Test 4, Day 4

England 362 (Bairstow 99, Stokes 58, Root 52, Rabada 4-91) and 243 (Moeen 75*, Morkel 4-41, Olivier 3-38) beat South Africa 226 (Anderson 4-38) and 202 (Amla 83, du Plessis 61, Moeen 5-69) by 177 runs

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The Saturday before the England-South Africa Test series started I was sitting out on my patio reading in the sun. It had been a really good day. I had woken up early and done some writing and got a bunch of chores done and went for a bike ride and went to the farmers market for fresh vegetables. And then it was mid-afternoon and I was on the patio with Roberto Bolaño and a Bent Paddle pilsner and it was 82 degrees and sunny with big blue skies and it was perfect.

I happened to look down and see that I’d missed a call and had a voicemail. It was from my sister. My sister never calls me, and so I assumed she had either dialed me by mistake or that something was horribly wrong with our mother. I listened to the voicemail and it didn’t sound like an emergency. “Hi Matt, it’s your sister, just calling to chat. Feel free to give me a call back or maybe I will just try again later.” There was no urgency, no tragedy. Just a simple message.

I didn’t want to call her back. It was a Saturday and I was sanding the edges off what had been a really long week. I wanted to keep reading and have another beer and then make dinner. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone, including my sister. But my curiosity was killing me! What the heck could she possibly want? And so I sighed heavily and picked up my phone and called her back.

She answered on the very last ring. As the phone was ringing, I started to think: what if she was calling to admonish me for being a poor brother, or crappy son, or both? I mean, I would deserve both lectures, but it really wasn’t something I wanted to hear about on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and so I started to pray that she wouldn’t answer, that we could just play phone tag all day. But she answered. And proceeded to tell me that she’d had a colonoscopy, and that they had found a mass, and they didn’t know anything yet, that she needed to have a biopsy, but that she wanted to tell me herself, and that she needed me to, simply, be her brother.

I was relieved! Our mother wasn’t sick or hurt or dead, she didn’t want to yell at me, and so I bowled her over with optimism: “It’s fine! I am sure it’s nothing,” I said. “It’s probably benign anyway, and even if it is cancer modern medicine is amazing and this will all be fine.” I don’t think she believed me but looking back it was probably better than moping with her. I told her that I was there for her, whatever she needed, whenever she needed. Five minutes later I was back in my chair on the patio, reading Bolaño and drinking my beer. And while my optimism had been a symptom of my initial relief, it was genuine. I really thought that everything would be fine, that life would just go on as it had, that this wasn’t even a blip on the family radar.

Two days later, the 4th of July, two days before the first Test match, I had the day off for the holiday and it was around lunchtime when I got home from a bike ride and checked my email on my phone. There was a message from my sister. She had been diagnosed with colon cancer. My sister. My only sister. My half happy, half sad sister. Cancer. It hit me like a sack of bricks. I had to wait a few minutes to tell my wife after reading the email because I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.

“Maggie has cancer.”

The day is a blur after that. I wrote my sister back and, again, gave her those empty but genuine platitudes that we all give people in times of crisis: whatever you need, whenever you need it. I called my mother and we talked and then I drank beer on the patio and went to the book store and then to the record store. I just kept picturing her empty chair at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, her empty spot next to the Christmas Tree, her laughter quiet, her spirit gone. My mother and brother are very close to my sister. Losing her would suck the life out of my family forever. We would never recover. And then even if she made it through, the next year would be so hard on her and — as she’s a single mother — her teenage son. Her teenage son who is the same age I was when my father died.

I wasn’t doing very well.

Back on the patio I started to think about how I wanted to write about it. About her. And then I remembered that I had wanted to write a new post for each day of the England-South Test series. And so that’s what I did, and that’s what you have been reading. Along the way I discovered consistent themes, themes that I knew existed but had never really thought about. About how strong my sister is, how deeply devoted she is to the people around her, even the ones who don’t treat her very well, and how all she wants is to eek out a little bit of happiness, and how she always seems to find a way to do that, even when skies are dark and the future uncertain.

