The spaces in between

My father died in October of 1989. I was thirteen years old. He died on a Sunday late morning, It was a beautiful nearly perfect autumn day. The leaves were orange and red against a deep blue cloudless sky. The weather had been perfect for days beforehand. My sister, brother and I were driven to a hospital in St. Paul after a worried shaky voiced call from my mother. We knew something was wrong, very wrong. But I thought it would be fine. Dad was young, healthy. It would be fine.

At the hospital we were led to a small brown room off the lobby where my mother sat with a doctor and a nurse and others. We sat down on small chairs. Mom looked all of a sudden 10 years older. Hunched over. Shaking.

Typing the words out that she said next has always been hard for me. They have been in my head for decades now. Swirling around like a swarm of biting flies. They are there when I am out on walks. They are there when I am cooking dinner. They are there when I am lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling. For 30 years they have been my constant companion. The most loyal and trusted friend I’ve ever had.

“Kids, your father had a massive heart attack … and died.”

For years now, ever since I was like 25 or so, I have said — to myself, and on this blog, but never really to other people out loud — that I have lived my entire life in that ellipses. In that space between when I thought my father was alive, and when I knew he wasn’t. I thought it sounded poetic. It allowed me to write about things like cricket and spaces it creates in time, and how it allows us to wallow in those spaces, and dream, and remember other days, and fall backward and forward in time as we so desire, before the game, or life, calls us back.

But in life there are no pauses. There are moments when our lives split into two parts, but there is never a pause. There is just a before and an after. This is where cricket lies to us. The game moves and slithers and ebbs and flows, and through it all there are breaks between deliveries, between overs, after wickets, lunch, tea, drinks, moments when everyone — fans, announcers, players — are allowed to breath, reflect, plan, look ahead and look behind. There are no such pauses in life. There is only before, and after. We cannot live in the pauses. We can only live on either side.

I told my wife I was leaving her at around two in the morning on May 5, 2018. The words tumbled from my mouth and spilled onto the floor and flooded all the space between us. I remember saying those words to her. I remember each word individually, but I was not able to rest in the spaces between syllables. I wasn’t then, and I am not now. I can only live in the space before I said them — in dreams, in regrets, in thankfulness, in pain, in sadness, in joy — and the space after I said them, which is the space I yearn to spend the majority of my time in, an endeavor I fail at over and over and over again.

When I was riding in the car to the hospital on the day my father died, I was in the backseat looking out of the window and thinking to myself: everything I see reminds of my father — the movie theater, the Mexican restaurant, the big box value store — and if he dies all of it will make me sad. I was not far off in this estimation. He died 31 years ago this autumn and my afternoons are still colored by all of the drab gray days that we never got to share. And so I cannot help but time travel back to sadness and a future never had whenever I see something that reminds me of him, of that time. And I cannot help but think back on the words I told my now ex-wife and how they continue to paint broad strokes on the future even though they were intended as a break from the past and the present, toward new, brighter days.

There are no pauses. There is a before, and an after. But the before never real goes away, nor does the after that same before once promised but now cannot deliver on. Because of one sentence uttered in grief and exhaustion on a random morning on a day that should have been just another day.

The cricket match that I think about when I think about this is the 2015 World Cup final, and the moment that broke the game that came so early, the bowling of McCullum by Mitchel Starc. Only a handful of deliveries into the game and Starc cleaved the game into two halves: before the McCullum wicket and after the McCullum wicket. The game after that felt like it was already over, a coronation of Australia rather than a competition between the two teams. And the before bled effortlessly and endlessly into the after, and the promise of the final seeped away into the night.

Every game of cricket has one of these, it seems. And these moments exist in all sports, though in cricket they do feel more pronounced than in other games. Rarely, in baseball, does one pitch or one swing alter the course of the game. It happens, just not as often, nor is it ever as obvious. Football, soccer, basketball, none of them have games that can so consistently be tracked back to a single moment in time. Cricket in so many ways has the illusion of a slow build over hours and days, but in reality so often it feels like one single play is the deciding factor. One decision to leave instead of block, and the before writes a new after.

In some ways, this illusion of the slow build can disguise the moment that broke the dam and flooded the valley, making it seem as though the game is one long unbroken march toward stumps; an illusion one also finds in reality, outside of cricket. It is healthy for our minds to see our lives as one long series of days with events that shape future days, but for so many of us there are moments — single moments, matters of just seconds — that break our lives into two pieces. Perhaps mine are more pronounced than others, but we all have them. And this is where the notion of the pause, the space, does enter the conversation. Does the McCullum wicket fall into the before, or the after, or does it stand alone, a fourth moment differing in structure and meaning from past, future and even the present?

The moment in the little room in the hospital 31 years ago exists in the past. But it also resonates in the present and in the future. It sits almost outside of time itself. Did McCullum’s mind step outside of the relentless dictatorship of minutes and hours and cease to exist as Starc’s delivery came bouncing in? Did everything stop for him? Does he remember a moment that exists not before the wicket nor after it? A space where he lives now, in his quieter moments, a comfortable groove in his brain where he sits and stares into a sea of impossible futures where the delivery harmlessly sailed back unimpeded to the waiting gloves of Brad Haddin? I think he probably does, just like I do. These pauses may only exist within us, but where they live is ultimately meaningless. We create the pause that doesn’t in reality happen because that is a safe space to move into when our minds move too quickly to keep up, when life and the world is just too sad. That space where our father was neither alive nor dead, where my marriage both did and didn’t exist, where Brendon McCullum was just calmly awaiting Mitchel Starc to finish his run up to the opposite end.

One remembers that in A Christmas Carol, Mr. Scrooge is not visited by just three ghosts, but rather by a fourth, his old partner Jacob Marley. Marley represents not the past, the present or the future, but rather a fourth moment, a deciding moment, that exists outside of everything, except for Scrooge’s mind, where it rules with both authority and rage and empathy.

I don’t desire to return to a life that existed when my father was still alive. Nor do I desire to return to a time when I was still married. But I still visit the false space between when those events were real and when they were just imagined. That’s the space that creates magic, because it could have broken the other way so easily, and we would not have the gray day now when the whole world feels sad, but rather a different world altogether; a world that never existed nor can ever exist, and therefore feels not almost magical but truly like magic. It is in these false pauses when we last had the chance to change everything. The split second before time broke us in half. And if there is magic in this world, that is where it sits, waiting for us, outside of everything, in a house we built for it inside ourselves, a house that cannot stand empty. On dark nights when we cannot sleep we visit that house and try to bring magic back into the world. Closing our eyes, listening to our mother’s voice, suddenly old; Starc’s delivery drifting harmlessly into the void.

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