- 2003 -
I can only remember a few things about the November of 2003.
I remember getting miserably sick with the flu just after Thanksgiving — the kind of flu where your whole body aches just lying there.
I remember missing the first couple basketball practices of my freshman year because of the sickness. The prospect that it might cost me significant playing time during the season might have terrified me had I been in a normal state of mind.
After Thanksgiving, I remember walking the halls at the high school like a spectre, hearing but not listening, looking at my friends but not recognizing them, seeing world-shattering grief, pain, and confusion in their eyes and wondering if they saw the same things in mine.
It’s much harder to remember the exact moment I found out that Clay had died. I think Mom told me while she talked to someone on the phone — someone who really knew the family, so that I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t true.
I remember Mr. Sailors, who had been our English teacher since sixth grade, when he stepped out of the classroom because he couldn’t find the composure to inform us of the Freshman assembly about Clay’s death. We waited for him in the most horrible silence I’ve ever known before he finally returned, red-eyed and broken.
I remember taking my seat over and over again in Geometry, trying hard to avoid glancing over at that deserted desk beside my own.
I remember signing my name on so many baseballs, some for Clay’s parents, some for our families, some simply in memorial. I didn’t understand it.
And I remember the funeral like a bad dream.
The team dressed up in uncomfortable black clothes and shepherded us to a pew near the front of the assembly. At first it seemed strange that they saved seats for us, but the place packed out quick. The overflow rooms in the church filled up until they were forced to turn people away.
There were so many spectators. Did they all want to be there? Did they all actually know Clay?
I realized as soon as I entered that I wished I hadn’t come at all. Dozens of teary eyes watched as my teammates and I walked up to the base of the altar to give Clay’s parents hugs. That’s what they told us to do. But what sort of comfort could we offer them? His passing really hadn’t even become a reality yet for any of us.
Most of the guys started crying when we sat back down. I guess it hit them then. I remember watching them, forcing some tears of my own. Something didn’t feel right about them, though; they just wouldn’t come out as freely as they should have. But I played the part well.
The church played an Eric Clapton song and a video tribute that we’d put together. We made it only a few days after we got the news, and we laughed as they filmed us, as we normally did when together. Death was still so foreign to us. Watching it played back above Clay’s casket made me sick to my stomach.
Members of the River Rats sat in another designated pew nearby and we snuck nasty accusing glances at each other, as if we held each other responsible for Clay’s death. I think we just wanted someone beside ourselves to blame.
After all that, the preacher said a few words about Jesus and how much Clay wanted to play college ball and the whole thing was over.
I remember walking past the open casket. I couldn’t help peering down into the death cage with unready eyes, breathlessly sweeping my gaze over that sickly leather skin, dried out and stretched taut around an alien frame. The hair was all wrong; the face looked bloated and pale with blue plastic lips like a mannequin. And those horrible sunken eyelids — were there any eyes behind them? I decided at once that the thing in the box was not my friend at all.
In that desperate queue before arriving at the viewing, I had prepared some scattered words to say. It was just something short, something final I wanted Clay to hear. But once I saw that wretched imposter in Clay’s place, I discarded my sentiments and started on.
I paused, however, when I noticed his hand. His left hand — the same one that caught so many of my pitches — rested on top of his chest, positioned like a claw, gripping the seams of a baseball. I looked closer. And right there, underneath a midnight-black thumbnail, I could just make out the last few letters of my eternal signature. It was one of the baseballs we’d all signed
I hurried away before I became too sick.
I remember the cemetery, when they lowered the body down into the earth. We hugged his parents again and they gave us baseball-shaped balloons to hold with bone-white knuckles. We could see our breaths, dissipating to oblivion before our faces. All was lifeless in that cold December air.
After it all ended, we released our balloons at the same moment and the chill wind pulled them all up and away, far above the town of Lamar. Everyone watched until the laces disappeared and the baseballs became little white dots in the distance, drifting onward like our last pitches toward a gray heaven above.
Clay’s father, Tim, stood near me, and I heard him breathing heavy as he looked on. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him raise his arm.
“Maybe Clay will catch them,” he said, pointing towards the skies. “Maybe he’ll catch them, and throw them back.”
I didn’t cry after the funeral. Instead, I kept to myself, pretended I was fine, and relapsed with the flu as a result, missing yet another week of school and practice.
