The next time someone tries to say that sports is frivolous, that grown-ups playing games is a waste of time and brainpower, tell them about my son’s four-day stint in the hospital.
Tell them about my time in the family lounge at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical Center where, thanks to the likes of Wayne Rooney, Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant, complete strangers started talking and eventually became friends.
My 1-year-old son contracted a bacterial infection in his right eye that sparked memories of Tony Conigliaro after a fateful fastball met his face instead of his bat. By Day 3 the doctors were still seeking an effective antibiotic and talking about sedation, orbital CT scans and worst-case scenarios.
Scared and helpless. I was hardly alone, though. You’re never alone in the pediatric wing, not even in the middle of the night when there’s always at least one anxious parent seeking just a moment’s respite in the lounge.
The flat-panel television was always on and tuned to one sporting event or another. There was no shortage of events from which to choose, no matter the hour. There was World Cup soccer, of course. Yankees and Mets baseball, too. And the Los Angeles Lakers were playing the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association Finals. Morning. Afternoon. Night.
At first, watching the games and highlight shows served as nothing more than a momentary distraction from frayed nerves, screaming babies and those incessantly beeping monitors. In hindsight, though, those games meant much more.
Seemingly inane conversation became a launching point for catharsis and, in some cases, friendship. The games were a conduit to shared feelings and fears.
Take the Orthodox Jewish man from Brooklyn whose 2-year-old son was born with his stomach attached to his trachea instead of his esophagus.
We started out talking about baseball. The father didn’t know that Mets first baseman Ike Davis was Jewish. For the first time in days he laughed. It’s hard to find good humor when your son is back, yet again, for another procedure to widen his esophagus. Soon, the doctors say, the boy won’t be limited to pureed food. Not soon enough.
One of the hospital’s maintenance men, a burly guy with a brown-bag dinner, found me in the lounge one morning around 3 a.m. We talked about basketball. He liked the Lakers. Liked Kobe Bryant. Figured he’d get another title. He was right.
Taking a Break
He, too, sought solace, and not just sustenance, in the lounge. He needed a physical break, yes, but a mental one, too, he confided.
Part of his job is changing the garbage bags in the patients’ rooms. He tries not to look, but he sees. Sees too much. Sees all those kids, all those tubes, all those machines. Thinks about his own children. Sometimes he cries. From that moment I put our garbage bag just inside the door each night (nurses didn’t want the garbage left in the hallway).
The janitor liked basketball, too. He fancied the Celtics. He took time out of his duties every morning to watch my son pound on the keys of a tiny piano, clapping, encouraging and managing to elicit a smile. He asked for a concert every time. My little guy was more than happy to oblige.
There was the Greek grandfather who spoke not a word of English. Lucky for us there was a soccer game on television. No words needed. Grunts and gesticulations were enough. Before long the man worrying about his own granddaughter’s health was holding my son’s hands, helping him to walk across the room. Laughter doesn’t need a translator.
You Gotta Believe
There was the Spanish-speaking woman whose 6-month-old grandson had already endured two heart surgeries. A late-developing cough derailed plans for yet another. She was watching soccer, too. My Spanish came in handy, first to discuss the Mexican team and then her grandson’s condition. We offered to help each other in any way possible. She said she was praying for my son. I believe she did.
Then there was the father who didn’t like sports. His indifference got us talking about his interests, including the theater. I’ll always remember the sight of his little girl running the hallways, dad trailing closely with the intravenous drip pole shouting for her to slow down, especially around blind corners.
Turns out his daughter, who was being treated for a post-appendectomy fever, and my son were released from the hospital within minutes of each other.
While saying our goodbyes the father said he would sample the World Cup. He’d heard quite a few people talking about it in the lounge.
Remember those angst-filled strangers fast becoming friends the next time someone says sports is frivolous.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)