Crying in Baseball

My wife calls it happy face, sad face. It is the montage of televised images that immediately follows the final out of the World Series. The victors take the field, fist-bumping, embracing, donning the championship caps, the losers sit in their dugout, often alone, heads down, and, yes, sometimes crying. Their struggle through 162 regular season games and three playoff series in October has ended in defeat. They will not hoist a trophy or be the stars of a hometown parade. They have died, perhaps valiantly, but essentially ignominiously, and that is good cause for tears.

On opening day, every team is in first place, every fan, even the most skeptical, harbors a little hope that this will be the year that their favorite boys of summer will be the champions of autumn. But, for most teams, as the optimism of April fades into the reality of the All Star break, both the fans and the team recognize unpleasant reality: the touted phenom isn’t really quite ready for the big leagues, the injuries to the pitching staff have created holes too gaping to fill, the hitting slumps are epidemic. When your team is 19 games out on Labor Day and finishes in the cellar of the division, you don’t weep, you experienced your sadness in little doses throughout the season, your hope has been redirected to the future, to what is possible.

In my medical experience, I saw that the first time a patient hears the “bad word: — cancer, leukemia, heart failure, death — nothing else registered. The best communication practice is to be honest, to use the real words, to allow emotions to emerge, and then to make plans. Even so, the shock of the dire information, the intensity of the emotions even after the tears subside a bit, can overwhelm a person’s ability to understand or remember what comes next. That patient, those family members, must face the reality, let the crying happen before they can marshal the mental and emotional energy to take the next step, to find the new hope.

For someone to successfully navigate the heartbreak of a terminal illness requires repeated tolerable doses of the normal shock and grief, like the baseball fan’s disappointments as the losses mount. Each time the reality of dying is encountered a bit of its emotional power dissipates and a bit more opportunity for redirected hope awakens. Doctors who hide the devastating details of a terminal diagnosis are not doing the patient a favor, they are depriving them of the opportunity to find that hope, to heal and grow even as their bodies fail. The one who reaches the finality of life without ever thinking about it before is overwhelmed, can only sit in the dugout and weep.

It is not necessary to have a terminal medical condition to begin the process of healing, growth, and redirected realistic hope. We all have a terminal illness called being alive. We can, when the reality of mortality peeks into our consciousness, at birthdays or funerals, in movies or dreams, notice it, feel the fear or sadness and go on living with just a bit more hope.