I’ve never liked balls. On the playgrounds of my childhood, I spent more time avoiding than playing with them. I have no memory of kicking, hitting, or throwing with success.
Once, I even vomited on home plate. By adulthood, I was trotting out my dislike of balls like a trophy. Although my husband, David, did insist that I learn to catch useful things—keys and bottle-openers and clean towels for the shower—he soon stopped suggesting we play with balls for fun. By the time we were ready for children, I’d made myself clear.
Along with bungee cord jumping and diving for abalone, sports didn’t interest me. I read, wrote, hiked and danced, activities enough for anyone. And really, what could a woman do with her body more impressive than give birth?
Childbirth is hard. It’s a leap from a bridge, a dive into the deep, brave and exhilarating; and devastating if something goes wrong. My first son was brain-damaged. It happened fast, during labor. No one saw it coming. No one had an explanation. Six weeks later, he died, leaving us empty-handed.
I don’t know what kind of mother I would have been if I hadn’t lost Silvan. From the outside, I looked strong. One year from Silvan’s death, I gave birth to a second child. Two years after that, a third. Three boys in three years. People called me brave. At the playground, other parents sympathized. “You’ve got your hands full,” they’d say as I watched tiny Ivan, little more than one, follow toddler Miles to the top of the jungle gym.
As long as I was watching, I thought I could will my boys safe.
The effort took its toll. By the time my boys were school-age, I felt anxious all the time. My back ached more and more. Pain spread down my arms and legs. I saw doctors, physical therapists, had an MRI, tried medications. Nothing worked, everyone seemed mystified, until one specialist said, “You’re a good mother, it’s natural to be vigilant, but you need to stop holding your breath.”
But I couldn’t, not when something hard as death might hit me again at any moment. By now, my boys were riding bikes, scoffing at my warnings about trucks backing up. They were spending nights at the houses of friends whose parents let them climb on the roof.
But it wasn’t just the big things that scared me. It was life itself, the daily unpredictability lasting until that delicious moment each night when I could finally lie down. When anxiety invaded even that moment, I thought I’d never escape it.
Then my boys discovered baseball.
Over and over, all summer long, from the moment they got home from camp to the moment I called them in for dinner, they begged, “Come outside and play catch.” Wanting to be a mother who plays with her children, I’d go outside and try but within minutes, I’d find something else to do—an email to answer, wet loads of laundry to dry.
And why did they want me out there anyway, when I threw and caught so wildly? The longer I played, the worse I got. And the worse I got, the more I hated balls, as if balls themselves were to blame when the real problem was my breath.
Maybe I’d held my breath through the hardest patches all my life, waiting to reach a better place, but what could be better than this? My boys were handsome, happy, smart, and funny. My boys were alive.
So I stayed outside. I breathed in and out as the ball came towards me, in and out as I threw.
“Good job,” my boys said tenderly, sounding like little mothers, reflecting back to me the very words I’d used with them since birth.
All summer long they coached me. We started with a hacky-sack. Back and forth. Back and forth. Colorful and soft and fitting easily into the palm. Then a tennis ball, bouncier and harder to grasp.
Soon David offered tips, how to aim, how to throw with the full force of my body. Each time I grew comfortable, they added a twist. Throw farther. Throw to first base. Tag the runner out. I never liked the new twists.
Given a choice, I’d still prefer to hike, dance, or read with my family. But last month I bought myself a baseball mitt. My boys think I’m finally ready for hardball.