Test 3, Day 5

England 353 (Stokes 112, Cook 88) and 313 for 8 dec (Bairstow 63, Westley 59, Root 50) beat South Africa 175 (Bavuma 52, Roland-Jones 5-57) and 205 for 7 (Elgar 136, Moeen 4-45) by 239 runs

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The days after my father died were dark and numb. It was fall and the grass was brown and the whole world smelled like pine and dust. The days dragged along. There was very little outpouring of emotion or obvious sadness, mostly there was just silence.

One Saturday my little brother, mother and I returned home from an errand. It was dark outside already even though it was only early evening. There was a chill in the air. I was in the hall putting my jacket on a hanger when I heard my sister and mother yelling in the kitchen.

“HE SAID YES!!” I heard my sister yell.

“YOU ASKED HIM!” I heard my mother reply in a scream — with almost girlish delight.

There hadn’t been that kind of noise in the house for weeks.

I went into the kitchen to find out what was going on and learned that my sister had asked a boy to the Sadie Hawkins dance (the traditional dance where the girls would ask the boys instead of vice versa) and the boy, Steve, whom she knew from a church youth group, had said yes.

My sister was positively glowing. I had never seen her so happy. All the darkness of the past few weeks was gone from her eyes. She was overjoyed. It was a moment of pure happiness that you rarely see in real life. The kind of moment that only appears on film or in sport.

The dance happened and they dated for a while and Steve was around the house a lot. He was a calming presence. Helping us set up a new computer, patiently and kindly admonishing me for picking on my brother, going with my sister on walks with the dog.

In January they broke up and my sister was crushed, positively crushed. But life went on. And she had other triumphs and other set backs, successes and failures. And she is happy a lot, always seeming to have a smile on her face and to be excited about something. At least I like to think she’s happy, despite the coldness that life can deal out with apparent randomness.

But when I think about my sister happy — really and truly happy — I think about that moment in the kitchen that one horrible autumn when, for just a little while, everything wasn’t just okay, everything was perfect.

Test 3, Day 4

South Africa 175 and 117 for 4 (Elgar 72*, Bavuma 16*) need a further 375 runs to beat England 353 and 313 for 8 dec (Bairstow 63, Westley 59, Root 50, Maharaj 3-50)

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After visiting Disney World when I was 11 years old we went on a short cruise around the Carribean, including a stop in the Bahamas. While there my sister bought a Panama style hat which I thought looked silly but now I realize that it was pretty fashionable for the time.

When we returned home she wore it non-stop. To school, to church, everywhere. She loved that hate.

One afternoon a couple weeks after the vacation I was waiting on the bus when there was a commotion near the front. I couldn’t tell what was going on. But then my sister got on and was holding her hat in her hands and it was stained with mud and ripped and she was crying and she slumped into the seat right behind the driver.

I stayed where I was. I don’t know why I didn’t get up to make sure she was okay. But I didn’t. The winter before my sister had stood up for me to some older neighborhood kids who were throwing snowballs at me as I tried to run away. But that late spring day on the bus I decided not to return the favor.

The bus driver called a teacher over to the bus and my sister — through her tears — told her what had happened. A couple mean girls had called her a bitch and pushed her down and took her hat off and stomped on it. It was pretty brutal and cruel, as kids can be at that age. I still didn’t get up and help her. She went with the teacher into the school and I rode the bus home. After getting home my mother and I drove to the school to pick her up. On the drive home, she told my sister that people were jealous of her and how smart she was and her good grades. And that sometimes that jealousy manifested as cruelty. I listened quietly but thought that sounded silly. Kids were just mean. That’s all. Especially the kids in that backwater two-bit Michigan town in which we were living.

My sister identified the girls to the principal and they were forced to apologize and agreed to pay for the hat — and she spent the next week or so in a dark funk. I forgot about the whole thing. Weeks later I asked if she ever got the money and said she did, and that she had already spent it on some make up and other things. She was so nonchalant. Smiling even. It was weird. She had been so upset, so bruised, so beaten down, but now it was like no big deal, life goes on, what’s next.

When life gets me down, I often think about my sister’s hat, and her resiliency in the face of those horrible bullies. Nothing gets her down for too long, she just keeps moving, keeps fighting, keeps smiling, keeps finding the good things in this dumb old mean world.

