Batting My Way Out of Hell
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From my archives: Periodically I publish pieces I wrote almost 30 years ago, when I was immersed in the throes of my grief. This personal essay is one of those — I wrote it in 1996, four years after my husband died.
On this bright spring Saturday morning the sun filters through the living room blinds and spotlights a mound of sports equipment uncharacteristically piled next to our front door. The assemblage of a pair of baseball bats — one made of hollow banana-colored plastic, the other of faded maroon wood; two scuffed oversized plastic baseballs, and a cheerful Little Tikes batting “T” heralds the news: Today Tim will begin teaching Zachary to play baseball.
Tim, an angel incarnate who graciously gives my five-year-old weekly adventures and adult male companionship, arrives promptly at 8am, whistling on his way to the door. I greet his knock while Zachary races to his room to put on his shoes. Tim walks in and immediately spies the baseball pile, exclaiming, “Oh! Zachary has a REAL baseball bat! I didn’t know that.” “Yeah,” I say, idly picking up the aged chunk of wood, “It was Marty’s.”
I run my hand over the length of the once smooth bat, and pause as my fingers snag on dents, pits, and splintery areas where fragments of wood are missing. Suddenly aware that the bat’s somewhat mangled condition might warrant an explanation, I start to speak, but stop, unsure of how much to say. “I’m afraid it’s not in very good shape,” is all that comes out as I hold the pock-marked bat up for Tim’s inspection.
A subtle breeze blows through the screen door as the bat hangs suspended beneath Tim’s gaze. Time stops for an instant.
My mind whirls back three years to the scene that marred the bat’s complexion:
I’d just spent almost a whole year in a numb, shocked state, and around this one-year mark I was finally strong enough to feel again. A flaming rage had been building under the surface of my deadness, and my newfound strength began to pull it out of my core. Fury of a frightening intensity started to leak out all over the place. I snapped impatiently at Zachary. I drove aggressively. I screamed when I dropped a book on the floor. I yelled at mildly incompetent department store workers. I was a volcano about to erupt, and I needed relief.
I had no idea I needed to vent this anger until I found myself in tears in my garage one night after denting the hood of my car with the garbage can lid because I was too impatient to open it slowly. My tears shifted to powerful energy when I suddenly realized that I needed to destroy something.
Marty’s baseball bat practically jumped into my line of sight. Without thought, I picked it up and wandered through the garage looking for dispensable items for potential destruction.
I gathered an assortment of victims and headed out to the back yard. With my weaponized bat, I smashed empty cardboard boxes, a corroded brass planter, and an old toilet seat in a matter of seconds. The force behind my hammering and my desire to go on forever shocked me. I was frustrated by the ease with which I crushed the boxes. The brass pot caved in much too quickly and kept slipping out from under the bat. The toilet seat cracked once and wouldn’t break any more.
This tiny taste of destruction only whetted my appetite.
I walked back to the garage in search of more fodder for the now ravenous bat. My eyes darted up and down the crowded shelves and across the concrete floor. Finally, I locked in on a chocolate-brown wooden chair with a yellowed vinyl seat and back. Marty’s desk chair. In an instant I primitively knew I wanted to feel that chair crumble under the weight of my fury.
But… It was Marty’s chair — the chair he sat in to write computer programs and plays, to pay bills, to read books on tape for his aunt and grandmother. How could I even think of breaking it to pieces?
I paused, a bit deflated. Then energy rushed through my arms again.
Yes! It was Marty’s chair. His well-loved, empty, no-longer-used desk chair. I had found the ideal sacrifice for my altar of anger.
The next morning I prepared for the liturgy of release with ironic serenity. After I dropped Zachary off at preschool, I matter-of-factly rang the doorbell of my nosy cop next-door-neighbor to be sure he wasn’t at home to investigate banging sounds. He was gone. In the eye of the hurricane, I slowly gathered the equipment I would need for my ritual slaying — Marty’s chair, work gloves to increase my hands’ endurance, safety glasses to shield my eyes from flying shards of wood, tissues in case I cried, and, of course, the bat.
I marched out to the back yard and placed the chair halfway between the baby swing Marty had hung from the branch of a tall oak tree just over a year earlier, and the double delight rosebush I had planted on his death anniversary only weeks before. I donned gloves and glasses, and stood in front of the chair listening to my heart beating against my churning insides.
