Monday, October 11, 2010

Bobby Cox and my grandmother

Editor's note: TOSSS reader David Harns is giving away his MSU-Illinois tickets to a deserving fan who wouldn't be able to go otherwise but wants to spend some quality time with their kid. Nominate a deserving person here, deadline is Thursday.

This post below has absolutely nothing to do with MSU athletics, though I guess it unintentionally dovetails with David's charitable gesture. But this post it needed to be written, and I needed to write it. This post is intensely personal, so if that's not your thing then feel free to skip this and come back later when we write something more interesting and Sparty-related. As for now, I need this, so here it is. - DW

I wound up visiting my grandparents in the mountains of north Georgia quite a lot as a kid. It was a free place for a vacation, and if we really booked it we could get there after a 14-hour drive from Miami. You wouldn't want to do that all the time, that drive'll wipe you out and this was well before I could split time behind the wheel with my mom. But then again, we were dirt poor, the stay was free, the meals were good and gas was 37 cents a gallon.

It's not really a secret, I guess, and I don't know that I've said it in such stark terms, but my Gramps was easily my favorite grandparent as a young kid growing up. It's because of him that I have a deep and abiding love for trains - instilled by a man who bought a caboose, renovated it and put it on 50 yards of track in the mountains.

He was eccentric in a sensible sort of way. Every train needs a platform and station house, right? Well, he built those right next to the caboose so it looks like it could just roll at any time. He told me once that the caboose was still rail worthy, but I don't know if that was true or if that was just a story to fuel my 10-year-old imagination. The caboose was bright red, and on the side of it was painted in bright white the initials of me and my cousins, as well as the neighbor's kids and those of a French exchange student who stayed a year with my grandparents in the late 60's. My D was third from the left in the first word.

Gramps was the sort of guy who loved everyone - two people said at his funeral in 1997 that he made everyone feel like they were his best friend, and I think that's probably right. He sent everyone in his church a hand-illustrated birthday letter, with some character from the Sunday funnies on the front. He drew Snoopy the best. He was a Kiwanis member, after having been a Rotarian in the days before his hair turned gray. I hear that sort of thing isn't in the rules, but you bend the rules for a guy like him.

That was Gramps. His wife, my grandmother, was a fiery, stubborn redhead back in those days and despite everything she remains one now. If you wanted to go to a restaurant, she'd go too. She'd be ready 30 minutes after you were, because her hair had to be just so. You'd walk into the restaurant and she'd pick the table - if you picked it she'd ask the waitress to move 10 minutes later. I never saw my Gramps win an argument with her, though he never seemed to mind losing.

To look at the pair of us from the outside, she and I didn't really have much in common. I'd be playing outside with one of those brightly-colored balls you get from the grocery store, and would inevitably get scolded about 15 times inside 15 minutes for putting said ball into her perfectly-manicured rose bushes. We'd go bowling together, she would roll the ball nicely down the lane, I'd hurl it halfway down the lane in the air. I heard about that too. I didn't like her cooking, because I was a kid and she loved to crock pot with a variety of veggies. Frankly, I'm sure I annoyed the hell out of her, yet we talked on the phone at least once a week and every time she'd ask me when I'd be coming back.

Sometimes you have just one thing in common with someone, and our one thing was Atlanta Braves baseball. She only got two TV channels that far north of Atlanta in those days, only one of them without fuzz, and the Braves happened to be on that channel. And man, was she ever a Braves fan. She loved Greg Maddux, thought the world of Tom Glavine and said repeatedly that John Smoltz would look better "if he'd just shave once in a while." She thought Chipper Jones was too cocky when he joined the Braves, but she eventually warmed to him. Above all of them was Bobby Cox, who I guess bears a passing resemblance to a shorter, pudgier Gramps. He was soft-spoken, she liked that, and he wasn't real flashy, she liked that too. He was the sort of guy you could be proud to talk about over a game of bridge with the ladies who'd let their hair fade to blue. She didn't play bridge, but said she'd teach me one of these days, though those days never came.

Now that I think back on it, the first signs that her memory was starting to fade came as we were sitting on the couch watching the Braves. We had had detailed conversations the previous year on the phone about how my Florida Marlins were so much worse in 1998 after their post-1997 World Series fire sale, and we went over the Braves lineup for the upcoming 1999 season. The Marlins won it all in 1997, Gramps would die just before Christmas that year.