Test 3, Day 3

England 353 and 74 for 1 (Jennings 34*, Westley 28*) lead South Africa 175 (Bavuma 52, Roland-Jones 5-57) by 252 runs

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One summer’s day when I was about 10 years old and we were living in upstate New York, my father left to go to the store to get hot dogs and buns and other items so we could grill out for dinner. He was gone a long time. Far longer than he should have been. I was worried — I was always worried about my father when he was out — and I kept bugging my mother, who was obviously worried too, and she kept telling me that everything was fine, he was probably just delayed, or maybe had gotten in to a fender bender. He would be home soon, she said. She was sure of it.

Finally, after being gone for at least two hours, my father pulled into the driveway and I ran out to greet him. I flew open the passenger door of his car and saw that the floor of the car was littered with hotdogs and buns and popsicles (dad loved popsicles, they were his favorite, every time I picture him I picture him opening the freezer and pulling out a popsicle, peeling the wrapper and popping the cool treat into his mouth).

“Where were you!? What happened!?” I demanded.

“I really don’t want to talk about it, Matt.”

I asked again, and he answered again: “I really just don’t want to talk about it.”

He went inside, leaving all the spilled groceries in the car, and went into the kitchen where my mother was. I followed him inside and my mother shepherded my sister and me into the basement, so they could talk.

We sat at the bottom of the stairs and listened. He was crying. My father was crying. I had never heard my father cry before. Not once.

“Was he on a bike?” we heard my mother ask over my father’s choked, horrible sobs.

“Was he chasing a ball?” we heard her ask again.

After a while my mother came downstairs and talked to my sister and me. Dad had hit a kid with his car in the park near our house. It wasn’t his fault, and the kid was going to be okay — just maybe a broken bone or two — but dad was really upset. And we were supposed to leave him alone.

I walked outside and dad was cleaning the groceries out of the car and tossing them into the garbage.

“They spoiled in the heat,” he said, his voice low and quiet.

Later that evening we were playing outside with the neighborhood kids and a police car pulled into our driveway and a police officer got out and talked to my dad, leaning against his car, as the summer sun sat low and fat over what was otherwise one of those perfect, endless days of childhood summer.

“What did your dad do!?” all the kids asked me. I didn’t answer them.

And that was the last we ever spoke of the accident. Save once. When my sister suggested a picnic at the park where the accident had occurred and my mother said, no way, we can’t go to that park again. Not ever. Dad hated that park, and he refused to go there.

But while we didn’t talk about it, the accident darkened the final few years of my father’s life. He didn’t laugh as much, and he was moody and difficult to be around. And he was constantly worried about us kids. He wouldn’t let us out of his sight, and was always refusing our requests to go off somewhere on our own. Every loud noise, every childish scream, sent my father running to us, sure that something had gone horribly wrong, and that we were hurt or maimed.

And so it was a big deal when, two summers later, my parents said it was okay if I rode my bike to the gas station up the road to get a soda (something we weren’t usually allowed to have). I grabbed my backpack and some change and I was off. I bought a root beer and shoved it into my bag and biked home, enjoying the cool, sugary drink on the back stoop of our house.

When my sister learned of what I had been allowed to do, she made a similar request and of course was allowed to go. She took off on her bike with a dollar in her pocket. She came home shortly after, covered in a sticky mess, without a drink. She was in tears, her mood shortly before light and happy, now heavy and sad.

Through her tears we heard the story. She had dropped her drink on the sidewalk while riding home.

Test 3, Day 2

South Africa 126 for 8 (Bavuma 34*, Morkel 2*, Roland-Jones 4-39) trail England 353 (Stokes 112, Cook 88) by 227 runs

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After graduating from high school I moved to Tucson, Ariz. where I slept on a couch in a one bedroom apartment for 10 months. I smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey and I was broke and I never did laundry and the apartment was a pit. I was also lonely and homesick a lot. And on the hot days the air was thin and trying to breath was like slipping on ice. But despite all that I loved my time in the desert, there at the bottom of the world. The smell of baking pavement, the cool evenings, the rainstorms that would flood the streets, the purple sunsets over the mountains, drinking coffee in the shade on warm desert mornings.

One night in January my mother called me at our apartment. My mother never called me. I figured it was bad news. But it wasn’t. She was calling to tell me that my sister was getting married the following Christmas. To a Scottish guy. Whom she had met on the internet at a time when such a thing was not socially acceptable. I was flabbergasted and a little excited and I asked for her phone number so I could call her and give her a hard time. I never did so.