I sucked in my breath, lifted the bat high above my head, and slammed it down onto the chair. The wood protested with a satisfying crunch. And I gave myself over to violence.
At first I pummelled in silence, sadistically enjoying splintering the wood the way my life had been splintered. The vinyl split open with a loud pop and its stiff batting bulged out. The pop reverberated in my loss-hollowed gut, and I pounded on and on.
Without thinking, I started chanting a mantra through clenched teeth, matching the rhythm of my strikes. One syllable of “I. Shouldn’t. Have. To. Do. This. By. Myself.” exploded out of me with each smack of the bat. The chant induced an even stronger rage to engulf me, and I swung harder than I ever knew I could.
I came up for air and became aware for the first time that I was out of breath and sweating. A few tears leaked out. Then a new wave of violence poured through the burst-open dam.
I pounded again and again and my mantra shifted. “IT’S. NOT. FAIR… IT’S. NOT. FAIR… IT’S. NOT. FAIR…” I spit each word with a grunt every time the bat struck the “chair,” which was now a pile of large sticks and scraps.
Crying, drained, I stared at the impossible green of the grass blades that peeked through the mangled remnants of the chair. The living stalks fearlessly holding onto their roots among the tatters filled me with another mantra, and I picked up the bat again.
With a blast of furious brutality I screamed, “He’s supposed to have a father!” I hit and I hit and I hit and I hit and I hit, until at last the chair was annihilated and I was spent.
Suddenly, I was finished.
My arms trembled. I couldn’t lift the bat any more, much less hit anything with it. My legs crumpled and I leaned against the privacy fence to survey the damage.
Wood was reduced to splinters. Screws and tiny dowels lay scattered about. Fist-sized pieces of vinyl and batting spread over everything. Cardboard and wood from within the vinyl casing sprawled in a shredded mess.
I gazed at the chaotic canvas of lawn strewn with pulverized chair parts, bat, gloves, glasses, and used tissues. Finallysomething tangible and physical depicted my life’s devastation. I laid down in the grass next to the mess, and gave in to wracking sobs for nearly an hour.
When the crying subsided, I laid in the springtime breeze with my eyes closed. The sun dried the tears on my cheeks while the soothing harmonies of Marty’s musically correct wind chimes drifted over me. In this eerie post-wrath tranquility, my grief turned an important corner. The sacrament of destruction had freed me from anger’s stranglehold.
I sat up, all at once aware of blisters on my thumb and muscle spasms in my back and shoulders. I reached for the bat and saw for the first time the dents, nicks, and gouges inflicted on it by my surrender to angry protest.
I touched the wounds in the wood with deep affection, and vowed to keep the bat forever.
Suddenly, I return to the present. I hold the beat-up bat out to Tim and hear him saying, “We’re not playing in the major league. The bat’ll work fine.”
“I’m sure it will,” I whisper.
Zachary scampers into the living room, slides across the hardwood floor, and stops in front of Tim and me, singing “I’m ready!” Eyeing the bat in my hand he looks eagerly into Tim’s face and proudly proclaims, “That was my dad’s bat!” “Your mom was just telling me that!”
Still holding the bat, I realize I’m gripping it so hard that my knuckles are white. Gritting my teeth, the skeletal fury surges through my blood anew. I think, “He’s only a little boy, and his father is dead! His fathershould be teaching him how to play baseball.”
I will always be angry about that. But thanks to this very bat, the anger no longer overwhelms me. It arises in a wave and quietly passes through me.
I loosen my grasp and pass the bat to my son. Zachary embraces it. Tim kneels down and gently, patiently shows him the proper baseball hold. Zachary attends with delight. The moment is so tender I choke back tears, and life joins death in that simple stick of wood.
Unspoken thoughts race through my head and I hope Tim’s heart can feel them. “Where did you come from, you generous, kind-hearted man? How did we get so lucky to find you? Marty isn’t here. But you are. How blessed we are to have you in our lives.” But the only words I can push around the lump in my throat are “Thank you, Tim. Thank you.”
The two guys lug the pile of baseball equipment down the sidewalk to Tim’s pickup truck, whistling all the way. Marty’s bat drops behind the seat. Zachary and Tim drive away. As they turn the corner, my chest bursts with gratitude, and I fall to my knees.