I see the world in stories. Always looking for the next plot that moves me. Always looking for the next thing that can take me on a journey and mold me.
But sometimes a story isn’t in some far-off place, like hidden treasure for me to find, but is rather right beneath my feet—something that simply needs to be uncovered, exactly where I stand. That’s what this story is. It has to do with two things: my family and the Chicago Cubs. And it is a story that has indeed both moved me and molded me.
It begins with my grandfather, Jim Copeland, my dad’s father. I never really knew my grandfather. He died when I was four or something. But I grew up hearing stories about him. Lots of stories. First off, he played basketball at Indiana University, a sort of medal of honor in my basketball-obsessed, Hoosier family, which gave me hopes that I could perhaps do the same one day, which I did not, though I did win an intramural championship in 2009 at a small NAIA school, the highlight of my basketball career, which none of my children or grandchildren will talk about or blog about, which is fine I guess, because I know that I’ll ultimately go down as a winner, an intramural champion, a hero. Anyway, I’m told that my grandfather, who everyone called “Sleepyhead” (I suppose because he liked to sleep), was a real character and somewhat of an anomaly. In some senses, it seemed like he was rigid and impersonal, a man who had some dark struggles with alcohol which often revealed itself in anger. Outweighing Sleepyhead’s ghosts and flaws, however, was his generosity and caring heart. My dad says that he remembers, on multiple occasions, seeing his father slip a $20 bill to a homeless person or someone who was in need. Dad says that Sleepyhead was always giving of himself to others. Though Sleepyhead might have had some personal demons (who doesn’t?), his life seemed to be marked by overflowing kindness and generosity. The epitome of this kindheartedness was when he welcomed two young boys, John and Phil, into his and Mamaw’s tiny, 1,300-square-foot house (even though he and my grandmother had two teenage children already) and eventually convinced Mamaw that they should adopt them and support them. She agreed, and John and Phil became part of the Copeland family.
John and Phil were the sons of Sleepyhead’s best friend, Art Talley, who died of colon cancer when they were in junior high and high school. Sleepyhead (third from the left in the picture above) and Art (second from the right) had gone to Elwood Junior-Senior High School together, played recreational basketball together post-high school, and had even gone to Wrigley Field together for the 1945 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. Which brings me to now: the Chicago Cubs being back in the World Series for the first time since 1945, since Jim “Sleepyhead” Copeland and Art Talley went together.
When the Cubs assembled the best record in baseball this year, my dad and uncles decided that if the Cubs met expectations and went on to make the World Series, they would go to Chicago for the game, just as their fathers had done a lifetime before, a tradition that apparently takes place every 71 years. My dad and my Uncle John, being the geniuses they are, under the direction of my mom, being the genius she is, booked three full weeks of hotel rooms in Chicago months in advance, just in case the Cubs went to the World Series—an especially optimistic move for a Cubs fan, by the way—then proceeded to gradually cancel the hotel rooms as the playoffs unfolded until they had the right weekend booked.
My sister and I (who both live in North Carolina) and my uncles’ biological nephew (who lives in Peoria, Illinois) also decided to go. All in all, we had the second and third generation of Copeland and Talleys going to Chicago to honor the first generation—two best friends from two different families who connected us all, who gave my dad two brothers and two best friends, who gave me two uncles who have inspired me and impacted me profoundly throughout my life.
Though I’ve always known this beautiful story about my dad and his adopted brothers, it became especially tangible this past weekend when we journeyed to Wrigleyville together to watch Game 4 of the World Series. Sometimes it takes something miraculous—something like the Cubs going to the World Series, which is, on average, once in a lifetime—to help you see that much of life is just as miraculous, full of magic, drenched in the divine, coated in heaven.
As we walked through Wrigleyville on Saturday morning, past iconic bars like the Cubby Bear and Sports Corner and Murphy’s, which already had lines stretching down those narrow, neighborhood streets, and took pictures of my dad and uncles next to the Harry Caray statue outside Wrigley with their homemade signs featuring some of Caray’s famous quotes, the buzz in the air seemed to match the excitement in my soul. As a Cubs fan, I was in awe of the atmosphere; but as a son and a nephew, I was also in awe of the story of my dad and my uncles; and as a son of the divine, I could not help but wonder if there were cosmic forces at play in the mystery of my uncles’ adoption. In some ways, it felt like we were on some sort of religious pilgrimage, retracing their origins, the friendship and memories of their fathers.
But strangely, it was also the suffering—the complexities of the human experience—that made our being in Wrigleyville special.
On the sports end, Cubs fans had long waited for a moment like this to come, often haunted by the curse of time—the fact that they had not been to the World Series in 71 years and had not won a World Series in 108 years; but that’s precisely what made the energy in Wrigleyville all the more surreal—the soulful groaning of Cubs fans...the wait...the fact that they had emerged from the drought.
And it was suffering—a tragic death—that ultimately brought my dad and the Talley brothers together to create a beautiful story. It was the incomprehensible passing of a loved one that made them brothers. And now it’s their brotherhood that brings them comfort and hope and a sense of belonging in all of life’s struggles—through the tragic passing of my Uncle John’s wife a few years ago, through my Uncle Phil’s heart attack last year and his major heart surgery this year, and through my Dad’s current battle with CIDP, a rare neurological disorder having to do with the deterioration of nerves. They have each other’s backs, just as Sleepyhead and Art had one another’s.
That night in Wrigleyville, on a Saturday in late October, we sat outside at a bar across from Wrigley Field, with its gigantic, red, old-fashioned sign glowing behind us, the same field that Sleepyhead and Art had gone to for the World Series in October of 1945. And in some senses, it was as if we had become eternal beings who had temporarily risen above the finite construct of time, carrying with us those who had gone before us, making a memory that they too had made, celebrating the magic that is found in both the brokenness and joys of sports and in families and in life, allowing the miracles of the past to propel us into the mystery of the now.
We sat there as Copelands...as Talleys...as Cubs fans.
Just like Sleepyhead and Art.
By Stephen Copeland
This blog was first published on copelandwrites.com.