“Can you come watch me play?” Alex asks.
“Do you want me to?” I ask, hoping he’ll say ‘no.’
Don’t get me wrong; I love watching Alex’s sports events. The year he took wrestling I went to every meet, even the one at John Day, more than three hours up a twisting, tortured mountain road. In the snow. I went to every track and field day.
This year, though, it’s football, and we’ve had a rocky start. The issue has been the uniform. Alex is Big. He’s nearly 6’4”, and very stocky. Even so, the coach managed to put together a jersey, a pair of pants from the high school team, and pads. But when it came to the helmet, he was stumped. None of the middle school or high school helmets were big enough to fit his head. The coach ended up custom-ordering a helmet from some place in Maine.
And of course, until the helmet arrived, Alex was sidelined for hitting and tackling practice, and all games. So was I.
But the helmet arrived last Thursday, and Alex has had one hitting practice, and today is his first ever game, and it’s his birthday.
“Can you come watch me play?” Alex asks. There’s only one acceptable answer to that question. Which is not to say it’s an easy answer. The game is in Baker City, a hundred and twenty empty miles of mountain road away. And I am afraid.
It’s stupid—so stupid I can’t admit it to anyone, but leaving my house is becoming increasingly difficult. The last few years have been hard, and in hard times I tend to hunker down. The thing about hunkering down is that sometimes it’s hard to remember how to stand up and run again.
There are other, more viable reasons: my car needs work. The road is long. I get sleepy when I drive. I just got a big job in and need to work. There are all kinds of good reasons for staying home. There is only one good reason for going: my son is playing his first football game, and wants me to be there for him. And it trumps them all.
I go home, call Triple A, and update my coverage. Then I call my client and tell her the big job will need to wait. Then I grab a book on tape—my only hope of staying awake for the drive—three hours each way—check the oil and water in the car, top off the gas tank at the station, and head out.
The road is familiar, and, for my family, a constant reminder of the fragility of life. It runs through the Umatilla Indian Reservation and just a few miles from my mother’s house, past the casino, and then out across Mission Flats.
Mission Flats is where my cousin wrecked the 18-wheeler he had, against all odds, succeeded in cowboying from the top of Cabbage Hill. He reached the bottom going a cool 90 miles per hour, thinking he had it made. And then a Winnebago pulled out to pass in front of him. You could see the gouges his truck left on Mission Flats for years afterward. He’s in a wheelchair now.
I navigate the switchbacks up Cabbage Hill, and pass Emigrant Park. Our church used to bring youth groups here in the winter for sledding, until my sister Pam, age ten, hit a patch of ice and wrapped her sled around a tree. She lost her spleen and appendix and had to have her kidney repaired, caught a staph infection, and almost didn’t make it.
I navigate Deadman’s Pass and Poverty Flats, and then I am in the heart of the mountains, and facing my real fear—the one that grew in the days when my memory was just coming alive, and the mountain nights held shame, and pain, and fear. This is the real reason I didn’t want to make this drive. Old fears cut the deepest, even when we tell ourselves to get past them. Given a choice, I would never drive this road. But my son is playing his first football game, and he wants me there, and there is no choice. To fail my son because of old demons would be a failure too great to endure. I flip the book on tape in my cassette player, focus on the story and the car ahead of me, and try not to see the trees.
And then I am past the summit of the Blue Mountains, and sweeping down into the valley beyond. I follow the directions I wrote down before I left home and arrive at the school in good time. The teams are warming up; the stands are empty except for me. I choose a seat at the fifty-yard line, settle down, and open the book I brought. The sun is bright, clear and warm. I am glad I came.
I remain glad well into the third quarter of the seventh-grade game. Then I begin to shift, and wish the women’s restroom was unlocked. But this is a male thing, and I am still the only Mom from our town in the stands, and no one has thought of unlocking the ladies room. On the other side of the stadium, Baker parents are beginning to straggle in. Finally the bus driver offers to stand guard outside the boys’ restroom for me. I rush in and rush out.
Back in the stands, Alex is sitting with the team, hands folded, his helmet, on long before it needs to be, rocking gently. I know he is nervous—and I know that I must stay here, up in the stands behind him. This is not a time when a mother’s arms, comfort, or encouragement will be welcome. So I sit, and I worry. He has only had one practice, after all.
The shadows lengthen and the air chills. By the time the seventh-grade game is over I am shivering. I hurry out to my car, grab the cape I threw in just in case before I left home, and hurry back. And there they are, the eighth-grade team, dropping their shoulder pads over their heads, pulling on their jerseys, and stamping their cleats. Alex is easy to spot; he is head and in some cases shoulders taller than the rest of the team.
The coach leads the team down to the end of the field and begins taking them through their warm-up exercises and drills. They run a quick hitting drill. The coach says something to Alex, slaps him on the back, and demonstrates a tackle. Alex gives it a shot. The coach slaps him on the back again. I huddle deeper into my cape. It is too dark to read, now. I don’t want to, anyway.
A deep, loud horn goes off and the teams jog onto the field. And then it is here, the reason I drove for nearly three hours. Alex takes his position—he hunkers down in the center of the front line, staring down the boy with the ball. And then the ball snaps, and Alex surges forward, and the boy who used to have the ball leaps to meet him, but Alex is big, and pushes by. And then he stops, confused. When he begins to move again there is none of the focus of that initial push. He trots here and there, looking for the ball. The whistle blows.
And back to the line they go. Alex hunches again, surges again, pushes by, and looks in vain for the ball. Over and over it happens. But then something changes.
The ball snaps, Alex surges past the defender—and runs for the boy with the ball. It happens again, and again. Soon the defenders realize what is happening, and when the teams line up Alex faces two, and sometimes three defenders. Still, he surges forward, pushes them back, slides by, and looks for the ball carrier.
By the time the third quarter begins I am feeling sorry for him, spending his whole game pushing, pushing, pushing, and never touching the ball. He does his best. The team fights hard. But they lose.
Finally the clock runs down to the last three seconds. And wonder of wonders, the quarterback hands him the ball. And Alex begins to run. He is not fast, but he is steady. And he is very, very strong. The opposing team falls upon him, pulling, tugging, hitting. And still those big feed advance, one after another, the big shoulders, made massive by pads, push through. He clasps the ball tightly to his belly, lowers his head, and wades forward, forward, forward. His team members cluster around, trying to clear a path. But it is too late, the horn blows, and the game is over. Alex stands with the ball in his hand, smiling, victorious in defeat.
I stand and cheer, alone on my side of the bleachers, so proud I want to cry. The team surges off the field. Alex’s teammates are slapping him on the back, slapping each other, cheering in cracking adolescent voices, whacking each others’ helmet and backs. Off the field, Alex pulls his helmet off and stands, smiling, and I see the man he is becoming, and, once I have hugged him quickly and congratulated him, I ask the question I must ask, even though I can read the answer in his jubilant face. “Are you going to ride home in the bus, or do you want to ride with me?”
“I’ll take the bus,” he says, and smiles, and I know what it has meant to him that I was there to see him play.
“I’ll head out then,” I say. “See you at home.” And I get back into my car, and drive home three hours through the dark, frightening mountains, alone in the light, with no company by the tail lights of the eighteen-wheeler ahead of me and my thoughts. And it is enough.