Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Lord's Prayer

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...

Most Americans will be hard pressed to remember a more trying time in our history than the fall of 2001. The World Trade Center was in ruins, a Pennsylvania field was scarred with the aftermath of a heroic plane crash and smoke was pouring out of a hole in the Pentagon. The Western world looked toward the East with anger and revenge in its eyes. I remember my mother coming home from work that otherwise beautiful September day and staring at the television for hours with tears continually pouring down her cheeks. Firefighters, police officers and nameless volunteers became our heroes who did their best to put the pieces of a broken city back together again. Even during our bleakest hour, we held onto hope.

Day by day, moving forward required constant adjusting to a new normalcy while at the same time mourning the loss of close to 3,000 of our brethren. Six days after the attacks, Major League Baseball returned to action and helped us to find the strength to carry on. Baseball teams in every city in the country honored the men and women taken for granted before but now were symbols of everything we hoped and believed in. When the games got under way, Americans were able to temporarily put aside everything that was going on around them and indulge in the calming rituals of our nation’s pastime. People could cheer on a game-winning hit, boo an opposing pitcher, or question a manager’s decision. Like times past, such as during the Great Depression and World War II, baseball was right there when we needed it.

Since the season had been delayed because of 9/11, the baseball playoffs were still in progress during the last week of October. In fact, the Yankees were returning home to New York after losing the first two games of the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Little did any of us know, but it was going to be an October that New York and my family wouldn’t soon forget.



Days before the Series moved back to New York, my dad’s brother, Uncle Stephen, passed away. He was mentally handicapped and had been fighting an illness. He was a big guy, with a deep voice who always displayed a keen interest my schooling. He was eager to give out hugs to his nieces and nephews, loved ripping into his presents before anyone at Christmas and could often be found sprawled out on the couch watching an Elvis concert.

Maybe what I remember most is how much my father loved his brother. He lit up whenever he was around him. For some time my dad worked at a grocery store in Deep River not far from my uncle’s home. At least once a week, they would go out to lunch where they would debate whether the Red Sox or Yankees were the better team. (My uncle strayed from the family pack a little when it came to baseball.) Whenever my dad mentions those times now, a smile never fails to crease his face.

Game Three of the World Series offered us a glimpse into the drama that was going to unfold in the next couple of days. President Bush (in what to me was the high water mark of his presidency) stood on the mound defiantly and fired a strike to the Yankees’ backup catcher to start the game. We could almost feel Yankee Stadium shaking from our living room in Connecticut. The cheers and cries of “USA! USA! USA!” not only buoyed the spirit of a nation, but gave my parents, who had spent much of the day planning my uncle’s wake and funeral, a much needed spiritual boost. The game itself was a close one, but we hoorayed loudly as Mariano Rivera nailed down the final out of the 2-1 victory.

The Yankees hopes were still alive and so were ours.



Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...

I remember sitting quietly in the pale light of the viewing room in the funeral home when residents of my uncle’s long term care facility walked through the door. The family’s sadness lifted slightly. We couldn’t help but be encouraged by this group of extraordinary individuals. Despite their handicap, they did their best to sit respectfully with solemn faces. Their true light shined through however and we were all the better for it.

I’ll never forget one resident as long I live.

He had been helped up to my uncle’s casket by one of the facility’s aides. He had continued to carry on a conversation as if the two were sitting across a lunch table. He suddenly got a serious look on his face and seemed to notice my uncle for the first time. He got very quiet.

“Okay, I’m going to pray for Stephen now,” he said out loud getting everyone’s attention. “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...”

He continued to recite the Lord’s Prayer loudly. His voice was steady, clear and without the slightest hint of disability. There was not a dry eye in the place. Everyone seemed to be smiling and crying at the same time.

“The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” he said crossing himself. He bent down close to my uncle and whispered loud enough for everyone to hear, “Good bye Stephen.”

Toward the end of calling hours, everyone from the home came up and gave their condolences to my grandmother, my father and my aunts. One resident in particular made a lasting impression.

“I’m so sad about Stephen,” he told my dad.

“I am too, but it’s okay to be sad right now,” he replied.

“I still look good though, don’t I?” the resident said showing off his suit and shined shoes.

