by first pitch.
As I got ready to head onto the field with the rest of my team, I looked down at my glove and remembered that first game of catch, almost eight years earlier. My glove wasn’t as worn as my dad’s but it had been re-stitched a few times. That worn out leather was a connection with my childhood, and my dad. In many ways, it was my most important possession. I loved that glove.
Climbing to the top of the perfectly manicured mound, I looked in the stands to see my family in their usual spot. My mom was just where she was supposed to be but her only company was an empty seat where my father usually sat. My head tilted a little to the side as my face squinched in confusion. I held my arms out as if to say “Where is dad?” but my mom just shrugged.
Most times we worry for nothing. The person who seems to be missing usually has just overslept or run out of gas. It’s seldom anything to worry about. I kept telling myself that as I threw my warm-up pitches and started the game.
The first inning I retired all three batters in order. Once back in the dugout I sent a team trainer to ask my mom where my dad was. He came back with the message that she didn’t know and that he wasn’t answering his phone. Then, I started to worry.
At a time when I should have been concentrating on a game, my mind was focused on my dad's absence. I was pitching in an anxiety-induced fog, trying to end each inning as quickly as possible. Back in the dugout, inning after inning I sent the trainer for an update. To my dismay each time he would return with the same answer.
Baseball is not a timed sport. It’s one of the few games that can go on blissfully forever, but that day I wanted nothing more than for the game to end. Time moved slowly but the game went by fast. When I went out to pitch the ninth inning I hadn’t allowed a single runner to reach base. In baseball vernacular I was pitching a perfect game and there were just three outs to go. Even knowing this, I was still less concerned about the game than I was about my dad. Eight pitches and three outs later I was being mobbed by my teammates for completing baseball's rarest feat.
For a moment I embraced the celebration and allowed myself to forget, just for a moment -- but when I regained focus and looked back to the stands my mom was no longer alone. Two police officers stood with her and she was crying.
I found out later that my dad had been rushing to see me pitch when a pickup truck ran a red light and plowed right into my dad’s car. He was killed instantly, as was my desire to play baseball. I packed my glove away with the bow that had adorned it the day my dad gave it to me. I was never going to pick it up again.
It has been said that time heals all wounds and to an extent that's true. The day my dad was killed was the worst in my life; it was frozen in time but I wasn’t. I still went to LSU but on an academic scholarship not an athletic one and it was there that I met the love of my life, Julie. She brought back my smile, and against my advice, accepted my marriage proposal.
On the day we were married I wore the same suit my dad had worn when he had married my mom and, at my request, there was a picture of my dad prominently displayed at the reception. He wasn’t there in person but he was there in spirit and that had to be enough.
Three years after we were married Julie gave birth to a baby boy we named Timothy William the third. From the day he was born I called him Trey; It was an homage to my dad and I knew somewhere he was smiling.
On Trey’s second birthday I bought him a football and on his eighth, at his request, a tennis racket. I wanted my son to know the joy of playing sports but when he asked for a baseball glove when he turned ten I reluctantly had to tell him no.
“We are not a baseball family, Trey," I told him. "Is there anything else you would like?”
“I’ll take a basketball if that’s okay.”
He was such a good sport; he didn’t argue. He just moved on to another choice. It’s funny the things I learned from my ten-year-old son. I learned you need to be willing to adjust your sights and I also learned that as much as I loved and missed my father I loved my son more.
Tragedy very rarely happens slowly. I learned the day my dad died it usually happens in an instant.
I was at work when I got the call from Julie. When my cell phone buzzed and I saw her name on the ID screen I sent the call to voicemail. Less than a minute later she called again. I snapped to attention. I was transported back to the day my father had died. I had continued to pitch when I knew something had to be wrong. In a panic I pushed the green button and said anxiously, “Hello”
“J.R., you have to come quick—it’s Trey," Julie said, stuttering. "He was climbing a tree and he fell and hit his head.” The fear in her voice nearly ripped out my heart. I couldn’t lose my son.
“I’m on my way,” I assured, “I promise I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
Speeding towards the hospital my mind wavered back and forth between my son and my dad. I said a prayer offering my life for my son’s and then I remembered how fate had stolen my father from me and I doubted God.
I lost all sense of time. A ride that might have only taken ten minutes seemed interminable. After parking illegally I ran into the hospital and, in what probably looked like a scene from a medical drama, pushed my way past the two people waiting at the nurses' station.
