I’m not at SunTrust Park tonight.

It’s 8:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 2017. For months, I’d been planning on being on my feet at this moment, foam tomahawk in hand, at a brand-new ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia, for the home opener of this season of Atlanta Braves baseball. Instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, trying to grade essay proposals. The Braves game is on the radio, but I can barely hear the commentary because the Braves are up 2-0 in the first inning, and the crowd is so loud that Jim Powell’s voice disappears.

I’m frustrated.

I tried on multiple occasions to buy tickets for today’s game, but the Braves sold so many ticket packages early that few people were able to buy single-game tickets when they went on sale to the public. I didn’t want to empty out my savings account to buy tickets from third-party sellers, and when the Braves released individual standing-room-only tickets earlier this week, I didn’t buy one because I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t want to go to the game alone. The new ballpark is exciting, but it isn’t familiar, and between traffic and wondering if I would get lost and not having a place to park and being surrounded by people I don’t know, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been fearful instead of excited.

I should have bought the ticket anyway. I didn’t. And now, like so many other times, I regret not taking a chance.

I’ve got excuses. It’s two weeks before the end of the semester, and the grading has piled up. My parents need to see me. Atlanta traffic is the worst.

There will be other games. There will be more Opening Days. But I think I’ll always regret not trying harder to go to this game.

I’ve been thinking too much about regrets lately, about taking chances (or not) when I can (or should). Two months ago, my father was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemo so far. He hasn’t been too sick, but he’s been tired and weak. We won’t know for a little longer whether the chemo is working. But life has changed for all of us.

Two months ago, life felt like it was ending. It was hard to breathe some days. I set alarms for two hours before I needed to get out of bed because I knew it would take that long to convince myself to actually move. I broke down in front of students, in restaurants with friends, and especially in the middle of the night when nothing could penetrate the grief. I still do, actually.

But I kept counting down to baseball. Spring training games started two weeks after my father’s diagnosis. I occupied myself with arguing about who the Braves would put in their bullpen to start the season and guessing which minor league teams the top prospects would be assigned to and creating a spreadsheet for the players I would draft for my fantasy league.

At this point in my life, I’ve recognized the impermanence of things. Roommates and addresses change, sometimes more often than I would choose. Best friends move across the country or drift away, despite still living in close proximity. My favorite students graduate or transfer, and suddenly, the people who were so important to me for months are just gone.

The people I love the most are gone. Might be gone. Will be gone. Eventually, sooner or later.

No matter how you conjugate it, the loss is the same. Life is hard. Really hard. Even unbearable at times. So when you find something that gives you a real, true sense of fulfillment, you have to hold on.

The reality that I will one day, far sooner than I am ready, even if it is years from now, lose my father has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. But it has brought a sense of clarity about, as clichéd as it sounds, what is really important:

God is true and real and loving even when my heart is broken and the grief is overwhelming.

I will never regret spending time with my family instead of grading essays.

The people who matter the most are the ones who will be solid, faithful presences even when they don’t know what to say or how to help.

Baseball is the greatest, weirdest, most exhausting, most romantic sport in the world.

Some days, the stress of life is so much that my prayers are reduced to “Jesus, please just help.” Some days, I cry uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, who is stronger and braver than I can ever hope to be. Some days, I find solace in a good cup of coffee and a stellar defensive play by the Braves’ centerfielder. Some days, nothing seems to matter because the papers still need to be graded, and my father still has cancer, and the Braves’ bullpen loses yet another game.

But God’s mercies are made new every morning. And joy comes in the morning. And new batting order and opponents and games happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That is the best thing about baseball. For eight months out of the year, I have something to follow, something to invest in, something new and exciting and unexpected to hope for. The Braves might have a losing record, but players still hit home runs and make exciting sliding grabs in the outfield and make impossible 4-6-3 double plays look like poetry come to life.

The last thing I wrote about baseball was about hope and the Chicago Cubs, and when I wrote that in November, I had no idea what was coming. But I do now. And in a few weeks, when the semester is over, I’m moving home for the summer, to spend time with my dad, to help out my family as much as I can, to try to find hope and to make the time last as long as it can.

