How I Lost Catcher

By Christen Gresham

Image Courtesy of smussyolay (flickr.com)

I saw Catcher’s parents at Taco Bell last night. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them there, because in my town, every Baptist goes to Taco Bell after Wednesday night church. My family and Catcher’s family were no exception.  Only this time it felt different, because I didn’t know what to say to Catcher’s parents, because for the first time, Catcher wasn’t there.  What was I supposed to say, “I’m sorry your son died. Enjoy your tacos?”

So I didn’t say anything, and I felt like jerk.  Instead, I studied their faces, searching for anything that would mean things were all right.  But they were actually chewing their tacos sadly. You can chew food sadly, like the food tastes like melancholy.  I know because I’ve done it a lot since I got the news three days ago. It’s forced and sometimes you can’t even swallow before you start to cry. But the difference between my chewing and their chewing was that Catcher’s presence had made an impression on my life, whereas Catcher was their life. They couldn’t be expected to get over a loss like that in three days.

Plain and simple: Their son was gone and things were not going to be okay.

There was no one to blame for what happened to Catcher. He got sick with a brain tumor just before we finished high school, and for the past two and a half years he’d told everyone he was getting better.  Then one day last week he had a bad headache and few hours later he was in a coma. The next morning he was gone. No car crashes, no broken beer bottles, no water-filled lungs—other ways teenagers usually go. Instead there was an overwhelming sense of over-ness. Like when you don’t realize you’ve reached the end of a book, and you turn the page only to find there’s nothing but blankness.

You know the way people talk about how they would have done things differently with a person if they had known he was going to die? I wish I could say I would have treated Catcher differently. But I know things couldn’t have been different, because I know me. I couldn’t even talk to his parents at the damn Taco Bell.

Because Catcher and I graduated a couple of years ago and we both headed to different colleges, most of my memories of Catcher before he died are from middle and high school. Ever since I got the news, I can’t stop thinking about my first memory of Catcher. Actually, it’s everyone else’s first memory of me and Catcher, which I discovered when I was talking to a friend of mine, Kelly Matthews.

In high school, she said to me, “Of course you aren’t going to invite Catcher to your party. You hate him. I know you can’t stand him.”

I was genuinely shocked by this evaluation. “What? What are you talking about?” I asked.

Dora Mayhew piped in, “Come on. Christen? Don’t tell me you don’t remember the time you screamed your head off at him on the seventh grade bus trip?”

I remember standing there in awe as Dora recounted a story that was so hazy in my memory I doubted it could be real, but when she described it in such detail I felt it had to be true: “Yeah, I’ve never seen you yell at someone like that when Catcher stole that Happy Meal key chain from you.”

Image Courtesy of Eric E. Johnson (flickr.com)

“The whole bus was terrified,” Kelly added.

Everyone remembered the seventh grade bus trip, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t help wondering if Catcher remembered it too.

Now that Catcher is gone I’d much rather remember the 10th grade bus trip to Ashville, North Carolina. It was early in the morning and everyone was tired and hungry. From his seat in the first row e, Catcher reached into the front of the bus, grabbed a huge bag of SunChips and started chowing down. I looked at him from the third row seat like he was crazy and he looked  back at me like I was crazy. After a long, silent stare down, he said, “What? It’s whole grain,”  and explained that cereal was also whole grain, so SunChips were therefore the same thing, only salty . He moved to the second row bench, offered me some chips, and we sat there across from each other, both of us leaning over the back of the seat, our arms almost touching, as we shared the bag of chips. Ever since that day, I can’t eat SunChips without thinking about Catcher. Later on that same trip, someone had put in the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. When my favorite song came on, I belted out the words, “Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime…” When the song was over I told the bus that I wanted it sung at my wedding and Catcher grabbed my shoulder, “No,” he said, his mouth twitching mischievously, “I’m having it sung at my wedding.”

“NO. I’M HAVING IT SUNG AT MY WEDDING.” I argued.

“I suppose we’re just going to have to get married, then,” Catcher smiled deviously with his charmingly crooked smile.

