Still in the game

A Game of Healing

Still in the game

Still in the game

Published on April 18, 2015

The Orioles were a shared love of Ben Barlow and his late wife Monica. Staying involved with the team helps him cope with her loss. 

BALTIMORE — Ben Barlow likens the baseball season to a metronome. It keeps perfect time — tick, tick, tick — and never stops. It’s ever-present and gives you something to plan not just your evenings by, but vacations, celebrations, entire lives.

Above: Ben Barlow stays close to his late wife, former Orioles public relations director Monica Barlow, by staying in touch with Orioles baseball. 'You either just adjust to your new normal or you don’t,' he said.

“It just stays there. No matter whether things are going well or going poorly, the season’s just rolling along,” the 39-year old attorney said.

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Barlow’s wife, Monica, worked for the Baltimore Orioles for 14 years, in charge of media and public relations. That meant Barlow spent much of his marriage at the ballpark or on the road with the team, waiting for a game to end or for another start, their daily lives generally at the mercy of the mechanizations of a baseball organization. So when Monica died last year at just 36, he lost his center and his entire universe was thrown off its axis.

He remembers some sympathetic soul telling him in the days after Monica died, “Can you even imagine being at the ballpark on opening day?” As in, Could he even consider exposing himself to all the searing reminders of everything that he’d lost?

Barlow didn’t have to think about the question too long.

“I can’t imagine not being at the ballpark,” he said.

Monica and Ben Barlow share a moment during an Orioles game at Camden Yards in 2009. “If I was going to see her during the baseball season, I’d better be at the game,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Ben Barlow)

Baseball, it turned out, helped Barlow grieve, a guide through a dark tunnel. It both reminded him of Monica and at times distracted him from the pain. It evoked pleasant memories and provided a caring community of support.

“One of the things we need when we grieve is a community of support. Many people struggle to find that, but sports can be that community,” said Glenn Crichton, a grief counselor and co-author of the book “Blindsided: A Game Plan for Grief.”

Sports helps explain relationships. It connects generations, spouses, friends, parents and children. It becomes an expression of love and later a channel for grief. People etch team logos on headstones and sprinkle ashes on sports fields. For someone grieving a loss, a trip to the ballpark might offer a respite, a chance to escape their pain. For others, it’s a time to embrace their loss and feel closer to a loved one. For Barlow, it was everything. Baseball had dictated his routine for so long. Monica was gone, but the game would continue.

“The grinding schedule, maybe I sometimes resented in the past, what it took away from Monica and me,” Barlow said. “Over the last year, it really has become reassuring, that you have sort of a constant.”

Ben Barlow and Monica Pence took a honeymoon cruise after they were married in October 2008. (Photo courtesy of Ben Barlow)

‘We just clicked on everything’

Barlow and Monica grew up Orioles fans. He’s from a small town called Montezuma, Va., just south of Harrisonburg, where he played pick-up games on an old horse pasture. His family didn’t have cable TV, but he watched the Orioles on weekends or listened on the radio. A white pennant with orange trim hung in his room.

He didn’t know at the time, but Monica Pence lived just 10 miles away, on the opposite side of Interstate 81 in a town called Port Republic. She was a part of the same church denomination — Church of the Brethren — and also loved baseball. She had a Brady Anderson poster on her bedroom wall.

Barlow often jokes that their relationship was about as close as anyone around there gets to an arranged marriage. Both families have lived in the area for generations, and their parents were friendly, eventually urging their single children to get together. In 2005, Barlow finally emailed Monica, and they agreed to meet on her off-day when she was back home for a high school reunion. They ate at an Outback Steakhouse, saw a movie and shared ice cream.

“We just clicked on everything,” he recalls.

A year later, Barlow moved from Harrisonburg to Columbia — closer to Monica, which also meant closer to baseball. In December 2007, the couple returned to Virginia for the holidays. They walked up a beloved hill on her parents’ farm. Barlow handed her a bag he filled with print-outs of all the e-mails they shared in their first year of dating, plus a trio of gift cards to re-create their first date. Then he gave her a ring. The two were married in 2008, just a couple of weeks after the baseball season ended.

“Oh yeah,” said Jonah Pence, Monica’s younger brother, “they definitely were meant to be. You could just tell. It was obvious.”

Monica’s job required long days and nights at the ballpark with a grueling travel schedule. At home games, Monica worked from the press box, and Barlow would try to get to Camden Yards as often as possible. “If I was going to see her during the baseball season, I’d better be at the game,” he said.

He usually watched from the stands with other fans, and around the fourth inning or so, when the nearby sportswriters were on their second hot dog and 20th tweet of the night, Monica would leave the press box to join her husband. They’d get three innings or so together — their chance to catch up on the day — before Monica had to return to work.

Barlow attended about 60 home games, maybe 8-10 more during spring training and a handful of road games each year. Any summer trips had to coincide with the Orioles travel plans, which meant the Barlows did an underground tour in Seattle during a Mariners series, a wine tour when the Orioles played at Oakland and visited museums on their many trips to New York.

The Orioles weren’t always the front-runners they are today, which means Barlow suffered through a lot of bad baseball just to get those three innings each night with his wife. There was once a 30-3 loss, several doubleheader drubbings and so many forgettable weeknight summer games, many long evenings in which Barlow had nearly an entire section to himself.

He saved all those ticket stubs — “it’d drive Monica nuts,” he said — mementos of their time together.

Monica Barlow, center, cuts a ribbon where she was the featured speaker at the Lungevity Breathe Deep walk in Washington on Nov. 22, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Ben Barlow)

A sharp, sudden turn

On the night they were engaged in December 2007, Ben Barlow handed Monica Pence a bag he filled with print-outs of all the emails they shared in their first year of dating, plus a trio of gift cards to re-create their first date. (Photo courtesy of Ben Barlow)

They’d been married less than a year when Monica developed a nagging cough midway through the 2009 season. It wouldn’t go away, and Barlow kept urging her to visit a doctor. She did, mostly to humor her husband. In the weeks that followed, there’d by more coughing, more doctors and many tests. On Sept. 11, 2009, they were leaving a doctor’s office where Monica had undergone a chest X-ray exam. They hopped in the car for a day trip to Harper’s Ferry and hadn’t been on the road more than a half hour when Monica’s phone rang. The doctor asked them to turn around. He had something to show them. Back at his office, the doctor pointed out spots on the X-ray and rattled through the possibilities.

“All I heard was the word ‘cancer,’ ” Barlow said.

Monica was pretty stoic — she usually was, her husband said — but Barlow’s head was spinning. He left the room and didn’t make it more than a few feet down the hall before collapsing. More than five years later, he’s still trying to pick himself back up.

They’d eventually learn Monica had non-small cell sarcoma — stage 4 lung cancer. More than 220,000 new cases of lung cancer emerge each year, and researchers suggest that possibly one in 15 people will someday be stricken with the fatal disease. Just about 35 percent of those diagnosed are active smokers, and in 10-15 percent of all cases, the sufferer has never smoked a cigarette. Monica was in that group. She was training for a half-marathon when she had cancer diagnosed.

For the Barlows, months and months of prayers, chemotherapy, radiation, localized treatments, clinical trials and occasionally glimmers of hope followed. Monica was steadfast throughout, often more worried about her husband than herself.

“Through it all, she never wanted to be defined by cancer,” Barlow said.

She never slowed her work schedule. If anything, she ramped it up. She felt little control over cancer, but work was something she could manage. She was in the clubhouse every day, fielding reporters’ phone calls, making sure everything was in perfect order. Barlow knows that wasn’t always the healthiest decision, “but other times,” he said, “that grueling schedule was as effective as treatments that she was on.”

Monica also maximized her time away from the ballpark. She somehow found time to work with groups such as Lungevity to raise awareness and help fight the disease. She and Barlow went to Ireland and to Italy. They visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. and went hiking in Maine. When Monica got to the top of the Beehive Trail in Acadia National Park, she threw her hands in the air and yelled, “Take that, lung cancer!”

The end snuck up quickly. One minute they were hiking Cinque Terre in Italy and couldn’t believe how healthy Monica felt. Two and a half months later, a hospice worker was in their Ellicott City home, explaining their options. Monica made sure Barlow knew what he had to do and whom he had to call when the time came. She died on the morning of Feb. 28, 2014. Barlow spread her ashes on the same hill at her parents’ farm where he’d proposed to Monica seven years earlier.

Husband finds love, loss in baseball

'Your new normal'

Her absence is ever-present. Barlow absent-mindedly reaches for his phone to tell Monica traffic is bad and he’s running late. He tries to figure out what color she’d want the basement painted, how she’d want a room decorated, what she’d think of his television purchase.

He thinks about all the moments they squeezed into nine years, big and small, and grieves for his wife but also the shared future they had planned. He still remembers on their first date, Monica said she felt everyone should have two children, so their legacy lives on. Things like that.

“Having baseball season there, though, provided something that had stability,” he said.

Barlow doesn’t buy into the “stages of grief.” He thinks the process is unique to each individual and what works for him might not work for others.

Photo gallery

Wrist bands honoring Monica Barlow were distributed at Camden Yards. Click for more photos.

“You either just adjust to your new normal or you don’t,” he said.

His new normal still included baseball. The Orioles made a special run into the postseason last year, and Barlow was there for much of it. He estimated he saw 40 or so home games, maybe a dozen on the road and all of their postseason games. Most others he watched on television. It was easy to get lost in the everydayness, the ticking metronome.

He visited the clubhouse, swapped stories with players and chatted with stadium workers all around Camden Yards. After wins, Monica used to exchange fist-bumps with team trainer Richie Bancells. As the Orioles rolled last season, Barlow would occasionally text Bancells after a game, “Bump.”

“It’s always great seeing him out here,” Bancells said.

“It was like having a piece of Monica around,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said. “I don’t know if that was good or whatever for Ben. I know it was good for us.”

Grief counselors explain that mourning in public, returning to routine, being part of community are all healthy signs.

“Think of people putting pictures up on the wall of somebody or wearing a piece of jewelry, we find ways to remember people we love,” says Alan Wolfelt, director of the Colorado-based Center for Loss and Life Transition. “By going back and returning to shared activities that you did together, it’s allowing yourself to essentially honor something that always gave meaning or purpose. You’re saying, ‘I’m acknowledging death, but I’m remembering life.’ ”

Then one day in October, the metronome stopped. The Orioles’ season ended in Kansas City, a four-game sweep in the American League Championship Series. Barlow did okay at the ballpark that night, but on the flight home, a sense of finality was evident: The season was over, and at least for the time being, baseball was going away.

“I just started feeling the weight of the year,” he said, “and the weight of the past five [years] and thinking about going home to an empty house.”

Throughout Monica’s 4 1/2-year battle, both knew that every trip, every holiday, every walk around the neighborhood was accompanied by the same unspoken question: Will we ever be able to do this together again?

He got off the plane in Baltimore last October and bused back to the ballpark with many others in the organization. The answer had fully sunk in.

Ben Barlow, right, talks with Allie Showalter Robinson, daughter of Orioles Manger Buck Showalter, at the team's home opener.

‘The game doesn’t stop’

A new season brings new promise. Earlier this month, Barlow arrived at Camden Yards more than two hours before the Orioles’ home opener. As he often is, he had been invited to watch the game from the suite of Angela Showalter, wife of the Orioles’ manager. Both were close to Monica, and Buck keeps a framed photo of her outside his office door.

The teams were wrapping up batting practice on the field, and Buck Showalter was meeting with reporters downstairs. He explained to them that his heart was heavy; his father-in-law had died the previous day. Still, he had a game to manage.

“You don’t have any choice. The game doesn’t stop,” he’d explain later. “Win, lose or draw, you got a routine. This is a game of repetition and routine and the slightest little thing can throw you out of sync.”

Angela arrived later, rode the elevator up to the suite level and greeted Barlow with a warm hug. Her father, Phil McMahan, had died after a long cancer battle of his own, and she was now surrounded by family and friends. Angela stood next to her daughter, Allie, as an opera singer sang the national anthem. She thought of her dad who loved to sing so much — much to the chagrin of those around him. She leaned into Allie and said, “I wonder if he got a really good voice like that in heaven,” and they both smiled.

Barlow eventually left the suite and went for a stroll around the ballpark. A stadium worker spotted him and asked how he’s doing.

“Well, it’s going all right,” he said. “Yeah. It’s about . . . about the same.”

People ask him this all the time. He thanks them for inquiring and usually tells them “it is what it is,” like Monica would say and often steers the conversation elsewhere.

“I live on this, what I’ve found to be, sort of perpetual edge of losing control about this stuff,” he said.

At the ballpark, conversations about Monica tend to feel more natural and comforting, he said. Elsewhere people seem to go to great pains not to mention Monica’s name.

“You get the idea that either they don’t know what to say or they’re afraid somehow by saying it that it’ll make me feel bad,” he said. “The thing they don’t know, it’s not like they’re going to mention her name and I’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s right — something happened to Monica.’ ”

Barlow greeted many friends that day, but spirits were somewhat dampened by the Orioles’ lackluster performance in a 12-5 loss. Still, baseball was back. Ben, Angela and eventually her husband, too, left the ballpark for the night. They all knew there was another game the next day.

Ben Barlow, left, talks to an Orioles fan at a community booth at Camden Yards honiring Barlow's late wife, former Orioles public relations director Monica Barlow.

Something to hold onto

Barlow remembers one of the first times he drove anywhere with Monica, back to 2005. She kept a stone in her car that had a small hole in it and absent-mindedly flipped it around in her hand as she drove.

“Why do you do that?” Barlow remembers asking.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It makes me feel better”

Barlow likes the idea of a touchstone, a calming object or thought.

“In times like this, you need to have something, some constant or some touchstone that you can flip over in your fingers, that you know is there, that you know is solid,” he said, “something to help you keep your bearings.”

He doesn’t need to delve too deep into this. If people wonder how he can manage to walk through the gates at Camden Yards — what was once Monica’s world, now without her in it — he offers the same explanation she did of her stone.

“I don’t know,” he says, “but it makes me feel better.”

Photos by John McDonnell
Video by Lee Powell

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