But my dad made me promise that, if I came home for the summer, I would still go to as many baseball games as I can. And that’s a deal I willingly made.

SunTrust Park, I’ll be there as soon as I can.

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Wrinkles in Time

Yesterday afternoon, while editing a paper in the writing center, I had an inexplicably strong desire to go out to dinner with my parents to a restaurant called Crossroads back home. The weird thing is that I haven’t been to the restaurant in probably 15 years; the restaurant has changed ownership numerous times, and my family got out of the habit of going after it kept closing and re-opening.

But in a flash, I imagined myself as a little girl: shoulder-length, pale blond hair; wearing jean shorts and a t-shirt; swinging my legs against the wooden chair rails. My family sat around a square, wooden table, plates and cups in front of us, and tables stretching out across the restaurant. I remembered the decor of the restaurant: trees and deer painted on old saws, specifically. Kind of weird out of context, but totally appropriate there.

In that moment, I wondered if time travel wasn’t just a little bit possible. Maybe time truly isn’t linear; maybe time folds back over itself, and our memories are just ghosts of ourselves existing simultaneously in another dimension. Maybe while 25-year-old me sat in the writing center on a September afternoon, marking up a PTRW book review, six-year-old me was eating dinner with her parents and brother and swinging her legs against her chair while eating fried shrimp and French fries.

Maybe if I’d closed my eyes and fallen into the memory, I would have been six years old again. As long as I could have just as easily returned to 25, I would have enjoyed that bit of time travel. I remember the excitement of being six years old, when I would jump up and down and cheer because my parents agreed we could go to Crossroads for shrimp night instead of cooking dinner at home. Sometimes, 25-year-old Haley doesn’t get as excited about life’s little adventures as six-year-old Haley did.

Even if I didn’t actually time travel, that one memory has left my homesick since yesterday afternoon. I can’t explain why that memory came to me; nothing in a paper about The Gospel of Judas should have made me think of eating fried shrimp with my family as a little girl. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that even the most mundane memories are still vivid enough to insert themselves into my life at random moments. And maybe next time I visit my parents, I’ll take them out to dinner and get really excited about it.

#84: Antietam

Road trips are the traveler’s manifestation of a rite of passage. At least, it seems that way, if one reads enough books or watches enough films. Last year’s road trip to Boston was certainly epic and proved to me that extensive traveling didn’t have to be expensive or difficult. This year’s trip to Pennsylvania and Maryland reminded me that my own history is stretched out over more geography than the road between Greenville and the town where I grew up.

This year’s road trip was supposed to be 9 days of American history between D.C. and Philadelphia. Because of various incidents beyond our control, I spent 7 days on the road with Ticcoa, and Harvin joined us for several days in Pennsylvania, but did not travel with us for most of the trip. And we skipped D.C. altogether.

But I sort of got a bonus out of this year’s road trip. When Ticcoa and I were at Gettysburg, I flipped through a Civil War battlefields guidebook and realized that Sharpsburg, MD, wasn’t all that far south of Gettysburg…and definitely within a geographic range to visit on this trip, if we so desired. So I proposed a slight change to the plan: Ticcoa and I left Pennsylvania Saturday morning instead of Saturday evening and made the 3 hour journey southwest to Antietam National Battlefield.

Antietam is the bloodiest single-day battle in all of American history–not just the Civil War. In less than a 12-hour time span, 23,000 casualties occurred, including my great-great-great grandfather Harmon Reed Gambrell.

I discovered that I had a Confederate soldier for an ancestor six years ago when I took a class on American folklore and was assigned a large family history project. I searched genealogy records and found out that my 47-year-old great-great-great grandpa left behind a wife and eight children to enlist. And he was one of only 3 men killed from his unit at Antietam, a tremendous surprise considering the overall number of casualties. Furthermore, he was the only rifleman actually killed in his unit on the day of the battle. The 1st man was a colorbearer killed early and the last man was killed by a Union sharpshooter the next day (according to accounts in the official Civil War Records). I’ve always wanted to visit Antietam, just to see the land where my grandfather died. Among a lineage of small-town farmers, a Confederate casualty stands out a bit, particularly since he died in such an epic battle.

