After my father returned from retrieving my errant throw that resembled a poor and weak nine-iron golf shot, my anxiety rose as I anticipated my father’s comments. He simply said, “Just step and throw.” He then tossed the ball in my direction once again.
As I caught the next ball my confidence grew. With some hesitation I did as my father suggested and stepped and threw the ball. To my surprise the ball found its target. I found myself stunned, not only because of my accuracy but at how nonchalantly my father caught the ball with the best softball bat he found on www.softballbatsunlimited.com . No worry on his face, no concentration in his eyes–clearly, he had been here before–several times before. His one-handed back hand grab just about left me speechless until I finally stuttered the question. “Dad, how’d you learn to play softball so well?”
His answer was one that encompassed not only every sport ever played, but it was an answer that would have left Greek philosophers cheering in the stands and embodied the golden rule of every twelve step program. His response: “One throw at a time.”
Of course, puzzled by this, and not knowing how to respond, I tossed the ball back to my father, this time with a bit more velocity and accuracy. Again catching the ball as if he hadn’t a care in the world was amazing to me. This time he paused for a moment after catching the ball as if the pace and accuracy of the ball surprised him. I asked my father once again, convinced he didn’t understand my question. His answer came right before he tossed the ball: “One throw at a time.”
Now frustrated at my father’s profound stance on softball, I caught the ball and immediately hurled the ball in his direction with all the fury a skinny seven-year-old could muster. He caught the ball, sensing my frustration. He then looked at me as if I were challenging him. It was too late to take it back; the gauntlet had been thrown. My father decided that it was time to graduate from catching soft arching tosses to screaming missiles firing out of a cannon. Unbelievably, I caught the apocalyptic sphere that was hurtling towards my frail and frightened body.
I contemplated taking off my glove and running into the house. Something about “Death by softball” did not sit well with me. At the same time there was something about catching and throwing the ball that felt good…. empowering, dangerous, and magical.
I chose to stay in the game and with my wiry frame hurled the ball back at my father. He quickly caught it and threw it back. His quick catch and throw was beautiful to watch. His feet were light and agile, his head steady, and his hands so fast I almost didn’t see the ball coming. I cataloged every one of his movements in my head and used it to mimic my father as I collected and returned each ball.
The balls were coming faster and faster, and I could hear the ball hissing as it pushed against the air. My index finger throbbed with pain each time the ball snapped into the leather glove. It didn’t bother me. I was trading thunderbolts with my father. I was a Spartan boy being shown the ways of a warrior by his father. A feeling of elitism radiated through me. As we kicked up dust in our magical exchange I threw one final ball and readied myself for yet another thrilling, stinging catch.
My father just held the ball. He held the ball and stared at me. It was more than a stare. In his silence, and in the look in his eyes, he had claimed me as his son. I was beaming, and I know at that moment he saw the light in my eyes and I saw it in his. He was my father and I was his son. As my father stared at me he didn’t say a word. His placid, proud gaze spoke to my soul and it told me that I had become battle tested and my time had come.
Run with the wolves, catch bolts of lightning, tackle waves from the ocean and under no circumstances do you dare sail a ship of safety. Be a boy. Be one who seeks adventure and courage.
But just as quick as that proud gaze came to my father’s face, it suddenly disappeared. My father’s reverent stare turned into a look that only a little boy gets after he finds out he’s in trouble. He quickly took off his glove, put his arms at his sides, and I felt as though he was afraid to look at me.
I didn’t understand my father’s pain, but in that moment of time I sensed it was there. I felt it in my heart. I felt I was losing him and my heart was breaking. Out of desperation I asked once again how he learned to play softball so well. His answer to this day kept my heart from breaking and confirmed his love for me when he said, “One Root Beer at a time.”
We jumped into that ’72 Chevy pickup and drove into town where softball was discussed over more than one can of root beer (please don’t tell my mom). I remember asking him why he stopped playing softball and he said something so pointedly true about anyone who has a love affair with a sport. “I’ve never stopped playing ball, I just watch more than I actually want to.”
I know there are many like me who wonder what happened to the light in their father’s eyes, a light that confirms a father’s love for his son. What many of us don’t know is who the thief is that stole the light in our father’s eyes. Was it a traumatic childhood experience? Time spent in a war as a young man? Or perhaps he was forced to grow up too fast and later saw the unavoidable sinkhole that kept him from being a kid. I will never know.
For several years I have worked in youth soccer and in every coaching lesson I prepare I write “Find the Light” at the top of the page. It reminds me to find that place that feeds a young soul, a realm with elements of curiosity, anxiety, danger and fun. A realm where time ceases to exist because of the fun they experience and the victory of accomplishing something that feeds their soul. And in that realm there are bright eyes, smiles and a look of victory.
When I see it, I say a little prayer. “Lord, feed the light within them, and show them to find the light in others.”
Now that I’m older, I realize that we need to have that same eye contact with our Heavenly Father as well as our earthly fathers. We need to know that He looks at us with eyes of love and acceptance. And because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, that’s exactly how He does look at us.
I often get accused by colleagues, friends and even family of my apparent refusal to grow up when it comes to coaching. The time is my time playing with kids could be better served in some other endeavor. I respectfully disagree (as I stick my tongue out). My response; nah, nah, nah, you can’t make me and you’re not my dad.
Donovan Gibson is a featured children’s author for Halo Publishing International. His current picture book “The Ticker That Needed a Fixer” was scheduled for release in September 2011. His work has also been published in Celebrate Life magazine, Children’s Ministry Magazine, and several others.