Right there my heart skipped a beat. I remember it so clearly, because I shrugged it off quickly, because I didn’t want to become one of those ridiculous girls who were infatuated with Catcher. But you need to know that marrying Catcher wouldn’t have been so bad; with a Snyder’s pretzel engagement ring, I would have married him right then and there. The sad part is that everyone thought I hated him. I never did, I just didn’t want to be another face among the masses, another unread fan letter.  So I chose to be the one who was openly “not –in- love” with Catcher.

It wasn’t until Catcher was first diagnosed with cancer and underwent an operation to remove the cancer tissue that I knew I had to do something, something to let him know that I cared, something to say I was sorry I had screamed at him over a stupid Happy Meal key ring on the seventh grade bus trip.

Typical, you must be thinking. “Friends” always come out of the woodwork when someone gets sick. If I hadn’t been myself, I would have called myself a hypocrite.

Oh, he has cancer now and suddenly you care.

No, I had always cared. I just had never known how to say it in an original way, because I didn’t want to be like Kelly Matthews or Dora Mayhew who had been in love with him since time began or fifth grade, who quit being friends because Kelly beat Dora in asking Catcher to prom.

You see, around the time that everyone was falling in love with Catcher and fighting over who would take him to prom, I was struggling with the idea of originality. My feelings weren’t valid, my likes and dislikes weren’t good enough unless they were too obscure to be popular. Catcher = popular. I loathed myself for loving him.

Image Courtesy of Lee McCoy (flickr.com)

So I did what any self- respecting self- loather would do. I spent all my allowance and painstakingly baked homemade brownies. We’re talking I melted the butter and Ghirardelli 65% cacao five dollar bar of chocolate over the stove and everything. I folded in the eggs. This was no Betty Crocker cop out. I was channeling Martha effing Stewart.

I didn’t stop there; I even cut out letters to a message reading “Feel Better Catcher” and attached each letter to a brownie with a toothpick.

When I showed up at Catcher’s house with the brownies, his parents were sitting on the couch watching TV. It was embarrassing how shocked they were to see me. As they led me to an armchair in the family room, I knew they were wondering if I actually thought brownies were going to make their son feel better. I sat down and they politely told me that they weren’t sure if Catcher was feeling well enough to come say hi.  But after a short wait, Catcher came out to say hi. He even managed a snarky comment, but I can’t remember what it was. I don’t remember what I said either, but I’ll never forget that there wasn’t much to say.

A few days later, Kelly Matthews told me that Catcher had talked about my brownies, “He said they were the best brownies he had ever eaten.”  I didn’t tell Kelly, but I wished I had labeled the Tupperware with 100%realbrowniesnoneofthosecheapocrockerbagmixesthatyougetatwalmarttheseweremadewithbloodandsweatandarealmarthastewartrecipebeacausei’minlovewithyou.

I wanted the brownies to mean more to Catcher than a friendly gesture or a feat of culinary genius. After eating the brownies he was supposed to chase me down the driveway, take me in his arms, dip me, and whisper in my ear what I’d been too afraid to say, you mean more to me than you realize. I wanted him to explain that there had been a huge misunderstanding—his heart was mine and now we could make delicious baked goods together.  You see, the brownies meant something big to me, though they didn’t successfully communicate the depth of my feelings, nor did they achieve the outcome I had hoped. I think they made an impression at least.

Most of my memories of Catcher  are from bus trips. I don’t know why, I suppose my school took a lot of fieldtrips. On another bus trip, Catcher proposed again.

Kelly Matthews, Catcher, and I were sharing the front row while discussing our love for Liam Neeson, when I announced to the bus, “I’m going to name my son Liam.”

“No you’re not, that’s what I’m going to name my son.” Catcher replied sternly, as Kelly Matthews seethed with jealousy in the seat next to us.

Catcher looked at me, then said decidedly, “I guess we’ll have to get married then,” and turned his attention to the highway ahead of us.

Of course I never told Catcher how I really felt and I suppose no one ever expected me to. Maybe it will be freeing in the long run. No one will pat me consolingly on the shoulder. No one will pray for me when they pray for all the ones who lost Catcher. Heck, no one will expect me to attend the funeral tomorrow.

