The pain of losing a child is not something that ever truly goes away for most parents. Watching it slip from the consciousness of those around them over the years creates a new kind of sadness, with fading memories serving as a cruel reminder of the isolation of grief.
That’s why whenever Kyle McGowin takes the mound for the Washington Nationals, Lisa Koehne makes sure she’s watching.
McGowin, a 2010 Pierson High School graduate, is a reliever for the Major League team, and has a very specific ritual he follows before he throws his first pitch. Taking a knee, with his right pointer finger extended, McGowin methodically carves a set of seven different initials into the dirt — among them A.K., for Alex Koehne — a tribute to a group of Sag Harbor residents who died in their teens or 20s.
“It means so much,” Ms. Koehne said, through tears, when speaking about McGowin’s ritual. “When you lose a child, people tend to forget, and tend to not realize you have pain every day. When I see Kyle, and he remembers my son, I wish I could explain how overwhelmingly wonderful he makes me feel every time I see him on the mound. It gives me and my husband a sense that Alex did make an impression. It helps me get through each day.”
Before Alex died in 2007 of cancer at the age of 15, he was a classmate of McGowin’s. They would play video games together, and talk about how they both wanted to become professional athletes, McGowin said, with Koehne dreaming about playing in the NFL while McGowin had his sights on the Majors. Growing up in a small town like Sag Harbor, the death of a classmate or peer is felt acutely, McGowin said, which is why it matters to him to find a way to honor their memory. McGowin has always had Alex’s initials stitched into his jerseys and ball cap, but over the years has added to the group of initials he carves into the dirt. The list also includes Cassidy Hagerman, Mike Semkus, Jordan Haerter, Ian Diner, Craig Schiavoni, and Yves Bourel. Like Koehne, Schiavoni and Bourel were also classmates of McGowin’s.
Taking the time to scrawl their initials into the dirt does a lot for McGowin, every time he gets ready to step into the spotlight.
“I just use that moment as a time to gather my breath and settle down and prepare,” he said. “It gets my mind off everything else for a second, and lets me calm down and prepare for what I’m going to do.”
The odds of an athlete from a tiny public school like Pierson succeeding at the highest level of a major sport are very low, which is part of the reason why McGowin is dedicated to staying connected to where he’s from, and honoring the community that nurtured him during his youth. It would be easier to do the opposite; being a professional athlete means being on the road constantly, and McGowin now lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, during the offseason. He tries to make it home each year during the All-Star break, and around Thanksgiving and Christmas. But Sag Harbor is never far from his heart. Seeing the value of working to maintain connections is something he may have learned from Ms. Koehne, who he said she still served as a class advisor when he was in high school, even after Alex died. Carving the initials into the dirt, game after game, in stadiums in Washington, D.C., Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado, Tampa Bay is a simple gesture, but one that carries a lot of meaning.
“This is my way of remembering where I come from, and remembering family and friends,” he said. “I want to make them feel like they’re remembered and loved by everybody.”
By that measure, it’s a success.
“Kyle will always have a special spot in my heart, no matter where he goes or what he does,” Ms. Koehne said. “He’s a good man.”