In the spring I came home to Minnesota and worked at a grocery store and started college in the fall, moving to tiny studio apartment in downtown Minneapolis. It was a lonely, dark time. And I was looking forward to the wedding in December, to being part of such a celebratory event.

Two days before Christmas my future brother-in-law and his entire family (mom, dad, brother and sister) flew in from Scotland and stayed at my mother’s house. I ducked in and out of the action as best I could, as I didn’t have a car and it was a long bus ride out to Bloomington where they were staying. I was there for the groom’s dinner though. The house was full and happy and there was lots of laughter. I felt outside of all of it, but I also took comfort in my sister’s happiness.

The wedding night came and I shaved and got my hair cut and put on a poor fitting suit and rode to the church with my grandparents. The Scottish guys wore kilts and drank little bottles of booze and they were way cooler than I could ever hope to be.

I took my seat and stood as my sister and my grandfather walked down the aisle together. In America it is tradition for the groom to stand at the altar while the bride is walked down by her father, but in this case since our father had passed my grandfather walked her down the aisle instead. As this was happening I thought about the day my father died. My mother told us kids in a little brown room in the bowels of Regions Hospital in St. Paul. As we were absorbing the shocking news my sister lamented that our father wouldn’t be around to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. I thought at the time that that was an odd thing to be concerned about it. But it popped it my head as she walked down the aisle, all smiles and joy and white. And I started to think about growing up with my sister. Living across the hall from her for 16 summers and 16 falls. Countless dinners, breakfasts. All those Christmas mornings, all those moves across the country, all those nights in front of the television, laughing. The milkshakes on Friday nights. The trips to the upper peninsula of Michigan, feeding the ducks on the lake. All those happy little moments when we were just another midwestern family before our dad died and we were happy and sheltered and young and safe. And I started to cry a little. Right there in the church. My sister was grown up. Which meant I was too. Childhood was over. Forever. The door was closed.

After the family everyone walked through the receiving line and I was still crying and the woman next to me said out loud “oh, you made him cry!” and she probably thought I was crying out of happiness like people do at weddings but really I was crying out of a deep sadness. Sadness over the realization that you can’t go home again. That something really important had ended. That the world had lurched sideways, and would stay there, for good, and never go back to how it was.

The reception was held in the Church too, and I was given champagne to toast with even though I was not old enough to drink. I drank my quickly and asked the server for more but she said one was all she could give me. I went and complained to my sister and she got up from the head table, walked over to my table, and gave me an entire bottle of champagne.

There were speeches and dinner and then dancing. I asked my sister to dance with me after I’d had enough champagne to get over the embarrassment of dancing with my sister. I led her up the dance floor and the song started up. It was Nat King Cole’s version of “Unforgettable.”

Unforgettable, that’s what you are …

Test 3, Day 1

England 171 for 4 (Cook 82*, Stokes 21*) v South Africa

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My sister is a very smart woman. But she also worked very hard in school. She always did her assignments and always turned them in on time, she never faked a stomach cramp to stay home and watch cartoons all day, and she would always do the extra credit if it was offered. And because of her hard work, and her smarts, she was an ace student. Straight As across the board from 1st grade all the way through high school. She spoke at her high school graduation, was ranked in the top 10 of her class, and was accepted into a fancy private college in Duluth, Minn.

One of the most indelible images I have of my sister growing up is coming home from school in junior high, coming in the front door, and seeing my sister at the kitchen table of our house in Bloomington, Minn. doing her homework. She was there every day. Every single day. The minute she walked in the house she would start on her homework at the kitchen table and wouldn’t stop until it was done. If I close my eyes I can see her. Plain as day. The low winter sun coming in through the sliding glass door as she dutifully highlighted sentences in a text book.

In school I was the opposite of my sister. Sure I was smart enough, I guess, to be able to coast through and get good enough grades until I hit junior high and school started to ask for at least a little bit of effort. I never did the assigned reading. I wouldn’t start writing papers until 10 p.m. the night before they were due. I never turned in my homework. I faked stomach cramps. I skipped class to go see movies by myself or go to the record store. I did the absolute bare minimum to get by. And my grades plummeted. From straight As in elementary school to solid Cs by the time I graduated high school. I was a disappointment. A disappointment to my parents and my teachers. I received too many lectures about “failing to realize my potential” to count.

