On a sunny afternoon of the last Saturday in March, it seemed like I had just arrived home after spending half the day in my office when I heard the phone ring. Upon answering I heard my father’s voice, soft and a little indistinct but tinged with a familiar understated eagerness when bearing such messages, "We’re missing the Astros’ opening game," he told me. "It’s the bottom of the first and Biggio is on third base," he continued. He had tickets for the game and wondered if I might pick him up so we could go together. "The only problem is that the tickets aren’t together." I was tired after spending half my Saturday at work, and spending the nice afternoon in the Astrodome did not seem appealing. But the combination of his typically gentle request and my sense that I had not seen him for a while led me to respond with "Sure, I’ll leave without changing clothes. I’ll pick you up and we’ll get there in time to see most of the game."
The barking of my dog, Max, awakened me from my dream. As I began to think about it, my closed eyes suddenly felt hot. I realized that the sense of having not seen him for a while was because he had died the previous February. Death had come unexpectedly, literally in his sleep, although congestive heart failure and parkinsonism had rendered the swift and fluid movements that I remembered from his young adulthood slow and halting.
My wife said, "Max is calling you." I responded with "My dad called and has tickets for Opening Day…" The rest of the dream came out in pieces punctuated by sobs. Putting such thoughts into words to one of my other life partners opened the gates for feelings bottled by silence.
Dreams are about memories, wishes, and yearnings. Reading Freud taught me about that. In the 1950s, my dad taught me—mostly by what he (and we) did rather than what he said—that baseball, like religion throughout the centuries, was about intimate connections and attachments. Almost every day after he would come home from work, we would play catch in our backyard. He was my first catcher and my first coach. Playing baseball with him, I learned "the rules of the game" from his example. I also learned that using brains and muscles could bring the pleasure of effort fully expended and the satisfaction of mastery slowly obtained. My baseball career ended in high school after I finally managed a short talk with Larry Smith, scout of the lowly Houston Colt 45s. I asked whether I should give their spring training camp a shot as a walk-on. He looked somewhere else and grunted "Think you can get into college?" I managed. I went to medical school first as education and later as vocation. It has been a good, albeit very different field, in which to play out other dreams.
A few years ago I went to see the film Field of Dreams with my wife and oldest daughter. Toward the end of the movie Kevin Costner’s father appeared. Costner, as the protagonist in this movie, had "built it" in the form of a baseball stadium and "he had come." I looked at his father’s left hand. There was the same Rawlings catcher’s mitt that my father had used in our backyard. I cried then too, right in the middle of the theater, in anticipation I guess. Much to my surprise, my teenage daughter wasn’t even embarrassed. She had heard stories of me and my dad, and she understood. In fact, all three daughters had patiently toured Cooperstown with me and my wife and had listened to renditions of stories my father and I had told each other about "the game" and its players.
A good life includes a long series of relationships in which using your brains and muscles for pleasure, mastery, and generativity is experienced as activities learned and taught. If one is very lucky, relationships within a family provide what the psychoanalyst Eric Erickson called a Spielraum—a playroom where one learns to love and to be loved, to teach and to be taught. More recently, George Vaillant has shown us that such relationships even help us to age well (1). Bits of immortality in the form of memories lie in such learning and teaching moments. They are like figures on a Grecian urn or words in a poem. In themselves, they are devoid of feelings, but shared in human relationships they can evoke floods of feelings. My father, my wife, my daughters, and my teachers and my students are in some sense always with me in the excitement of Opening Days, even though the seats aren’t always together.
Address reprint requests to Dr. Lomax, Associate Chairman and Director of Educational Programs, Department of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, One Baylor Plaza—MS 350, Houston, TX 77030.