My mother stopped talking a couple of months ago, and it was something of a shock. Mom was a legendary kibitzer. In the days before cellphones, she had a princess landline installed on the wall of her bathroom so that even Mother Nature couldn’t interrupt a conversation.
Need an opinion — or not? She had one either way. When she entered assisted living five years ago, her stories — about her three husbands, her acquaintanceships with various U.S. senators while working on Capitol Hill, and her days as a tap-dancing grandma — captivated the aides. They spent their breaks in her room, laughing and lapping up the received wisdom.
To fill her now-silent days, my sister and I would turn on showtunes or the TV, but she ignored them, just like she mostly ignored us and stared at the wall, looking somehow both vacant and angry. And then, one day, I flipped past the Orioles-Tampa Bay game on TV. It was as if I had pointed the remote at her and pushed the unmute button. She turned away from the wall. She watched. And then she started to cheer:
Like Garrett Morris on that old “Saturday Night Live” skit, baseball has been very, very good to my mother. A Chicago native, she became a devoted Dodger fan, primarily because of that barrier-breaking miracle named Jackie Robinson.
But she loved any game. She was a single mother of two, so we couldn’t afford to go to many games when I was young. But she scraped together enough money so we could go see the old Washington Senators play the Detroit Tigers on Bat Day.
Of course any semi-crazy baseball fan needs a team in each league, and after she’d settled in Maryland she adopted the O’s. She not only bought partial seasons tickets. She arrived at her boxed seat with her spiral scorebook in hand to keep track of every play.
She’d scout the young guys on the Frederick Keys, too. She loved a minor league game on a warm night with a cold beer. She loved it so much that she and Husband No. 3 became very minor partners in a very unsuccessful class-A Dodger farm team named the Wilmington Waves.
To her dismay, my sister and I never caught the baseball bug, so Mom made other baseball buddies. For years she was the only woman in her Rotisserie League. She came in last every year. As with all other men in her life (see: husbands, three), she tended to follow her heart more than her head. But winning wasn’t the point. She just wanted to be part of the game.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Orioles-Rays game awakened her that afternoon — after all, we’d already found a Cal Ripken card stuck in among her personal papers. When I asked if she knew that Major League Baseball had changed the rules this year to speed up the time between pitches, she said: “I didn’t know that. That’s very interesting.” It was the longest sentence I’d heard in weeks.
The O’s pulled out a win in the top of the 9th inning — a late-game rally, not unlike the one I was enjoying with her. I turned off the TV and asked if I could get her anything before I left for the evening. “More companionship,” she said.
She meant me, but I realize now that she also meant the game. Over her 84 often difficult years, baseball was a more faithful companion than most anything else.
I kissed her on the forehead that night and told her I’d visit the next day, but when I did, the baseball magic had vanished like the Dodgers sneaking out of Brooklyn. She’d retreated into the dugout of her silence. A week later, on July 28, she died peacefully in her sleep.
Still, spending that last magical game with her was a gift, an inside-the-retirement-park home run. Even better: this time, her team won.
Marc Peyser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the co-author of “Hissing Cousins: The Lifelong Rivalry of Eleanor Roosevelt” and “Alice Roosevelt Longworth.”