Book Reviews

Book Review: When You Can’t Come Back by Dave & Jan Dravecky – Coping With the Most Difficult Times in Life

Dave Dravecky.

How many people now know that name? How many can remember him in his glory in the 1980s, pitching for the San Francisco Giants? He was having a good career. He wasn’t the stand-out that Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, or a host of “superstar” pitchers were during that time, but he was a good, solid starter.

Then something happened that turned his life upside down. Cancer was detected in his left arm; his pitching arm.

Pitching arms are delicate things. You’ll often see pitchers with their arms iced down after a start. In between innings, many pitchers sit in the dugout with their jackets on. So having cancer in it probably meant the end of Dravecky’s career.

Only it didn’t. Somehow, after the tumor was removed, he found the fortitude within himself to redevelop the muscles in his arm and return to pitching for the Giants.

All of these events were discussed in Dravecky’s first book, simply titled Comeback.

When You Can’t Come Back tells the story of what happened after that great and glorious when he returned to the pitcher’s mound to a standing ovation. When he recorded a win after many people thought he wouldn’t pitch again. And as you might guess from the title, things didn’t end on the “happily ever after” note after that game.

But that’s not the message of the book. Told in journal style by both Dravecky and his wife Jan, it’s the story of the two of them cope with some of the worst life throws at you. Both are Christians and have a deep faith which they found tested during this time.

I found the book to be an inspiration when I first read it back in 1992. I was surprised at how well I could relate events in my own life to what he talked about; how life was never the same after things happened.

The truth is we live in a fallen world, and suffering is an undeniable reality in that world. But suffering is not a very pretty sight, and illusions are a lot easier on the eyes than the reality. That’s why we look away from the bag lady on the street and look to the displays in the store windows. That’s why we prefer going to the movies instead of to hospitals and nursing homes. At least, that’s what we do in America.

Remember Linda, the woman who gave me the Raggedy Ann doll? Her death was a heavy burden for her father to bear. The burden can be shouldered, it can be shared, but it can never be eliminated. He will never be given back his daughter. Linda’s children will never be given back their mother. Of course, Linda’s father could adopt another daughter. But it wouldn’t be Linda. Her husband could remarry and give his children another mother. But it wouldn’t be Linda.

Her loss will remain with them the rest of their lives.

Dravecky pinpoints a lot of what I had been feeling over my own losses in my own life. We don’t “get over it” but we learn to focus on the joy before our loss, rather than the sorrow that that person is no longer in our lives. In his case, it was that he could no longer do what he dreamt of his life.

It meant a lot to read of his struggle with Christianity as a whole and with people who call themselves Christians, as well-intentioned as they are but miss the mark. While he was going through his battles and trying to keep up with speaking engagements as an inspirational speaker as well as the medical procedures involved in it all, his wife Jan was suffering from terrible depression. Instead of being supportive, he essentially told her to “get over it” and fell into the trap that many Christians fell into of believing that depression was a crisis of faith, not a physical, chemical, and emotional illness. It even went as far as having a sermon essentially preached at her from the pulpit and yet he sat next to her silent. I could not imagine that and I could not imagine staying with a man who would allow that. Yet their marriage comes through it all.

His search for the meaning in it all led him to change some of his philosophies about God and Christianity. I think Christianity is about growing and changing as our beliefs are challenged, and not shutting our minds to things we don’t want to hear. At the same time, he associates himself with people in Christianity I find distasteful, such as James Dobson. Both Dave and Jan consider themselves born-again, but in reading through the narrative, it sounds as if some of their philosophy has moderated since they first “became Christian”.

I also identified with the moments when he talked about some of the letters he received from fellow Christians, essentially telling him that it was his fault he lost his pitching arm to cancer; that if he’s had more faith it wouldn’t have happened, or that if he just prayed hard enough the diagnoses would change. He gets angry at this, considering his relationship with God to be like a private room that one shouldn’t intrude on unless asked and yet these people try to force their way into his room with their chastising of him. Reading When You Can’t Come Back again now, brought back moments when I was opening mail for a friend who lost her husband on 9/11 and received the same type of letters, telling her essentially that if she had more faith (or was the “right” brand of Christianity) her husband would not have died. I find that to be unbelievably cruel and I think this was a turning point for him as well with the philosophies he had so easily accepted before.

The book is really about the two of them and the journey they go through during this time in their lives. A chapter about their children seems almost like an afterthought, and for that reason When You Can’t Come Back might seem a bit self-involved. However, I think writing it was probably cathartic for them and it helps others to realize that others have gone through troubled times and it’s okay to wonder where God is. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to say your church isn’t giving you what you need spiritually.

As both a Christian and a baseball fan, I found plenty to inspire me and identify with in When You Can’t Come Back. Others might not. I really enjoyed the last few chapters where he associated a lot of finding the path to God and the path in life to the movie Field of Dreams, one most baseball fans will know without his detailed descriptions of the movie’s events. But if you read about some of what the Draveckys went through over a period in their life, you might think twice about your own outlook on your life.