Despite the fact that my grades were falling off a cliff and I never showed up for school, I was still placed in all the honors classes. I took advanced math, and AP European history and AP American History and honors English. I must have been grandfathered in. Or maybe my mother’d had words with the administrators. Who knows? But there I would be, surrounded by the smartest kids in school, sleeping through a discussion on A Tale of Two Cities or Plato’s cave.

My sister was of course also in all the advanced classes, and as I was only two grades behind her, I had a lot of the same teachers that she’d had, and as such even had a few of the same assignments. One of these assignments was to read — and write a paper on — the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I am sure you are familiar with it. Mrs. Danvers and Mr. de Winter and Mrs. de Winter and that killer — killer — opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

For some reason, I actually read this book, I don’t remember why, of all the books assigned, I had decided to read this one but not others, but that’s neither here nor there. I read it, and I remember liking it. Manderley reminded me of Glensheen mansion in Duluth which we had visited the summer before, and it was good story, well told, with just the right amount of tension and suspense. I still think about the book now and again, and particularly the scene in which Mr. de Winter (spoiler) describes his killing of the first Mrs. de Winter in the boat house, and how there was so much blood, that he couldn’t believe how much blood there was, that he never could have imagined there would be so much blood.

Unfortunately, while I had read the book, I made no effort to start the paper. It had to be at least five pages long — double spaced — and it had to do more than just sum up the plot and the major themes, it had to analyze the story, the characters, compare, contrast, critique. I started writing it the night before it was due on the computer in our basement and I had maybe two paragraphs when I remembered that my sister had written a paper on Rebecca as well, as she had taken the same English class two years earlier. And, of course, because of her meticulous nature, she would still have a copy of it, and, of course, thanks to her smarts and studiousness, it would be a really good paper.

I asked her if I could borrow it. My intentions initially were pure, I swear, I was just hoping it would give me some good ideas, that it would be a good jumping off point. “Just don’t copy it, please,” my sister asked as she handed it to me from the shelf in her bedroom.

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” I replied, truthfully (at the time).

I read it in the basement next to the computer — a massive PC with a fan that sounded like a jet engine and a word processor that used a blindingly blue background – and I was right, it was really good. Way better than any paper I could have written. And so it didn’t serve as a jumping off point, as I had hoped, instead it served to demoralize me. “Why even bother?” I thought to myself. “Whatever I write is going to be garbage anyway.”

I left the computer and went and watched TV again. I was tired. It was after 11 p.m. and I had track practice in the morning. And so I decided, quickly and decisively and without a shred of guilt, to do the one thing my sister had asked me not to do: I decided to copy the paper. Re-type it word for word and hand it as my own. I didn’t think about the consequences, or how obvious it would be, I just did it. I was tired and I knew it was either copy my sister’s or turn in nothing at all. The latter was not really an option as I was for all intents and purposes failing the class already, so I chose the former, and away I went. I typed, printed, stapled and was in bed just after midnight.

The next day I turned the paper in without even a hint of regret. I was 15. I was invincible. The teacher reads 100s of papers a semester, I thought that there’s no way she would recognize a paper from two years earlier. And she didn’t. I got it back two days later. B+. (Why I didn’t the same A that my sister had received I’ll never know). And with that grade I didn’t have to worry about failing English any longer, I could coast through to June, take my C- and be done with it. And even better I hadn’t been expelled for plagiarism. It was a win-win.

I never thanked my sister, as I never told her what I had done. And in fact that this is the first time I have ever admitted it in public. But I should thank her, I really should, for she — my reliable, dependable, studious, smart, meticulous sister — had saved my semester.

Test 2, Day 4

My sister and I grew up beating the crap out of each other. We fought constantly. Sometimes by simply yelling at each other, other times the fights were full of hair pulling and punches and biting. We were horrible to each for about five years of my childhood, after which there was peace between as we mutually decided it was best to ignore one another. 

Most of our fights are unmemorable — with one blending right into the next. And I can’t for the life of me remember how any of them started. Not a single one. I guess it was just a case of us being close in age (she is only about 20 months older than me) plus being two very different people in a very small house. All I know for sure is that we never got along. At best we tolerated each other. There were, of course, short blips of sibling love and loyalty, but what stands out most is the fights: beating each into “bloody pulps” (my mother’s words) in the backseat of a car on a long drive, me smashing her doll house with a thrown tennis ball and her tearing my Steve Garvey baseball card in retaliation, all the horrible name calling, the ruined dinners, the tears. It was not a pleasant time. And not a time that I am particularly proud of. And I am sure it’s why we were allowed to watch so much television during those years: as it was the one time we were quiet and not at each other’s throats.

