My mother-in-law has told my two sons, four and six years old, that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over the people they love.
Although I am neither religious nor “spritirual” (that latter term being, as best as I can tell, the manner in which people describe themselves when they are unswayed by mainstream religion but uncomfortable with the finality of death), I found the notion of reincarnation as a celestial body to be an acceptable salve for the uncertainties of childhood. But then I imagined myself as a star, burning ferociously and without noticeable response in the cold vastness of space, my closest colleagues many millions of miles away, engaged in their own versions of the same quixotic endeavor. Even if I were somehow able to see the goings on of the mortal coil, and to offer solace to my surviviors, I think the business of being a star wouldn’t be all that great.
If I get to create my own reincarnation myth, let it be this: That I should come back as a baseball, put into play in the top of the fifth inning of a rain-delayed Mets home game. There would be two outs, and the visiting team would have just put a man on second with a ground rule double. It would be June. The sun would be shining, the grass damp and impossibly green, the stands cleared of all but the die-hards, who would have trickled down to the wet, abandoned field-level seats. Let me be the ball in play when the number three batter in the visiting team’s lineup is walked, and let the clean-up hitter line me to short center field. I would scud and slide across the wet grass gladly, for a new baseball is never happier than when it is stained with grass and scuffed by sharp line drives. I would be scooped up by the charging center fielder, momentarily hidden in the leathery darkness of his glove, then hurtle back the way I came and meet the catcher and the lead runner at home plate for a dramatic put-out. While the fielders trotted happily to the dugout and the fans hooted with delight, I would roll contentedly back to the base of the mound.
In the bottom of the fifth, let me be fouled off on a 3-2 count and skip once across the dirt warning track along the first base line before being corralled once again, this time by a cap held over the fence and low to the ground, the cap of a man who started the game in the cheap seats. I would roll dizzily around the inside of the hat, a soft place smelling sweat and damp wool, then be held aloft in triumph before coming to rest in the soft hands of the man’s nine-year-old son. There I would rest for another hour, clutched tightly at times, turned over and examined between innings, bearing quiet witness to the game’s outcome before riding home on the 7 train inside a backpack.
In some apartment tucked into a brick building in Brooklyn, with a pizza parlor downstairs and an argumentative elderly couple upstairs, I would find a home on the boy’s bedside table, to be cherished for a while. Then, on some Saturday in August, the need for a ball would overwhelm any nostalgia in the boy’s heart, and I would find my way into a park, tossed around and batted and fumbled by small hands. All of the letters and signifiers that once adorned me and distinguished me from a store-bought ball would get smudged and scraped and covered in dirt, until the collaboration of twilight and a strong, errant throw landed me in a hidden spot amid weeds and brush and I was abandoned to the encroaching night.
And I could sit there in the park, muddy, unseen, and thoroughly happy. Leaves would cover me, and then snow, and the boy would think about school and basketball and winter things and not remember me at all. The slugger who lined me to center might break his wrist, lose the speed in his swing, and leave pro ball for a high school coaching job in Florida. The young prospect who fouled me into the stands, that flashy, fast-running idol who had captured the boy’s imagination, would be traded away and forgotten. But eventually, the snow would melt. The Parks Department would cut back the weeds and mow the grass. And someone else would find me, weathered and unremarkable but certainly good enough for a catch or some batting practice. And I would be born again.