Tag Archive for James Preller family

Baseball Comes Round Again: Recalling “Six Innings” and How Cancer Came Into Our Lives

I sometimes tell this story on school visits, if I am in the right mood and have the right group before me. My oldest son, Nick, is a two-time cancer survivor. First diagnosed at age two. It was a hard time. The nurses at the pediatric oncology unit at Albany Medical Center would say to me — and let me tell you, those are truly inspiring human beings who will always have a special place in my heart — “You are an author, you should write about this.” At the time, I couldn’t conceive of it, happy to just navigate the parking garage without getting into an accident. Mentally, just gone. Nick recovered, only to relapse again in 4th grade. All he wanted to do was run with the pack, play travel soccer, be a kid. I watched him face it all with strength and courage; and let us remember, there is no courage without fear leading the way, linked hand in hand. I watched Nick’s friendships, the way certain boys rallied around him. And to this day I can’t think about any of it without tears streaming down my face. 

Nick with Lisa holding him tight.

Around that time I started writing a book called Six Innings. A book about a Little League baseball game, and moreso, about the kids who played it. A lot of characters to dream up. As a useful storytelling device, and as a faithful recording of how things worked at my local Little League, I wanted there to be a kid announcing the game. “Now batting, Cleon Jones,” that kind of thing. And I vividly remember sitting in my chair, staring at the computer, when the thought came: What’s this kid’s story? And it hit me, Oh, he’s sick. He’s very sick. And so I gave that kid cancer. 

Six Innings is a baseball book, full of plays and on-field drama. But it is also about those kids, their lives and hopes and conflicts. I mean, there’s a lot of baseball in this book, so it’s not for everyone. Below I’ll share one scene that comes directly from our experience. When Nick relapsed, and we had to go through it all over again, our doctor came to our house for a family meeting. We sat together in the living room, stunned and serious and scared. She laid it all out before us, Nick included. While many details were altered, Nick’s response was the exact response I gave to the character, Sam, in the book, almost word for word. 

Six Innings was named an ALA Notable, and I’m proud of that. And it’s still in print, and I’m grateful for that. And Nick is strong and healthy and living in NYC, and goodness, I don’t even have words for it.

Here’s a scene from Six Innings. Thank you for reading: 

 

And now they gave it a name. Sam had osteosarcoma. Or, well, osteosarcoma had him. The two words — Sam and osteosarcoma — were joined now, entangled, entwined, forever linked. Buried inside the big word, he discovered the letters to his own name, s-a-m. It was there all along.

Doctor Shrivastava looked from one to the other: Sam, his father, his mother. Mostly though, and to her great credit, the raven-haired doctor with milk chocolate skin spoke directly to Sam, kept meeting his eyes, looking at him with sharp-eyed clarity and infinite kindness. She was nice. There was goodness in her. Sam felt it.

So. That was that. But what did it mean? It was as if doctors spoke only secret words no one could understand: biopsy, retinoblastoma, metastasize, limb salvage, and chemotherapy. Somehow all those words were stuck into Sam like darts, but they didn’t seem real. All Sam really knew, judging from the way his mother kept chewing on her lower lip, the way his father reached for Sam’s hand and squeezed, was this: Not good.

Sam’s mother kept scribbling on the legal pad, flipping pages, writing furiously. In Sam’s family, she was in charge of facts. For reasons no one could explain, Sam had contracted the most common type of bone cancer. It usually appeared in teen boys, often during growth spurts. A tumor grew in Sam’s leg. Doctor Shrivastava wanted to remove the bone before the cancer could spread. She said that they would replace the bone with a metal rod.

How weird was that?

This surgery, she said, would take place in about twelve weeks. During that time, and for nine months afterward, Sam would have to take some very strong medicine. The medicine, or chemotherapy treatment, would destroy the bad cancer cells in his body — but they would also make him feel very sick sometimes.

At a certain point, Sam stopped listening. He closed his eyes. It was dark, and he was swirling in an inky sea of words, drowning in the dark, mystic language. He needed to get away. Fly to some other place. He was tired of listening, tired of hushed conversations, of doctors and their white coats.

Dr. Shrivastava looked at Sam. “Most patients fully recover,” she assured him.

Sam stifled a yawn. He had been stuck in this office forever.

“Can we go now?” he asked his parents.

“Sam? What?”

“I want to go to Mike’s house,” he announced. “He just got the new MLB game on PlayStation. He says it’s awesome.”

“Mike’s house?” his mother repeated. “Sam, I . . . ?”

“It should be fine,” Dr. Shrivastava intervened, checking her wristwatch. “Perhaps that’s enough for one day.” She looked at Sam, smiled warmly. “Mike is your friend?”

