Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Search for Acceptance and Optimism

My last few posts have been primarily about work.  When I looked back today, this is what I noticed.  It doesn't surprise me though.  My work is what has kept me going, breathing, surviving.  My friends are what keep me alive -- and living -- but it's my job that forces me out from under the safety of my covers.  I'm lucky that way.  I'm lucky to have that purpose.  Not everyone does.

It's been a difficult and sad month.  And I think that I've avoided the difficulty partly by refusing to acknowledge it to most people.  But it's time to get out from under the safety of my covers again because a refusal to acknowledge real life does not equal the ability to completely live real life.

Just about 3 weeks ago, something happened that I've known would happen for a long time.  We had to place my dad in a nursing home.  Even just that statement, to say it aloud even to my closest friends has been so nearly impossible.  I tried feverishly to come up with a different way to say it, or just not to say it at all, but it is what it is.  For all of his efforts, for all of my mom's efforts, they had simply lost the physical ability to care for one another.

I'm not sure why it's been so difficult.  In my head, I understand that none of this is anyone's fault.  My dad just drew the unlucky card and was saddled with Parkinson's, a disease I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  And he played the hand the only way he knew how... with humor and optimism first... then with anger and isolation...  with everything he had until he became someone that was sometimes unrecognizable.  He made mistakes, but so did the rest of us.  My family wandered away from one another, sometimes feeling lost and alone, only to realize that all roads eventually lead back to each other.  Because that's how family works, they are yours and you are theirs, no matter how far you run, no matter how rough the road.

I've thought and questioned for years now why any of this has happened, the diminishment of my father, the fracture of my family.  It's easy to shroud myself in self-pity and lash out at the unfairness of it all.  But my struggle is no different than anyone else's, it's just wrapped in different packaging.  Mine, like so many, chooses the costumes of Shame and Guilt.  Shame and Guilt, they are the WonderTwins of damaged emotions.

I talked to my dad a few days ago on the phone.  Because of my work schedule, I've been unable to go the 5 hours to see him.  It was one of the toughest calls I've ever made.  I had never made such a call before, and I was afraid. And ashamed. And heartbroken. Words don't come easy at moments like those, even for me. I was heartbroken to think of my Daddy in a nursing home even though, for 12 years, I've known this would be the eventual result. I was ashamed that he checked in there under the care of strangers, without family, and lived there 6 days before I worked up the nerve to even call him on the phone. Afraid that he hated me.  Afraid that I had let him down.  Afraid to acknowledge that this was all real. 

I made it through that call, but I haven't been able to make another.  Of course, I feel the shame burn in that as well although, in my head, I know I shouldn't. I just wish someone would tell it to my heart.  My mom has been visiting him often.  They play dominos.  They eat dinner.  They watch t.v.  But then they say goodbye.  This is their new reality, our new reality, and it's hard to accept.

Acceptance has been steadily on my mind lately.  Acceptance and faith and my curiosity about both.  My wish for both. My acknowledgment that neither come without effort.  I recently sent an email to my friends about such a thing because it is through even just the slightest thought of my darling friends that clarity sometimes arrives.  I sent the email the night that my mother finally was able to see my dad (she had carried many of the same fears as I had as well, so the first visit was exceptionally difficult).

"I can't say if God is real. I don't know if prayer works. But I've always figured that if He is, I don't ever want to ask for too much. (The fact that I had the same thoughts and relationship with Santa when I was a child has not escaped me, by the way. )  So every day, during my moment of silence, I send a hope into the universe. I think of a small orb of light with one word glowing inside, glowing as brightly as any star in the sky, and I speak that word one time, softly, to myself. Most of the time, I try to devote that hope for someone else because, somehow, it feels wrong to claim that hope just for my own. But for the last week, I did, and my word has been "acceptance". The acceptance of what has happened. The acceptance that my dad will never be my Daddy Dean again. The acceptance of my own shame and guilt and fear. Acceptance that this is a problem with no real solution and no end in sight. I longed for a way to accept all of this, any of this.

