I think when you’ve had a child with cancer, as I have, certain things always make you cry. Forever after, you are prone to bouts of blubbering. Memories, little acts that touched you, stick into your heart and remain stuck there, like a forgetful accupuncturist’s needle. Time passes and something unbidden triggers a memory; the needle vibrates again, the heart goes atwitter, and the eyes well up. It’s just one of those life events that, if you think about it at all, well, it’s good to have Kleenex around. Though I prefer the back of my sleeve.
My oldest son, Nick, relapsed with leukemia in 4th grade, after having already gone through it, ages two to four. All totaled up, he’s gone through five years of chemotherapy. Imagine that. I scarcely can, and our family lived through it. Nick’s good friend since 1st grade was (and still is) a boy named Sam. I watched in awe and admiration as Nick and Sam’s friendship weathered this illness. Though Nick was bald and weary, and not a whole lot of fun to be around, their friendship endured. Even more, it thrived. I was privileged to witness the goodness in Sam, his fundamental kindness, the way he treated his sick friend, my son. I won’t describe the specifics, because already I feel as if I’m a trespasser, like I’m on someone else’s property. It’s theirs, not mine. But what I saw, I will say, was genuine love. The friendship, the loyalty, the steadfastness of two boys. And it went both ways; they both gave, and they both received.
More than anything, that experience fueled the core of Six Innings, gave the book it’s heart. It’s what inspired me when I wrote those fictional scenes between two made-up characters, Sam Reiser and Mike Tyree.
It’s a book about a Little League baseball game and, I hope, not just that. The game is the structure that allowed me to enter the lives of some of these boys that I’ve seen, and known, and imagined. I’ve changed all the details — Nick is Sam and Sam is Mike; the form of cancer is different; the characters are more “inspired by” rather than “based upon” — but the core experience remains. Friendship under duress. At the same time, I think you can still read it as a baseball book, with hits and heroics, fears and failures. It’s one specific and yet metaphorical place where real boys live, out on the diamond, on green fields, under clear skies, the purity and relative peace of boys at play, that big yellow sun shining down.
Nick completed 9th grade yesterday. Good grades, too. This morning he announced that he did twenty-five pull-ups. “Good,” I say. “Keep it up, Nick. Keep it up.”