So Anna’s not playing soccer any more.
“Sorry, Dad, it ain’t happenin’,” she’d said, referring to next year, her last in high school. The season that would have capped more than ten years in the sport and “laid a golden crown to the whole.” There will be no beaming stroll across the field with her on Senior Night.
Right now I’m sitting on the bed in our spare bedroom, looking morosely at the floor; looking, somewhat comically, like an ad for what will become of someone who doesn’t plan for retirement. Except that the retirement isn’t mine. The moment has taken various forms the past several days--- staring at Anna’s muddy cleats in the garage, or at the blow-up on my desk of her holding off an opponent with fists clenched, or at the basin as I pause while brushing teeth. Each time, a highlight film of her career plays in my head; each time, my belly knots into a sheepshank, as it hits me that the reel is now complete.
It would be a poor tale if I thought of my relationship with Anna purely in terms of game-saving blocks or the perfectly-weighted pass, things she was very adept at. I’ve many more things to be thankful for with her. But, at the moment, I’m at a loss for where the grab-and-go-ments, as I call them, will now materialize.
Quality time with kids is always a dicey proposition, and becomes more so as they get older. By the time they’re in high school it resembles the prepared food shelf at your local deli mart, the one labeled Grab And Go. That’s what really made our shared soccer experience so special: More than simply a series of “Hi’s” and “’Byes” yelled through an open door, it was a continuum that allowed us--- my mercurial daughter and her satirical dad--- to spackle our differences and reinvent our cadences year-in and year-out. Just hearing the words pour from her in an adrenaline-fueled torrent on the way home from practice--- words that might not otherwise have been shared--- was worth the price of admission.
As always happens when lengthy commitments end, there will be things neither of us will miss about soccer, things I try to focus on to gain perspective. Surgeries and rehab, and the million-and-one niggling aches and pains that normally accompany constant physical stress. The arbitrariness of refs and coaches. The insane scheduling, which--- especially for families with kids in different sports and programs--- amounts to an unofficial hazing process for parents. (None of which you’re supposed to complain about, of course, as athletics is voluntary.) With Anna being Asian, racial slurring had also reared its ugly head.
No, we won’t miss any of that, which finally wore out the three-time defensive MVP on various squads. “I want to have fun my senior year,” she says, by enjoying precious, once-in-a-lifetime social gigs such as cheerleading and Homecoming with no time conflicts.
Fun. It’s a word I haven’t heard from Anna in connection with soccer in a while. For that--- and for her, who has never not left everything on the field, playing in pain and rain and without being substituted--- I have no comeback.
I’m not implying in the least that positives can’t be reaped from high school sports. But they come at the price of the experience turning into a job--- practicing and playing year-round at the expense of other, possibly more broadening activities, peace of mind, sleep. Anna, her schedule loaded with AP classes, work, and extracurriculars, simply decided to punch out. And it’s up to me to deal with that.
One of our obligations as parents is to teach kids how to handle feelings. Emotions like anger and disappointment must be faced and channeled, so we find ourselves mouthing chestnuts like “when one door closes, another opens” and feeling confident (maybe even a little smug) that we’re doing the right thing.
Then one day you wake up and find yourself challenged the same way, feeling similarly ravaged, and, suddenly, the platitudes don’t sound so profound. What if, on the other side of that opening door, there’s only open air?
You find yourself having to trust that there’s at least a rusty fire escape out there. To believe that moments more than grab-and-go, like a recent one with Anna and me, can still happen. Home around midnight on a Saturday after seeing her boyfriend, the former fullback settles into a living room chair across from mine and casually mentions her upcoming practice ACT. No longer forty years apart, for an hour we just talk. Nothing fraught, nothing fought. It was nice.
And this time, her cleats didn’t need cleaning.