They were well into their forty-ninth year together when my grandmother mistook my grandfather for Babe Ruth. Oh, there had been other “incidences of confusion,” as her doctor called them-spreading cream cheese on the paperweight, calling the television repairman when she couldn’t get a picture on the microwave-but this was, somehow, momentous.
She was literary, my grandfather was fond of saying. He meant she liked to read. All those years waiting up for him to return from late night trips with his band? She spent them in Juliet’s garden in Verona, expecting Romeo; they’d wait together. Or in Dante’s Inferno with Francesca and Paolo. Or traipsing through the countryside on horseback with Tristram and Isolde. With such a litany of characters loose in her mind, why she chose the Sultan of Swat never was clear.
My grandparents married young. That was common among the second-generation Italians working the textile mills in Lawrence. I asked her once, when she was still lucid and I was still in grammar school, how they met. She told me they’d lined up boys on one side of the street and girls on the other, and let the boys pick. She’d been the last one remaining, she said, and my grandfather was stuck with her. I told her that was how they picked teams at school, in gym class; that without fail, I was among the last chosen, the unwanted. We could commiserate, my grandmother and I.
My grandfather played music with his three brothers and a handful of friends. Swing was king then, and they drove all night to play New England, in dance halls, auditoriums, gymnasiums and hotel lobbies. He worked days, too, shoveling tar or mowing municipal lawns for the city just a few hours after rolling back into town from a dance. My grandmother, left home alone, or later with their two children, would simmer sauce over the hot stove as she hummed to herself, tend roses in the narrow garden hemmed by the walkway along the length of their tenement building, or read. Maybe in those long hours she’d found another hobby to pass the time. I imagine her curled on her rocking chair, knitting, her small collection of Shakespeare piled lovingly on the table beside her. A lamp burns over her shoulder, gleaming off the linoleum of the floor she waxed that evening. A transistor radio on the bookshelf plays the ballgame, batter by batter, from Fenway Park. My grandfather was a Red Sox fan, and for a decade after his wife’s death he sat in front of the television in that very rocking chair, shaking his head sadly as they broke his heart one piece and one season at a time. He died a few years before they won it all, but the shock might have killed him anyway. And my grandmother? Maybe tuning into the broadcasts while he was on the road reminded her of him. Maybe the presence of Fenway’s Nine helped fill the absence of my grandmother’s One.By the time anyone thought to ask her, it was too late.
The Alzheimer’s worsened with the years, compounded by Parkinson’s disease. Cancer took its bite, too. The physical and the mental became inseparable. She died by inches as I grew up. Halfway through my time in high school she’d dropped below eighty pounds, and she had stopped recognizing almost everyone. Her two daughters became, to her, indistinguishable from the nurses who frequented her home to help my grandfather bathe and feed her. But I was a holdout even then. Something about the days I’d spent on her lap as she rocked in that old chair reading me verse after verse of Othello or The Tempest had drawn us close, and months after everyone else became faceless to her, I was still there. She remembered me.
That, too, changed. And she, too, became unrecognizable. Her shock of white hair grew matted and wild, as her face, like her body, wrinkled like a raisin beneath it. Her eyes were mostly liquid by then, and she was, in her hospital johnny and slippers, as much a part of that bed as the mattress or the headboard, or the safety rails that ran the length of it. She remained in their little apartment for as long as my grandfather could muscle it. We knew that eventually he would move her up the hill to Bon Secours Hospital, and that would be that.
He held out as long as he could. He did his damnedest, carrying her to the bathroom, changing IVs, keeping schedule with the roster of pills and liquids she needed. But her illness took its toll on him too, and even with constant help, it was too much. He all but killed himself over her.
Which is why it came as a surprise to him when, shortly after midnight on a cool, late-summer Tuesday the week she would be moved to the hospital, she said to him:
“I know you.”
He stopped by her bedside, his sleeping mask propped on top of his head, the elastic tight in his hair. His eyes were red-they always were in those days. He’d woken her for her Parkinson’s pills, blue ovals the size of a pen cap. Horse pills.
“Of course you do, dear,” he said. “Open your mouth.”
“I know who you are,” she insisted. She lay still, her body too fragile for motion, as if all the muscle and meat had burned away, even the bone, and all that remained beneath the leather of her skin was the heat of disease. “Where were you last weekend?”
He stared at her, his arthritic hands trembling slightly around the pill vial. “Dear?”
“Bottom of the ninth, one on, Red Sox down by two. I listened for you,” she said. “We all did.”
Over the months of the illness’s grip on his wife, my grandfather had grown accustomed to her lapses. But this, he told me, confused him. She sounded so clear. So lucid. So sincere.
“Where were you?” she asked him. “The clown they had batting fouled out on his first swing. Nothing like you, Mr. Ruth.”
“Mr. Ruth?” He spilled a little water on her as he bent closer to her face.
“King of the diamond, Sonny Boy. I was yelling for them to play you. Damn fools. The Sox could have used you. The Yankees won.”
Dumbfounded, my grandfather squinted at his wife in the darkness, his brow furrowed.
“Anyway, I just wanted to tell you. I remembered. It was after the game, but I remembered.”
“Remembered what?” he asked, tentatively.
“I remembered that you were traded.”
“Yes. And that’s why you didn’t play,” she said, her voice, already husky with the cancer, growing sad. My grandfather leaned closer as she whispered conspiratorially. “I wanted to tell you,” she said “It’s okay.”
“Sure. People remember you, Babe. You played right,” she said, wincing with the effort. “Nobody hit that ball like you. And that’s what matters.”
She closed her eyes as my grandfather smiled. She smiled back when he closed his gentle fist around the vial, sliding it back into his pocket without opening it. Leaning over the bed, he put his hands on the mattress for support, and kissed her cool forehead.
Years later, I imagine her still in her rocking chair keeping time, listening to the baseball game on the radio, inning by inning, while my grandfather drives somewhere in the New England darkness, thinking of her.
And somewhere else entirely, Babe Ruth swings his heavy bat and pokes another ball through the firmament.