But if God is real, then it's true that He will never answer your prayer as you might have intended. Because today, it was my dad's acceptance of the situation, his acceptance of my mother's visit that left me in tears all the way home. Good tears.

I don't kid myself that this will be the normal thing, or even always a good thing. My optimism is not guarded or cautious; it's still hiding under the bed."

I have revisited that email often, wondering if  I will ever find that acceptance, if I will ever feel at peace with all that has happened.  I'm sure I will feel better once I am able to see him finally, but I don't fool myself with the idea that I shall ever understand any of this.

For now, however, I'm out from under the covers, and I'm searching for my optimism again.  But if you know me but at all, you'll know it's a crowded mess under that bed.  It might take awhile.  Bear with me, friends.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

And I Uttered a Foul-Mouthed Little Prayer

For all of you who have kids I will say this:

I don't know how you do it.

I mean, I get the gist of things.  You have a child.  He or she is the light of your life, the apple of your eye, and, on occasion, the slightest pain in your ass.  But to have a child... this little version of you, running around, representing your skills as a parent, scraping knees, falling in love, falling apart... How do you handle that as a parent?  As a person who is hell-bent on protecting this precious and fragile thing while still being hell-bent on him learning his lesson, how do you step aside and watch him go?

I'm just a teacher.  I'm just a coach.  I'm just a summer camp director.  I'm not a parent.  I am without children.  But with thousands of children.  Tonight I went to catch a game at the high school my students feed into.  It was a fantastic game -- one of the best all-around performances I'd seen from the girls in a good long while.  It was a see-saw battle that literally was up for grabs until the last ticks of the clock.  In the final 1:45 there were 6 freethrows made (by both teams) and almost as many turnovers/bad passes (by both teams) and a significant injury to one of our best players.

Two of the starters tonight are former players of mine.  Super-talented players with enormously kind hearts, gracious attitudes, and smiles that light up the gym.  And skills.  Did I mention the skills?  But here they were, in an incredibly important game, and all I could see were their little junior high baby faces in too-big uniforms.  It melted my heart a little.  And then, when the late-game injury occurred, who did the coach bring in but another former Lady Mustang.  She'd seen only limited playing time in the first half and none in the second.  And here she was, stepping in, ice-cold, with 30 seconds left.  I prayed the only "mom-type" prayer I knew for her:

"Please don't let her eff this up."

Then I quickly wondered if God would be upset with that one but realized that He probably doesn't like take-backs anymore than he likes the eff word (even when abbreviated).  I felt bad for even saying it -- for thinking she might -- but all I could worry about was how she would feel if she were to make a mistake.  I couldn't bear thinking about how unfair it would be, to come in for only a few seconds, to that kind of pressure.

I turned to my fellow coach, a mom of 3, and said, "I don't know how you do this."

"Do what?" she asked.

"Sit here.  With no control.  And just watch your kids surf the rise and fall of success and failure.  I didn't give birth to anyone -- not one kid -- on that floor right now, and I feel like I'm going to vomit, I'm so nervous."  And then I quickly took my pulse.

"It's hard," she admitted, "but you just do."

I thought about that.  I am a teacher and coach and summer camp director.  I have no children, but I have thousands of children.  Do you have to give birth to a child to know their labor pains?  Tonight, I saw so many of my former students and athletes.  I lost track of all the hugs and smiles.  I heard college plans, updates on brothers and sisters (who were also former students), lots and lots and lots of grade reports and track practice complaints.  I saw the best of my best -- all the growing-up reasons I love to teach.  But I also saw a few who weren't on the crest but were in the valley instead.  Low or struggling or regretful; lost on "the wrong path" or dealing with things far beyond the normalcy of high school life.   In that moment, I found myself in the valley as well, and it was hard.  I found myself struggling with what to tell them.

I wondered again about what Terry had said.  She hadn't just stopped with "it's hard".  She also reminded me that "you just do".  So, I re-directed the wave, just as I had only a few years before, and tried to instill some motivation, provide some guidance, and reinforce the idea that, no matter what mistakes they make, I love them.

