Some curveballs are strikeouts. Apparently, in the plethora of statistics kept in the vast memory banks of baseball nuts, the number of strikeouts that are the result of a curve ball is not of interest. I am sure that someone, somewhere is keeping a tally and would be able to reassure me exactly how many strikeouts are the result of a curveball as compared to, say, a fastball. I’ll bet that someone in the coaching staff that has brought the pitching phenom Strasburg to light, someone on that staff knows.
People like predictability. People like to know that there is something in this strange and chaotic world that they can count on to happen or not happen. What is certain is that curveballs happen, just like death and taxes.
The Saturday of Memorial weekend was a hot, sunny day. My friend and work colleague, Chris, was scheduled to DJ a wedding that would take him out of town for most of the day. I knew he would not be happy about it. If it is over 70 degrees, Chris takes his bike to a trail, usually a rails to trails or the C&O canal and bikes furiously for the day knocking out as much as a 100 miles a day by summer’s end. On Memorial weekend Saturday, he took his bike no further than the end of his short street to the parking lot and stadium of a local high school. He plugged in his iPod headphones and set out to bike laps. He wasn’t wearing a helmet –he doesn’t do helmets. We’ve argued about it. He’s stubborn, he’s doing the riding, and he gets to make the choices.
On Saturday afternoon I received a call from Chris’ supervisor. He is employed by a local mental health agency and works in my classroom with the emotionally disabled students we try to get through each school day. The kids love him. Years ago he was christened “The Hulk” in deference to his muscular build and his repeated good natured banter.
“Don’t make me bust my shirt,” was a common plea that often was enough to make a recalcitrant student at least smile.
“Chris has been in a bicycle accident. He’s been life-lined to the shock trauma unit in Baltimore.”
I stood and watched the curve ball approach. I had no idea which way it was going to curve. All I could do was watch it veer right and slam into my body.
Nobody was really sure but the result was not in doubt. Chris had sustained a fractured skull from taking a fall from his bike directly on the right side of his head as he was leaving the high school parking lot. His brain was swelling, there was a brain bleed, he was non-responsive, doctors were giving his mom very grave messages.
“He may not survive. If he does, they are talking about nursing home care for the rest of his life.”
Rachel is crying. I am standing still, stunned. My mouth is open but words aren’t coming out. Her call is followed by a call from Melissa, Chris’ on and off again girlfriend over the past four years. She repeats the news. She affirms that it is very serious. He will never be the same. He may not survive.
By Sunday morning the doctors are doing emergency surgery to remove part of his skull. His brain has swelled with a rapid and dangerous zeal far sooner than doctors had anticipated. He may not survive the surgery.
Curveballs are flying through the atmosphere. They are all strikeouts.
What do you do when an extraordinary blow fells a vital young person? I cried, I lit a candle, I prayed, I called my principal, I continued with some planned activities.
By Monday his condition was still unstable and critical. I went to the University of Maryland Medical Center in the afternoon after dropping my daughter at the airport. Melissa and Chris’ mom had prepared me for what I would see. Chris was propped upright in his bed, a neck brace keeping his head securely on the pillow. His swollen head was firmly wrapped in a bloodied bandage. A double line of staples secured the skin over his brain where the skull had been removed. A feeding tube was attached to his nose. His mouth sagged open. A ventilator tube forced his lower lip out and down. A snake pit of tubes and wires surrounded him, punctured him, pouring in necessary fluids of life and evacuating the toxins. Machines beeped. Lights flickered a variety of numbers in different colors on a small screen. His bruised eyelids were closed. His swollen naked belly and chest protruded over the lightweight blanket. Chris would have been mortified.
He had intended to spend the summer biking trails, building his DJ business, and maybe getting in some fishing. There was a small possibility of going to Colorado with Melissa but that meant getting on a plane. The Hulk hated to admit it, but he is afraid of flying and has never been on a plane. He loves the scariest rides at amusement parks, has even chided me into getting on a few myself during our annual field trip to Hershey Park, a field trip he raises money for and plugs with the kids at every opportunity. But, he is adamant that a plane ride is more likely to kill him. He may never get to overcome that fear. I may never get to tease him about it again.
When a curve ball is a strike out, those are the kind of things left on the field. Relationships surround the bases, old friends that won’t creep with you into old age, new ones that won’t have a chance to challenge, ripen, or leave. Talents unrealized are out in left field where no one can see them or will even bother to pick them up. Belongings are scattered, bereft and bare with no one to claim them. A group of needy kids waits quietly on the sidelines. Quiet is not their usual stance and they won’t stay quiet for long.
I may have to say goodbye to my friend but it won’t be before I tell him how angry I am that he wouldn’t wear a helmet. Somewhere in the inert, swollen frame of his body, I am sure he is mad as hell at himself too. He was a man willing to admit his mistakes and able to learn from them.
But once that curve ball is a strike out, it’s just too late.
Photo is from