On the Saturday of the second Test match, as England were collapsing to all out for 205, my sister told me over lunch at my parent’s house that her cancer was stage 3, meaning it had spread to her lymph nodes, but not to her other organs, that she would be going through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, followed by surgery. Again it hit home. My sister. My only sister. Cancer. Only 42. And I worried about her, and I worried about our mother. And I felt so helpless. But then I looked over at my sister, and I saw strength, and good humor, and optimism. And I realized that I had a lot to learn from her, that after all these years as brother and sister, I had allowed myself to see only one small side of her, but there was so much more there. And I knew in that moment that everything would be okay, that my sister was too strong, far too strong, to lose this battle. And over the next few weeks, as I collected memories here on the blog, that faith strengthened, and it also made clear that I needed to be there for her and her son — really be there, not just with empty words — just as she’s been there for me all these years, sometimes in the background, waiting, other times right out front, defending me, helping me. And that’s what I want to do for her. And I want these blog posts to not be a memorial to my late sister, but instead a reminder of her strength and love over the course of a long, happy life, and that I should always be striving to be a better person. A better son. A better husband.

And a better brother.

maggie

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Test 4, Day 3

England 362 and 224 for 8 (Moeen 67*, Broad 0*, Olivier 3-38) lead South Africa 226 (Bavuma 46, Anderson 4-38) by 360 runs

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One hot, humid summer’s day my sister, our neighbor and I were playing our garage. I as showing off a bit, I guess, showing them I could get from one end of the garage to the other without touching the ground — climbing over the lawnmower and the garbage cans and the other assorted junk you find in everyone’s garage. After a while the neighbor kid’s dad called him home, a storm was coming.

We were living in Ohio and it was flat and you could see thunderstorms rolling in way off into the distance. In the summer it felt like a storm hit us every week. You could feel it coming in the air the day before, as the humidity spiked and the birds grew quiet and air was thick like soup. And then the storm. The horrifying storm. The lightning lighting up the night, the shutters rattling in the wind, the thunder shaking the house. I was scared death of thunderstorms growing up — especially of the tornadoes they occasionally produced — and this fear was doubled by the fact that our house did not have a basement.

After the neighbor kid left my sister and I went back inside and helped my mother close the windows in preparation for the coming rain. I was a little manic with fear and when I was losing the sliding glass door in our family room I neglected to move my other hand in time and slammed the heavy door directly on my thumb. I howled with pain. The nail had shattered and there was so much blood. My mother wrapped it in a towel and called the doctor’s office and they suggested we come in. I sat in the back seat as my mother drove with my sister in the passenger seat through the nasty Ohio thunderstorm, hydroplaning through intersections as the wind rocked my mother’s bright orange 1976 Chevette hatchback. My mother had put some hot soapy water in small cereal bowl and I kept my thumb submerged in the water as we drove.

At the doctor’s they did an x-ray, determined nothing was broken, wrapped my thumb and sent us home. The nurse told me that if it started to hurt, to hold my thumb up over my heart.

The next my sister and I were eating lunch in the kitchen. I was in so much pain. I was crying. It hurt so bad! My sister looked at me and saw that I was in pain and she motioned to me to raise my thumb over my heart. “Up, up,” she said. “That will help it feel better.” And she was right.

“Don’t worry, soon it won’t hurt at all and you’ll forget all about it, ” she said after I calmed down a bit. She was right about that too.

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Test 4, Day 2

Day 2, Session 2: South Africa trail by 308 runs with 8 wickets remaining in the 1st innings (Elgar 0, Amla 30)

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Ducks were a big part of our lives growing up. When we visited the Becker family cottages in the upper peninsula of Michigan they were everywhere, swimming up and down the lake shore. My sister and I would watch them swim and put their beaks in the water to catch food and we would feed them crusts of old bread while standing on the rocks in front of the cottages — watching them fight over the scraps while listening to our dad tell us that we were making them too fat to fly south in the winter and that they would freeze to death. Thanks, dad.

One summer we went to a relative’s cottage on the big lake, Lake Michigan, and there my sister and I were amazed as we watch the ducks dive completely under the water to catch food. We watched them for hours out there in the sun drenched big blue chop from a white washed open window as the adults ate lunch and talked about Ronald Reagan and South Africa.