Do you have to give birth to a child to know their labor pains?  No.  No, I don't believe so.  Once you've chosen them, and they have chosen you, the two are linked somehow forever.  Somehow the steadiness of that link, the surety of that choice, makes the pain worthwhile.

Oh, yeah... And that precious little, ice-cold former Lady Mustang coming into the game with 30 seconds left?  She caught the ball under the basket, pivoted in, ducked an opponent flying at her full-speed, and took a completely unnecessary shot so high off the backboard I thought it was going to go over the top and out of bounds.

It went in.  I couldn't believe that flippin' ball went in.  I couldn't believe that she had the guts to shoot it; I wouldn't have.  I'd have played it safe.  I wanted her to play it safe.  I prayed a horrible, little, foul-mouthed prayer for her to play it safe.  The whole time I had worried about the chance of her making a mistake, I was completely ignoring the possibility of her joyous success.  The other team tossed in a couple of freethrows that could've tied the game were it not for that basket.  Her score kept us 2 points ahead -- just enough to pull an upset, thrill the crowd and her teammates, and prove something really important to me: 

I don't know how you parents do it.  I really don't, but I'm so very glad you do.  And also?  God doesn't like take-backs, but maybe He doesn't mind the eff word.  But to be safe, I think I'll avoid them both when it comes to asking for favors.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

All Hustle, No Bieber.

I'm a junior high basketball coach.  For some people this equals the statement, "I like to bang my head against the wall".  But it doesn't.  What it really translates to is, "I like a challenge.  I like to see growth.  I like impacting a kid's life in one of the last possible times people experience real change.  Also, I don't mind banging my head against the wall". 

Because, let's face it, sometimes I do feel like I'm banging my head against the wall.  But it's usually worth it.

Tonight, I said goodbye to my 8 game conference winning streak (if you go back to last season which I do because it sounds better).  We lost to a team that is always tough on us and always provides an exciting game.  I detest losing, but if I have to lose, I want it to be an opponent I respect at least.   And I do.  They're scrappy little gym rats who dive for the ball like it's got Justin Bieber's phone number on it.  I like that about that team.  The hustle; not the Bieber.

We fell apart in the 2nd quarter.  An 18 point fall apart.  I'd like a do-over on that dang 2nd quarter.  We're not an 18 point fall apart kind of team.  But at halftime, we made adjustments.  Things got a little better but not a lot.  Yet in the last minutes of the 3rd, when we just didn't seem to be making headway, I looked into their eyes and asked them not to quit.  And they responded.  They fought hard.  They followed direction. They made significant growth.  They made me remember why I like to play this crazy game, why I like to coach this crazy game, why I, specifically, like to coach this crazy team.  Tonight, I didn't mind banging my head against the wall because a realization finally set in for them -- that they can do more than they think.  That they were better than they think.  That they are scrappy and tough.  That a little hustle takes you a long ways.  For at least 8 minutes, they were different.

They were all hustle.  Without the Bieber, of course.

And I love that about my team.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Best Belated Birthday Gift Ever

Three things to know about me:

1.  I'm a voracious reader. I was the kid staying up late, flashlight under the covers, finishing a book because I just HAD to finish the book. I still am. Always will be. Only now, I can just leave the light on.
2.  I'm a sports enthusiast. Not a stat-head. Not a sports history buff. Just a  fan. Specifically, I'm a huge college basketball fan. From Midnight Madness to March Madness, there's an undeniable excitement and energy that surrounds college basketball that I see nowhere else. 
3.  I'm a rabid, hard-core Duke fan. Seriously. In my parents' house, I'm sure there are still boxes upon boxes of VHS tapes full of every televised Duke game from the 89-94 stretch (when I finally had to leave home and the free ESPN). I would study those tapes. Watching twice in a row in the wins and sometimes 3 or 4 viewings to see "what went wrong" in the losses. I don't remember exactly when I first started to notice the Blue Devils as it's a weird team for me to choose being from the Panhandle of Texas and all, but I am. Always will be.

