Michael Finch had everything going for him.
Having left Norwalk as one of the more decorated baseball players in recent memory, Finch completed his fall semester at Owens Community College in Toledo with a 3.6 grade-point average. As the winter turned bitterly cold, he was preparing for his freshman season as a member of the baseball team at OCC.
Then, in a span of 47 days, he lost everything.
On Jan. 17, his mother, Wanda Finch, died at the age of 56 after a short bout with lung and bone cancer. It was believed to be treatable through chemotherapy, but in less than two months she was gone.
"Mentally, I was lost," Michael Finch said. "People could have told me the world was about to end, and I would have shrugged it off."
Finch and his sister, Ellen, who will be a senior at Norwalk this fall, helped get their father, Charles, through the funeral process. They set up bill payments among other key essentials.
By the end of January, Finch was back at Owens, mainly because his dad demanded he continue to play baseball and get an education.
In the team's opening game of the season in Panama City, Fla., Finch had two RBIs and threw out the potential game-tying run at the plate from right field.
Four days later, he talked on the phone to his dad about his start to the season. Later that day, Ellen called with more life-shattering news.
She had discovered their dad dead in the kitchen. At the age of 62, Charles 'Mike' Finch, who had diabetes-related health problems, was also dead.
At the ages of 19 and 17, Michael and Ellen had no parents.
"No matter what is thrown at you in baseball, you have to learn to sit back and hit it," Finch said. "I don't know what God's plan was, but he gave me two pretty big strikes ... and I think it's my job to hit that third strike out of the park."
After being inconsolable on Mother's Day on May 12, Michael found himself preparing for the emotions of Father's Day on June 15 by fixing a water line that went out.
Other days, it's been going to the store to buy groceries or mowing the lawn.
"I've had to grow up pretty fast, and it's a lot to handle different days where sometimes you are up, and other times you are down," Michael said. "It's just a different world, living alone."
The family house on Corwin Street was already paid for, but Finch insisted to friends and family he still wanted to live there through the summer. After their father's sudden passing, Ellen was forced to move in with an uncle and has remained there since.
"Coming home and having no one there is the hardest part," Michael said. "You find out right away you miss the nights where you could just sit at home and talk to your mom or sit on the couch and watch a game with dad ... and I really missed having them at my games."
Losing both parents less than a week into his freshman season of baseball, Finch admits he did rely on baseball to get him through -- but it was hardly an escape. Baseball has a slow pace to it, which allowed Finch's mind to wander when it should have been on the game.
"They were small things, like hearing someone's mom yell, and I'd think, 'My mom used to yell like that,'" Michael said. "My mind was in the game, but at the same time it was with my parents. I remember catching a pop fly one-handed, and I can just remember hearing my dad's voice saying 'Two hands, Michael.'"
Initially, every time Michael stepped into the batter's box, he felt like he had to get a hit for his parents.
"Then I realized it wasn't about that ... I had to do everything for me, but to make them proud," he said. "When I wasn't worrying about my parents every at bat, and focused on what I have to do for myself and my team, it helped me out a lot. I would play just to make them proud, because they'd want me to do it for myself, so that my heart was in it."
The results showed. In 44 games for Owens, he hit .315 with eight doubles, a home run and 17 RBIs. In 10 2/3 innings of pitching, he struck out 10 batters.
On April 27, Finch finished 4-for-4 with a double, a home run and five RBIs as the Express beat Cuyahoga Community College.
"My first home run in college ... it was almost like they were running the bases with me," Michael said. "And I had the biggest smile on my face when that happened."
Longtime Norwalk baseball coach Wes Douglas didn't just develop a relationship with the Finch family by coaching Michael. He played city league softball with his father more than 35 years ago, and knew his mother for more than two decades from her days of helping out at Lefty Grove, the little league program in Norwalk.
"As tragic as it all is and as passionate of baseball people as they were, I'm a believer that sports is a sanctuary," Douglas said. "I think Michael's family, friends and love of baseball was kind of a guiding light through the hardest part. It helped keep his head above water."
Tough times ahead
Mother's Day was a brutal day to get through. Father's Day wasn't much better.
"A lot of my friends have not only their parents, but also their grandparents. So on social media, everyone is talking about the special things they were doing for their parents," Finch said. "That's when it really hit me. To accept the fact that this is real, and they are never coming back. That's the worst part in all of this."
One positive Michael has been able to find out of the past six months has been close to home.
"My relationship with Ellen has changed tremendously," he said. "Growing up, you always know you can go to mom or dad for anything. Now that they're gone, we rely on ourselves more than anyone. There is a lot less fighting between us, because we've had no choice but to really grow up a lot these past few months."
One of the many reasons Michael said he can't give up is to set an example for her. In light of the stunning deaths, Kelly Skender, of Illinois, decided to start raising money for Michael and his sister. Skender's son, Alec, plays with Finch on the OCC team.
Of the money raised, Michael wants to send Ellen to college. Finch himself isn't on scholarship at Owens.
"My mom was at least there to walk me through the front doors of college and help get me settled in," he said. "Ellen has a whole new ballgame ahead of her. She's going to have to figure out a lot of things. She'll have my help along with everyone else's, but it's still going to be hard for her. But she's strong, with everything she's had to go through, she's not even 18 and is finding ways to cope."
As for the present, Michael said every day, if not every hour, is a check mark in his mind.
"There isn't a day I wake up and don't think about them or a day there isn't a problem," he said. "There is always something. But I get through. There have been some instances where I could give up and fold, but I know it's not the answer. Life is hard, but at the same time, it's only harder if you make it that way. You have to fight to make it easier."
Douglas has worked alongside Finch and Mike Grose this summer painting houses. Grose was best friends with Michael's father and has been with Michael and Ellen every step of the way through the past six months.
In their interaction together, Douglas sees a 19-year-old who is holding up better than expected.
"He's getting there. He hasn't panicked dealing with it, and isn't running from anything," Douglas said. "Michael obviously misses his mom and dad and is constantly reminded of them, but he's handling the reality of life -- owning a home and doing your own laundry -- about as well as you could ask of a 19-year-old. He has to step up for his sister and the memory of his parents ... that's not easy on anyone, let alone someone that young who is forced to mature so quickly."
Finch doesn't know how his career in college is going to end or even where he's going from day to day. But through the grieving process, he vows to keep moving forward.
"There's only so much I can take," he said. "I keep trying to tell myself it's only going to get harder before it gets easier. I've gotten over the hardest parts, so sooner or later, some things will fall my way. I'm not going to throw in the towel. I'm going to keep going.
"(My parents) would have done anything for me to keep going to school and get my degree," Michael added. "Quitting baseball or school, it wouldn't have been the answer. I know I'd be sitting here today wondering why I had quit if I had. There are a lot of obstacles in life, and you have to learn how to get around them. It might not be easy, but you have to find a way. Ellen and I, together we'll find a way."
Want to help?
A parent of one of Michael Finch's teammates at Owens C.C. set up a fund to help both Michael and his sister Ellen get through this trying time, while also helping pay for their pending college tuition. Anyone interested in donating can do so by visiting www.gofundme.com/7fhyrc