My dad couldn’t help but start laughing. I’ve only seen my father upset a handful of times in my life and this was certainly one of them, but this is the story that he mentions the most when he talks about my uncle’s wake.

My family got home from the funeral home mentally and emotionally exhausted. We took up positions in the family room and watched the Yankees as they went into the ninth inning down by two runs and facing a three games to one deficit in the Series. We got bummed out even more when they went down to their final out with a slumping Tino Martinez coming to the plate. With a man on first, he slammed the first pitch he saw from Diamondbacks’ closer Byung-Hyun Kim out of the park to tie the game. My father bounded out of his seat and yelled out in celebration. The rest of us quickly followed suit.

All of the tire and emotional strain miraculously vanished from our bodies. We hung on to each other with nervous anticipation after Rivera quickly put down the Diamondbacks in top of the 10th and the first two batters for the Yankees in the bottom half of the inning flew out. Again with two outs, Derek Jeter, who had just one hit in 15 at-bats thus far in the Series, came to the plate. After falling behind early, Jeter battled back to a full count. Kim’s next slider was right in Jeter’s wheelhouse and he didn’t miss it. Just minutes after the stroke of midnight, the ball cleared the right field fence and the Yankees were back in the Series.

That night, we could feel the entire city of New York shaking; this time it was in celebration instead of mourning.



Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us...

The next day, my younger brother and I stood next to our mother in the rear of the viewing room. My grandmother, my father and my aunts were saying their final goodbyes to their son and brother. My father never looked stronger than he did on that fall morning. It seemed like he was holding the rest of his family together with his bare hands. I can’t think of any other moment where I was more proud of my dad and proud to be his son.

After a moving funeral service, during which Tom and I delivered readings from the Bible, my brothers and I helped the other pallbearers carry him to his finally resting place next to my grandfather. Knowing how much that meant to my father and my family, it will remain one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life.

Game Five was waiting for us when we got home. I didn’t think it possible that any of us would be able to survive another Yankee nail biter. Win or lose, we were all rooting for a quick decision. As always, the baseball gods had other plans.

Mike Mussina, who had been shellacked in Game One, only gave up two solo homeruns in his eight innings of work. Miguel Batista matched him pitch for pitch and left the game in the eighth with his 2-run lead intact. Once again, the Yankees found themselves facing their final out and a near insurmountable hole in the Series. Byung-Hyun Kim gave up a double to Jorge Posada to start the inning, but then quickly retired the next two batters. The Yanks’ hopes rested with third baseman Scott Brosius, a past postseason hero. It didn’t take long for him to further cement his reputation as a clutch performer. Brosius launched a long fly ball to left and immediately raised his hands up in celebration. Kim crumpled on the mound like he had been shot. Yankee Stadium, as well as my living room, went indiscriminately crazy. Two nights of miracles in the House that Ruth Built washed away a month’s worth of pent up frustration, sorrow and distress and unleashed unadulterated exuberance, relief and spirit. Even though the game went into extra innings, Yankee fans everywhere felt the end result was now preordained. Sure enough, Alfonso Soriano laced a base hit to score the winning run in the 12th inning giving the Yankees a 3-2 advantage headed back to Arizona.

The Diamondbacks ended up winning the Series in Game Seven by staging a comeback of their own in the bottom of the ninth. At that point, it didn’t matter. The Yankees had won every game on New York soil and did much to fortify the resilience of the city. They had also given the Ford family a few hours of peace and even more reason to believe that miracles were possible.



Whenever somebody asks me why I love a simple game so much, I think of my Uncle Stephen and that incredible week in October. Baseball wasn’t just a game when Derek Jeter hit the walk-off and turned the calendar over to November. It wasn’t just a game for all the people at the Stadium, and throughout a wounded New York, who cried out in celebration when Brosius cracked his homerun. They hadn’t just breathed life into the Yankees’ World Series hopes; they had reminded a beleaguered city and a family it was okay to smile and to hope.

I go back and forth on whether or not there is a God watching over our lives. What I have come to believe is that there are indeed angels, many of them among us everyday, including all the residents of my uncle's former long term care facility.

Whoever is up there, it seems like some of them are baseball fans, just like me.

And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

To donate to The Arc, an organization devoted to promoting and improving supports and services for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, click here.

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