I love the sound of a baseball hitting a glove on a good throw. Not the kind of throws I usually make, but the throws my Dad made. POP. POP. POP. POP. Back and forth, on and on and on. Well, our throwing sessions were more like “Pop” (his throw), “Thud” (my throw). Pop, Thud. Pop, Thud. Pop, Thud.
On and on and on this went, most nights of the week after dinner. Although I wasn’t a great athlete, I could manage to throw a baseball back and forth from a stationary position. And I loved everything about it.
I should probably spend some time expanding on this whole “not a very good athlete” moniker. In reality, I was a terrible athlete. No matter how hard I tried, and no matter how much I may have loved sports, God chose not to bless me with athletic ability or the perseverance to train hard enough. And when I say terrible, I mean terrible…across the board. It wasn’t just baseball, which I promptly retired from once they started throwing the ball at you instead of putting it on a tee. It was basketball, which I played for 3 years and never scored a bucket. It was soccer, which I was moderately functional at if they allowed me to be a keeper. On the hardwood, the basepaths, or the field, one thing was always consistent…I would give it a shot, and it wouldn’t go well.
Which is surprising that my parents were willing to suffer through the humiliation of watching their athletically inept son suffer so many setbacks, often times with our family name stitched on the back of my jersey. My parents even went so far as to support me publicly. You know those buttons you can order from the team photographer that have your headshot on them? I almost expected to show up at games and see my parents wearing buttons of other kids on the team. That’s how bad I was. But they never did. Even in front of people, they wanted folks to know that I was their son, and no matter how bad I was, I would always be their son, and they would always be my parents, and I would always be loved.
And I knew I was loved by the fact that no matter how errant my throws, my Dad still made it a point on most nights to ask me if I wanted to go play catch, long into my twenties, even after he had worked a long day in exhausting heat. My Dad worked as a maintenance technician in a steel plant (which he loved), and on some nights, even though I knew he would have preferred a quick nap after dinner instead, he would ask if I wanted to toss, go grab his glove, and meet me out in the sideyard.
On the topic of that sideyard…it wasn’t technically our sideyard. It was our frontyard, which bled into the sideyard of our neighbors. If you threw property lines out the window, it was a perfect place to toss. The houses were out of range from any of my misguided throws. They were also out of reach from any of my Dad’s perfect throws that would miss my glove because of my previously detailed athletic struggles. The grass was always well kept by both homeowners, and of the utmost importance, our neighbors willingly allowed us to take over their yard, if only for a few minutes each night, so our games of catch could continue.
I loved those nights. Those perfect summer nights, sweat dripping down our brows, the pop-pop-pop echoing down our lazy suburban street. But as much as I enjoyed hearing that perfect pop in my glove, I actually lived for the moments in between the pops. The conversation between a father and son, each one living a different life but connected in a way that only a father and son could quite understand. We would talk about anything. And everything. When I was in high school, we would talk about my classmates, the funny things that happened after school, and my ongoing struggles with girls. When I moved on to college we laughed about crazy things happening within our family, my academic endeavors at Miami University, my ridiculously busy schedule, and my ever-present struggles with girls. And when I graduated from Miami and started my career, we would talk about the difficulties I faced transitioning from a student into a professional, my desire to go on to graduate school, things I needed advice on like money and cars, and my ever-present struggles with girls. The conversation changed over the years, but one thing never did—and I’m not talking about the struggles with girls. I’m talking about our love for one another and interest in each other’s lives.
You might think that growing into adulthood would slowly strangle a boy’s desire to play catch with his Dad; but if anything, as life becomes more complex and the world becomes more suffocating, what a boy longs for most is to return to a time when all you had to do was play catch. All you had to do was keep your eye on the ball, let your glove bring it to a stop, make a solid throw back, and position yourself to do it all over again. When you’re a kid, you think that those games of catch will never end. When you’re an adult and you realize that each time you play catch is one moment closer to your last, you panic. And you do anything you can, anything you have to, to grab onto those moments and never let them go. If your arm is tired, you grimace and keep throwing. If it’s growing dark, you squint and hope you can still see the ball. You hope and pray for a stronger arm and a sun that never sets, so those games of catch never have to stop.
Which explains why I did something unthinkable, something unreasonable, and something that seemed entirely foolish. I lived with my parents for a few years after college, because working in education isn’t as lucrative as…well, most anything else. But I had saved, and I knew I wanted to buy a home.
I looked at a number of different spots, and even made a few offers on different homes, and just when I thought I might cool my jets on the home search, an interesting home came on the market. The house right next door—yes, the house with the sideyard that my feet knew all too well—was up for sale.
Well, it actually wasn’t up for sale to just anyone. Those same neighbors who had graciously allowed our games of catch to continue hadn’t put the house on the market just yet. But they knew I was looking, so they had my Dad relay a message. He came home one night after a bike ride he had taken (too often by himself), and said, “I know you probably don’t want to live next to your Old Man, but the neighbors wanted me to let you know that if you’re still looking for a house that they’d be interested in selling theirs to you.”
