The B Team
Yesterday morning, I logged onto Facebook and the first thing that showed up was a picture of my son. He was at a hockey game, sitting right up against the glass. In his hand was a puck and on his face was a smile. Not just any smile. It was the one that comes from deep inside him, like his entire heart and soul is etched on his face, like his body explodes from the effort, the joy of that moment.
He went to the Ducks game with his mom and step-father. I wasn't even aware he'd gone until I saw that photo on her Facebook page. And I thought of all the things that means and the last four-plus years and reactions past and bitter twists of the road and that all-too-frequent feeling I've had, the one that laments "What I Miss" of my son's life.
I thought all those things in a rapid instant, but none of them harmed me. None lingered, each negative thought purged by feeling, the feeling that I was happy for my boy, for the experience he had.
At my recent wedding reception, my Dad stood up to tell a story. He didn't get it quite right, didn't bring it home like a seasoned orator, but we all got the gist. He talked about driving me home from soccer tryouts when I was 15. It was the first time in my entire career I didn't make the 'A' squad. The decision was unfair. On talent, I make the team easily, and I failed to grasp the myriad, behind the scenes machinations that led to my demotion to the 'B' team. I was beyond despondent, knowing all my friends would play on without me and that I was relegated to the lesser group, made up mostly of boys a year younger than I.
I could go one of two ways: sulk my way through the season and fixate on the unfairness of it all or work hard to prove them all wrong.
The day after AJ's mom told me she was leaving, we went to a local amusement park. I know that sounds weird. That was quite literally the saddest day of my life. There was a pain in my heart that I would come to know very well. I felt like I was inside out. All of my nerves exposed, vulnerable to the slightest touch or word.
Yet, I felt I had to go. If there was the barest thread on this unraveling spool, I had to grab it.
As it turned out, the amusement park made me ill. AJ wanted to go on a ride that was basically a centrifuge. Shaped like a spaceship, the ride enclosed us and we laid down at an obtuse angle. Soon, it was turning at a speed which fastened us to the walls of the ride. The force soon made me sick and I began to pine for the end. I could see others climbing the walls, held there by gravity. I reached out for AJ, fearful he was as scared as I, but only saw him giggling and rolling around, suspended above the floor.
I was nauseous the rest of the day. Vertigo plagued me for a week. AJ and I still joke about it today. When we drive past the park, he says, "Daddy, there's the ride that scrambled your brain."
That 15-year-old soccer season turned out to be the turning point. My coach gave me his confidence, as did the team. I played every minute in central midfield, a position I hadn't played for six years. My game improved immeasurably. More than anything else, I had fun, more fun than I'd had playing soccer in many years. And, in the ultimate Fuck You, my 'B' team advanced two rounds further in the State Cup than did the 'A' team.
I got an e-mail from AJ's mom last week, a few days before the wedding. It said,
"I am grateful to have you and (Emet) in my life, and all the support that I get from you regarding AJ. You’re an amazing dad and (Emet) a great role model."
Gosh. There's a lot in there that has the potential to "scramble my brain." But there's also one, final, immutable fact, the only one that truly matters: we are succeeding.
I have said many times, even during the worst of it all, as badly as I felt for myself, I felt worse for AJ. And that is what kept me pushing forward. What saved me, really. I had to keep it together for him. I (mostly) did. And the child is flourishing, is content with his life, scattered though it may sometimes be.
All the potential detritus that could poison his future, the regret, recriminations, bitter grudges, have all fallen away. They do not matter any more.
The lesson, my father said at the wedding reception, summing up his speech, is that sometimes you have to go through the bad to get to the good. He's right. I ended up All-Section in high school as we twice won our league and once the Section title. I slogged through two years of doubt and pain to come out the other side.
Emet is deep and strong and generous and an absolute revelation about the way people can be. I am amazed by her knowledge of self, of her capacity to give and her strength of character. I'm also hot for her.
She would never claim to be my savior and that's probably true to some extent. With the help of many (a lot of you out there, in fact), and my own promise to my son, I was able to save myself.
Emet is the reward.
There's a picture from the wedding. Perfect blue skies and docile waves and undulating sand. Emet and I are looking back over our shoulders at the camera and AJ is standing next to us. He has his hands in his pockets. He looks sharp in his pressed white shirt and tie. His hair looks perfect. But I hardly see that. All I see is his smile, the one that comes from deep inside him, like his entire heart and soul is etched on his face, like his body explodes from the effort, the joy of that moment.