In 1986 we moved to upstate New York and one day each week during the summer our mother would take us kids somewhere. The zoo, a movie, whatever. Just something to get us out of the house and away from the television. If we couldn’t think of something to do we would just go to the swimming beach on Lake Canandaigua, one of the “finger lakes,” five lakes that resembled the fingers on a hand.

It was a busy beach and across the street was a small amusement park with a ferris wheel and a carousel and a water slide. But mostly we just sat on the beach. My mother would read and sunbathe and we would play in the lake and come out to dry off on a towel and eat whatever sandwiches my mother had brought and have a juice box or two.

One day my sister and I waded deep out into the lake, the water coming up to our shoulders. We were close to a group of other kids. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, about a dozen or so ducks came swimming up near us. The other kids started freaking out — ducks! look at the ducks! oh my god ducks! — they were so excited. My sister and I rolled our eyes.

“Not sure what they’re getting so excited about,” my sister said, having to raise her voice over the sounds of the lake. “We see ducks all the time in Michigan.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” I replied.  And we waded back to shore in the dirty brown water to our mother, waiting on the beach, reading her mystery novel, with our little brother, who was playing in the sand and wearing a hat to protect him from the sun, and we dried off in the sun as our swim suits dripped on our mother’s blanket, retrieving our glasses from the safety of her purse, and the whole world sat firmly in the universe, the ground solid under our feet, and the ducks swam off into the deep part of the lake, and my sister and I reveled in our smugness, and we thought about those ducks on the big lake that day in Michigan, diving into the waves over and over again.

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Test 4, Day 1

England 260 for 6 (Stokes 58, Root 52) v South Africa

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When I was two years old we moved from Johnstown, Ohio, outside Columbus, to Lebanon, Ohio, a small town about 45 minutes from Cincinnati. It was a suburb, but it was far enough out that it still had a quaint old downtown with a Carnegie library and an ice cream shop and a bookstore and an old hotel where, famously, Charles Dickens had once stayed.

We lived in a small one story ranch house about a mile from downtown, and while the houses were nice, it was very suburban in look and feel, and it also had a touch of bumblefuck nowhere Ohio to it — flat, no trees, rednecks on motorcycles. Behind our house was a creek and a farm field and a pond. It was a nice place to grow up, all told.

Our neighbors to the south were the Johnsons. Rex was the dad and there was a mom whose name I don’t recall and they had a younger daughter and an older son, Jeremy, who was one year younger than I was and was missing the ring finger on his left hand which he lost in a lawn mowing accident. They were blue collar white working class. Middle America Ohio mainstays. They were loud and their yard was a mess with garbage and toys and Rex would drink cans of cheap beer by the case and yell at his kids.

To the north was Baptist preacher with his wife and their son, Timmy, who was the same age as my sister. They had money. The dad had a sports car and they were the first family I knew to have a VCR. Timmy was a good kid, a little weird, occasionally cruel, but mostly harmless. Timmy was also the person who told me that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

It happened one beautiful summer’s day when Timmy, my sister and I were in the backyard sitting by my mother’s vegetable garden. We were talking and inspecting the plants and the whole world was green and splashed with late afternoon sunlight. And then we started to talk about Christmas, and Santa Claus, and Timmy told me he didn’t exist. I was horrified and crushed, like the sky had come crashing down on me. I looked to my sister for help but she backed Timmy up. Telling me that, yeah, Santa didn’t exist, our parents bought all those gifts and wrapped them and left them under the tree each Christmas morning.

I wailed and screamed and ran inside to my parents. I was inconsolable. It was like being told that was the whole world had just broken in some irreparable way and that it couldn’t be put right again — that the way world was had changed not in event or tragedy but in fact and truth. Actually it wasn’t like being told that, it was exactly that.

Mom and dad tried to calm me down and figure out what was wrong. After a bit my sister came inside. The sun was setting and it was growing dark in our living room. My sister was crying too. She was just as inconsolable. She had played it tough in front of Timmy but she was also heartbroken, as heartbroken as me even. Maybe she’d had an inkling that Santa Claus wasn’t true, but there it was: confirmed. Laid bare in the summer gloaming.