I remember one disagreement in particular. I am not sure why it stands out among the others. We are arguing in the driveway of our little house in Lebanon, Ohio. I don’t remember why we were fighting, of course, I just know we were. It was a chilly, gray November day. I was maybe five years old, my sister seven. She has short brown hair and she’s wearing a blue jacket. I was in my red, hand-me-down wind breaker. She is standing about five feet from me. I can still see her face.

The argument lasted about a minute before I struck with what I — in my five year old brain — thought would be a fatal blow. A cutting truth that would level her and bring her to tears. Really hurt her. Really make her sad.

“You know,” I said, “when we grow up you won’t be allowed to marry me.”

“So?” my sister said, in response. Derision dripping from her seven year old face.

So! She didn’t care!

I had nothing else. The fight ended. She had absorbed my best weapon and defeated me right there in the driveway. I fell into silence. The fight was over.

But oh what a dumb thing to say! Looking back, I try not to think about it, but it pops into my head at least once a month. I am embarrassed about all of our fighting, but it is that fight in particular that I find most humiliating. I do my best to forget about it and move on, but it’s always there. In the basement of my brain. Not only did I lose the fight, I lost it in the most shameful way possible.

Test 2, Day 3

England 205 and 1 for 0 need another 473 runs to beat South Africa 335 and 343 for 9 dec (Amla 87, Elgar 80, du Plessis 63, Moeen 4-78)

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On our 13th wedding anniversary my wife and I took the train downtown to have drinks and watch a couple bands play in the parking lot of a fancy restaurant. BB-Gun was playing. As was Haley Bonar. It was a beautiful summer Saturday in August and we were both in good spirits.

Because of how long we would be out that day, we had decided to bring our dog, Robbie, over to my mother’s for the night. Just so he could get dinner at a normal time and not have to wait forever for us to get home in order to do his business in the backyard.

Robbie is a good dog, but tends to be a runner. He will get on a scent and nothing you do can make him give it up. And so my mother knew to keep a good eye on him when he was out in her yard. She has a fence but we had been told by the rescue organization that we adopted him from that he was a bit of a fence jumper.

After we dropped him off we hopped the train and had beers inside at Funyon’s downtown. We laughed and talked away the afternoon. I was so happy that I had that wonderful burn in the pit of my stomach that I get when i feel like the universe is aligned for me, even if it’s just for a few hours.

At the show in the parking lot we had a couple more beers and watched the bands and talked and continued our lovely evening. Unfortunately the night turned sour when a couple talkative jerks were rather rude to my wife and I didn’t handle it very well and we left grumpy and upset and waited for the train in silence trying to hear the Paul McCartney concert happening at the baseball stadium behind the train station.

We got home and went to bed.

The next day we slept in — enjoying the quiet house without the dog making noise at first light to get his breakfast and go outside. At around 9am I got up and checked my phone and saw that my mother had called and left me a voice mail. Damn it. I knew it couldn’t be good news. And it wasn’t. I listened to the voice mail: she had left Robbie outside unattended and he had jumped the fence and was gone. My sister was on her way there to help look for him. I called her back and told her we were on our way there — and that I was angry with her. Very angry.

I woke my wife up with the news, grabbed my running shoes so I could chase the dog, and we were off to my mother’s house, which is in a suburb about 25 minutes south of our house.

I was so angry. Traffic was terrible. I was so worried. My wife was so upset. It was a horrible drive. I was barefoot and screaming and pissed.

When we were about five minutes away from my mother’s house, she called. My sister had found him and gotten him into her car. He was home. He was safe. Thank god.

We got to my mother’s and my sister was still there and I hugged her and thanked her for getting him home. He was filthy and exhausted and a huge wound on his stomach. But he was home. He was safe. My sister had gotten him home. Driven like a bat out of hell from her house to my mother’s at 9am on a Sunday morning to chase a dog that belonged to a brother that she really wasn’t very close with and found the dog and gotten him home. I was beyond grateful — and beyond relieved. I told my poor mother who was heartsick and who felt just terrible that it wasn’t a big deal, that it was fine. And it was.

Thanks to my sister.