November 2008

Tribute to Benjamin Molina, my father

It has been a month since my father died. It doesn’t seem that long. Time seems to be standing still, as if I’m in a movie where everything is out of sequence and I can’t quite get my bearings. When the phone rings in my home in Yuma, I still think it might be Pai, even though I saw with my own eyes his coffin being lowered into the ground.

He was only 58 years old.

It happened on an overcast Saturday in October. Pai was across the street from my parents’ house in Puerto Rico, at the baseball field he built for the community’s children. He spent most of his days at that field. He groomed the mound. He raked the infield dirt. He made sure the grass was thick and green and cut. Every kid and parent in town knew my father. He loved baseball, and he made everyone around him love baseball.

On that Saturday, he looked up at the darkening sky and said a little prayer that the rain would hold off long enough to let the kids play their second game of the day.

I was at Legoland in Southern California with Jamie and my two daughters. The girls had been begging me to take them to Legoland. We drove from Yuma to San Diego on Friday, and the girls could barely sleep they were so excited to get to the park the next day. When we woke up in the hotel room on Saturday morning, I told the girls, “This is going to be the best day ever.”

It definitely started out that way. The girls drove the toy cars and got their “drivers’ licenses.” We had a great lunch. We were standing in line for more rides when I received the first of five phone calls.

“Your dad fell down and hit his head,” my cousin, Ramirito said. He sounded flustered and quickly ended the call.

“Something’s going on,” I told Jamie.

Then another cousin called.

“Your dad’s fine,” he said. “Don’t worry. The doctors are dealing with him.”

Then my brother Yadier called from Puerto Rico. Yadier and his wife, Wanda, just had their first baby, Yanuell. Yadier told me later that Pai had visited with Yadier and their 5-week-old boy that morning. Yadier said Pai blessed and kissed and cuddled the newborn. “I love you so much,” Yadier said to my father. “I love you, too,” my father said, holding Yadier tight in his big arms.

Now, on the phone with me, Yadier was crying and couldn’t talk. He handed the phone to my dad’s best friend, Vitin.

“You better make arrangements to come to Puerto Rico,” Vitin said. “Your dad’s hurting pretty bad.”

I was on the phone when I grabbed Jamie’s hand so tight, she knew something terrible was happening.  She then grabbed the girls’ hands and helped them get out of line, while I was listening to my worst nightmare unfold before me, and I said, “Let’s go. We got to go.” I wanted to run all the way to Puerto Rico as fast as I could.

As we headed for the exit, my brother Jose’s wife, Yalicia, called from New York. Jose was in New York for laser eye surgery.

“Your dad’s not doing so good,” she said. “I’ll call you back.”

That’s when I knew something really bad was happening.

When Jose’s wife called again, I could hear Jose in the background crying out loud.

“Yalicia,” I said, almost shouting into the phone, “what’s going on? Just say it!”

She was crying, too.

“Your dad just passed away.”

I walked away from Jamie and my daughters and started to cry. How could this be? We had just seen him and my mom three weeks earlier. They were in St. Louis visiting Yadier, and they decided at the last minute to meet up with Jamie and me in San Diego, then accompany us to Arizona, where we were playing the Diamondbacks. They also got to surprise my girls, who spent the weekend with me in San Diego. When it was time to leave, I bought them first-class tickets back to Puerto Rico. At the airport, I hugged my father hard.

“I love you so much, Pai,” I said, and I asked him to bless me.

“God bless you, Mijo,” he said.

Outside Legoland, as we waited for the shuttle back to the hotel, I called relatives in Puerto Rico to find out what happened.

They told me my father had spent most of the day walking back and forth across the street from the field to his house. He had watched one baseball game already and was hoping to get the second game in before the rain. He had put on a pot of chicken soup and had iced several six-packs of Coors Light for friends who were going to stop by later that afternoon. He was feeling good — he climbed a tree in the backyard to get grapefruit for a special drink he liked to make. Then he returned to the field with new baseballs for the second game. A worker, Gallo, was fixing home plate, and my father offered to take over.