I went over that very evening to talk with our neighbors about buying the house next to my parents. They took me through the small brick ranch, walking me through each of the rooms and all of the great amenities the house offered. I knew that I would have a lot of painting ahead of me, and the yard had grown completely out of control, but no feature inside the house could dare stack up to the property itself. Once and for all, I could own that sideyard. I could call my Dad any time I wanted. He would walk out into his yard, and I would walk out into mine. And we would just toss. And the world would be right.
So I made an offer. Probably not a fair offer considering the market value of the house, but the only offer I could make. An offer made by a young man just a few years out of college, trying to get ahead in life but too enticed by the allure of “things” and “stuff” to have a considerable savings. I left the house thinking “They’ll never take it. I’ll have to keep looking. Wow—you even asked them to leave all the appliances at that price?! What were you thinking?” Disappointment was beginning to set in.
I love when God defies your expectations. I’ll never forget the message I received the next day from the owner, Steve. “Beth and I talked, and we want to accept your offer for the house. We really feel like God is telling us that if we are going to sell the house, we need to sell it for you. Let us know what we need to do to get the process rolling.” To this day, I know that it was God telling them to sell the house, because they couldn’t possibly have seen the building tsunami that would come my way, but He saw it all along.
I called my Mom and Dad, and shared the news the same way with each of them. “Well, it looks like you’re going to have another horrible neighbor.” I could tell they were both excited, each for different reasons. There was something reassuring about knowing I was going to venture out on my own, but I was venturing close enough that if a pipe burst, or an appliance broke, or if I needed to borrow a lawnmower, the kind folks next door would always love me enough to help me through.
And deep down, as much as I may have bought the house for the low interest rate and the instant equity…I bought it because I wanted to keep playing ball with my Dad.
And boy did we play. There was something freeing about knowing I now owned the sideyard, so we tossed more than we ever had before once I took ownership of the house. In fact, we played the very night I closed on the house—just because we could. It was the only proper celebration I could envision. Yes, there was plenty of work to be done on the house. Yes, there were rooms to paint and weeds to pull. But more importantly, there was catch to be played. And that mattered more than anything.
The conversations that we had always had continued too, even though the content had changed since I was now a homeowner. We talked a lot about ways we could now improve our games of catch: keeping the grass cut a bit shorter, possibly adding a few lights in the yard, cutting down a few tree limbs. At one point, we had even made up our mind that the bumpy and uneven terrain of the sideyard required an entire regrading. We were preparing to tear up the entire thing, truck in dirt, relevel, replant, and re…watch it grow. We continued to talk about work, and school, and yes, my still ever-present struggles with girls. I always joked with Dad that buying a house next to my parents was never going to help me land a girlfriend, but he insisted that when those girls took one look at him and saw what I could look like when I grew up, they’d be hooked like never before. So I would remind him that he was bald, and had been since the age of 30. And of course, he would remind me “Yeah, but I make bald look good, boy.”
So it continued. Pop, thud. Pop, thud. Pop, thud. Night after night after night after night. We cherished those moments, enjoyed them more than any other part of our days.
And now, I cherish them more than I ever did because I haven’t played catch in that sideyard for two years. Instead, I find myself in that sideyard in the middle of the night, with nothing but the moon and the occasional passing car. The terrain is still bumpy, because we never got a chance to embark on our ambitious regrading project, and the moon provides the only shine because we never installed those lights. Instead, it’s the same grass I’ve always known, but it’s often wet at 1-or-2 o’ clock in the morning. Oftentimes, I lay in that wet grass and look skyward, knowing not whether my face is wet from the grass or the flood of tears that stream down. Sometimes, I talk. Other times, I listen. Hoping and praying I’ll hear that “pop” again. But I only hear it in my memories, in my dreams. I only hear an imaginary “pop”—never the real thing. The sideyard that was once a stadium of backyard heroes is now a memorial to summertime fun lost forever. And on bad nights it’s the new sounds, the sounds of horror and heart-wrenching disaster, that drown out the “pops” that I so desperately long to hear again.
I would do anything to play catch with my Dad again. I would do anything to relive the entire experience. I don’t know if it’s theologically sound, but when I think of Heaven and the life to come, I often think that a lot of my time will be spent playing catch with my Dad. We will talk, and laugh, and even in Heaven where life should be perfect, I’ll probably still be a terrible athlete. But none of that will matter, because I’ll be spending time with my Dad.
So Dads, keep playing catch with your sons. And sons, keep playing catch with your Dads. And no matter how old you get or how tired your arm may be, don’t ever stop playing. The time to toss will eventually come to an end, but the memories you’ll create with each and every throw will live with you forever.
Dad, I hate to tell you this, but my arm hasn’t gotten any better since you left. I’ve tossed a handful of times since you died, but never in that sideyard. That sideyard is hallowed, sacred ground for me because it’s where I feel your presence most. When I step out in that sideyard, I can still hear the pop of the glove, but more importantly, I hear your laugh. We had so much fun on so many summer nights, even if I wasn’t a shadow of the athlete you were. Thanks for being a dad who was never too tired, too old, or too busy to play catch with his son. More than anything, I am longing for the days where you and I can toss forever and never grow tired—of the activity or the conversation. Until then, seeya bub.
“Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not turn away from it.” Proverbs 22:6 (GW)