I hated spending so much time in my own company. I wanted to cry, to grieve, but I simply couldn’t allow myself to — not because I was heartless or apathetic, but because a growing suspicion had begun to develop in my gut, whispering things in the middle of the night that filled me with all manner of shame and guilt and regret. The creeping darkness in my bedroom had been horrifying enough after Alexia had died. This was even worse.
The cause of Clay’s death haunted me. He’d caught the same flu I’d had, and in what everyone thought was an attempt to ease the symptoms, he’d taken some of his grandfather’s prescription morphine and overdosed.
But I couldn’t help suspect there had been more to the story.
Clay had offered me morphine before while out on the road. We all knew he had it — as a catcher and a pitcher, he suffered numerous sores and injuries, so he’d occasionally take extreme forms of pain relief to relax. Sometimes many of us would. No one ever did anything to stop it, and for all we knew, he’d become addicted to that fatal numbness right in front of us.
But that was only a very small part of a much larger notion that kept me from grieving for Clay. I blamed myself for more than just his physical death.
I was a very new Christian at the time, but I had become fairly certain about a few things:
1. People who didn’t know Jesus went to Hell.
2. It was the sacred duty of those who did know Jesus to make sure others knew him too.
Every time I thought of Clay and of that baseball in his hand with my signature on it, I suffered a horrible stab of self-reproach: Clay didn’t know Jesus. Because I had never told him. How could I cry about him being gone when he might be in Hell because of me?
At one point, I gathered up the courage to share this concern with one of the counselors at a summer camp I attended. She confirmed my suspicions:
“It is your fault,” she had said. “That’s why you have to tell everyone you can about the Gospel. Maybe God’s teaching you a lesson.”
I became ruled by remorse. With every ounce of zeal and desperation I could muster, I began to preach to everyone who would listen about Jesus, hoping to save them from the creeping prospect of eternal damnation and perhaps rinse some of the blood from my own hands.
In front of my friends, I maintained a pathetically cheerful façade. I said that Jesus made it so I didn’t have to grieve anymore. Christians were given joy, I told them, and not even the death of one of my best friends could get me down.
If I were one of them, watching me react with such heartless stoicism, I wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with Christianity either.
Baseball season proved more difficult than ever as I continued to try and detach myself. We quickly found that our hopes for having a united team again were dead and buried in the Lamar cemetery. We never recovered from it; it was as if every game we played together from then on, we expected to see him coming back from the bull-pin, his catcher’s equipment rattling dust into the air.
Sure, we’d been able to play the previous summer without Clay, but that had been different. His physical absence then had shaken us, but his death –– his permanent physical absence, the removal of all hope of his return –– had absolutely broken us. By our senior year, we’d played in just as many tournaments and managed to take the top seed in districts every season, but we just couldn’t manage to win another state championship without him.
I continued to play catcher. That was the worst part: not only did I have impossible shoes to fill, but the position only ever reminded me of the guilt.
I never told anyone I didn’t want to catch. I didn’t want to look like a sissy, or make myself out to be a hypocrite. So to cover it all up, I simply learned to say yet more efficiently, you choose. And they kept putting me behind the plate.
In many ways, my entire high school career became characterized by reoccurring nightmares of Clay — by the repeated burial of my grief, the continuous rearing of my guilt, and the countless attempts to make up for both by trying to convert my friends who were still living.
But no one wanted to hear about Jesus being a reality in my life when it seemed obvious I was doing my best to avoid reality altogether. I only succeeded in isolating myself — because isolation could be the only eventual outcome of trusting only yourself with the mess going on inside of you.
My friendships became distant. My parents couldn’t understand the religious infatuation that had swept in to replace any outward sign of sadness in their son, though I’m not convinced they couldn’t see it all swimming around there behind my eyes when they looked. I had pushed away everyone except those I was positive I’d spend eternity with. As a result, I began to grow closer to the girl I’d gotten to know in Mexico.
Without Clay’s death, I’m positive that Ashleigh and I would never have spent so much time together. We most likely would have never even started dating. In Mexico, our friendship ignited through common secrets and experiences, but tragedy had been what made us so dependent on each other.
And with the reaper as our matchmaker, what chance did we stand?