I'll always treasure the letter my Mom wrote me when I turned thirty, telling me how proud she was of me, the grown man who was still her perfect baby boy. She even credited me for why she brought Matthew into the world, so I'd have a younger brother to play with, since Aaron was several years older. To her, Aaron, Matt and I were her pride and joy. To everyone else we were the Bailey boys, who played and fought with each other like a pack of wild puppies, never knowing when to quit. In the open fields near our house, we shot arrows up in the air to see who would run away first as they came down. And we played baseball together long into our adult years, when we were too old to run the bases like younger men in our amateur league, who stepped in as pinch runners so we avoided strain or injury.
Other players on our team told stories of their dads, teaching them to play ball and coaching their little league games. But for the Bailey boys, we had our mom. Janet Bailey was the star softball pitcher who taught her sons to throw and catch, pitch and hit. Mom was the tough coach who refused to let me play on the All-Star team, because she knew I didn't deserve it, unlike other coaches who always picked their own kids. She taught us ethics -- how to respect our parents, coaches, and umpires when we thought they were dead wrong, or they really were, and we knew it.
We grew up as loyal fans of our local baseball team, and Mom was the biggest Astros fan of all. Any time our home team had a chance at the play-offs and World Series, we gathered around the TV, shouting and arguing over errors and missed calls, annoying our dad who had no interest in sports. The one thing we shared in common was our stubborn heads we inherited from Dad that ran in the Bailey family.
Aaron was the most bullheaded, as the oldest son who argued loudest with Mom and Dad, knowing well they'd never back down. As our parents got older, Matthew and I learned to back off, but Aaron kept picking fights, pushing them until their blood pressure went through the roof.
The few times I sided with Aaron was when he insisted that Mom quit smoking, and he made her go in for bypass surgery, which she fought to the end. Although her health improved after she gave up cigarettes, her arteries had hardened and clogged from years of smoking. She knew she needed heart surgery, but after raising three Bailey boys as stubborn as her husband, her head had grown just as hard.
Using every trick in the playbook, Aaron talked her into submitting to the procedures, but the painful recovery afterwards felt like eternal hell to her. Mom was too weak to sit up, and could not leave her room for months, or do anything she wanted as an independent woman. She was a proud mother who always took care of other people, not the other way around! Instead, she endured worse pain than she had imagined, and prayed to die.
We managed to pull Mom through the hardest days, by moving the LCD TV into her room. She could still focus on cheering on the Astros, or yelling at them to quit screwing around and win some games. At least they distracted her from her depressing desire to escape by withering away.
It was my job to keep Matthew and Aaron from starting arguments that Mom couldn't take anymore. So on the day of the third longest game in Astros history, it was better that my brothers were at the stadium that Sunday, where they could argue freely, leaving me alone with Mom.
She barely touched the food I brought her, but showed signs of regaining her energy and enthusiasm. She seemed happy to have her favorite son there to watch the Astros with her, and to share the misery if they lost again.
No one expected that game to go into twenty-one innings. At fifteen innings, I called Matt to check if he and Aaron planned to leave early and drop by for a short visit. I was afraid this game would wipe Mom out, and she couldn't handle the tension if it went on much longer. But my brothers opted to stay there.
"Good Lord! Someone just score, please!" my mother begged, throwing her hands up. At nineteen innings, she no longer cared who won or lost, but just wanted the game to end. "They'd better not play twenty-four innings, like they did against the Yankees. Are they trying to break their old record?"
"You mean the Mets, Mom."
"Don't argue with me. I'm tired from just watching this! They better stop before someone gets hurt."
"You're right, Mom," I lied, to calm her. "I'm sure it was the Yankees." But she remained agitated, with no energy to yell at the TV as before.
All the fun was gone from the game. There was nothing to do but wait in agony, until finally the Astros made a fatal error and lost.
I was relieved the game was over, and so was Mom. At that moment I realized how selfish it was for everyone else to pressure her, past the point of exhaustion, for our sake, not hers. I felt ashamed for not understanding, and didn't know how to tell her. I didn't want her to give up. I wanted her to know how much I respected the fact that she didn't.
It took several months before I finally told her, after her doctor broke the bad news. Mom needed additional surgery, requiring similar procedures to be repeated, though not as extensive.
Of course Mom refused. She never agreed to such agonizing pain the first time, and certainly wasn't going to endure it again.
Aaron, Matthew and even Dad pleaded with her, but nobody could change her mind this time.
That Friday before her scheduled testing, I sat with Mom and told her I supported her decision if she didn't want another operation.
"You've lived a good life, Mom. You've fought hard, and did the best job of any mother to raise three strong men. I'm proud of you, as you've always been proud of me." I showed her the birthday letter I had framed in a shadowbox, next to her photo in an Astros jersey, along with souvenir tickets and a baseball keychain that matched the silver frame.
"You already made it through more extra innings than you agreed to play. If you want to stop the game, I'm fine with it. If that's your wish, I'll ask Aaron and Matt to accept it, so we can enjoy the time we have left. Together as a family."
"This is so perfect." My mom picked up the framed box, confessing through tears, "I just don't think my heart can take it, Craig. I've never felt this way before. I want you to promise to help everyone, in case I don't make it."
"Whatever you want, Mom," I assured her, crying. "You deserve to play the rest of the game by your rules. I'd rather see you happy, as you are right now."
"I love you, honey," she said.
"Love you, too, Mom," I answered, joking, "You always were my favorite mother; but don't tell the other mothers, or they'll get jealous." I kissed her cheek.
She smiled at me. She needed to rest, but asked to keep the shadowbox by her bedside, which I left on the nightstand. That weekend, her closest friends came by to see her before her dreaded appointment on Monday, that would determine if she could survive a second surgery. We all knew she hoped the answer would be no.
That morning, as family and friends waited at the hospital, her heart failed during tests that required dropping her blood pressure. Mom went into cardiac arrest, and never regained consciousness. She got her wish not to suffer further pain. I was not fully prepared, but kept my promise to support the rest of the family through our sudden loss. We all thought we'd have a few more months to say goodbye, but she slipped away so quickly.
As I cried and hugged my father and brothers, I felt that old Bailey stubbornness rise up inside me, angry that we didn't see this coming, feeling betrayed and robbed of precious time I'd hoped to spend with my mother. But I also felt the man in me rise above my grief, who was taught to be a good sport, to stand up and take the hits and bad calls that came with life, which isn't perfect. With the struggles Mom fought, and choices she faced before her death, she taught me to let go of the losses in life, play fair, and enjoy the game.