When Ticcoa and I arrived at Antietam National Battlefield, I really had no hope of figuring out where his unit had been fighting. Because Antietam was a spontaneous addition to our trip, I had left all my records and information at home. I knew his name, that he was a private in the 1st South Carolina Rifles, and that he died on that day. But, truthfully, I had not uncovered very much more information. So we went to the visitors center and then started driving around to all the monuments and stops on the driving tour.

We saw Dunker Church, where much of the fighting took place, and then a place called “the bloody cornfield,” where I again wondered if this was where my grandfather had spent his last moments. But when we arrived at stop 5, the West Woods, a volunteer named Jim Buchanan walked up to us. The conversation went something like this:

Jim: “Are you from Boston?” (Note: I was wearing a Boston t-shirt. He’s not a mindreader.)

Me: “No, we’re actually from South Carolina.”

Jim: “Oh, really? We had a number of units from South Carolina fighting here.”

Me: “I know. My great-great-great grandfather died here during the battle.”

Jim: “Oh, really? Do you know his unit? We can probably figure out where he died.”

This was the moment where Ticcoa pulled out her video camera. She has footage of our conversation, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can imagine the wide-eyed look on my face. I had no idea, no expectation, that I would actually discover where my grandfather had been on all the miles and miles of farmland that is part of the national battlefield. But Jim pulled out his book, entitled The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, flipped to the back, looked up the 1st SC Rifles in the index, and was able to determine when and where my grandfather’s unit had been fighting. He then informed me that the battle of Antietam was incredibly well-documented, and someone has actually made maps of the troop movement down to the half-hour. After reading the account in the book, Jim pulled up maps from later in the afternoon, and I saw on the map when my grandfather entered the battle. He then unrolls his map, starts comparing the location to the park service map, and told me exactly how to find the hills where the 1st SC Rifles were fighting.

Somewhere past that wooded area is where the 1st SC Rifles engaged in battle.

Here’s what I learned: my grandfather’s unit had been on reserve most of the day, and they were called up mid-afternoon (after 3 p.m.) to engage with the 4th Rhode Island regiment near Burnside Bridge. The Confederates were able to hold onto that piece of land, and, in fact, remained camped nearby until the morning of Sept. 19 (the battle of Antietam occurred on Sept. 17, 1862). Eventually, they were the last Confederate troops to leave the area by crossing the Potomac.

The plaque nearby describes exactly where the unit was fighting. Jim called it exactly!

I’m still not sure where my grandfather is buried. Most likely, he is buried with most of the Confederate soldiers who died at Antietam in one of three mass graves nearby. Something like 10% of the bodies were ever identified, so the chances that he was once of them are slim. However, some reports on ancestry.com show my ancestor as being buried in Honea Path, SC, his hometown (though I suspect that may just be a monument and not a gravestone). I’ll soon be traveling a few counties over to Honea Path to find that cemetery and confirm whether he’s buried there or not. Another posting on Ancestry lists him as being in Jackson, Mississippi, though that may be confused with his older brother, who also died during the Civil War, though of a disease and not in battle. At any rate, I may never find his grave. But that’s okay because I pulled off the side of a road and looked down the hills to the area where he was fighting. And it was beautiful.

This might be the greatest thing I’ve marked off The List so far. I mean, Boston was epic in so many ways, and there are others that I’m proud of. But at Antietam, I found a piece of my history, and it’s a place I plan on revisiting whenever possible. Also, I’m a little obsessed now with Civil War history: researching online, narrowing down where exactly my grandfather fought before Antietam, etc. But that’s totally okay. 🙂

Home for the Holidays

Last night, I arrived back in Greer after a week at my parent’s house, which is the longest amount of time I’d spent there in two years. This was one of the best Christmas breaks I can remember. It was restful, simple, and productive…everything I needed an extended break from my life to be.

