One of the great regrets of becoming an adult is that it’s not appropriate for me to play baseball anymore. I’m not talking softball, with that oversize gob of a ball, but honest-to-goodness hardball. I love the way it sounds when you catch a well-thrown hardball in the web of your mitt. I mean, throughout my childhood, they taught me how to throw, catch, bat, and slide, and man, was I good at it! At 12, I led my Little League in home runs! But then you grow up, and all those skills are as useless as an appendix.
You meet a woman, and you think, “Wow, she’s cute. If only she could play catch with me….”
The summer I was seven was as perfect as sunlight shining through a butterfly’s wings. There were blue skies, warm weather, and lots of Little League baseball played in black t-shirts with BEAVERS written across the front.
I see a movie of myself in my mind from that summer. I’m playing wiffle ball in the backyard with my friends Scott and Gary. We would pitch and hit and run the bases as fast as we could, sweating under the hot sun. Sometimes, I would slide and get grass stains on my jeans. When we were good and tired, we would sit under the tree that stood in for first base.
It was a fabulous tree. Sometimes, I would climb it and sit, just thinking about the things that a child thinks about. The tree had little red poisonous berries, and cast a generous shadow. Sitting under the shade of that tree with my friends Scott and Gary, I felt happy. We would talk as boys talk. About the Dodgers, and how their rightfielder Frank Howard was better than Roberto Clemente any day. About the boy who had just moved in down the street, a kid named Mark who wore nerdy glasses. About my Uncle Ray, whom I proudly announced was working for NASA as an engineer on Apollo 8. When we were thirsty, we would drink from the hose. When we were hungry, my mother would bring out a bowl of cherries.
“I wish this summer would last forever,” I told my mother one evening just before the sun went down.
My mother smiled. She took it as a sign that she was a good mother, and she was.
A couple years later, while sitting at the dinnertable, my Dad had an announcement.
“We’re getting a swimming pool,” he said.
We couldn’t believe it. We immediately thought about those lovely Saturday parties we had at my cousin Robert’s house. They had a rocky waterfall and the Tijuana Brass was always playing. Every so often, his father Tito would come out with a big bowl of BBQ meatballs on toothpicks.
“Everybody out of the pool!” he’d yell.
And we’d eat the meatballs one after another.
“Remember, you have to wait a half-hour before you go back into the pool,” Tito would say. “Otherwise you’ll get a cramp and drown.”
If we were getting a pool, we could swim at home rather than having Mom drive us to the local plunge. We could invite the whole neighborhood to poolside bashes. It was a paradise beyond what I had ever imagined.
Then one morning at 6 am, I awoke to the sound of heavy machinery. I walked over to the window and, bleary eyed, saw a bulldozer uprooting my tree with the red berries. It was like nothing I had ever imagined. The tree was being lifted up high, its ugly roots hanging in the air. Suddenly, I burst out crying.
“What is it, honey?” my mother asked, putting her arm around me.
“They’re destroying my tree!” I said.
It was our shade. It was first base. It was our infield. It was our memories.
Looking back, I knew even then that it went deeper than that. Everything was changing. I was getting curly hair and stinky armpits. I was thinking bad thoughts, like what if heaven doesn’t exist? The following year, my cousin Robert’s mother would die and he would start a slow decline into mental illness, and no amount of BBQ meatballs and swim parties could stop that. Not long after that, Scott and Gary would become my enemies and I never knew why. And one day, Uncle Ray died from leukemia and my mother cried hysterically for days.
That endless seventh summer, the perfect one, was gone.
Many bad things have happened to me since they tore that pool out of my heart. I didn’t end up playing third base for the Dodgers. I never met Jackson Browne. After my best friends Scott and Gary deserted me, I tried hanging out with the new kid, Mark, two doors down, but it was like hanging out with no one. Fifteen years later, he committed suicide. My sister is having problems with her spine and has had two operations this year alone. My mother has outlived the love of her life by 25 years and is sometimes excruciatingly lonely. There are even worse things, but would prefer not to mention them.
But I still love summer. I love sweating in the hot sun and drinking five glasses of iced tea afterwards. Summer still seems perfect to me, perhaps because I’ve learned that it’s not the lack of pain or heartache that makes a day perfect, but the shade that you can find in your heart when you look into the bright summer sky.