When the Leaves Forget to Be Green
I remember the ball falling from the sky, eclipsing the sunset.
“You’ve got it!” Michael called from home plate.
I ran under the pop-fly and fumbled with my glove. My fingers spread inside the leather. Squinting, my eyes strained to follow the spinning red and white blur. I reached up with my left arm, wishing hard that I’d make the catch. Then, as the baseball spun into the blinding sunshine, my eyes clamped shut. The ball struck my mitt and bounced out, landing with a thud on the damp grass.
Michael laughed. “I thought you had that one!”
“I lost it in the sun.”
“Throw me another one, Dad!” His dad pitched again and Michael cracked the ball into right field. It sailed past my father’s outstretched arm, drifted over the fence, and scuttled into the gravel parking lot.
I couldn’t get a base hit using a tee. But Michael was the best player in my town’s tee-ball league. He could hit. He could field. He was only six or seven years old then, but he was a mature athlete. My dad, a baseball devotee, said Michael was bound for the majors.
When Michael stepped up to bat for my team — boys and girls in blue t-shirts and sweatpants with an automotive repair shop’s name scrawled across our chests in white script — we’d all edge off our bases. We knew he’d be magic at the plate. His first swing of the bat would create a loud, metallic thunk and we’d all sprint around the bases. Kids in different colored clothes would scramble to collect a ball that Michael had sent over the chainlink fence and into the woods. Parents on both sides would be yelling encouragements, crowding around the little baseball diamond — its fences adorned with hand-painted billboards from local businesses. It was 1992.
Mike and I had become friends, staying after practice with our fathers. At that age, if someone doesn’t pick on you, friendship isn’t far behind. Michael never said a bad word about anybody. All he wanted to do was play baseball. So we stayed after the rest of the team had left and played until nightfall. Even though summer was coming to an end, the trees were still green. Sunbeams perforated the treetops. Dew balanced on blades of grass and reflected the sunset. We could imagine no worse tragedy than striking out in front of our teammates or dropping a pop fly.
A few weeks after the season ended, Mike came to my house and we spent an afternoon playing Super Nintendo. In a flurry of button-pressing, we stormed through several video games. When the most challenging obstacles arrived, Michael laughed as if they gave him more energy. He enjoyed himself most when the situation seemed impossible. After we’d conquered every villain the Nintendo could conjure, Mike put on his mesh baseball cap — which was still too large for his head — and zippered his jacket.
“See you next season,” he said.
We were supposed to be on the same team the following spring. Michael’s name appeared on the team sheet, but he never showed up to practices or games. I asked my parents where he was, but they didn’t know. They asked other parents. No one had heard anything about him.
The season passed without Michael. With no one to claim his year-end medal, I took it home. I hung the bronze pendant in my bedroom, plunging a pushpin through its red, white, and blue ribbon. It dangled by the doorway with the sun highlighting the golden letters of Michael’s name. I’d give him the medal when I saw him, whenever that was.
When next season’s roster arrived, I couldn’t find Michael’s name. I figured he moved away. Maybe he was in some kind of major league boot camp for kids. He was probably laughing somewhere, hitting home runs.
After a few weeks, Michael’s absence became normal. Baseball season flourished and then faded. Another school year began. The leaves staged a colorful riot on their branches.
One afternoon, as I emptied books from my backpack, my mother approached me with a solemn expression.
“Do you want to see Michael?” she asked. “He’s having a birthday party. He hasn’t seen anyone in a while.”
The usual joy in her voice was gone. I looked forward to seeing Michael again, but Mom didn’t sound excited about the party.
When we arrived at Michael’s house, a dark sky loomed over the swing set in the backyard. I saw Michael’s parents, but not Michael. Beneath threatening rainclouds, kids I didn’t know were running all over the lawn like lunatics. Maybe their moms hadn’t told them what mine did in the car.
“Michael is sick,” my mother said. “Very sick.”
“What does he have?” I asked. “Something really contagious? Why is he having a party, then?”
“No,” my mother said. “You can’t catch it.”
I had never heard of someone being really ill without being a risk to other kids. Chicken pox and pink eye and strep throat and coughs and flus — they were all contagious. My mother assured me we were not in any danger, but that we really should see him.
When Michael finally appeared, he didn’t seem himself. His eyes were sunken. He looked frail, like a grandparent. Every move he made seemed to exhaust him.
I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to ask him how he felt. I wanted to tell him about baseball. But his mother never left his side. He needed a lot of help. During his party, children played around Michael, not with him.
