By Amy Yelin
My son Ethan stands with his arms crossed while listening to retired Red Sox legend Nomar Garciparra. My husband and I huddle a few feet away, watching while attempting to read lips and interpret body language. There is a battle of wills going on, and it’s tough to tell who’s winning.
Less than a month before, I’d gifted my two boys, seven-year-old Ethan and six-year-old Jonas, this baseball clinic in Foxboro, Mass. as a Christmas surprise. Looking back, I should have recognized this was a risky choice for a present. But I was on a mission that holiday season to enrich our lives by gifting experiences, rather than toys—a gut-level change inspired by my recent breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. As the holidays approached, I announced we’d do less materialism and more memory making this year and everyone—my husband and two boys and ALL OF HUMANITY DAMN IT— would be the better for it.
Right around that time I received an email promoting the baseball clinic. I immediately thought Whoa. The boys love baseball. And on the heels of the Red Sox World Series win in 2013, what could be a better gift than a baseball clinic with second baseman Dustin Pedroia?
That’s not a typo. I’d misread, or my lingering chemobrain was confused by both names ending in “a.” It was a mistake I realized only after I’d made my purchase, unfortunately.
I casually asked the boys at dinner one evening if they’d ever heard of Nomar Garciaparra.
They both said no.
The question then became how to both present this gift to them while educating them at the same time. I searched for a Nomar action figure on Amazon and immediately ordered it. I also printed out an information sheet on Mr. Garciaparra. I put it all in a nice bag with tissue paper and felt proud of myself for not feeding the materialistic monster this year.
Until 5 am Christmas morning. That’s when I woke up in a panic. Without the tangible toy gifts, the area under the tree looked barren compared to the year before. What did I do? I worried. But then I consoled myself: they’re going to love the baseball clinic. You did the right thing. It’s a former Red Sox. What could be bad about it?
That morning, they grabbed the bag with their gift, pulled everything out and looked confused.
“What is this?” Ethan asked. It dawned on me at that moment that no child has ever dreamed about reading a printout from the Internet on Christmas morning. Nor is it very fun to have to have your gift explained to you in detail, which I had to do. More than once. And no one touched the action figure.
“You’re going to love the baseball clinic!” I assured them, but they quickly moved on, looking for more. For “better” of which, there wasn’t much.
Several times that day I heard my younger son ask his brother, “What was our big present again?”
“The baseball thing, I guess.”
After Christmas, no one brought it up again, and despite my best attempts to get them excited via their new action figure, no one paid any attention to Nomar.
On the day of the clinic, there were a few hundred kids present. Certainly more than I’d expected. The boys were split up into different groups according to age. I knew Ethan, my more anxious child, was overwhelmed because he kept sneaking off to the men’s room and hibernating there. “Maybe you should check on him,” I said to my husband, and he did, but it wasn’t easy to get Ethan to come back out. Eventually he did, but he snuck off to the bathroom several more times for a break.
Nomar didn’t make an appearance until noon. He arrived in a grey hoodie and sweatpants (looking little like his well-groomed action figure). He gave a pep talk to all the boys, some of which was garbled due to either the sound system or the gym acoustics. After the pep talk, it was time to move from fielding exercises in the gym to the batting cages.
“Isn’t this fun?” I asked Ethan as we started walking toward the batting cages.
“No,” he said. He stopped and leaned on a wall while his group kept walking. “What are you doing?” I said. “Go catch up.”
He shook his head. “But this is the best part! You get to practice hitting!”
“I’m not going,” he said.
I gave him a snack to see if that would help. It didn’t.
My husband and I looked at each other helplessly.
“Ok, so take a little break and then you can go back in.”
“I’m not going in,” Ethan said, arms crossed.
And then Nomar walked by. Nomar: who I really had no idea about until buying the tickets and now suddenly it was like I was in the presence of royalty.
That’s when I grabbed him by the arm. He looked at me, surprised.
“Hi,” I said. “My son here doesn’t want to go hit. Could you possibly talk to him?”
“Sure,” Nomar said.
That’s when he called Ethan over and their conversation ensued as my husband and I tried and failed at eavesdropping. Despite Ethan’s crossed arms and slight scowl, I remained hopeful.
As more time passed, however, my hopes dwindled. In the meantime, I snapped endless photos to post on Facebook.
When I moved closer to see if I could hear more of their conversation, I knew Nomar was losing this battle. When he said, “Come on, Ethan, I’ll walk you out to your group,” Ethan only shook his head no.
I turned toward my husband and loudly whispered, “He’s saying no to Nomar!” Suspecting the reason might be stranger danger, I intervened.
“Ethan , it’s OK. You can go with Nomar. It was really nice of him to offer to walk you out there.”
“No,” Ethan said, shaking his head this time for emphasis. Nomar shrugged. “You sure Ethan?”
The boy nodded.
I wanted to scream: But it’s Nomar—the guy I mistakenly thought was Dustin who I’m now obsessed with! Instead, I asked Nomar to take a photo with me, which he graciously obliged before moving on.
Looking back, I’m not sure why any of this surprised me. Ethan had always been a cautious and strong-willed child. Even before he was born. He held on so long inside the womb that after three hours of pushing, they decided to use the vacuum to force his hand. He came out screaming.
It was the same when he learned to swim. Although he was one of the older children in his class, he refused to swim in the deep end with the rest of the kids, despite our best efforts to get him there. Despite the fact that his little brother was already happily swimming there.
It was the last class when Ethan’s teacher talked with him in the middle of the pool, after which she brought him out to the deep end. She left him there, with his floatation device on, and backed up to the shallow end.
“Come on Ethan,” she said. “Swim to me.”
And then that it happened. To this day, I have no idea what she said to him. But he swam to her. He swam to her, and then he was mad, as though he’d been tricked. As my husband I cheered for him, Ethan walked toward us and threw his floatation device on the side of the pool.
“That was awesome, Ethan!” I said.
He wouldn’t look at me.
About thirty seconds later and still not looking at me he ordered, “put my bubble back on.” So I did. Next thing I knew he was swimming on his own toward the deep end and he’d never fear it again.
It never ceases to surprise me that my children have minds and hearts and powerful wills of their own. That they are not just carbon copies of me and their dad. Logically I get it. But emotionally, I tend to forget.
At the baseball clinic it was the same. Not long after Nomar walked away, Ethan made his own decision to go to batting practice. And he loved it. When he was done and walking back to the gym with his group, Nomar called from across the giant room, “Nice going Ethan!”
That evening at dinner at a nearby hotel, we asked Ethan why he refused to walk with Nomar.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It was like I was in one of those cartoons…with the angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil on the other. That was happening. I couldn’t decide what to do.”
And that’s what it boils down to, I think: learning to make up one’s own mind. As parents, we get to take our kids to the field, but we must remain in the dugout, quietly cheering them on while they choose their next play: Yes or no. Good or bad.
Angel or devil. And … swing.
Amy Yelin’s writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Literary Mama, The Mid, The Manifest-Station, The Boston Globe and more. Her essay about having boys, titled “Once Upon a Penis,” appeared in the anthology Mamas & Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting. She is managing editor for SolLit-Diverse Voices and her website is yelinwords.com.