When He Was Five
When he was nine, he wanted to play baseball. I took him to Little League try-outs. He tried out for something called the Minors. He was on the Indians. His hat had a funny Indian face on it. He played second base.
“Dad, I hit the ball today. I got on base!”
“I know, Tyler, I was here watching you, remember?”
“I got a hit! And I caught a ground ball! Are we going to stop at the snack bar?”
“Why? The whole team got juice boxes after the game. And orange wedges.”
“You’re always hungry. You’re going to get fat like me.”
“You’re not fat. You’re just right.”
“So are you, Champ. So are you.”
Fourth grade was fun. Reading was fun. Math was fun. Multiplying three and four digit numbers was easy. Dividing was easy. Learning about whales and writing reports on them was really fun. Recess was the most fun of all. Just ask Tyler. He’d tell you. Even if you didn’t ask.
“I have a friend at school named Jamey. We eat lunch together. He has black hair and is shorter than I am.”
“Is he in your room?”
“Yes. He’s at the kangaroo table. That’s what they call it, but it’s where the slower kids sit. But I can sit with him after my work is done. I get done fast and then help him.”
“Does Mrs. Crenshaw let you do that?”
“She says I’m helping him. She thanks me. Sometimes she hugs me.”
“Do you like that?”
“I don’t mind.”
I didn’t read to him at night any longer. I missed it. He read to himself. I’m old-fashioned. I told him he could watch one hour of TV every night after he’d done any school work he had to do. After that he could read until bedtime. I’d sit in my chair reading the paper or my book. He sit in another chair reading his book. Sometimes he’d giggle. I liked that.
He always kissed me goodnight. I liked that, too.
- - - - - -
When he was eleven, he asked me a question. “Dad, when I came here, I remember a picture you had on your bedside table. It was a man, and he was smiling. You had it there awhile, then put it away or something. I haven’t seen it for years. Who was he?”
“How in the world do your remember that?”
“I remember lot’s of things.”
I didn’t know how to answer the question. Kids are pretty smart at eleven. They know things. Lots.
And Tyler was smarter than any kid I’d ever known.
“He was a friend of mine. He was a close friend. His name was Pat.”
Tyler looked at me with his large blue eyes. He still had blond hair. Sometimes, blond hair became brown as a kid grew older. Tyler’s hadn’t. He was a gorgeous kid. I think all the girls in the 6th grade had crushes on him. They’d be crazy not to.
“What happened to him”
Could I tell him? They say, these experts, only answer what they ask. Don’t embellish. I wonder if that ever works, with a kid who thinks about things and is smart, like Tyler?
“He got in trouble and got hurt and had to go to the hospital. They tried, they tried really hard, but he died.”
Tyler looked at me without speaking. His eyes got sad. “Dad, are you gay? Was Pat gay?”
“I thought so.”
When he kissed me good night that night, he hugged me much longer and much tighter than usual.
- - - - - -
When he was twelve, he had a friend name Steve. They spent time at Steve’s house and at our house. Steve was the first boy whom Tyler had had spend the night.
“Can we make popcorn and take it to my room?”
“You’re going to get popcorn all over your bed and then itch all night.”
”No we’re not. We had it in bed at Steve’s and we didn’t do that. We ate every piece of it.”
“Are you going to talk all night long and not get any sleep.”
“What do you care? It’s Saturday.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got to deal with you tomorrow, and an overtired Tyler is sometimes a grumpy Tyler, and that isn’t any fun at all.”
“I don’t think we’ll talk all night.”
“What are you going to talk about, anyway? All the girls you want to kiss? All the girls that want to kiss you?”
“Dad! I don’t want to kiss any girls. They’re yucky! They’re all the time wanting to whisper to you and they ask you who you like and they tell you Melinda likes you and ask if you like her. Boys are more fun. They don’t talk about dumb stuff like that. Neither do Steve and me.”
“Oh. What do you talk about?”
“Oh. And who’s this Melinda.”
Tyler still played Little League, but was in the Major Division now. He pitched. He was very good, and the coach wanted him to join his traveling team. It had the best players from all the teams in the league on it. He wanted Tyler to pitch for them.
I asked Tyler whether he wanted to do join.
“Yes and no.”
“Oh? I thought you’d be excited. You love playing, you’re good at it, and this is top competition. Why wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity.”
“Coach Rodgers it pretty strict. He has lots of practices and yells at anyone who does something wrong. I know most of the kids on the team, and none of them seem very happy playing on it. If it’s not fun, why do it?”
“Are you sure? It’s your choice, but you’d get your name in the paper, you get to go to other cities to play the best kids from there, there’d be big crowds watching you play, you’d get a special uniform, you might even get to go to the Little League World Series. That would be fun.”
“OK, I’ll do it.”
“Huh? Just like that? When did I get to be so persuasive? Wait a minute. You said yes because I was talking so enthusiastically about it, didn’t you? Do you really want to do it?”
“You want me to. So I’ll do it.”
Tyler had started growing and was getting tall. At least taller than he’d been. I still hugged him, but not as much. Twelve-year-olds are a little tricky. You have to sense when they want you to. Other times, you get sort of shrugged off and an unpleasant look.
I hugged him now. “I’m so proud of you, Tyler,” I whispered in his ear as I held him. “You never, ever have to do anything just to please me. You please me every day just by smiling at me. I love you more than I love breathing, and you know that. I tell you all the time. Don’t do anything just for me, Tyler. Do it for you. If you’re uncertain about it, if it doesn’t sound like fun, don’t do it. You know what you want. That’s what you should do. This is your decision for you, not for me. I’m so proud of you all the time, I don’t need to see your name in the paper to know how great a kid you are.”
Tyler stood there, letting me hug him. When I stopped and sat down, he came over and sat in my lap. He leaned back against me. He didn’t say anything for a long time. When he did, his voice was hoarse.
“I never thanked you, on the beach. I never thanked you for fostering me. I never thanked you for adopting me. I’ll be happy to play baseball if you want.”
“I don’t want. You thank me every time you laugh, Tyler. You thank me every time I see you smile. You’re happy, Tyler. You’re the greatest kid in the world and you’re happy. That’s how you thank me. Playing baseball is nothing at all.”
“I’m going to tell Coach Rodgers to stick it.”