I watched Chippy run down the lawn, across the neighbor’s drive, and around the wall separating the drive from the yard. As the small football was thrown in the air, I hoped it would come down to him with the point up, making it easier to catch. Years ago, I could make a ball do that. But the ball came spiraling downward, and it bounded off my son’s outstretched hands. My fault, I thought and told him so, while he smiled in return, running back to his starting place to do it all again.
“We’ll get it right this time!” I yelled. Chippy smiled again, as he pointed to the exact place where I should stand, making me mindful that he has a great smile. I recalled how he craved repeated actions which made him feel at ease. So, I went back, dutifully, to the designated spot, amused at my willingness to take orders from a 13-year old. My father would never have taken orders from me — I would have never thought to ask, remembering a time in our backyard, years ago, on a cold, wet day when my father threw a football to me hard, and how the ball hit my chest and hands. That made me determined to catch every one no matter how much it hurt, and I did, hoping for praise. Did I get it? I can’t remember.
Again, I watched Chippy run, faster it seemed, into the yard next door. I loosened my shoulder this time, with two quick mock throws, and taking a short stutter step, felt an unexpected surge of thirty year old muscle memory. This time, the ball rose higher and floated down softly toward Chippy’s chest. The catch was made, and joy, an invisible arc of pure joy, bridged the span between us. Running back, Chippy’s stride changed, an ease had been added. “What about across the street, Dad?” Well, why not, I thought, if we watch for the cars?
All through the twilight of an October afternoon I threw the football and Chippy ran, sometimes catching, more often, when the throws were high or low, dropping the ball. It didn’t really matter if they were caught. Am I really that different from my father? I wondered.
The ball throwing led us across another street into another yard, spiraling balls around trees and over or under electrical wires. My arm had loosened by now, and the ball was flying farther and straighter than I expected. Once Chippy said, “How far can you throw it, Dad?” and bolstered by the challenge, I almost threw it too hard, feeling the limits of a 60-year old shoulder. But the ball went high and far enough to reach Chippy who said only, “Follow me,” as he raced down the street and cut into another neighbor’s yard. “You can’t run under trees and expect to catch the ball,” I yelled after the ball clipped an oak branch on the way down just over Chippy’s head.” We both laughed at that.
It was dark now and supper time. Chippy’s hair was wet with sweat as I passed my hand through it saying, “Great job. See how good you’re getting with just a little practice?” When we had begun this afternoon ritual only a few weeks ago, Chippy had dropped nearly every pass. Would we ever be able play a father and son game of catch? I wondered at the time but tried to conceal my impatience. I knew Chippy wanted desperately to please me, so I just kept lobbing him the football underhanded, till he lost his fear.
The door to the house opened, and the dogs were being held back for the “quarterback” and “running back” to make their triumphant entrance. I hope Chippy remembers these days after I am gone, I thought, trying not to feel maudlin. I justified the thought of my passing by theorizing that one day all fathers become a memory, and those memories are inhabited with days and afternoons like this.