So, it's little surprise that as soon as I saw this book pop up on my Twitter feed, I HAD to have it.

I ordered it on Friday. It showed up on Saturday (overnight shipping charges, be damned). And I was done by Sunday morning at around 3 AM. I couldn't put it down. 

So here's my testimonial:  It's incredibly well-written and chock full of behind-the-scenes kind of stories that fans love but hardly ever hear. And while the high point of the book is most certainly the Regional final in Philadelphia, the journey of both teams -- through the narrow misses and consistent "nearly there" years of Duke as well as the NCAA troubles of the Kentucky Wildcats and the living room recruiting stories that built the teams-- is so well-crafted that by the end, I found myself, for the only time in 20 years, hurting for the Wildcats almost as much as I was cheering for my beloved Blue Devils. I realized only years later, and was reminded again with this book, that sometimes it is a real shame that either team has to lose. As I read, I found my heart racing and my breath caught just as it had 20 years ago, and, let me tell you, it was wonderful.

Now I have always loved Duke and their style. I loved their academic sensibilities. I loved the Crazies and Cameron Indoor Stadium. I loved Coach K and his staff. But more than anything, I loved their swagger. Wherever they went, they knew they were going to stick it to the opponent. And they were cute. I admit it. In the height of my Duke fever, I was a high school girl who happened to love basketball, but a high school girl nevertheless. So the fact that they looked like movie stars, carried themselves like rock stars, and played lights out on a day-to-day basis?  Forget it. As I've grown older (and the Dukies stay the same age), I've cultured my basketball attitudes a bit. I'm a little more realistic about our chances year to year. I'm a great deal more aware of our weaknesses and strengths. I'm much less willing to jump into a fight just because. Unless you're a Carolina fan because then you're just askin' for it. But this book took me right back to those Clarendon Crazie days, and I am thankful for it.

There are certain moments that people claim they will never forget, no matter how old they become. When JFK was assassinated. When Armstrong walked on the moon. When the Challenger exploded. Okay, so maybe those are huge examples, but if you're a college basketball fan, you certainly remember when "the shot" went in.

March 28, 1992. I was 16 years and 1 day old. One of my best friends (and fellow Duke fan), Carrie Simpson, had arranged for us to watch the Duke/Kentucky game at the Clarendon Junior College student center with some of the CJC Bulldog basketball guys. As we've established, a high school girl who loves basketball.... this was perhaps the best set-up of all time. Not only would I surely witness Duke head to the Final Four for the 4th time in a row, I'd watch it surrounded by exceptionally tall and handsome college boys.

I know. Sometimes I still laugh at my 16 year-old self too. It's okay. Go ahead.

Little did I know that I'd witness history. Before the game even started, sides were chosen and bets were placed. Only Carrie and I and one of the guys lined up for Duke. Whether they really wanted Duke to lose or if they just wanted to see us suffer and squirm, I'll never know for sure. But suffer I did as the battle went back and forth, back and forth, leading up to the showdown in overtime. When Woods hit that mother-effing bank shot to go ahead one, Covington "Cupp" Cormier -- the Bulldogs' star and future UConn Huskie -- jumped up to do his "you owe me $20 dance". 

"No way," I announced defiantly. "Not with time still on the clock. That 20 is mine still for the next 2.1 seconds."

I will never, to this day, understand how I was so confident. It wasn't normal. I liked teams with swagger because I had next to none for myself. I wish I had that spot of 16 year old confidence more often these days. But somehow I knew. I just knew. This was not going to end without a chance to win another national championship. They were going to win and give me the best belated birthday gift of all time. So I did all my time-out hand-wringing, whispered my lucky chant, crossed my fingers, and prayed like Hell.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, so was my "I told you so" dance right back at Cupp. And wouldn't you know? Bastard still owes me 20 bucks.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How Twitter Changed my Life. Well... My Sports Life.