The thing about Catcher is that he wasn’t all that attractive; he was a bit pudgy before he got sick and his face was scarred by acne. His personality made up for everything.  After the brownies and throughout the rest of high school, I saw Catcher here and there at social events. His hair was gone, replaced with a “there’s a story”/“I’m secretly an X-man” sort of scar extending from the top of his head to below his left ear. He had become tired and skeletal, not at all like he had been at Kelly Matthew’s 16th birthday two years before, when he had looked truly dapper, when he was completely fabulous in a black suit and fedora.

Kelly’s birthday party was the first time I felt pretty. In honor of the formal event, I put on real makeup for the first time and donned a padded bra to hold up my strapless blue evening gown. I knew I was pretty because I felt pretty that night. Maybe I was exuding magic or something, but all the boys I had ever wanted to notice me, noticed me when we started posing for pictures.

Camera flashes went off in all directions as I smiled my self-conscious closed lipped smile to cover by braces, when suddenly I was enveloped from behind. It was Catcher. Flushed as I was, I went with it, continuing to pose and smile. Catcher feigned a serious male model expression, but I could do nothing but smile, showing the world all my orthodontic works in progress. I didn’t care because I was in Catcher’s arms for the first and last time.

Dora Mayhew showed me the picture later, and to this day, I’m convinced that it’s the most genuine smile ever captured, the most real smile I’ve ever smiled.

About a week ago, I got a message from Catcher asking how I was. We talked for a while. It was nice, but it was so unexpected that it was random, like my brownie delivery must have felt years before.  During our brief conversation, he accused me of “violating the friendship rules,” claiming that he hadn’t seen me in years. This was gross hyperbole, but it felt true. We talked about what was going on in our lives. I confessed that I had become a school-a-holic, diving into my studies with almost obsessive devotion. He on other hand had his mind on family and relationships and was looking forward to going on a road trip with friends. I judged him then, but I would later discover that Catcher had majored in the things that would matter so much more if he died. It didn’t occur to me at the time of our conversation, but I think Catcher was tying up his loose ends. I was a tiny insignificant detail in the scheme of his full life and somehow I still mattered.

Image Courtesy of Drew Evans (flickr.com)

A couple days later I got a text from Kelly, Catcher’s gone.

In the moment it took for me to open that text message, all my last chances were spent. As I read the details surrounding Catcher’s death, I knew that Catcher and I would never catch up; we would never become pals like I wanted us to be. Instead we were reduced to random acts of friendship, bus trips and birthday snapshots.

Maybe I’ve written everything down– years later—for some kind of closure, because I never went to the funeral; I couldn’t bear to watch people like Kelly Matthews and Dora Mayhew who had played such large roles in Catcher’s life, who would have a lifetime of memories that would keep them awake at night with damp eyes for years to come. And what role had I played? Bus Friend #2?

I’m still trying to understand why he had to go away before I got the chance to tell him how I really felt. I don’t know where Catcher and I fit into the grand scheme of things. But I do know this: Catcher showed me that even the smallest fragments of a life matter—that he mattered.  Then again, how do you make sense of a short life like Catcher’s?  A life I had so little to do with, but still changed everything.

 

Christen Gresham was born in Clovis, New Mexico, and never stopped moving.  Since then, she has lived near Bitburg, Germany; Macon, Georgia; and most recently, Savannah, Georgia, where she studied Dramatic Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design.  Having grown up with a passion for creating stories, Christen primarily writes fiction, plays, and screenplays.  Now that she is a grown up, Christen still prefers young adult novels over grown up books and will probably write a novel for young adults one day.  “How I Lost Catcher” is her first time writing in the nonfiction genre.

 

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4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Katie Hoover says:

    poignant
    gripping my heart today, friend

  2. Kay Foley says:

    Simply magnificent.

  3. begina says:

    oH my gosh.
    This is so easy to relate to. Love it.

  4. Stephanie says:

    This is lovely. I could totally see this as a ya novel. And I’d read the crap out of it.

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