My father once told me, “You can be a mama’s boy or a daddy’s boy. But you can’t be both.”
So I was a daddy’s boy. I mimicked his walk. I mimicked his deep, smoky laugh. I carried a baseball glove because he loved baseball, and I took every hardball he threw, even the ones that stung my hands so badly I thought I would scream.
When school was out, I would run to his liquor store on Kraft Avenue and stay until dinnertime, playing with empty boxes in the storeroom, waiting for him to finish. We would ride home together in his sky blue Buick sedan, and sometimes we would sit in the driveway as he smoked his Chesterfields and listened to the radio news.
I have a younger sister named Roberta, and back then she wore pink ballerina slippers almost everywhere. When we ate at the local diner, my mother would yank her to the “ladies’” room -- her pink feet sliding across the tile -- while my father took me to the “gents’.” In my young mind I figured this was life’s assignment: me with him, her with her. Ladies’. Gents’. Mama’s. Daddy’s.
A daddy’s boy.
I was a daddy’s boy, and I remained a daddy’s boy right up to a hot, cloudless Saturday morning in the spring of my fifth grade year. We had a doubleheader scheduled that day against the Cardinals, who wore red wool uniforms and were sponsored by Connor’s Plumbing Supply.
The sun was already warming the kitchen when I entered in my long socks, carrying my glove, and saw my mother at the table smoking a cigarette. My mother was a beautiful woman, but she didn’t look beautiful that morning. She bit her lip and looked away from me. I remember the smell of burnt toast and I thought she was upset because she messed up breakfast.
“I’ll eat cereal,” I said.
I took a bowl from the cupboard.
She cleared her throat. “What time is your game, honey?”
“Do you have a cold?” I asked.
She shook her head and put a hand to her cheek. “What time is your game?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged. This was before I wore a watch.
I got the glass bottle of milk and the big box of corn puffs. I poured the corn puffs too fast and some bounced out of the bowl and onto the table. My mother picked them up, one at a time, and put them in her palm.
“I’ll take you,” she whispered. “Whenever it is.”
“Why can’t Daddy take me?” I asked.
“Daddy’s not here.”
“Where is he?”
She didn’t answer.
“When’s he coming back?”
She squeezed the corn puffs and they crumbled into floury dust.
I was a mama’s boy from that day on . . .
Now, when I say I saw my dead mother, I mean just that. I saw her. She was standing by the dugout, wearing a lavender jacket, holding her pocketbook. She didn’t say a word. She just looked at me.
I tried to lift myself in her direction then fell back, a bolt of pain shooting through my muscles. My brain wanted to shout her name, but there was no sound from my throat.
I lowered my head and put my palms together. I pushed hard again, and this time I lifted myself halfway off the ground. I looked up.
She was gone.
I don’t expect you to go with me here. It’s crazy, I know. You don’t see dead people. You don’t get visits. You don’t fall off of a water tower, miraculously alive despite your best attempt to kill yourself, and see your dearly departed mother holding her pocketbook on the third-base line.
I have given it all the thought that you are probably giving it right now; a hallucination, a fantasy, a drunken dream, the mixed-up brain on its mixed-up way. As I say, I don’t expect you to go with me here.
But this is what happened. She had been there. I had seen her. I lay on the field for an indeterminate amount of time, then I rose to my feet and I got myself walking. I brushed the sand and debris from my knees and forearms. I was bleeding from dozens of cuts, most of them small, a few bigger. I could taste blood in my mouth.
I cut across a familiar patch of grass. A morning wind shook the trees and brought a sweep of yellow leaves, like a small, fluttering rainstorm. I had twice failed to kill myself. How pathetic was that?
I headed toward my old house, determined to finish the job . . .
Chick Returns to His Old House
The house was musty, and there was a faint, sweet smell of carpet cleaner, as if someone (the caretaker we paid?) had recently shampooed it. I stepped past the hallway closet and the banister we used to slide down as kids. I entered the kitchen, with its old tile floor and its cherrywood cabinets. I opened the refrigerator because I was looking for something alcoholic; by now this was a reflex with me.
And I stepped back.
There was food inside.
Tupperware. Leftover lasagna. Skim milk. Apple juice. Raspberry yogurt. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if someone had moved in, a squatter of some kind, and this was now his place, the price we paid for ignoring it for so long.
I opened a cabinet. There was Lipton tea and a bottle of Sanka. I opened another cabinet. Sugar. Morton salt. Paprika. Oregano. I saw a dish in the sink, soaking under bubbles. I lifted it and slowly lowered it, as if trying to put it back in place.
And then I heard something.
It came from upstairs.
It was my mother’s voice.
I ran out the kitchen door, my fingers wet with soapy water . . .
What I remember most, hiding on that back porch, is how fast my breath left me. One second I had been at the refrigerator, dragging through the motions, the next second my heart was racing so fast I thought no amount of oxygen could sustain it. I was shaking. The kitchen window was at my back, but I didn’t dare look through it. I had seen my dead mother, and now I had heard her voice. I had broken parts of my body before, but this was the first time I worried I had damaged my mind.
I stood there, my lungs heaving in and out, my eyes locked on the earth in front of me. As kids, we’d called this our “backyard,” but it was just a square of grass. I thought about bounding across it to a neighbor’s house.
And then the door opened.
And my mother stepped outside.
Right there. On that porch.
And she turned to me.
And she said, “What are you doing out here? It’s cold.”
Now, I don't know if I can explain the leap I made. It’s like jumping off the planet. There is everything you know and there is everything that happens. When the two do not line up, you make a choice. I saw my mother, alive, in front of me. I heard her say my name again. “Charley?” She was the only one who ever called me that.
Was I hallucinating? Should I move toward her? Was she like a bubble that would burst? Honestly, at this point, my limbs seemed to belong to someone else.
“Charley? What’s the matter? You’re all cut.”
She was wearing blue slacks and a white sweater now -- she was always dressed, it seemed, no matter how early in the morning -- and she looked to be no older than the last time I had seen her, on her seventy-ninth birthday, wearing these red-rimmed glasses she got as a present. She turned her palms gently upward and she beckoned me with her eyes and, I don’t know, those glasses, her skin, her hair, her opening the back door the way she used to when I threw tennis balls off the roof of our house. Something melted inside of me, as if her face gave off heat. It went down my back. It went to my ankles. And then something broke, I almost heard the snap, the barrier between belief and disbelief.
I gave in.
Off the planet.
“Charley?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
I did what you would have done.
I hugged my mother as if I’d never let her go.
Copyright © 2006 Mitch Albom. Excerpted from For One More Day by Mitch Albom. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.