As a child I admired my grandfather deeply. A smart, respected computer department manager in a local company, he was well-liked, not just around town but also by strangers he’d meet in his travels. He didn’t go to college but, as a soldier in World War II, he’d certainly seen the world – both its good and bad sides. And somehow, despite all of the “bad” that he’d seen, Bill McGee was always quick with a joke, a shoulder to lean on, and advice he’d dispense in an effort to be helpful. I’d sit at his feet and watch while he played his organ in the den, or sit by his side when, with a beer in his hand and an iced tea in mine, we’d pick out shapes and figures in the clouds and plan the future. In my humble opinion Grandpa was a success in every way; he was accomplished in business, traveled occasionally with my grandmother, laughed with friends and was loved by his family. What I didn’t know until I was an adult, though, was that my grandfather’s present was never the future he’d planned on in his youth.
It turns out that my grandfather was a talented ball player back in the day – so talented that he was gaining attention and consideration for a career in minor league baseball as a young man. He was thrilled. He was on top of his game. He was ready to go if called. And that’s when tragedy struck. His father, who I’m told was a very austere man, suddenly passed away, leaving a wife and two sons behind. Faced with unexpected responsibility, my grandfather was forced to abandon his dreams in favor of working full-time and helping to support his mother’s household. That certainly left no time for games like baseball.
For me, the most amazing part of this story is the realization that my grandfather never complained about his missed opportunity. He never acted as though he belonged anywhere but right where he was, with his family, and he always made us feel we were the most important things in his life. His sacrifice made a huge difference in so many lives that came after his. It was because of my grandfather that his younger brother was able to finish high school, establish himself in a career, and build a family of four children that gave him five grandchildren. His choice allowed my great-grandmother to take in foster children whose lives she helped establish. My grandfather’s fate caused him to meet and marry my grandmother, who had two children that gave them four grandchildren. In true “George Bailey” style, a man who never got to pursue his dreams ended up being the source of so much that was good in the world.
Bill McGee never became famous, but he became respected and revered by lots of people who knew him. He never heard the roar of a packed stadium, but he heard the uncontrollable laughter of his family every summer when they used the backyard and pool that he meticulously set up and took down annually. He didn’t thrill New York crowds with home runs, but he mesmerized grandchildren who really believed he could perform magic. And he saw more of the world through his travels, learned about topics that interested him, laughed deeply, was thoroughly loved and, yes, still played ball – not professionally but locally, with teammates who loved his company. People still talk about what a great athlete he was today.
My grandfather used to say that life is like a book with empty chapters that we fill up ourselves. “Reaching the end of a chapter,” he would say, “just means that it’s time to start the next one.” If life truly is an open book, I think it’s our obligation to keep moving forward with optimism and faith that, even when things haven’t turned out the way we’d hoped, we can still create a story we can be proud of, that brings us joy and allows us to make a difference. We can even find people to love who will love us in return. It’s hard to let go when we’ve been disappointed by what failed or never came to be, but as we write the chapters of our lives it’s important to remember what Alice Sebold once said: “Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had.”