When rain started to fall, everyone went inside the house. There was a room filled with enormous playthings, as if Michael had a personal Toys-R-Us. I was attracted to a plastic horse suspended between springs on a metal frame. I walked over to the polymer steed, but before I could put my leg over it, a stern voice stopped me.
“Don’t ride that.”
Michael’s command came in a strange, angry tone.
“It has a weight limit,” he snarled. “You’re too big.”
Michael’s fiery eyes stared at me from inside his sullen face. I opened my mouth to apologize, but before I could respond, his mother escorted him out of the room.
I found my mom and pleaded with her to go home. I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t like this party.
“Don’t you want to…” my mother’s voice trailed off. “Don’t you want to say goodbye to Michael?”
I found Michael upstairs in the kitchen. His mom was urging him to have some cake. He looked detached from the other people in the room.
“Hey, Mike,” I said, “I’m going now, but I hope you feel better.”
“Thanks,” he said with a lifeless stare. Then he looked back down at a piece of cake he showed no intention of eating.
I turned away, ready to rush out of the kitchen. My hands retreated into my pockets. I felt a cool, metallic smoothness.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” I said, retrieving the baseball medal. “This is yours.”
I offered Michael the pendant with its patriotic ribbon. His unsteady hands took the medallion from me, and he cupped it gently. He looked hard at the bronze disk. Within its stylized laurel wreath, a batter was striking a ball. I waited for a smile. It didn’t come.
My mother looked very serious as we drove home. She kept her eyes toward the road. I was upset and quiet, hoping the silence would ease both of our moods. After a minute or so, Mom sighed. She spoke in a hushed, sad voice I’d never heard her use before. “Michael has brain cancer.”
I stared out the window at telephone poles with their black cables snaking between each and every house on the road. This news confused me. I thought cancer was something for older people. I had an uncle who passed away from cancer when I was very small. How could Michael have something like that? He was young, like me. Maybe this was different. I gulped and turned back to my mother. “Michael will be alright, won’t he?”
Mom exhaled, and kept looking forward. Silence hung in the car. Finally, the answer came.
“There’s no cure.”
Then I understood — the disappearance, the party, Michael’s mood, his tired body. It all made perfect, horrible sense.
I prayed for him during that part of Mass where you can say things to God in quiet. I didn’t know why I was praying. If God knew everything then He already knew what was going to happen. If He had a plan, then this was part of it, and no urging on my part was going to change anything. But I prayed anyway, because there was nothing else for me to do.
I never saw Michael again.
My life went on. I went to school. I played soccer. I explored the woods near my house. When I think back, all the days were sunny. I learned about how big the world was. I learned about the stars, about rotating planets and swirling galaxies. I looked up at the night sky and wondered what else was out there. I learned that some day I’d be an adult, like my parents.
In my bliss, I didn’t know what Michael was doing. He spent his time learning about radiation and chemotherapy. He counted treatments and became a slave to timetables. Lashed to intravenous drips, Michael stared upwards at hospital ceilings. He learned that he’d never grow up.
The moment that I heard Michael was gone has been lost to me. I should remember that instant, that sorrow, but I have no memory of it at all. Maybe it’s preserved in my mind, buried like a fossil, hidden beneath the weight of a million other formative events. But I can no longer reach it.I know that Michael died in November of 1999, because when I searched his name on the internet, his mother’s obituary appeared. She passed away 8 years later. “Peacefully at her home,” the website said. She was 43.
Michael wasn’t my closest childhood friend, but he was someone I admired. Someone who deserved to live his life well. His death brought many questions that couldn’t be answered at home, at school, or in church. As the years ticked by and I grew up, the questions never receded. The endless whys had no appealing answers. I realized that we spend our lives in that vacant space between innocence and understanding, between the beginning and the end. From Michael’s death onwards, I’ve never been able to play baseball, and I’ve always been aware that I am, temporarily, alive.
The leaves have never been as green as they were on that late summer afternoon. It’s as if, in grief, the leaves forgot how to be their true color. Only in memories are trees really green.
Every year, during the first whispers of oncoming autumn, when the leaves prepare to wither, I remember the baseball falling from the sky. I remember the setting sun blinding me. I feel the ball escaping my empty glove. I imagine Michael, invincible, blasting home runs over the outfield fence. I hear his infectious laugh and I see him circling the bases, smiling.
Sam Chiarelli earned his Creative Writing MFA at Wilkes University. His first book, Dig: A Personal Prehistoric Journey (Books By Hippocampus), explores humanity’s fascination with dinosaurs, and will be released in November, 2018. His work has previously appeared in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Follow him on Twitter, @DinophileSam.