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Sara’s Diary, Day 129 without baseball: Pandemic baseball and grief

Some thoughts on the conflicting emotions I felt during the Cubs exhibition game against the White Sox

MLB: Exhibition-Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs
Pandemic baseball returned to Wrigley Field last night with an exhibition game between the Cubs and White Sox
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

As the days tick closer to the official opening of the Cubs season - and the transition of this diary from a Life Without Baseball to a Chronicle of Pandemic Baseball - I find myself torn. In previous seasons I’ve noted that Opening Day is like Christmas to me. Three years ago I even went so far as to rewrite The Night Before Christmas as a baseball parody. This season still reminds me of Christmas, but mainly it reminds me of the two most painful Christmases I’ve ever experienced.

In 1998 my grandfather passed away on December 19. He had been sick for a long time, but he wasn’t actually diagnosed with a chronic lung condition until the month before he died. I was in college trying to finish my exams when my parents abruptly let me know we’d be making an unplanned trip to New Mexico. It didn’t actually dawn on me how sick he was until we got to the hospital. He was on a ventilator for most of the time we were in the hospital with him, but there were a few lucid moments with him before he died.

I had never seen someone die before, let alone the man who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge, built his own house, and raised a beautiful family with his wife of almost 50 years. The three hour drive to that home from Albuquerque to the Hondo River Valley was a blur. No one felt like celebrating Christmas as we planned a funeral, and yet, Christmas came and went. There was a rushed shopping trip on the 23rd of December and we exchanged gifts that seemed much more about caring for each other than material items. We stayed up late reminiscing in that bittersweet way families grieve the loss of a loved one.

That Christmas changed me and I remembered it vividly two years ago when my mother got tremendously sick after complications from a back surgery at the holidays. She spent a particularly harrowing month in the hospital between December and January. My dad and I drove an hour each way to the hospital every day - oftentimes in silence as we tried to come to terms with how sick she was. We each took breaks from her bedside to do some Christmas shopping, and exchanged unwrapped gifts in her hospital room. I gave my mother a Cubs book to read while she recovered. I remember silently praying she would recover and be able to read it as she thanked me for it.

I bring up these very personal experiences because there is something unique about the intersections of the holidays and grief. It still represents time to spend with your loved ones and there is comfort in that time even under trying circumstances, but that comfort is not the joy we traditionally associate with the holidays. For many who are alone during the holidays, their grief is intensified during a time that is supposed to bring comfort.

One of the things that has struck me since early in the pandemic is that we are a nation in the middle of grieving an unfathomable loss. This isn’t a unique observation, the Harvard Business Review wrote this excellent piece on the concept in March:

HBR: People are feeling any number of things right now. Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?

Kessler: Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?

Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

The past four months differs from those days I spent in New Mexico or the time I spent in Utah in that it’s ongoing, and that so far (thankfully) my family has been spared a proximate encounter with COVID-19. Experiencing grief right now is also tricky because while some of us are grieving the loss of normalcy, or experiencing the anticipatory grief referenced above, hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans are grieving the loss or illness of a loved one on top of that experience. What we have in common is a shared understanding that none of us truly knows how to deal with this or what is next.

The juxtaposition of managing grief as baseball tries to return amidst heightened risk reminds me of those Christmases spent with grief, fear and loved ones. It was so much better to be with those loved ones to cope with the loss and pain as opposed to being alone, but it didn’t make the fear or pain go away.

As I watched the Cubs play an exhibition game against the White Sox last night, I was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. I watched every minute, and found myself settling into familiar conversations in our game thread and on Twitter as Jason Kipnis started his Wrigley Field Cubs career with a home run and Willson Contreras gunned out a runner at second like it was any other baseball game. I found tremendous joy in my mom’s texts about specific plays throughout the game, even when her favorite player, Javier Báez, made an error. I also found myself experiencing moments of panic as some coaches and umpires pulled their masks down or didn’t wear them at all. The backdrop of empty seats was a constant reminder that pandemic baseball is far from normal.

There is no playbook for how we are supposed to feel as baseball returns. There is a lot of justified skepticism that the precautions MLB has taken are not enough. Some people who love the game may be unable to enjoy it in the current circumstances, and others may need that three hour mental break even more in troubling times. There are probably dozens of reactions I’m missing.

I’m still not sure any sports should be played with COVID-19 cases spiking across the country. However, it appears baseball is going to try, and I’m too in love with the sport to not find joy in a beautiful Kyle Hendricks curve ball.