Thanksgiving break was difficult, and in retrospect, I think that’s because I had planned so many activities into five days that I had no time to rest. I was still in the continuously frenzied, caffeinated mindset from this insane semester of working, teaching, and attending school, that I didn’t know how to slow down and just appreciate my few days off.

This time was different. First of all, the planned trip to Pennsylvania and New York fell apart less than 24 hours before we were supposed to leave, thanks to a freak storm front that moved across the east, dumping tons of snow on I-81, our route from the South to Pennsylvania. I spent those five days in Greer, shopping with Harvin, crocheting, watching The West Wing, baking, and thoroughly cleaning my room. It was as close to stress-free as I’ve been in months. Then I headed home for Christmas.

Highlights of my break:

1) The food. My family is a big fan of breakfast, so we either went out for breakfast or cooked delicious quiche and cinnamon rolls at home. Also, for Christmas Eve, my parents, brother, and I had Beaufort Stew and scallops. Delicious!

2) Christmas morning. The first gift I opened was the Director’s Cut of Watchmen that my brother bought for me. The DVD case is a Rorschach mask. It was seriously awesome. He did a great job. But the best part about Christmas morning was what I’d been looking forward to for months. My brother bought my dad a really awesome leather fire helmet, which is quite expensive. Berry bought himself one a few months ago, and he and Dad in all their conversations have talked about the benefits of having a leather helmet for a long time. Dad had no idea Berry was getting him one. It was something Dad had always wanted but never would have bought for himself. He cried when he opened the box. Then he wore the helmet around the house and sometimes just sat and looked at it. Berry wins big for best Christmas present ever. Buying gifts is the way my brother shows his love, and it pretty much made my dad’s year, I think.

3) My mom bought me the new Monopoly Deal card game for Christmas. On Saturday, Mom and I sat down and played for an hour or so. Then after dinner, my dad joined in, and the three of us played that game and Uno for three hours. We haven’t played games together like that since I was very young. It was a lot of fun.

4) My dad has recently taken up model railroading again. It was a hobby he really enjoyed for years before I was born, up through the time when we moved eleven years ago. For years, he’s talked about doing it again, but only when my brother moved out and Dad found a viable space to set up a layout did he dig out his old supplies. In the past few weeks, he’s built a platform around my brother’s old room, laid down foam and track to start the layout, and started putting together buildings. I’m super excited he has a hobby at home now. Every time I called him, until recently, if he was at home, he was sitting down watching TV. Now, he’s up, moving around, spending hours in the train room, or the “mancave,” as I’ve dubbed it. It’s good to see that my dad isn’t wasting time so much. He seems younger and more lighthearted now.

5) My parents are often planners who rarely follow through with plans. A year or so ago, they bought this huge steel shelving unit to put in our utility/laundry room. The intent was to give my mom a place to neatly organize all of her crafting and VBS supplies (she was the county association’s director for years and has tons of decorating and planning materials). Unfortunately, the nook where the shelving unit was to go was stacked with old boxes that have been in the corner since we moved in 11 years ago. Sunday and Monday, my parents and I thoroughly cleaned the entire room, getting rid of a ton of dust, dirt, and needless items, sorting through all the boxes, constructing the shelving unit, and organizing supplies into plastic bins. The result is that I sneezed a lot, we threw away huge bags of trash, and the room looks great. I have every intention of going home as often as possible and encouraging my mom to throw away stuff and organize. It felt really great to help my mom out.

Reading this post makes it seem like I had a super-busy week, but it was really quite peaceful and relaxed. I finished crocheting one scarf, crocheted a full one, and got a great start on a third scarf, all while watching The Big Bang Theory (a Christmas gift from my parents) and The Mentalist (my brother’s gift to Mom), so that was delightful. And I enjoyed being around our two cats, two dogs, and seven adorable, playful puppies. In fact, my apartment with its three residents seems a little strange now, having been around more animals than people over the last week. Maybe I should go buy another fish. A New Year’s gift to myself. Hmmm…I think I might do that today.

In other news, today is my two-year anniversary of being diabetic. I’m having much more fun today that I was two years ago.

