One thing I’ve learned from facing the slow, lingering death of a loved one is that no one can give you a roadmap for that journey. Even people who’ve been through it can only offer you limited advice because everyone faces death in their own way. What brought comfort to one person’s dying relative might not work in your situation. You’ve got to play it by ear. I was lucky enough, when I was assisting my father’s long, protracted death from cancer, that I had a friend who could not only “play it by ear”, but could play it like a Stradivarius.
A bit of background: my father was a life-long Red Sox fan. While we lived all over the world during his Army career, whether in Alaska or Germany, he always followed the Red Sox. When he was diagnosed at an advanced stage of cancer in 2003, he faced it like an Army Colonel and West Point grad — with stoicism and a stiff upper lip.
Finally, he told the family the source of his strength. He said: “I’ve made a pact with God. He can’t take me until the Red Sox win the World Series. At the very least, I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me.” (Bit of a historical note for my foreign readers: the Red Sox have one of the most loyal fanbases in baseball, despite the fact that they hadn’t won a Series since 1918, something that was often attributed to “The Curse of the Bambino” when they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.)
Then came the miracle season of 2004. The Red Sox just kept doing better and better, sweeping game after game. We asked repeatedly if he was a little nervous, but Dad said, “Don’t worry, the Sox always blow it in a heartbreaker at the end.”
Not this time. I called him from San Francisco from a neighborhood tavern where I was watching the final game of the Series with about a hundred other screaming displaced Red Sox fans. Dad was watching the game and ecstatic. He even said, “If they win, I don’t mind if God collects on the pact.”
But the grim reality was that he took a turn for the worse after the Series and gradually was in more pain and discomfort. It even got to the point where he didn’t want to take the calls of his many friends both locally and from West Point days who called every day to talk to him. He said, “What are they going to say to me? They’ll just want to know how I’m feeling. I don’t want to talk about it.”
That’s where MoMo enters. She’s my connected Boston Irish friend I told you about in this post. Three key things about MoMo. 1) She’s as Irish as Murphy’s cow, 2) the tentacles of her Irish connections stretch from Brookline through the Back Bay and all the way to Ireland, and 3) she’s one of those people who makes connections and can always find you the man who knows a man who can.
She had called to check up on me as I was by this time in Maine giving day round care to my father. I told her the story of my Dad’s pact with God. Within an hour, I suspect, the phone lines in Boston were humming, favors were discussed and suddenly I was contacted by pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s personal assistant asking when would be a convenient time for my father to chat with Bronson.
There must be a special place in heaven for baseball players who really give back to their fans. Bronson Arroyo’s going there. He called up and first talked to me, asking detailed questions about my Dad. When I told him Dad played for West Point’s baseball team and had once tried out for the Red Sox farm team, Bronson said, “Well, then we can really have a discussion about baseball.”
I can’t describe my Dad’s face when I took the phone up to him and said, “The Red Sox heard about your pact with God and Bronson Arroyo is on the line to personally thank you for getting them the Series.”
He and Bronson chatted for half an hour, which was about as long as my Dad’s strength would allow. First they joked about the pact and Bronson gave Dad credit for the Series. Then he made a serious thank you and said it was the support of fans like Dad that made the Red Sox a special team. They finished up with him asking Dad about some of the historic Sox he’d seen play and asked for any tips Dad could pass along. It was a special ending to a lifetime membership in Red Sox Nation.
Best of all, Dad now took calls from his friends because he had something besides his health as a topic. The Bronson Arroyo story was told, retold, embellished and enjoyed for weeks until almost my Dad’s last week of life when he became too weak to talk.
Besides being a wonderful story about a very special friend and a very special ballplayer, I think the moral of the story is to offer one way to provide comfort to someone who is dying. If you can find something that allows final conversations with friends to be about a topic that doesn’t involve illness and symptoms and death, that’s about the best you are ever going to do.
On the strength of that good deed alone, my friend MoMo and Bronson Arroyo are on the fast track to Heaven. When they get there — and I hope it’s a long time coming — they’ll no doubt see my Dad playing Centerfield in a pick-up game with Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky.