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Rusty Staub

March 30, 2018

Rusty Staub

After a specialist removed the breathing apparatus, it took my father about an hour and fifteen minutes to die. He was lying on a hospital bed in the critical care unit. His eyes were closed, and his swept-back hair and tipped back head made it look like he was flying, or like something invisible inside of him was flying out and casting his body back down to earth. My brother and I spoke later and discovered we were both watching images from our father’s life flash through our mind, as if the invisible ascension was passing through us as it rose. The images were vivid and quick, one giving way to another and another, a whole life compressed in a quickening kaleidoscope of light and love and loss. How can we even say we belong here? How we can we say this when we’re bound to leave?

***

I got this card not that long after my family moved away from my father. I was eight, in my second full year of collecting. I was in a new place. I wanted to belong. I was drawn to these cards.

The sun is shining on Rusty Staub, on his pale face, on his wavy pale orange hair, on all the colors of his bright uniform, the white and the blue and the hint—as if his personality filtered into the very fabric of the franchise—of orange. This moment of genuine happiness and ease was it, what baseball was for me: fun, sun on my face, some kind of belonging.

***

There were no last words at the bedside; the stroke had taken care of that. The night before the stroke was just a normal night. My mother made my father a meal he liked, and after it he refrained from his usual quick retreat back into his room. My mom finally realized what was going on.

“Are you waiting to hear me rehearse my lecture?” she asked.

He said something to the affirmative.

She had been preparing to teach a course on the history of printmaking and must have mentioned that she wanted to run it by him, just like she’d been running things like that by him for years.

“Oh, I’m too tired,” she said, “let’s just do it tomorrow.”

He probably then said OK and shuffled off to his room.

He was always there to listen, my father. He was there for my mom and for my brother and for me and for his few close friends, all big talkers and dreamers who needed a guy like my dad to listen. So it’s fitting that the last words of a listener were about the act of listening and an implicit affirmation that he would be available another time, any time, forever, to listen.

***

Rusty Staub never stayed in one place for long. A few years in Houston, a few in Montreal, a few in New York, a few in Detroit, back to Montreal for a moment, then Texas for another, then back to New York, to where my father too always returned. But everywhere Rusty Staub went he belonged. Everywhere he went, he emanated openness, friendliness, familiarity, somehow reaching out into the stands and out of a piece of cardboard to make you feel like you belonged.

***

I have always held these baseball cards between myself and death. How could there be death if someone could be a grown-up and play baseball really well and enjoy it like a kid and could also be named Rusty? How could there be death if Rusty, who already seemed like he had been around forever when I first met him in these cards, could outlast my own childhood in the 1970s? How could there be death if Rusty was still somehow miraculously lurking in the dugout into the mid-1980s, still ready to grab a bat and pinch hit. What a beautiful thing it was to see Rusty Staub amble out of the dugout to pinch hit! Who else would you rather see? Who could communicate the core message of this game and this life better than Rusty Staub? The message is not, it turns out, that there’s no death. Life is fleeting, life is suffering, life is to be enjoyed.

***

In the last minutes of my father’s life we were standing around his dying body and talking, my brother and me and my mother, about the restaurants he took my brother and me to on our visits. Mom remembered the “place with the round tables.”

“The Knickerbocker!” I said.

I used to get chicken in a basket at the Knickerbocker. I loved going there with Dad and Ian and getting chicken in the basket. I thought about that as Dad lay there unconscious, struggling for breath. I thought of all the restaurants he took us to in the 1970s and early 1980s. Our lives intersected with Rusty Staub’s for a little while as he went from restaurant to restaurant and we went from restaurant to restaurant. Life is fleeting, life is suffering, life is to be enjoyed. My favorite restaurant that Dad took us to occurred to me, an Italian place on MacDougal with pictures of actors and athletes on the walls. The last words spoken around my dad in his life were a restaurant I’m hoping tonight Rusty Staub, now also gone, enjoyed.

“And Monte’s,” I said.

They had a thing they did at Monte’s: they greeted you as if they knew you. After I left childhood it dawned on me that they couldn’t possibly remember us from one summer to the next, but as a kid I believed it. I believed.

My father took his last breaths as I thought about that place of warmth and happiness and belonging.

3 comments

  1. Just lovely, again. I feel for you.


  2. Great tribute post. Makes me wanna go back and read Cardboard Gods.


  3. Thanks Josh. Took me back to Dec of 1989 and my Dad. God Bless.



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