Sam nodded, yes, of course. Mike was his friend.

If My Siblings Were Album Covers

I’m the youngest of seven children. I grew up with a rich inheritance of music. As my brothers and sisters went off to college and other experiences, many of their albums found their way upstairs in the crappy stereo cabinet, their divergent tastes all mashed together. It was amazing, and I’m still in awe of that great motherload of music I got to hear at any early age.

One game I played a lot involved a small garbage can set up on a table and a wadded up piece of paper. I’d pretend — for hours, it seemed — to be players on the New York Knicks. I’d invent elaborate games, acting out shots, keeping score. I was Dave Debusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley. That classic 1969-70 team. And all the while, I rocked the house. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Donovan, Spooky Tooth, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, on and on, endlessly.

Proust can have his madeleine cake. But in terms of generating memories, there’s nothing for me like the associations that come with specific songs and albums. Today I decided to show one album cover for each sibling. Not necessarily their favorite, or most representative, but one that always brings them to mind.

FlowersLP

My brother Neal was a Dylan fanatic, and definitely my most influential brother when it came to music. He loved to sing, something that the rest of us never attempted. He was singular in that regard. This album always makes me think of him. Could have gone with early Dylan or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

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I can’t hear this great album without flashing on my brother Al. I also remember him talking to me about Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Problem is, Al’s not really a Hendrix guy.

yes_theyesalbum

This one is slippery. Compared to Neal, Billy didn’t have super refined tastes from what I recall. He kind of bounced around, listening to whatever. I do remember his red-and-white box of 45s, which I loved flipping through. But this album will always remind me of a specific day. It was Billy’s return from Vietnam. He came home with a great stereo system, as so many soldiers did, including a “light box” that flashed along to the music. A bunch of his friends and I, his adoring and much younger little brother, crowded into his bedroom when he played this album. Hey, yours is no, yours is no disgrace.

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Almost went with Dan Fogelberg here. Or James Taylor. Jean definitely had the classic teenage sister tastes — the sensitive songwriters — along with her Richard Brautigan novels. I still have a soft spot for most of it. Even the dreaded Fogelberg.

Oldies-But-Goodies-Vol-9-cover

Kind of a cheat here. Barbara in my mind was the least musical, in that I find it hard to recall her ever being particularly enthusiastic about any particular album. She did have this fantastic collection of 50s records — “Oldies But Goodies” — and I enjoyed playing those fun songs over and over again. “Alley Oop!”

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My brother John introduced me to this album. I remember him telling me about it, and playing it for me. I also remember playing the Doors “Waiting for the Sun” album in his bedroom, acting out “The Unknown Soldier” in front of a mirror, falling on his bed at the sound of the gunshot. I did that a lot. Just a little boy playing with his brother’s records.

It occurs to me now that I still love all those albums. It’s partly transference, I’m sure. When I play some of this music, I hear my life reverberating back like a distant echo in the hills. Just lucky, I guess. Let the good times roll.

Photo

JP w: kids

Quick snap from our recent visit to Mass Moca in North Adams, MA. It’s always good to get to a museum just to let it fill you up.

This here is Maggie, 14, proudly wearing her new “Kale” sweatshirt. To the right, that’s Gavin, 15, who basically does not approve of photographs. I’m nearly six feet tall, but Gavin is quickly closing the gap.

My oldest son, Nicholas, is not in this photo because he’s a senior in college at Geneseo, NY.

OVERHEARD: “What’s In the Box?” (I Love My Daughter, Part 283)

With my 14-year-old boy in the car, we run a couple of errands. First to the Farmer’s Market because we are obsessed with Jimmy Makes Pizza. Next to the library, return some things. Then to pick up Maggie, age 12, at her friend’s house.

Okay, so that’s the scene. I am in the driver’s seat (literally, but alas, not always figuratively), Gavin is in front seat. In the back, there’s a pizza box.

It looks something like this:

Maggie gets into the car, settles in, lays her lacrosse stick across the floor, and asks:

“What’s in the box?”

Gavin glances at me, blood on his tongue, but says nothing. (I tell myself to compliment my son later for this rare show of restraint.)

“Pizza,” I tell her, and drive on.

Love that girl.

Cross-Eyed Maggie: Same Photo, Reenacted

This is one of my all-time favorite photos of Maggie, here with her good friend Zoe (left). Taken some time ago in Cape Cod, I believe. These two hooligans have been hanging around with each other since Year One, and they are still nothing but trouble.

Zoe’s mom put together a quick reenactment, which is pretty funny if you ask me. It might be cool to really go all out with the details, really try to nail this thing . . . but that would require effort. Maybe when they hit High School in three years we can do it all over again.