“Where is my son!” I practically shouted to anyone who would listen.
In an act of true kindness, the nurse behind the counter ignored my rudeness and, after finding out my son's name, directed me to the room where he was being treated.
It was all I could do not to burst into the room but in a moment of clarity I entered calmly to avoid the possibility of making things worse.
There is nothing that can prepare a parent for what I saw next. My ten-year-old son, my Trey, was lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, with wires all over his tiny body and a tube down his throat. My wife's mascara stained tears were flowing.
My mind was so full of questions but at that moment I couldn’t speak. The doctor seemed to understand and began to give me an update on Trey’s condition.
“Mr. Melesky, my name is Doctor Conrad.” His voice, authoritative and compassionate, snapped me to attention. “Your son has an intracerebral hemorrhage and we are about to take him to surgery. He's a lucky young man. Many people who suffer this type of injury never make it to the hospital.” I knew the doctor was trying to give me a sense of hope but all I could think about was the people who never regained consciousness.
“Oh my God,” I blurted out as I started to sob, “please tell me my son will live.”
“We’ll do everything we can,” he responded, in a way that calmed me enough to sign the consent forms and move out of the way. Time was of the essence but as Trey was wheeled by I leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. He was still in my sight when I said a silent prayer that this would not be the last time I saw my son alive.
Hospital waiting rooms are the worst place for terrified parents to wait for potentially life-destroying news. There are TVS playing shows you don’t want to watch. There are, invariably, children making a ruckus. This is usually because other parents, who are similarly lost in fear of the worst, forget to chastise them. Julie and I eventually understood this was not the place for us and we made our way to the small chapel to beg for our son's life.
As we walked through the doors the first thing I noticed was the peacefulness of it all. There were a few other people in the pews but there was a silence and a reverence that helped clear my head. I knew I should pray; instead, an unusual thought entered my mind. At first, it was just a vague idea but little by little it began to crystallize. It made no sense but I felt I had to do it anyway.
“Julie, I can't explain right now, but I have to run home. I need to get something for Trey.”
“Go. I’ll stay here and pray for both of us.”
I didn’t have time to thank her, I just kissed her, ran to my car, and sped home. Once I arrived I headed straight to my bedroom. In the closet, on the shelf at the very back, there was a box that contained the glove my dad had given me all those years ago. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to give it to my son. I had been wrong, we were a baseball family and I didn’t want to dishonor him, or myself, or my dad by never giving my son a glove.
By the time I returned to the hospital Trey was out of surgery and in the recovery room. Doctor Conrad was cautious in his assessment of Trey's condition. “The next twelve hours are critical. If he makes it through the night then there's hope he'll make a full recovery.”
“Doc, I know this sounds crazy, but is there any chance I could put this in the bed with him?” I opened the box and showed him the glove.
“Absolutely,” he responded with a smile, patting me on the shoulder.
“What a marvelous idea,” Julie said. “I know your dad would be thrilled.”
As I placed the glove and the bow in his bed next to his left hand I felt the spirit of my father embrace me. For the first time since Julie’s call, I felt a small measure of peace.
The rest of the night, Julie and I took turns grabbing a few minutes of sleep while the other one watched over Trey. While Julie was taking her turn sleeping I inadvertently fell asleep as well. It couldn’t have been more than 10 or 15 minutes at the most when I was startled awake.
As my eyes cleared a fear that came over me.
I had left him, I wasn’t there to protect him. Did I let my son die alone?
I jumped from up the chair afraid of what I might find. To my surprise and delight, Trey’s eyes were open. Fitted on his left hand with his fingers spread as far apart as they could go, was my baseball glove—now his. It was hard to make out because he still had a breathing tube down his throat but he was smiling at me, letting me know he was alright.
It took two more weeks for Trey to be discharged from the hospital and a month after that before he was back to his rambunctious self. Soon thereafter he and I headed to the back yard to have a catch. I know, you might be wondering how we did that since I no longer had a glove but my mom took care of that. On her first trip to see Trey after the accident, she brought me a gift. It was an old worn-out glove that had been sitting in her closet at home—the same glove my dad used the first time we played catch. I’d also like to report that Trey has quite a fastball. Just like his dad and mine.
He’s a natural.