When I was in the 4th or 5th grade, way back in the days before iPhones and texting and Facebook, back when my house had a land line and the phone receiver was connected by a long and twisting cord, I had an afternoon routine I religiously followed.  I'd get off the school bus, go inside, and call my best friend, Christel.  Together, via rotary phone, we'd watch Family Feud. 

We were badass at Family Feud.

We'd throw out answers and usually, Christel would have some snarky retorts about what the families were wearing and she'd shout things like, "Makin' whoopee!  Don't you freakin' idiots know the top answer is always 'MAKIN' WHOOPEE?'"  It was hilarious to me, but our routine was probably sort of obnoxious and weird to everyone else in my household.

You're probably thinking right now, "That is so weird."  Don't worry.  I'm going somewhere with this Family Feud intro.

While I don't watch the Feud so much anymore (unless I'm at my mom's house), there are still things I'm just as passionate about on t.v.  Most notably -- sports.  Even more specifically -- Duke basketball and Rangers baseball.

I have a rule that I don't watch a sporting event in which I'm emotionally invested in public.  It's just not pretty.  It involves a lot of hand-wringing and second-guessing and talking to myself.  And praying for things that really aren't on the good Lord's to-do list.  I am also highly superstitious, which sometimes involves wearing "lucky t-shirts" that may or may not be clean.  And that may or may not make me crazy, I realize.  Oh.  And swearing.  I swear a whole lot.  Good things.  Bad things.  All of it is usually met with highly inappropriate language.

People try to get me off the couch and out into the public eye.  In 2010, when Duke played Butler in the National Championship, my friends and I were at Fuzzy's Tacos for dinner.  A) I nearly got in a fist fight with a loud and drunk Duke-hater.  And 2) I taught some little cherubs at a nearby table how to use the F-word as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and interjection.  I forced my friends to leave at a commercial break because I couldn't "concentrate properly".  It's a good thing too.  At the house, I enforced a no-talking rule, and I'm pretty sure I'd have fallen off my bar stool at the last shot.  God Bless my friends and the fact that they all know CPR.

This season, I took to watching the Rangers in the playoffs via texting and Facebooking with my fellow metroplex fans -- and after 30 years of misery, it's hard to find anti-Ranger sentiment around here.  My friend, Courtney, lured me to her house for Game 7 of the World Series with the promise of stiff drinks and cute children who'd be in bed before the first pitch.  I made it all of 5 and 1/3 innings before I ran out of the house apologizing, "I just can't do this.  I have to go home."  I raced home, threw on my lucky t-shirt and screamed obscenities at the St. Louis Cardinals.  I still question whether things would have turned out differently if I'd just stuck to my original plan.

Needless to say, I am sometimes the loneliest sports fan in the world.

But now, I've discovered Twitter.  Well, I discovered a whole lotta Christel Green-like "friends" on Twitter.  Devoted.  Hilarious.  Slightly skewed.  And ready to scream obscenities at the television.

Most of them are rabid Duke fans, players, and former players.  As a lifelong Blue Devil fan who usually finds herself in a swirl of anti-Duke sentiment, it's been a pleasant find.  I'm continually updated on stats, game times, broadcasts, and loads of pro-Duke passion.  And snark.  Viciously delightful sarcasm that, for the most part, I cannot match.  Every game, even if I'm not watching, I can follow the action (although it's oh-so-much more fun to monitor my timeline while watching) via bitter taunts and delighted crowing.   I love the crowing.  They're no basketball slouches either.  Their commentary is as pinpoint as any coach and decidedly moreso than your average announcer.  Don't be fooled, though.  When the team screws something up, the barbs fly just as often.  But it's a very "it's my team, so I can say it" kind of attitude.  Very similar to a big brother/little sister relationship.  Although I do not know a single one, I can guarantee they might be the only people I'd ever venture off the couch to catch a game with. 

They might even let me wear my smelly t-shirt while we're at it.