Also, on Saturday, adventure will be had. Ticcoa, Harvin, Jessie, and I are heading to Savannah to see the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, and maybe go to Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island (yay lighthouses!). It’s going to be awesome. Expect an exuberant post next week.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Redbirds

I bought a Christmas ornament yesterday…a beautiful redbird made in Indonesia from pressed bamboo. I picked it up from the basket, twirled it between my fingers, and admired the beautiful, fragile piece of art that it is. Then I thought about how much my grandmother would have loved it. And so I bought it, in honor–and in memory–of her.

*****

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my family lived in a large house divided into two apartments–our side and Mama Kat’s side. The beauty in this arrangement is that, at Christmas, we essentially had two houses to decorate. Twice the fun!

Mama Kat loved Christmas, as well, and held fast to traditions. Every year, the artificial green tree sat in the same place in her living room. Every year, she wound white Christmas lights around it, as I waited anxiously to place the ornaments on the tree. Every year, she lovingly unwrapped each ornament, slid an ornament hanger on, and handed it to me.

I was very particular even then. All the similar ornaments needed to be spaced far enough apart so as not to appear cluttered. The seemingly hundreds of crocheted white snowflakes needed to cover the tree. Her collection of ornaments featuring “The Night Before Christmas” must also be spaced accordingly. And the special, individual ornaments needed to be placed so everyone could admire them.

One in particular stands out. The flat, round ornament had a beautiful redbird displayed on its front. I knew how much Mama Kat loved birds of every size and shape, but redbirds seemed to be her particular favorite. I always hung that ornament in front.

When we finished decorating the tree, I sat and stared at the white lights. My parents always decorated our Christmas tree with colored lights and eclectic, homemade ornaments, as well as ornaments commemorating each Christmas my brother and I had experienced. I always thought the colored tree was the more beautiful tree, until I opened the door separating our side from Mama Kat’s. The green tree with the bright, white lights and all the white ornaments seemed to glow in a supernatural sort of way. It seemed so classy, so old-fashioned; it seemed to embody all that was Mama Kat.

Last year was my first Christmas on my own, and when Christmas approached, I searched for the perfect ornaments to hang from my very first Christmas tree. But as I stood in the store and stared at the boxes of lights, the choice between colored and white seemed like so much more than that. And when I chose the boxes of bright, white lights, I imagined Mama Kat’s tree, and I imagined myself as a little girl, sitting beneath it in a darkened living room, enraptured. I imagined that she would be pleased with even my simple choice of white Christmas lights. But even more so, I imagined that she would be pleased with the woman I’m becoming.

*****

Mama Kat will turn 88 years old in a little over a week, but she won’t realize it. She won’t celebrate it. She’s been in a nursing home for the past four years, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I saw her about six weeks ago for the first time in ten months. She did not recognize me. I could find nothing to say to bring a familiar spark back to her dull, lifeless blue eyes. I could find no trace of the woman she once was. She is a shell, a fragment of her old self.

Tonight, at Radius, the discussion was about suffering. And my first instinct, as usual, is “Oh, no, I’m just fine.” As Stuart continued to talk, however, the image of my grandmother came to mind. And, suddenly, I was grateful for the darkened room. Thinking of her brings tears to my eyes and a stabbing pain to my heart. I can barely think of her without crying, and tonight, I wept silently as I prayed for my grandmother.

It seems that everytime I think of her, all I can ask is “Why?” Why her? And where is she? Where is that essence, that embodiment of my beloved grandmother?

After I saw her the last time, I cried on the phone with my mom. Then later, I called my dad, my grandmother’s son, and cried again. He listened to all my questions, let me cry, then confessed that he had not visited her for the same reasons. Then the conversation got significantly harder to handle, as my father told me that he’d been praying for God to be merciful and let her die.

At that moment, I told him that I was too selfish for that. I could not bear the thought of praying for that. But tonight, as I thought about suffering and Alzheimer’s and little redbirds, I finally prayed. I prayed for my grandmother’s suffering to end. I thought about how it would finally be for her, to be free from her ravaged mind, to meet Jesus and be whole again.

In the meantime, I have my cherished memories, and white Christmas lights, and my own little redbird to remind me of her.