They were supposed to have down time. She was healing. He was reconnecting with his estranged wife. It was the off season. Sure, they still talked now and then, but this was supposed to be time to relax.
No one expected to get the call that their coach and fearless leader, Al Luongo, had died in his sleep three days after Christmas. Twenty-five players and countless Padres from the past some how knew to congregate in the clubhouse. The room was packed. Ginny sat on a folding chair squeezed between Mike and Blip.
Bottles of every booze imaginable were passed around with no concern for germs. They sat for hours telling stories. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes they cried and sometimes they laughter would devolve into tears. It was cathartic. Their Padre’s family grieving together, but she noticed Mike never spoke up. He never shared one of the many stories he had shared with her in the past. He didn’t cry either. He looked sad, but he didn’t cry.
When the attention was drawn across the room as one of the older players talked about the old days, she slipped her hand in his, squeezing as she lay her head on shoulder. His eyes tighten for a moment, and he squeezed back, but other than that gave no outward reaction.
Eventually, Mike stood and said it was time to head home. Everyone nodded and Mike ordered a fleet of lyfts to make sure everyone got home safely. She was the last to leave, standing with him as they watched everyone clear out.
“You ok?” she asked.
“No.” she leaned in and hugged him for the first time since that night outside Broadners. After only a few seconds he pulled away.
“You should get home, Baker.” He said gently reminding her of the line they needed to maintain. She chewed her lip for a moment, trying to decide if she should really go, when he made the decision for her. “Car’s waiting, Baker. Get a move on.”
She didn’t see or hear from him until three days later. They announced that there would be visitation time the day before the funeral. She arrived early to pay her respects, but as soon as she walked in, Natalie approached her.
“I am so sorry,” Ginny started to say, but Natalie shook her head.
“Mike’s been in the viewing room for almost an hour. I know how close you two are. Do you think you could go check on him?”
Ginny could tell Natalie was barely hanging on to herself. A little ways off, Oscar was watching her carefully.
“Of course,” Ginny quickly agreed. As she entered the room, what she found proved why she was needed. Mike sat on a stool, his hand resting on the casket. His eyes were unfocused, as he mumbled under his breath. “Hey?” she called quietly, trying not to spook him.
He didn’t look up. He didn’t have to, he would recognize that voice anywhere. “Hey yourself, Rookie.”
“Are you okay?”
“Mind if I stay with you for a bit?” she asked resting one hand on his shoulder and the other on the coffin.
“I think I would like that.” He answered honestly. If it had been anyone else, he probably would have minded, but this was Ginny. If anyone understood what he was going through it would be her. She wouldn’t try to throw out platitudes. She knew what it was like to lose someone who meant the world to you, and she knew when just being there was enough. Silence echoed around them as though time had stopped. After a long while he finally found his voice again. “It’s not fair…”
“He had more to do.”
“How could he just… die like this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why? Why now?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not ready to let him go.”
“I know, I’m not either.”
“It’s not fair,” he sighed repeating it because it just kept circling in his mind. “He was like a father to me… He… he believed in me when no one else did. I can’t…” he gasped, collapsing onto the coffin. “I can’t…”
“Hey, I know, Lawson. I know,” she tried to breath evenly, her hand shifting from his shoulder to make slow soothing circles on his back. “I know, just breath.”
“He can’t… Just be gone…”
“I’m here with you, Lawson. Just keep breathing.”
“Because you need oxygen to live.” She reminded him.
“Because you need to live.”
“Because you have so much more to do.”
“I don’t want to,” he wept.
“I know, but you will.”
“Not today, and not tomorrow, but one of these days, you will remember that you are alive for a reason, and when that day comes, then breathing will be a little easier.”
“I’m going to die alone.”
“No, you are not.” She promised.
“I was just like him. I gave my life to the game. I have nothing. I’m alone.”
“I know it feels that way, but I’m here with you.” She went around him. Kneeling she took his face in both hands and their eyes met. “I’m here with you. Mike. I won’t leave you, I promise.”
Whatever she was expecting, it was not for him to collapse forward onto her. He pressed him head to her chest and wept like he hadn’t since he was a very small child. When he finally stopped, she still waited a few minutes for his breath to even out.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to just freak out like that,” he said finally pulling away from her.
“It’s fine. You’ve always been there for me. I want to be here for you.”
“It didn’t really hit me until I got here, ya know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Do you want to be alone with him?” he asked, eyeing the casket.
“You can stay.” She stood and ran her fingers over the polished wood. In her mind, she thanked him for believing in her. For standing up for her and for treating her like any other player. She hadn’t know him as long as Mike, but she knew he had a huge impact on her not only as a player, but as a person.
Mike had taken a seat in the front pew and was watching her as she turned to him. “Want to go back to my place, and binge watch awful tv while we eat our feelings.” He asked.
“Doesn’t sound very healthy…”
“But do you?”
“Um, yeah, that is exactly what I want to do, as long as we throw in some alcohol and a nap.”
As they left, they checked in with Natalie again. Oscar was by her side now, not even pretending he wasn’t there for her.
They spent the afternoon just as they had planned. Mike told her all the stories he had failed to share at the clubhouse. The next day at the funeral, she held his hand until he had to walk up to his spot as a pallbearer.
That night when she was lying in bed, her phone rang. It was Mike, of course it was, but he sounded a little better. And the night after that he sounded a little better. By the time they were at spring training, he had lost that utterly destroyed look in his eyes.
The first night after training, though, he called crying. She should have seen it coming really. It was his first spring training without Al. She cut across the hall, his door already open, and held him again, promising that he wasn’t alone. That she would not leave him alone.
It took another year for them to finally kiss. Two years after that they were married. Two year later, they welcomed their first child, a boy, William Albert Lawson.
And when he breathed his last breath at the ripe old age of 85, Ginny was right beside him, holding his hand, just as she had promised.