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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

For families that look after aging parents, especially in the midst of a pandemic, life can feel like it’s in a constant state of emergency. I’m sure my sister and I aren’t the only ones forced to create a patchwork of support in a system fraying at the seams.

For us, that has meant enlisting the services of the Toronto Blue Jays via every televised game we can find. It might take a village to raise a child but during the unrelenting waves of COVID-19 it has taken my family, a village, and the entire Jays roster to help my parents through their final innings.

That may sound facile or flippant. It is, however, a prayer of thanks. The irrepressible young Jays team is like one big reliever swooping in to save my family’s collective sanity again and again.

My father spent half his life coaching baseball but figured life had benched him when his toughest season began in early 2020 after he was rushed to hospital with a broken hip. Luckily, my sister and I were allowed to stay overnight at my parents’ assisted-living apartment during those early days of COVID to help our mother, who has dementia. Like so many, she couldn’t manage alone.

In those frantic first weeks, my mother and I would sink into the couch in the evenings to watch whatever game we could find, just as we’d sunk into the bleachers on baseball diamonds for the first two decades of my life. I smuggled popcorn and pop into her facility and we’d get lost in an inning or two as confusion and anxiety began to dissipate with every pitch.

Much of my young life was spent on a baseball field. My father coached all his kids – and countless others in our small British Columbia town. Our connection to the game began on those dusty diamond days and would eventually evolve into big-league fandom. Each summer my parents, their grown children, grandchildren and anybody else who might hop in the car, would pile across the B.C. border to watch the Mariners play the Blue Jays.

As I watched those TV games with my mother, I realized what I loved is the ridiculousness of the sport: the superstitions, the eccentricities, the joy. I couldn’t wait for the next road trip.

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Instead, in spring 2020 Major League Baseball’s spring training was abruptly cancelled and we broke my father out of the hospital days before the facility locked down.

Their seniors’ home went on heightened alert, too. And although my dad had at least some medical help, my parents were at a loss about how to care for each other. Our mother wandered and that meant she sometimes got lost which terrified my father – and us. Still, she’d sit for nine innings of a Jays game to allow us all some relief from worrying for a few hours. I’d occasionally even hear my father ask, “Who’s playing?” through the phone as he attempted to keep her interested – and safe.

You take your wins where you can.

My parents became frailer during the endless hours of isolation, which started in one season and continued into another. Even as the lockdowns eased, it became clear they needed more help. The pair would watch 2021′s thrilling final games of the Jays’ regular season in a long-term care facility.

It was the right move – even if the shift from their own home to assisted living to long-term care felt a bit like a journeyman player’s fall from the big leagues to the minors. They struggled to find a reason to keep going. We all did.

As the Jays got hot last summer, my forgetful mother began to recognize players Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and the crew on sight. She loved their heavy-hitting talent – but it was their boundless joy that kept her coming back.

Steps away in his hospital bed, something was also happening to my father as the boys of summer got closer to the playoffs. I’d like to think he recognized something in them he used to foster on the field. Hope.

I fell into the routine of doing the play-by-play since he could barely see the screen. As we listened to the familiar rhythm of the ball off the bat, a calm fell over my mother, my father and me. This was no longer our go-to emotion but in those moments, between pitches, it felt like we were home.

It would be the last season of ball for my father who was just too worn out to wait for another spring. I have the ball cap I bought him last season beside me as I write. I wore it on the Jays’ opening day in April.

Who knows what this year will bring for my mother – or us. My sister and I continue to navigate her health care alongside dedicated but exhausted caregivers. COVID remains a fickle unrelenting opponent and our crumbling elder-care system isn’t going to make a comeback any time soon.

But baseball is back.

And I will forever have the memory of my father, half asleep across the room, transformed once again into the optimistic third base coach he’d always been while the Blue Jays fought fiercely in the final stretch last season. He revelled in their grit and didn’t seem to care they might not make the playoffs despite the inspired late-season rally. He understood their fate was out of their hands. He knew a thing or two about that feeling.

As this season continues – with all the unknowns ahead on and off the field – I’ll try and remember my dad’s last pep talk whispered from his hospital bed to what felt like everyone and no one in particular.

“Keep swinging the bat,” he reminded us all. “You gotta just keep swinging.”

Lynn Easton lives in Maple Ridge, B.C.

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