Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light. His work can be found in The Best American Poetry 2014, Little Patuxent Review, the Baltimore Review, and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread.
My father died on Monday, May 7, 2001, due to complications from diabetes mellitus. His kidneys had been gradually failing, and he had been in the hospital for a while, again. The Friday before his death, I took some extra time for lunch and visited him in the hospital. I was going to Baltimore for the weekend to see three baseball games. The Yankees were playing the Orioles in a four game series, and I wasn’t coming back until Sunday. I’m a Yankees fan and was looking forward to getting away from work and the unreal world for a while. The Yankees had already won the Thursday night game.
When I got to the hospital, Mom and the nurses were standing around Dad’s bed. He had had a hypoglycemic episode and was just coming around. He was drinking some orange juice and Mom was helping him eat his lunch, opening one of those still-tricky-to-open milk cartons that haven’t changed in decades. He was lucid and happy to see me. We talked for a while about how he was feeling, how work was going, and what else I might do besides immerse myself in baseball over the weekend. My sister, my nephew, Dad, and I had all gone to a game at Camden Yards back in ’92, and he wanted to compare notes later. When I had to leave, I leaned down, hugged him, and told him I’d see him on Sunday. I also spoke the most significant words I may have ever said, “I love you, Dad.”
The weekend was a good one. The Yankees won all three games. One of the things I love about baseball is its pace. It allows the time to savor, anticipate, and reflect on each play. That weekend baseball provided me the time to contemplate my life with Dad. Between innings, between batters, I thought about him and how important he was to my life and the lives of my six siblings.
I remembered the time when I was about 13. An older boy was teasing me because of my speech impediment. Since he was bigger than I was and I was with my friends, I did the dumbest thing I could think of. I threw a stone at him and broke his glasses. He didn’t come after me, so I continued walking with my friends. By the time I got home, the boy had come to our house. He wanted me (us) to pay for his broken glasses. I explained to Dad that the boy was making fun of me. Dad made it clear I couldn’t go around throwing stones or anything else just because someone is heartless and unkind. He had already told the boy to go home and that he wasn’t getting any money from us. He let the boy know that if I threw a stone at him, he must have done something to deserve it.
Another time, when I was learning to drive, I drove over a pothole and the rear passenger’s side tire blew out. I was expecting Dad would fix it, but he said, “You were driving, so it’s your tire to change.” He watched out for traffic and gave me some guidance, but I was the one responsible for the tire changing. “It comes with the territory.”
All of those memories and more whirled through my head and heart all weekend. However, by the time I got back to the hospital on Sunday, Dad had taken a turn for the worse and wasn’t conscious. At one point that evening, I was alone with Dad. I held his hand and whispered to him “I’m not ready for life without you. I don’t know enough yet.” The next day he passed away before I was able to get back to the hospital. Again I had some time alone with him. Again I held his now-cold hand and this time said, “I guess you’re saying I am ready.” I thought about the time when I was three and Dad would lift me up and try to have me stand on his one hand, balanced high above his head. I was always scared and would hold onto him. But I got to the point I could let go of him, stand on his hand, and almost touch the ceiling. So, it seemed appropriate that day, May 7, 2001, that on my birthday, I’d have to find my balance and let go one last time.
Le’s poem, “Our Ballpark,” is part of Poetry Paths in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and can be found outside of Clipper Magazine Stadium. The project places poetry in public locations throughout the city.”
This is the place where my father educated us:
an open-air school of tutelage and transformation.
This is where we first learned
to count to three, then later to calculate the angle
of a line drive bouncing off the left field wall.
We studied the geometry and appreciated the ballet
of third to second to first, a triple play.
This moving canvas of color was our art school.
He gave us lessons on impressionistic blue skies and white lines,
the realism of brown dirt and green grass,
and the tangible abstraction of red, white,
and blue waving beyond the outfield wall.
We committed to memory his catechism of morality:
faith and opportunity, fairness and hard work.
We learned that if we are still playing, there is still hope.
But what we came to understand most is that sometimes
for your team, for your family,
a sacrifice is the most important play of the game.