This piece originally appeared as an Op-Ed feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatchon April 2, 2011.
Even now the small willow tree in our run-of-the-mill American backyard is making a strong case for baseball.
But when a certain new thing happened to Jackson several weeks ago, it didn't happen in the proverbial backyard. It happened in our literal front yard. More specifically, it happened at the exact place where the short sidewalk jutting out from our front porch meets the long sidewalk running here and there.
This long sidewalk unfolds like a concrete stanza line by line—past the house with that silly hippo lawn ornament, past the woman whose cancer may or may not be in remission, and all the way to the elementary school where this boy, my son, goes to grow.
Naturally this confluence of sidewalks has seen many an ordinary yet beautiful thing. The sniffing nose of a dog walking its owner in the early morning. The solitary robin sauntering around in the midday—taking a break from the rigors of twigs and worms. Those classical evening shadows tracing their origins to the sun's descent or a common streetlight.
Among the more extraordinary things to have occurred at this hardened gray space, in January a gaggle of girls wearing doggy-ear headbands—on the occasion of my daughter's 6th birthday party—took colored chalk and scrawled hieroglyphic flowers and butterflies. Last autumn, my older son and I devised football pass-patterns to see if we could be like the pros and make the catch near the sideline where the blades of grass brush up against this exact spot where the new thing happened.
It was here where our young neighbor from across the street first told me this thing: She was a widow. Right here, time and again, like a maddening cliché, I've almost tripped over a neglected scooter—or a kid in mid-tantrum. And here is the place where I've tried and tried—successfully/unsuccessfully—to leave my work in its place before crossing the threshold into dinnertime.
On the day that this new thing happened, most likely Jackson drank several cups of his preferred fuel: white grape juice, filled up to Level 6 in the Red Robin kids' cup. Earlier in the day, I imagine he persuaded me into a choreographed battle with Lego Star Wars figures. (It's a war that I'm routinely expected to lose in a flurry of light-saber duels in which my figures are morally predisposed not to reach their full, galactic potential. An absolute racket, if you ask me.)
It was a Sunday.
At 4 years and 7 months, Jackson is literally half his brother's age. Last summer, shortly after turning 4, he passed a swim test and jumped off the diving board at the local pool for the first time. As he came up out of the water, it was hard to tell the difference between the sheer pleasures of risking it, jumping for the sake of the cannonball and being able to do what your older brother does.
So when Jackson searched for and found his brother's first baseball glove, then ran outside to stand at that well-traveled nexus, I braced myself. Certainly he had a vague notion of how this story goes.
Last spring, God knows he had been dragged along through his brother's Little League season. (Although, more often than not, he was the grateful beneficiary of a delicious post-game snack courtesy of any team parent who was a sucker for those deep, brown eyes.)
One adjustment here, another there, me with a ball, and the boy with his glove—and with that constantly moving body.
No doubt the strange calm of this moment-within-moments was lost on some car driving by—toward church perhaps, or the grocery store for milk and bread. I'm guessing at least one hippo was resting out on a lawn looking the way he always looks. Meanwhile, across the vast ocean, a rather disturbed leader was giving orders to shoot people who in turn had said they would not shoot other people.
Into all this shared, swirling air converging and hovering over a relatively simple slab of earth, I tossed a ball. And in his glove, like a pro, he caught it.
Like his brother before him, yet absolutely for himself, Jackson made the catch. It had happened. In a fraction of a second he was punching the sky and shouting with an unrestrained light: "My first catch, dad. That's my first catch ever!"
His formal pronouncement is surely what caught me off-guard, and it still reverberates. But I should've known better. The small willow tree in our run-of-the-mill American backyard had predicted this: One way or another, the new thing happens.