By Trudy Cusella
My father loved sports. As a young man, he played baseball and football in the city leagues. As he got older and judged himself too slow, he went to night school and learned to be an umpire and referee. He bowled a few nights a week.
Dad worked shift work at Bethlehem Steel and, in strike years, he worked two more jobs. I didn’t see him much, but I was still a daddy’s girl.
When he was 45 and I was 15, everything changed. Dad had a heart attack. He was in the hospital for six weeks and then, under doctor’s orders, he came home for an extended period to recuperate.
In our living room, his chair was one of two positioned in front of the RCA black-and-white television. In front of his chair sat a rectangular-shaped, plastic-covered footstool – a deck of cards ever-present. He watched sporting events and played solitaire.
For years, the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers (when they weren’t playing the Yankees) and the old Buffalo Bills were his favorite teams. This was 1958 and the Dodgers had begun their first season in Los Angeles. They left our loyalties behind. Win or lose, they were now “the bums.”
Dad didn’t go bowling, to the baseball or football fields or even to the stadium to see the Bills play. He sat in his chair, watched television and played solitaire.
After school and on the weekends, I sat in the chair next to him. I remember feeling so afraid – afraid first for my father and then for my own teenage self.
What if he didn’t get better? What if he had another heart attack? What if he died the next time? What if I was left alone with my irritable mother, pesky little sister and noisy little brothers? And with my father underfoot all day and the worry about his health, my mother was getting crankier by the minute.
I learned to watch sports with the same rapt attention as Dad. We were a team and we were fighting a war. Outwardly, we fought for the Yankees. But inside, we fought for his health and a return to normalcy for our family. If we won, Dad would get better. Losing simply wasn’t an option.
My job was to cheer him up because he seemed so sad, to quiet him if he became upset, to keep the annoyances of a busy household at bay and to take his side when he and Mom argued.
On the day of the first-year anniversary of his heart attack, Dad stood up, walked to the closet and pulled out his bowling bag.
“C’mon,” he said, “we’re going to the alleys.”
I jumped up and followed him out the door.
Dad broke 200 on that first trip back to the bowling alley. The next day, he went to the doctor and told him he wanted to return to work.
He never revisited the ball fields as a player, umpire or referee. But he continued to bowl and took up golf. Soon, he was good enough to compete in local tournaments. If he was home on Sunday, he watched the Bills on television. He listened to the Yankees on his car radio. In one way, I had Dad back. In another way, he was gone again.
Dad lived to be 84 years old. When I attend my grandson’s baseball games, I feel Dad sitting next to me, cheering and coaching: keep that mitt on the ground, eye on the ball, elbow up. I will miss him always.