back to the Black Table

When my father coached my Jaycee League baseball team, ages 8-10, there was this kid named Kevin Jones. You could come to every practice, pore over every line of the scorebook, read all the names on the back of the jerseys and play countless intersquad scrimmages, and of all the kids there, Kevin was the one you’d notice the least.

He was quiet, sure, but lots of kids were quiet. (I, alas, was not one of them.) Kevin just happened to look like every kid in Middle America. He was normal height, normal build; his hat lay too far down over his eyes like every other kid’s. Absolutely nothing exceptional existed about Kevin. He wasn’t cuter than anyone else, he wasn’t fatter, he wasn’t any more talented, he wasn’t any more anything. No one really


hung out with Kevin, but no one ever made fun of him either. Kevin was the type of guy who would walk four times in a game and never score a run. Kevin was just simply there.

Kevin was a year older than me, so when he moved up to the next level, any thoughts I might have happened to have of him vanished. He had rarely entered my mind in the first place, and once he was out of my severely limited circle of awareness, he might as well have never existed in the first place.

Which is why it was strange when my mother took me aside after dinner one night, when I was 10.

"Will … you remember Kevin, the boy from your team?" Mom had an odd look on her face. She wasn’t sad or anything, or at least it didn’t seem like it, but her eyes were pinched, narrowed, serious. It was almost comical the way she looked; Mom looked the way she did when Dad would release a particularly violent gas emission at the dinner table. I hadn’t seen her look that way before; it must have made an effect, because I remember it 17 years later.

I told Mom I kind of remembered him. "He played the outfield, right?" If there was a kid I didn’t know well, chances are, he played the outfield.

Mom wasn’t thinking of Kevin’s position in the field. "Listen, Will … Kevin had an accident. He wasn’t feeling well, and it turned out, something inside of him burst, like a balloon. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late." I asked her what it was too late for. "Will, Kevin … Kevin died. He died." She didn’t cry. She just stared at me, as if I were about to make a vital decision about something. It seemed as if I were being tested.

Here is where my memory fails me. I have no idea what I did next. Did I cry? Probably. I would cry when I struck out back then. But I wouldn’t have been crying out of grief; I honestly wouldn’t have known Kevin’s last name if she hadn’t have told me. I think I would have been crying because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to do. The next part, I do remember. I went to bed early that night and stayed awake for hours, trying to think. I wasn’t thinking about death, or if I could die, or if Mom or Dad or my sister could die. I was thinking of what I remembered about Kevin. I didn’t come up with much.

But Kevin suddenly became a centerpiece of my life. I found scouring my brain for little details, a certain hat he wore, his place in the batting lineup, the number on the back of his jersey. In life, he was one of many; in death, he rose up, a singular entity, worthy of studious remembrance and commemoration. Kevin was no longer an anonymous face in the crowd; he had become the crowd.

It occurred to me that if I had known him better … it would have been unbearable. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make friends with every single teammate I had, from then on.

As I have grown older, I have faced more death, and more loss, and more suffering. Each and every time, it seems impossible to grasp. They were here a moment ago, and they’re not now. What left? Where’d they go? I should have been nicer to them, I should have sent them a Christmas card, I should have not been so busy all the time. I should have known a day like this would come, sometime.

The thing about sudden tragedies, you see, is that whoever has been lost has a tendency to spring from the depths of your brain to the forefront. Every interaction with them, every second you spent with them, whether it was to tell them you loved them, to fight with them over the last porkchop, or simply to provide them, a passing acquaintance, the woman you see in the elevator once a week, with a "bless you" when they sneezed, the memories seem to gather the gravity of scripture. It all takes on a glow, like they were followed by this white gleam shining beneath them, a pale, endless spotlight. You don’t even need to have met the person; when they’re gone, even passing conversations about them seem etched in time. It was like they were the most significant part in your life, though you never could have known it.

If there is a better reason to celebrate life while we have it, and everyone we come into contact with in our cluttered tunnels, I haven’t found it.


Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: