CHICAGO — At the impossible height of a voluminous fandom and a nerve-mauling Wednesday night, a daughter in a family room with her brother, her four children and her nephew rubbed her father’s urn. A woman at home with her husband had the thoughts come to her in a tangle. A son in a small tavern stood and thought of his father and uncle and the Cubs caps that joined them in their coffins.
One last groundball trickled left of the mound, Kris Bryant grabbed it and threw across to Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs actually won the World Series and a subset of fans dealt with one freighted human question. Yes, it’s beyond wonderful, but what of beloved relatives who lived long and well, who for summer upon summer studied a franchise that didn’t win a World Series for 108 years but who departed just before it came?
Louis DeBella, an opinionated Cubs fan who sometimes would toss down the remote, leave the room and yell at the managers (but not so much Joe Maddon), died Oct. 5 at age 83. Cynthia Sawyer-Engelen, an opinionated Cubs fan who would travel to Wrigley Field on Chicago’s “L” even as an octogenarian, died Oct. 6 at 88. Tommy Jankers, an opinionated Cubs fan who had played minor league ball and saw the game through that reflective prism, died June 29 at 81.
As it would be with people, those who loved them have individual ways of understanding what befell them.
In one of Michelle Monbrod’s last conversations with her father, DeBella, she told him the Cubs would start the postseason opposite the San Francisco Giants. All through the October slog, the seven family members gathered at DeBella’s house for the games and the tension. By the night of Nov. 2, they had the urns of DeBella and his adored wife, Joan, on the coffee table before the television. They decreed that Michelle would get the privilege of DeBella’s comfortable, brown, microsuede chair. “We put a Diet Coke next to my dad’s urn,” she said, “because he would have Diet Coke when he watched the Cubs.”
They knew DeBella had become a Cubs fan even while living on the White Sox-heavy South Side at age 12, swept up in the mirth of the Cubs’ last World Series presence in 1945. He had accompanied Monbrod and her four children to a game at Wrigley Field last May, and when Monbrod had dropped him off at the gate while she parked, he had sneaked across the street, at 83, to buy Cubs gear for the grandchildren. When Monbrod came to get him to go to Wrigley one day in September 2015, he waited on the patio in his cap.
An adventurous sort, he had bungee-jumped at 65. After that, he had taught Monbrod’s daughter Melanie, now 16, to play softball, had witnessed her team winning a championship this year, and had caused her Cubs fandom. His adored Joan had died seven years ago, and, Monbrod said, “that really has gotten me through. People say, ‘You’re so calm.’ I know they’re together. I know it. He had missed her since the moment she passed.”
As they watched a gripping menace of a game Wednesday night that saw Cubs leads of 5-1 and 6-3, a frightening 6-6 tie and then an 8-7 Cubs win in 10 innings after a 17-minute rain delay, a friend texted Monbrod: “Thank your father for orchestrating the rain delay.” For the last three outs of a 108-year drought, she could sit no longer.
She stood, and she and Melanie held hands.
Up north in the metropolis, Dianne Sawyer Lipkin sat with her husband, David, when the last baseball went into Rizzo’s glove. “We knew she was not going to be around much longer,” Sawyer said of her mother, Sawyer-Engelen, “and I said, ‘Mom, you’re not going to be able to vote for the first woman president, and you’re not going to be able to see the Cubs play in the World Series!’ And she just kind of looked at me and smiled.”
Sawyer cried, and her mother said, “Dianne, I’m 88. I’ve lived a really good life. It’s okay.”
Have Sawyer describe that life, and it does become a mighty paragraph: political involvement, bridge clubs, book clubs, fishing clubs, art, symphonies, theater, writers’ workshops, the Cubs. “This woman, there was no moss growing under her toes,” her daughter said.
So as the Cubs streamed into their victory pile, conflicting thoughts streamed through Sawyer. “I did think about her,” she said, “and I thought, part of me said, ‘She knows,’ and the other part was, ‘I wish you were here and we could laugh and clap and be excited together.’ ”
Up in north-central Wisconsin, with its bald eagles and black bears and lakes, the tourists have left but all the Cubs fans haven’t. A smattering of them sat in the tavern started in the 1970s by George Jankers’s Chicagoan parents, Tommy and Sharon. “People were literally chewing their fingernails, watching through fingers covering their eyes,” George Jankers said. “It was really intense. Everyone had a stomachache, you know.”
Then: “Just screaming. General screaming. General cocktail-ing and screaming.”
Jankers once asked his uncle, Raymond Jankers, how he became a Cubs fan, and Raymond said, “Son of a bitch, when I was a kid, they were good.” He died in 2010, and his younger brother, George’s father, died in June, not before he could tell that these Cubs might become the ones, that Kyle Schwarber really could hit, that Javier Baez really could play. Suddenly, as the Cubs kept celebrating and the tavern kept screaming, George felt a wave of relief. “I just thought to myself, ‘Anything’s possible,’ ” he said. “Unicorns exist.”
Now, George plans to visit his father’s grave in Illinois, just to talk, not to bring banners or laminated articles. “Just, ‘Hey, it happened,’ ” he said. “You know what I mean? It happened?” Yet as the biggest Wednesday ended, he just thought, “It would have been gigantic for him. But what are you going to do? Life’s a series of kicks in the pants.”
Back at DeBella’s house, Michelle rubbed the urn with the Cubs mentioned on its side and said, “They did it.” Monbrod’s daughter sobbed for the adored grandfather. The seven of them held a toast: “To the Cubs, and to Papa.” Monbrod’s 10-year-old son, Dylan, said, “I’m very sad that Papa’s not here.”
“I said, ‘Don’t worry,’ ” she said. “ ‘He had the best seat. He had the best seat. He was in Cleveland and didn’t even have to pay.’ ”