For ten months I have driven by Lou Berliner Sports Park on the way to the gym in a haze of sadness, anger, and anxious curiosity. Each time my car exits onto Greenlawn, my stomach starts turning and the gnawing ache in my heart intensifies knowing that somewhere on those fields is where my husband spent the last few moments of his life.
For as long as I had known Nate, I knew that once the cold winter weather began to move out of Ohio, that I would find him one of two places…A golf course (or range) or a softball field. Nate absolutely loved being active…He thrived off of it. He loved the competition aspect of sports, and even more so, the comradery of playing with his friends each and every year.
When I met him in 2005, I began watching him play with his team, Hank’s Hammers. I never dated in high school, so I was so smitten and full of excitement finally being a girl in the stands cheering on her boyfriend while watching him play the sport he loved. As time passed, Nate continued to play for Hank’s Hammers and began playing with another team off and on, comprised of his best friends he had met when he moved to Columbus oh so long ago. By the time 2017 rolled around, my hyper active hubby was playing for three teams at Berliner on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday night leagues. I took Ian as much as possible to watch Nate play, and each time our boy just loved being in the stands to cheer on his daddy.
The morning of September 28th 2017 began as any other day. Nate and I had just gotten back two days prior from our trip to Las Vegas, and Nate as always, was eager to play under the lights with his buddies at Berliner on his Thursday night league. He made me dinner that night, so I could go grocery shopping, and I was in such a hurry to get a start on that that I didn’t give him a goodbye kiss…Something both of us always made sure to do. I yelled “I love you” from my car assuming that I would feel his warm body crawl in bed next to me as always when he got home later that night. Instead, I was woken up at 11:30 by a phone call from Nate’s best friend and teammate informing me that my husband had just collapsed after their game. It was 45 minutes later that he was formally pronounced dead at Mount Carmel West Hospital. We later learned that is was a fatal heart arrhythmia that had caused his death at 36.
When I look back at that night, the one thing I am grateful for is that my husband didn’t suffer and that he was surrounded by his favorite people doing one of his favorite things during those last minutes of his life. It doesn’t make his absence any easier to bare, but it gives me a little peace knowing he was doing what he loved. Whenever I think about that night though, the trauma of seeing Nate lying in the hospital minutes after being pronounced is overwhelming…Truly, I can’t imagine what his teammates live with on a daily basis having to have watched one of their best friends and teammates fall to their knees and fight for his life in front of them. For ten months, I have driven by those fields with only questions of where Nate played his last game and where he fell whereas his teammates will always have the vivid memory of exactly what happened that night. My heart hurts for each of them, and I hope that they all have found healing in what they had to experience that night.
Tonight, I stepped foot onto those fields at Berliner to watch one of Nate’s other softball teams that he belonged to play in the Championship game in pursuit of my own bit of healing. That unpredictable grief roller coaster took off into the dark unknown, and I truly had no idea how the experience would impact me after ten months of only driving by. I was scared to be honest. Because for 13 years I had watched him full of life playing on those fields, so I was so terrified that I would only be able to picture his death as I parked the car at Berliner for the first time.
Thankfully, Nate’s best friend Joe accompanied me and Ian to the game, him needing to also seek out some sort of healing after having been with Nate the night he died. As we got to the field, he quickly realized that Nate’s team was playing on the exact field that Nate had played his last game on that night and later collapsed by. I then also realized that it was the same field Ian and I had watched him play his last game on with Hank’s Hammers a few weeks before his death. Joe and I both were a bit shaken up walking up to those fields for the first time upon realization of those two facts…the turning in my stomach intensified…But as we began talking to Nate’s teammates, my nerves began to calm down and as the game started on that field I last watched him play on, I surprised myself remembering so much more joy than I did sadness….
I saw Nate in the outfield sprinting and sliding for balls. I saw him behind home plate getting ready to hit. I saw him run up to the fence to say hi to Ian and I. I saw him running around with his friends and playing his favorite sport…Don’t get me wrong, it was extremely difficult being there with only memories, but I smiled more than I cried…In relief that not only had I succeeded in visiting those fields for the first time without a mental and emotional breakdown, but in relief that those fields are no longer a dark cloud over my head. I plan on taking Ian back to watch daddy’s other teams play in the future because I know Nate would want me to give his son the opportunity to watch his friends play the sport he loved so much, and because I am no longer scared to do so.
Over the past 10 months I have been in a constant battle with grief. As I talked about in an earlier post, it’s been the most difficult learning lesson of my life trying to accept the fact that there is no such thing as control when it comes to this rollercoaster. I have also come to understand that grief is as much of a mental battle as it is an emotional battle. I have spent many of the past ten months in survival mode, trying to block out certain memories or thoughts simply because I am scared of the emotions they may invoke. Despite my husband’s love of softball, those fields at Berliner are something I have been avoiding because the mere thought of Nate fighting for his life on those fields was too much to bare. But after being invited by Nate’s coach and good friend Frank, I knew it was important to bring Ian and face my grief head on for my husband, for my son, and for myself…I have come to understand the unfortunate fact that there really is no getting around grief, there is simply going through it.
Seeing Ian dressed in Nate’s jersey for the team picture somehow tore at my heart strings all the while stitching a small piece of it back together. Grief is scary. Its unpredictable. Its consumes you in moments you least expect it and in moments you thought you were prepared for. But I am at a point in my grief journey where I have come to understand that real healing will only come once I commit myself to facing each of those moments and memories head on. And that each of those moments and memories actually brings me closer to Nate.
As we walked off the field, Frank pulled out Nate’s Jersey that he had brought for Ian to wear. A few moments later we heard a “Frank! You dropped this!” Joe, Frank and I all turned around and the guy was holding up Nate’s jersey. Joe looked stunned, quickly explaining that it had fallen right on the exact spot Nate had collapsed on the night of his death. Most people will probably say it was just ironic…A fluke. But for me? I choose to believe it was a Godwink…Nate’s way of saying, “you did it hunny, and I am watching”.