But back to the summer of 1999 - my grandmother and I were sitting on that couch, you know the "brand new" kind you're allowed to sit on but can't put your feet on, and we were watching the Braves. I don't remember who they were playing, but we started talking about the lineup. She didn't remember anyone who wasn't on the team in 1998. By now she liked Chipper ("he's cute... and he hits really good" she'd say, blushing slightly), but a good half the team had become a mystery to her.

In 2000, I tried to talk about the Braves lineup with her. "Oh, I don't really know anymore honey," she'd say, even though she kept a team schedule on her coffee table and was still watching 50 or more games a year. "I know Chipper, I like him. And that manager, he's pretty good." I programmed TBS into her "favorites" on her new satellite TV, so she could find it easily. I know she watched the games because I could hear it in the background when I called her.

Some years later, it doesn't matter how many now, she would be diagnosed with dementia. They can't really diagnose Alzheimers outside of an autopsy, so I'm told, but the doctors figure that's the sort of dementia she has, that or something very much like it. She's not in north Georgia anymore, years past the time when she'd be able to live alone. One night she was found stopped on the side of a dark country road somewhere between her house and town. She was lost and couldn't find her way home. Now, she's in a Northern California facility near one of my aunts. My mom moved there from Miami to be with her. She doesn't cook anymore, the cafeteria is down the hall from her room, and she can have meals delivered if she doesn't feel like walking, which is often.

The forgetting has gotten worse. She's got a QVC problem, ordering jewelery and silver coins then wondering aloud when they're delivered why anyone would ship that stuff to her. One year she ordered something like a dozen fruit baskets from Harry & David. You can't return those things. She doesn't control her checkbook anymore. The forgetting has gotten worse - a few months ago she forgot that my mom moved out there to take care of her. She forgot that my mom was divorced (and has been since I was three). She's not in the intensive lock-the-hallway-doors Alzheimers wing, but the family has toured it. It's now a question of when not if. She hasn't watched a Braves game in years.

I wasn't planning on watching the Braves play the Giants tonight. I haven't watched a Braves game since I did so on her nice, cream-colored couch all those years ago. They're not my team, really, though to tell the truth I don't follow baseball that closely anymore. I don't know any of the guys in their lineup. I thought Rick Ankiel was still with the Cardinals.

But someone I follow on Twitter remarked that it was the bottom of the 9th in Atlanta, the Braves were down in what would be the last game of Bobby Cox's career unless they pulled out a run before three outs came and went. So I tuned to TBS. It's carrying the playoff games right now, though I remember it as the network that made the Braves America's team, back when the Expos were still in Montreal and the only question in the National League East was who would finish second to Atlanta.

Out one came and went before I tuned in. I saw Bobby in the dugout. He looked old. He looked tired. Then one of the Braves was walked. Then another got on base. The winning run was now at first, extra innings was now at second. Turner Field, which my grandmother had bemoaned at its origin because she didn't know why they needed to replace the perfectly functional Fulton County Stadium, was rocking. Then came out two. The camera panned to Bobby Cox, he didn't move. I knew what was coming next. I think he did too. I didn't want it to happen, but it did anyways.

Out three. Game, season, career. Over.

When it comes to my grandmother, I know what's coming next. I don't want it to happen, but it will anyways. It's not a question of if with Alzheimer's, it's a question of when. Somehow, she remembers my wife's name. She doesn't always remember that we're married, and she's been told about six times now that my wife and I are having a baby due this February. The old joke that only Alzheimer's families can tell is that it's the one blessing of the disease - you get to tell good news multiple times. But she does remember my wife, and oddly enough remembers her birthday. My mom tells me that she's fighting hard to keep those memories.

Realistically, the first chance we'll have to fly out and see her in San Francisco, where the facility is, is probably August. I don't know that she'll make it that long, but I hope so. I hope she gets a chance to meet her fourth great-grandchild, my first kid. I want that picture with my little one, me, my wife, my mom and my grandma, four generations in one.

She won't remember it, but I will. It's really selfish, I know, but I just want one more inning with her.


  1. Enjoyed the post. It brings back my own memories visiting my grandparents over the summer growing up. They didn't involve a caboose, but still are remembered fondly.

    Likewise, I grew up watching Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone rocking back and forth on TBS as a kid growing up and cheering for Glavine, Pendleton, McGriff, Gant, Sid Bream, Maddox, and Smoltz make their way to the playoffs every year.

    Thanks for sharing, Derek. It sounds like you have some great memories to share and pass on. Blessing and prayers to your family and that all four generations get to spend an inning together soon.

  2. I hope you get the pic. It really is special. My wife got one with her mom, grandmother and Evie. I wish I could have done the same with my grandparents.