There are times when I both love and hate writing. It’s hard, and sometimes, it compels you to scratch something out that you’d rather not. This is one of those pieces. For the last assignment in my Personal Essay Writing class, each student has to edit a piece he or she has written and resubmit it. After reading over the comments and feedback I got from my classmates and instructor, I decided to rework the essay I wrote about baseball that was originally an entry on this blog.
They wanted it to be less about baseball and more about something personal, and during the critique session, the idea you see below popped in my head. It has changed forms completely and is now an attempt to wrestle with memory much more than time. I still have a few days to get it polished up and perfected, so I sure would appreciate feedback on this one. Where are there still gaps? Do the symbols I use work? Does it hold together top to bottom? No one in my family is going to want to read this one because it’s just too hard, so I need some help from you folks who aren’t so close to the issue. Thanks in advance.
For the Record
I have come to terms with the fact my grandfather will forget my name one day. Already, he struggles to find it as he gropes through the jumbled memories in his brain, sifting for it the same way we once did for sharks’ teeth on Jupiter Beach. Sometimes, he calls me “James,” the moniker I share with my great uncle and great grandfather, probably because he’s known it longer. It’s engraved more deeply into the gray grooves of his brain, and the disease gaining ground there will have a harder time eroding it. I like to imagine James is a stubborn root that refuses to be pulled out or a well-supplied soldier at the beginning of a lengthy siege. James is a fighter, and its defeat will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.
To salvage as much of him as she can, my grandmother, who I’ve always called Nonnie, asks Papaw our names at least thirty times a day, beginning at breakfast.
“Tell me your daughters’ names again,” she says as she places his morning pills on the napkin next to his plate.
“Sherry and Jamie,” he proudly replies, knowing both are right.
“Jamie’s your granddaughter,” she replies, washing down the lump of misery in her throat with a drink of scalding coffee. “Anita’s your other daughter. Now, tell me your grandsons’ names….”
When she can’t bear to listen, she has him write down our names on a sheet of paper over and over again, like he’s a child being punished after school, forced to scratch out, “I will not forget my homework” one hundred times on the board. His handwriting, never prize worthy, is nearly illegible now, and his brain can’t process letters the same way it once did. There are times when “Sherry” is written “sHErrY” and my name is spelled five different ways. Some days, the names won’t come at all, and his pencil tip breaks under the pressure of his frustration.
There are also times when I’m Amy, Cammie, and Tammy to him, too, and the fact that they rhyme only cracks my heart instead of breaking it outright. It’s close enough to tell me I’m still in there somewhere, like an old photograph just beginning to get grainy and fuzzy around the edges.
“That’s okay, Papaw,” I tell him as we sit out by the pool one Saturday. “It’s in the ballpark.”
The word triggers something in his brain, lashing two memories together like lifeboats in a storm, and he looks at me with such clarity I almost forget that dementia, unlike amnesia, isn’t something you recover from.
“Do you remember going to Busch Stadium?” he asks, smiling broadly.
I can only bite my lip and nod. “What do you remember, Papaw?” I ask. And he tells me his recollections of that afternoon.
I remember it well. I couldn’t have been more than seven the first time he led me through the massive gates at the ballpark with one of my tiny hands in his. In the other sweaty fist, I carried a new St. Louis Cardinals pennant that soon snapped in half because I shook it to pieces in my excitement. While the rest of my family went off to buy hot dogs, Cokes, and pretzels, Papaw and I joined the river of people flowing through the stadium and fought our way through to buy a scorecard.
“If you want to understand the game, you have to have one of these, baby girl,” he said. “It helps you see and remember what happened.”
We reached our seats and, while we waited for everyone to join us, Papaw pulled a pen out of his front shirt pocket and began filling out the lineups. He started with “Smith,” the most common of names, but I knew who it was. Ozzie Smith, A.K.A. “The Wizard of Oz,” was the lead-off man and had long been my favorite player because he always did a back flip the first time he took the field and was so fast that he made seemingly impossible plays look simple. Ozzie didn’t field so much as dance, anticipating the ball’s every movement when it left the batter’s box.
“You put ‘one’ here where it says ‘number,’ and ‘Smith’ under ‘name,’” Papaw said, slowly writing the information on the card and letting me see it. “Then you have to put in their position. Smith is a shortstop, so he’s number….”
I counted the positions on my finger. One was the pitcher, two was the catcher, but I always struggled to remember if the shortstop was five or six. I was about to give up when he reminded me.
“Smith starts with an S just like…”
“Six!” I shouted happily. “He’s position number six.”
