"Some things baby never told you
Some things papa done ain't right
Spent a lifetime just to get over her..."
Gaslight Anthem, "Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts
Maybe five minutes left in the second quarter, down by five, and I see the coach tap my oldest son on the shoulder.
Get in there, he says.
Bailey gets up from the bench, takes off his warm-up jersey, checks in at the scorer's table, and runs out on to the court.
A few hundred people in the gym by now, an away game for us, the crowd now waiting for the JV game to end and the varsity game to start. I played sports in high school, but at a much smaller school. Might have played before two or three hundred people once, championship game in soccer my junior year. I got in there with the game well in hand, I think we were up 4-0 at the time, mid-second half. I remember getting the ball around forty-five yards out, faking a couple guys out, and firing a shot high over the cross bar.
The kid's generally a ball of nerves, riddled with anxiety, always asking me if he's going to get sick.
He runs up and down the court; he's a little slow, the biggest kid on the floor, the tallest one on either team. A smidge taller than his old man now, and I'm about six four. He's just turned fifteen years old, size fifteen and a half feet already, and not a hair to be found on his face yet, still a while until I need to show him how to use a razor.
Interestingly, I have noticed over the course of this, his freshman season, he rarely seems nervous out on the court. The fact that he's not done growing, that he's not even close to growing into his body yet, leaves him a bit askew at times, but he holds his own, grabs a couple of boards, plays good defense, puts up one quick fall-away j that goes halfway down before coming back out.
I watch him, in wonder: seems like he grew a foot in a year and a half, seems like the last few years have evaporated before my eyes. He was a month shy of his ninth birthday the morning I told him his mother had died the night before, and he seemed so pitifully small that day, and now he's about the size of his father, and running around in front of a crowd of people.
His brother Riley, now seven a half, sits next to me watching. He nudges me when he sees his big brother running out onto the court: "Bailey's going in, Dad!" he calls out excitedly.
There's a lot of years and sometimes a bit of enmity between the two of them.
Bailey was an only child for his first six years, and damn if he didn't like it that way, and then along came Evie, and then, to the surprise of all of us, along came Riley a year and a half or so later. He came almost six weeks early, and with the cord wrapped around his neck. I can still see him in his first moments, thinking to myself, hmm, that's strange, I don't remember Bailey or Evie coming out blue, and then a whirlwind, a nurse anxiously calling a doctor into the room, and the two of them wheeling him out of the room and down to the NICU.
Not much more than fourteen and a half months later, he lost his mother.
As time went by, it became apparent to all of us that of the three of them, he most resembled his mother: the seemingly infinite reserves of patience and determination, the way he smiled the way she did, with the entire face, with eyes crinkled in delight.
The resemblance, and the age at which he became a motherless child, led to those around him bathing him in adoration.
Bailey sensed that, and he sensed the frustration he aroused in us, with sometimes manic displays of temper and frustration that led him to say hateful things to us, and he came to resent his brother. I've tried telling Bailey that we don't love him any less, and I've tried telling him that when he grows up, he may come to depend on his brother the way I've depended on my brother, and my sisters.
I'm not sure he believes me yet. I hope someday he does.
Bailey runs up and down the court, holds his own. He comes out a few seconds before halftime, looking a little frustrated that his team is still down five, but also looking like he knows he did alright out there. His coach gives him five and he takes a seat.
After the game, as the varsity players begin their warm-ups, Bailey approaches Riley and I, and asks me for some money for the snack bar.
I saw you eating a couple of minutes ago, I say.
He tried to deny it, and then we look at each other and break out laughing. I pull six bucks out of my pocket and hand it to him.
You played well, I say.
Thanks, he says. Here. Can you take my bag home for me? he asks as he walks away.
A moment or two passes.
Riley nudges me.
Dad, he asks, is Bailey gonna sit with us now?
I don't think so, I say. I think he's going to sit with some of his friends from school.
Oh, he says.
A minute or two passes.
Can we go home now? he asks.
I get up, reach down to pick up Bailey's bag.
Can I carry Bailey's bag, Dad? he asks.
It's got textbooks and a pair of size fifteen and a half sneakers and some clothes; I pass him the bag thinking, it must weigh more than he does.
He slips the straps over his shoulders and walks proudly, his mother's smile on his face, out of the gym and toward the car.
We drive home. I think of him sitting in that same seat, five years ago, asking me to play a song, this song, "Blue Jeans and White T-shirts", over and over and over again. Cliched, yes, but I wonder where the time has gone. He still has a lot of the baby in him, but not so long ago, so did Bailey, and now Bailey's already more than halfway through a year of high school.
Dad? he asks.
How come Bailey couldn't sit with us?
Well...I didn't know what to say, so I did what parents do when they don't know what to say, I tried to say the most truthful thing that hurts the least.
I think he had to sit with his team and watch the varsity game.
I glanced at my CD case; I knew "Blue Jeans and White T-shirts" wasn't in there, and I regretted it.
A couple of hours later I got the call to go pick up Bailey from the high school.
Yeah, by like 20.
Can't believe the season's over. Seems like I was just taking you up for tryouts.
What if I don't make the team next year?
Aw, c'mon, let's not worry about that yet. You got your feet wet this year, I think you can do well at this level. We'll work on some things, practice, you gotta play summer ball, you gotta play pickup, you just need to keep playing, you'll be OK.
You think I'll make it next year?
We drive along in silence.
You know what, Dad?
Mom never got see me play. Not once. She went into the hospital a week before my first CYO game in third grade. She never got to see me play.
Not much I can say to that.
I utter a silent prayer of thanks that I've lived to see him play, that I watched him as I sat next to his brother, and I utter a silent prayer that I live to see both of them become men.