TRACI AND LOU: A MEDITATION ON LIFE, DEATH, AND RECORDS
With the relentless focus on Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig these past few weeks, the Iron Horse has been on my mind quite a bit. As I explained a few entries back, Jeter deserves to have his wonderful career and accomplishments celebrated, but it was difficult to feel complete enthusiasm regarding the passing of one of Gehrig’s records. We can try to be purely unemotional about things and say that baseball careers end for all kinds of reasons, injury being one of them, and a disabling illness or untimely death is just another form of career-ending injury. We can say that, but inside we know that it’s not true. A ballplayer’s record is supposed to end when he proves himself unable to play at the same high levels of his youth, or when he’s ready to go on to other things, or both. He’s supposed to play out the string, not have the string cut as if the three Fates had pulled out their sharpened scissors. As has often been remarked, baseball is one of the few games without a clock. Death is the imposition of time on a game that is supposed to be untimed.
Ty Cobb was a .323 hitter when he retired at the age of 41, but his legs had started to go and so to himself he wasn’t the same Ty Cobb. He also had a hugely successful investment portfolio to manage, and so he moved on. Ted Williams slugged .645 the year he quit, but he was ready to devote more time to fishing. Mike Mussina won 20 games for the first time and went off to watch his kids grow up. Alternatively, Babe Ruth went out fat, lame, and sniffling, but at least he got to give it one more try. All of these players went out on their own terms. So too did every player waived out of the Majors after a .119 season, an 0-for-30, or a 8.11 ERA in 50 innings. They got to take those 30 turns at the plate. They got to pitch the 50 innings. That’s self-determination.
Gehrig never got the chance to end his career because his body quit on him at high speed, not the languorous, creeping way it does for the truly lucky among us. His song didn’t end; the needle was pulled off the record, and if Jeter’s going past him provokes mixed feelings, it is because he gets to impose an alien ending on an unfinished story. No one really passes Gehrig, because Gehrig never finished; he was only interrupted.
None of this is meant to take anything away from Derek Jeter, may all praise his name and sing his deeds. Jeter just happens to be playing through a valley where someone else was struck by lightning, and I can’t help but smell the ozone lingering in the air. I’m not angry at Jeter, I’m sore at an unfair universe, a universe that builds up so many mountains and monuments and then knocks them all over, some suddenly, painfully, without symmetry or justice, and often without apparent meaning. It’s left for us to infer meaning, and life as a course in creative writing can be bewildering and unsatisfying. Gehrig tried his hand at this himself, in his famous Farewell. “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” I was about to write, “Lou Gehrig was a liar,” but he wasn’t. I think he meant it. I think he meant to reassure us and reassure himself. That doesn’t get at what I’ve always felt when I’ve heard those wonderful words. This is it: He was a great man to say what he said. We were saps to believe him for a second. He had great fans, great friends, a loving family, and shared a storied history with all of them. He was, in all these things, greatly blessed — and none of that changes the fact that he got a raw deal. It was a clever non-sequitur, a changing of the subject, and just about everyone who has ever heard that speech is dumb enough to fall for it. If instead of saying what he had said, Gehrig had just stated, “You’ve been reading about a bad break I got. No, really, everything’s okay. It’s no big deal.” no one would have believed him.
Last November I first told you about my friends Rich Faber and Traci Wagner and Traci’s battle with malignant melanoma, a disease I know from personal experience. I am greatly sorry to report that on the morning of September 10, Traci died of the disease. She leaves behind Rich, devoted husband, who dedicated the last year to caring for her, and a son, Jason, on the verge of turning three, whose youth will, I hope, spare him some of the pain of this moment.
Traci was 42, and she had a lot left to do, from inconsequential things — like seeing how the Yankees make out in this year’s playoffs (she was a dedicated fan, with a particular fondness for Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Tino Martinez) — to the serious and important, like raising her son and seeing out the years with her husband. As with Lou Gehrig, her record will never be surpassed. Other lives will go on in parallel, but no one will ever do what she did in the way that she did it. Others may live more days, see more than she got to see in her time on Earth, accomplish things that one who is struggling to stay alive day by day is not permitted the time or endurance to attempt, but there will never be another Traci — not a greater Traci, nor a lesser Traci, nor an equivalent Traci. A wife, a mother, a friend can never be surpassed. Everything after is different, even if there is somehow more of it, even if somehow we go on.
That takes nothing away from those who live on, who come after, but let us also not deprive the dead of their due.
Lou Gehrig had no children; it must have made it easier for him to say what he did. In Alan Jay Lerner’s autobiography, he tells of his father’s declining health, and how he was forced to undergo many painful and debilitating medical procedures to stay alive. “How can you go through all this, Dad?” Lerner asked. “Because I want to see what happens to you,” the senior Lerner replied. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t cry until I saw my daughter, because just as I would not have her taken from me, I would not have me taken from her, not until I had a better idea of how it all turns out. She was only three at the time. There would be so much more to see. We erect sand castles of families and homes and children and 2,130 games played in a row. We should get to finish building them in the fullness of time. I wanted more. I want Gehrig to have had more. I want Traci to have had more. It’s all of one thing to me, life and death and records.
When I first told you about Rich and Traci — and this is particularly current given the politics of the moment — I talked about how financially debilitating Traci’s battle against cancer had been, in spite of their health insurance, which treated them with typical capriciousness. I asked you to check out his Web site; Rich is a professional, Harvey Award-nominated illustrator, and with his love of baseball, ballplayers have often been his subjects. As noted in his blog, some of these pieces are for sale. Rich also takes commissions. I urge you to drop Rich a line and purchase one; Traci’s battle may be done, but Rich has another ongoing fight to provide for his son’s education as a single parent. I have two of his pieces up in my living room, and they look great; you’ll not only be helping Rich out, you’ll be doing your wall a favor.
If you’re not into bas
eball art or happy walls, there is a Paypal donation button on the sidebar of Rich’s blog; anything you give will go towards Jason’s education.
I struggle to leave you with happier words at the conclusion of this bleak entry. I have watched loved ones come and go. I’ve nearly watched me come and go once or twice. In a song about cancer, Lou Reed sang, “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.” I think that’s the best, most uplifting thought I have at the moment. Life is an accumulation of events, not separate threads. It is wonderful to be here and terrible to leave, and yet we are always in the process of leaving. Yet, each time we do, what we leave behind us represents a unique, unalterable tale — in the words we say, the songs and stories we write, in those we loved who remember us, and the children we bring into the world, who carry within them our part of those who have gone in their very genes. Others may write other stories, sing louder songs, or make more hits on the ballfield, but never better, only different. As Albert Einstein said, nothing is created or destroyed. It’s all still here. That’s the magic. So let us not say goodbye to Lou, or even Lou’s record, for Lou is still here, and nor will we say goodbye to Traci, for she too will remain.