For me, most of the game passed in a whir of color and excitement. I was often distracted by the organ music, the box of Cracker Jacks I munched on, or the people around us, but I checked in with Papaw periodically to see how the innings looked on that scorecard. Each player had twelve perfect boxes in line behind his name, and the diamond in the center of each held the results of each at bat. A darkened line with “1B” written to the side meant a single while that same line paired with “WP” or “BB” meant the man reached on a wild pitch or a walk. “K” facing right meant a man struck out swinging while a reversed one meant he stood there and took the final one of an at bat. I learned how to mark a stolen base, a fly out, and even a homerun, and what could have been an impenetrable mess of data made sense because my grandfather served as my very own Rosetta Stone.
There was something appealing about the scorecard to me, and I found myself more drawn to it as the innings passed. I liked the way it told the story of a game in only a few lines and letters, as terse and beautiful as a haiku. When the bottom of the ninth came around, Papaw asked me if I wanted to help, and I eagerly crawled into his lap and took the pen from his hand. Comfortably perched on his knees, I watched and carefully marked down the combination of plays that produced the Cardinals’ winning run (single, sacrifice fly, stolen base, and double) and left the crowd screaming with excitement. The moment, unlike my crooked and wobbly lines, was perfect.
Why can’t our memories be like that? I ask myself as I listen to him talk, furious that the outcome of an inconsequential game can be recorded forever while my grandfather’s memories wash away like sand pulled into time’s dark sea. Maybe it’s because the game is a two-dimensional thing, a mass of data—nothing more runs and outs—while humans are flesh and bone. A baseball scorecard is a simple retelling of facts in the correct order. There’s no need to record a player’s motivation, his thoughts during a given at bat, or even how he felt watching a third strike whiz past or legging a single into a double. But life is made up of so many things that cannot be quantified or accurately described. The only accurate record of it lives on in memory. Beautiful. Complete. Vulnerable.
No matter how many pictures we take or how many journals we fill with our thoughts, we can never capture the essence of what matters in our lives or why. It breaks my heart to think I can never explain to anyone how much I love the crinkles that collect around my husband’s eyes when he smiles or why no broccoli casserole in the world will ever taste as good as my mother’s. I can’t tell anyone exactly what it felt like to become the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree or to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower at night with the twinkling lights of Paris laid out beneath me like gemstones on black velvet. Those precious things, if I lose them, are gone forever. After all, no one saw, tasted, or felt what I did in those moments—and even if they had, their memories would be uniquely theirs. Not mine.
“…but I couldn’t even keep a scorecard anymore,” Papaw says, his voice pulling me away from the painful thoughts in my head.
“What?” I ask him to repeat, embarrassed for having tuned him out, even for a second.
“I remember teaching you how to keep a scorecard that day,” he repeats. His voice is patient, the way it used to be. “But I doubt I remember how.”
Phrases like “I doubt I could…” are dementia-speak, convenient euphemisms for truths too brutal to face. We both know he could no more keep the system of lines and letters straight in his befuddled brain than I could when I was seven. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.
But I do. I know because he taught me how. The memory of learning it from him is in my head, and I’ve reinforced it by keeping dozens of scorecards since that Elysian afternoon. What is lost to him forever is not lost to me yet. The memory of it is safe for now.
“Hold on just a sec,” I tell him and dash indoors.
Thanks to the Internet, it takes less than a minute to print out a blank scorecard. It’s not the same as the full color ones at the ballpark, those edged with player stats and ads for beer or car dealerships, but it’ll do. I come back out to where he sits, staring at the pool’s placid and glossy surface. Like him, it’s no longer rushing from one place to another, compelled by the irresistible force of gravity to seek lower elevations or by heat and cold to take on other forms. It strikes me then that both of them have reached a place of stillness and will, over time, evaporate away. And there is little I can do about either.
But, for a moment, I see Papaw kneeling by the side of our pool in Arkansas, still wearing his work clothes. His tie is flipped up over his shoulder, and his bright plastic Wal-Mart nametag, the one that reads “Boyce—General Manager” flaps wildly in the summer breeze. In his hand, he holds a bright green garden hose that is happily burbling and spewing a stream of clear water into the pool.
“Whatcha’ doing, B?” I ask him.
“Filling up the pool, baby girl. You and your brother sloshed half the water out of it playing today,” he replies, laughing to tell me he’s not the least bit angry about it. He promises me we’ll swim later and play Marco Polo until it gets dark and we have to watch out for bats drawn down by deep end’s bright light.
I know he’s the same man I knew then, but he’s somehow smaller now. Dimmer. Like a lamp whose oil is running low. I know his lost memories aren’t as easy to replace as those gallons of water once were, but I tell myself refilling him temporarily is well worth the effort.
With my laptop under my arm, I walk toward my grandfather, waving the scorecard as excitedly as I once did that poor, doomed pennant. He smiles. And for a moment, he is so much like his old self that my soul is flooded by a pleasure too sweet to describe. It’s a gossamer thing, as pale and delicate as cotton candy, and I savor it until my jaws clench and my eyes water.
It’s 3:30, and on one network or another, a game will start in less than thirty minutes. That’s just enough time to look up the rosters and put each player’s name, number, and position down for the record.