“You fixed the whole field,” Gallo said. “Let me do this little part.”

As my father walked off the field, he suddenly grabbed his chest. His knees buckled. He struggled to breathe. He fell to the ground. Everyone at the field rushed to his side, yelling and gasping. Someone called 911. My mother rushed out of the house to see what the commotion was about. The ambulance still hadn’t arrived. So Joaquinito (a good friend and a coach for my dad’s team) pulled his truck up to the field, and Luis Figueroa — the former Giants infielder who was visiting his sister next door to my parents’ house — lifted my father into the truck’s cab.

“Keep fighting!” Luis shouted at him. “You’re going to make it.”

As the truck sped to the hospital, Luis heard what he described as “a little snap.” And my father’s heart stopped.

The doctors in the emergency tried to revive him. “Keep going!” Yadier urged them. But it soon became clear there was nothing more anyone could do. Yadier punched the wall. He kicked over a chair. Several people guided him out of the room.

Outside, in the waiting room and spilling out to the parking lot, hundreds of people had gathered. Word had spread instantaneously. More people kept showing up. None of us knew how beloved my father truly was.

Meanwhile, in California, I made arrangements for a private plane to fly me to Puerto Rico on Saturday night. I arrived Sunday morning. The next few days still seem like a dream.

A large white tent was erected in the little street between my parents’ house and the ball field my father built. The street was shut down to traffic. Enormous arrangements of flowers — dozens of them — stood behind my father’s casket. Thousands of people streamed into the tent for two days and a night to pay their respects. At night, there was a group of people singing the songs he loved. You could hear the music throughout the town. A lot of baseball players showed up — Jose Rosado, Luis Figueroa, Pedro Feliciano, Juan Gonzalez, my dad’s cousin, Carmelo Martinez, Jose Valentin, Jose Hernandez and many of his former Puerto Rican teammates and Hall of Famers.

Pai had only three sons, but he had many, many stepsons.

I didn’t leave my father’s side. Jamie and I sat in the tent by his casket all through the night. I talked to him. I told him that everything I am today is because of him. I thanked him for being a great man. I told him not to worry about his sisters and brothers — they had little money and my father always feared for their well-being. I said I would take care of them. I told him good-bye.

Then his casket was carried from the tent and onto the field — to first base, second, third, home and finally to the pitcher’s mound. Each of us three sons was presented with a base and my mother was given home plate. At each base, the townspeople in the stands gave my father a standing ovation. I wore a baseball cap low on my forehead. I could barely speak a word to anyone, I was so devastated. I lifted my head only when I needed to greet a new visitor.

Then there was a procession through the town. My family and I walked behind the car carrying Pai’s body. People emerged from their homes, clapping and
crying. The freeway to the cemetery was closed on one side, and people got out of their cars to show their respect. We could barely get through the entrance to the cemetery because there were so many people.

We knew Pai was loved, but we truly had no idea how much. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

My mom was strong throughout the whole ordeal. She is stronger than everybody. I think she cries at night when she’s by herself, but she never shows that she is hurting. That’s how she’s always been.

Now that I’m back in Yuma, I talk to her two or three times a day. My Titi Rosalia and Titi Charo are spending nights with her. And Yadier and Jose are there.

I think I’m still in shock. It’s been a month, but I still feel like there are bricks in my heart. I keep thinking that somehow he knew he was leaving us and that’s why he decided at the last minute to fly to San Diego and Arizona in September to see me and the girls — and finally meet Jamie for the first time. And that’s why he hugged Yadier so tightly just hours before he died.

I’m not a poet, but I was so overwhelmed by my emotions that I wrote a poem. It’s too long to reprint here, but I’ll share a little bit.

You’re my inspiration,
My hero forever.
Thank you for loving me
more now than ever.

You’re who I am today
You made me in soul.
Now it’s my turn
to love ’til I’m old.

Rest in peace, Pai. I love you.