My parents did their best to walk us through the heartbreak. Telling us that while maybe Santa didn’t exist in reality, he did exist in our hearts, in our kindness, in the way we treat other people. And life went on, and Christmases came and went and they still had magic, just a different kind of magic. And my sister and still got up at dawn in our pajamas and woke up our parents and opened baseball gloves and doll houses as my parents sat on the couch bleary eyed with coffee and smiles as the darkness fell away and the sun came up over another bleak, brown, dry and cold southwestern Ohio winter’s day.

I still think about my sister in the garden that summer afternoon. Trying so hard to be strong, while inside her heart was shattering. That kind of strength, while at the time perhaps a little misguided, would continue to serve her well her whole life.

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Test 3, Day 5

England 353 (Stokes 112, Cook 88) and 313 for 8 dec (Bairstow 63, Westley 59, Root 50) beat South Africa 175 (Bavuma 52, Roland-Jones 5-57) and 205 for 7 (Elgar 136, Moeen 4-45) by 239 runs

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The days after my father died were dark and numb. It was fall and the grass was brown and the whole world smelled like pine and dust. The days dragged along. There was very little outpouring of emotion or obvious sadness, mostly there was just silence.

One Saturday my little brother, mother and I returned home from an errand. It was dark outside already even though it was only early evening. There was a chill in the air. I was in the hall putting my jacket on a hanger when I heard my sister and mother yelling in the kitchen.

“HE SAID YES!!” I heard my sister yell.

“YOU ASKED HIM!” I heard my mother reply in a scream — with almost girlish delight.

There hadn’t been that kind of noise in the house for weeks.

I went into the kitchen to find out what was going on and learned that my sister had asked a boy to the Sadie Hawkins dance (the traditional dance where the girls would ask the boys instead of vice versa) and the boy, Steve, whom she knew from a church youth group, had said yes.

My sister was positively glowing. I had never seen her so happy. All the darkness of the past few weeks was gone from her eyes. She was overjoyed. It was a moment of pure happiness that you rarely see in real life. The kind of moment that only appears on film or in sport.

The dance happened and they dated for a while and Steve was around the house a lot. He was a calming presence. Helping us set up a new computer, patiently and kindly admonishing me for picking on my brother, going with my sister on walks with the dog.

In January they broke up and my sister was crushed, positively crushed. But life went on. And she had other triumphs and other set backs, successes and failures. And she is happy a lot, always seeming to have a smile on her face and to be excited about something. At least I like to think she’s happy, despite the coldness that life can deal out with apparent randomness.

But when I think about my sister happy — really and truly happy — I think about that moment in the kitchen that one horrible autumn when, for just a little while, everything wasn’t just okay, everything was perfect.

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Test 3, Day 4

South Africa 175 and 117 for 4 (Elgar 72*, Bavuma 16*) need a further 375 runs to beat England 353 and 313 for 8 dec (Bairstow 63, Westley 59, Root 50, Maharaj 3-50)

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After visiting Disney World when I was 11 years old we went on a short cruise around the Carribean, including a stop in the Bahamas. While there my sister bought a Panama style hat which I thought looked silly but now I realize that it was pretty fashionable for the time.

When we returned home she wore it non-stop. To school, to church, everywhere. She loved that hate.

One afternoon a couple weeks after the vacation I was waiting on the bus when there was a commotion near the front. I couldn’t tell what was going on. But then my sister got on and was holding her hat in her hands and it was stained with mud and ripped and she was crying and she slumped into the seat right behind the driver.

I stayed where I was. I don’t know why I didn’t get up to make sure she was okay. But I didn’t. The winter before my sister had stood up for me to some older neighborhood kids who were throwing snowballs at me as I tried to run away. But that late spring day on the bus I decided not to return the favor.

The bus driver called a teacher over to the bus and my sister — through her tears — told her what had happened. A couple mean girls had called her a bitch and pushed her down and took her hat off and stomped on it. It was pretty brutal and cruel, as kids can be at that age. I still didn’t get up and help her. She went with the teacher into the school and I rode the bus home. After getting home my mother and I drove to the school to pick her up. On the drive home, she told my sister that people were jealous of her and how smart she was and her good grades. And that sometimes that jealousy manifested as cruelty. I listened quietly but thought that sounded silly. Kids were just mean. That’s all. Especially the kids in that backwater two-bit Michigan town in which we were living.

My sister identified the girls to the principal and they were forced to apologize and agreed to pay for the hat — and she spent the next week or so in a dark funk. I forgot about the whole thing. Weeks later I asked if she ever got the money and said she did, and that she had already spent it on some make up and other things. She was so nonchalant. Smiling even. It was weird. She had been so upset, so bruised, so beaten down, but now it was like no big deal, life goes on, what’s next.

When life gets me down, I often think about my sister’s hat, and her resiliency in the face of those horrible bullies. Nothing gets her down for too long, she just keeps moving, keeps fighting, keeps smiling, keeps finding the good things in this dumb old mean world.

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Test 3, Day 3

England 353 and 74 for 1 (Jennings 34*, Westley 28*) lead South Africa 175 (Bavuma 52, Roland-Jones 5-57) by 252 runs

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One summer’s day when I was about 10 years old and we were living in upstate New York, my father left to go to the store to get hot dogs and buns and other items so we could grill out for dinner. He was gone a long time. Far longer than he should have been. I was worried — I was always worried about my father when he was out — and I kept bugging my mother, who was obviously worried too, and she kept telling me that everything was fine, he was probably just delayed, or maybe had gotten in to a fender bender. He would be home soon, she said. She was sure of it.

Finally, after being gone for at least two hours, my father pulled into the driveway and I ran out to greet him. I flew open the passenger door of his car and saw that the floor of the car was littered with hotdogs and buns and popsicles (dad loved popsicles, they were his favorite, every time I picture him I picture him opening the freezer and pulling out a popsicle, peeling the wrapper and popping the cool treat into his mouth).

“Where were you!? What happened!?” I demanded.

“I really don’t want to talk about it, Matt.”

I asked again, and he answered again: “I really just don’t want to talk about it.”

He went inside, leaving all the spilled groceries in the car, and went into the kitchen where my mother was. I followed him inside and my mother shepherded my sister and me into the basement, so they could talk.

We sat at the bottom of the stairs and listened. He was crying. My father was crying. I had never heard my father cry before. Not once.

“Was he on a bike?” we heard my mother ask over my father’s choked, horrible sobs.

“Was he chasing a ball?” we heard her ask again.

After a while my mother came downstairs and talked to my sister and me. Dad had hit a kid with his car in the park near our house. It wasn’t his fault, and the kid was going to be okay — just maybe a broken bone or two — but dad was really upset. And we were supposed to leave him alone.

I walked outside and dad was cleaning the groceries out of the car and tossing them into the garbage.

“They spoiled in the heat,” he said, his voice low and quiet.

Later that evening we were playing outside with the neighborhood kids and a police car pulled into our driveway and a police officer got out and talked to my dad, leaning against his car, as the summer sun sat low and fat over what was otherwise one of those perfect, endless days of childhood summer.

“What did your dad do!?” all the kids asked me. I didn’t answer them.

And that was the last we ever spoke of the accident. Save once. When my sister suggested a picnic at the park where the accident had occurred and my mother said, no way, we can’t go to that park again. Not ever. Dad hated that park, and he refused to go there.

But while we didn’t talk about it, the accident darkened the final few years of my father’s life. He didn’t laugh as much, and he was moody and difficult to be around. And he was constantly worried about us kids. He wouldn’t let us out of his sight, and was always refusing our requests to go off somewhere on our own. Every loud noise, every childish scream, sent my father running to us, sure that something had gone horribly wrong, and that we were hurt or maimed.

And so it was a big deal when, two summers later, my parents said it was okay if I rode my bike to the gas station up the road to get a soda (something we weren’t usually allowed to have). I grabbed my backpack and some change and I was off. I bought a root beer and shoved it into my bag and biked home, enjoying the cool, sugary drink on the back stoop of our house.

When my sister learned of what I had been allowed to do, she made a similar request and of course was allowed to go. She took off on her bike with a dollar in her pocket. She came home shortly after, covered in a sticky mess, without a drink. She was in tears, her mood shortly before light and happy, now heavy and sad.

Through her tears we heard the story. She had dropped her drink on the sidewalk while riding home.

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