There must be hundreds of them, scattered all over the hill facing the field, men and women and grandparents and siblings sitting on lawn chairs and blankets. They’ve settled in with bags of Goldfish crackers, juice boxes, and hot cups of coffee they picked up at Starbucks. They chit-chat with their hands tucked loosely in the pockets of their hooded sweatshirts, their weight on the left foot, then the right, then the left again, coolly observing their children. They recline.
I don’t know any of the parents on the hill, don’t recognize any of the boys, and my son is moving at sloth-speed along the perimeter of the practice field, a wounded, abandoned look on his face. My husband took him to his first practice on Tuesday night, but he is out of town now and will be out of town for every Thursday night practice and Saturday game from here until the end of the season – all of eternity, really – and Elvis, my son, doesn’t remember what his coach looks like, let alone her name. All I have is the team name. We showed up late after paying the sitter at 5:15, tracking down the soccer ball, shin guards, and cleats, running out the door only to run back in for the new water bottle we bought specifically for practice, shouting, hurry hurry hurry sit DOWN, close the DOOR, buckle UP, let’s GO, shoving Lydia (six), Elvis (five), Henry (16 months), and the stroller into our tank of a kid hauler, then hurtling down every non-stoplight street in Ashland to make it to the soccer field. Late. The 16 boys on the three teams that started practicing at 5:30 each have a ball and are kicking it as hard as they can in every direction, except Elvis, who is lost along the sideline.
“Buddy, do you see your coach?” I yell from the top of the hill, shielding the sun glare with one hand where I stand in my Express dress pants and heels, which keep sinking into the dirt. Henry is strapped into the stroller and squirming. The hill is steep and I push the stroller along it, leaning against the slope so it doesn’t tip over and tumble down the hill onto the practice field. Elvis is moping. All of the other parents look up from their lawn chairs at me and I smile and nod, gripping the stroller handle, imagining my hair frizzed out, purse slipping down my arm, shirt skewed slantways off my shoulder, bra strap sticking out. I’m not wearing glasses, but if I was they’d be falling off my nose.
The kids started soccer practice two weeks into the college football season, when my husband travels each weekend doing production work for television. He is out of town every Thursday afternoon until usually Sunday morning, but sometimes Saturday night, which means that when I received the kids’ practice and game schedule, I moaned. “Before games start,” I complained, “we have two kids with two practices a week, and they each fall on different days—Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.” I waved the paper schedules about. “And then, when the games start, the practices will cut back to two: one on Tuesday night and the other on Friday. FRIDAY. And THEN, the games are all on Saturday mornings. Do you know what this means??” My husband smiled, shook his head, and hugged me.
He knows what it means. It means this madness. This toddler-in-stroller or toddler-in-backpack, two kids who inevitably lose their jerseys fifteen minutes before we need to leave, madness.
“Is this team Aber’s Towing?” I ask the nearest set of adults, who shake their heads at me. I keep walking, shouting down to the field, “Elvis! Move it! Find your coach!” And then he comes to a full stop and starts to cry. I let out an exasperated sigh and lock the wheels on Henry’s stroller, tell Lydia to stay by him so he doesn’t panic, and stride down to the edge of the field. “Let’s go, Elvis. Don’t you remember who your coach is?” I am enormous and cast a long shadow over him. He hangs his head and slowly shakes it back and forth, his lip curled in a long, empty frown. “We’ll figure it out, buddy,” I say, crouching down next to him along the sideline, feeling the eyes of parents everywhere, parents who got their kids to practice on time, husbands with wives who prepared snacks and packed drinks and brought chairs and invited grandparents, wives with husbands who are coaching the teams, the good and wise and stress-free parents who did not get out of work at five to come home to a house of children unready to go anywhere, least of all to soccer practice.
“Does anyone know which field Aber’s Towing is practicing on?” I shout.
Five- and six-year-old boys’ soccer practice started this week and I already hate it. Elvis doesn’t even want to be here. He is switching between trying to balance his rear end on the soccer ball while the coach talks and concentrating on digging a hole in the sod with his cleat. He is running around the field with his hands in his pockets, playing with the quarters and dimes I didn’t know he brought with him, flipping the boundary markers back in place when the ball goes out of bounds. While Lydia gets her cleats and sprints from the car to the practice field each week, ball in hand, all he really wants to do is squeal, chase, elbow, and shove his teammates. My husband and I probably signed him up too early; he’s likely the youngest on the team and a head shorter than the rest of the boys. He could have done all of this at home.
Henry pushes against the stroller tray and whines. I’m out of Cheerios.
It isn’t that I hate sports. When I first met my husband, he was the athletic director at a small Christian school in Northeast Ohio. On weekends during the year we dated, Brandon asked me to run the clock at the scorekeeper’s table and quickly taught me to watch the ref and listen for his whistle, how to set the time-out clock and when to press the buzzer. He coached the varsity basketball team, reassured me when I turned red as the crowd yelled about the clock or score being wrong. During one contest, the clock box stopped working and as men screamed at me from the stands, my now-husband got on the loudspeaker, calmly asked for patience and then said, “Relax, people. Read your Bible.” He was reprimanded by the principal later.
When I wasn’t behind the bench, I went to every game I could in between classes and seasonal work, sat with each muscle in my body clenched as he yelled at refs, called time-outs, encouraged his team, and threw the occasional clipboard. It was easy to be swept away by the energy and excitement of a basketball game, the constant motion, the buzz of parents and family members watching the back and forth from offense to defense. They tabulated the minutes that passed since their kid had the ball last, since coach pulled him out and sat him down, since the other kid got put in the game. If the team was behind, it was because the point guard wouldn’t pass and no one would set up a screen so their son could shoot. When the ref missed a foul, they threw up their arms: Are you blind? They yelled, Pass him the ball! they yelled, Box out! they yelled, Rebound! they yelled, That’s a terrible call!
These kids weren’t my kids, but they were my boyfriend’s team, and when the intro music played and the announcer called in each student athlete, my heart swelled. I loved to watch the way he moved on the court, the way he was always thinking ahead, encouraging, teaching, pushing, and improvising. He demanded respect in his dress pants, sweater vest and tie but approached each student athlete like he was his brother or son, draped an arm around a shoulder or back and leaned in to embolden a weary guard. The same caring coach erupted at a ref immediately after a foul call, threw up his hands and boomed so every soul in the gymnasium could hear. It was for the benefit of his team that he yelled, but it made me shrink in my seat. It was his mission as a coach to light a fire in them, to make them want to win and teach them how to do it as a team. Being the girlfriend of this athlete and coach made me proud, even if entering the sporting world felt like learning a language for a country where they speak in whistles and flags.
I’ve never known this kind of passion, this intensity of competition. I was in marching band and drill team in high school. I read books for fun. My blood pressure is a steady 100/60. There aren’t many things I get fired up about. But for Brandon, competition is a driving force in his life. Each season since we met has been defined by sport, either coaching it, watching it, or working it. I just want to have a good time; I just want everyone to have a good time, and if that means I don’t try as hard at Scrabble so he can win…well, okay. Now we’re all happy.
The closest I come to understanding the team concept is in memories of practicing drills on the football field, except there was no team strategy, no last-minute shift in plans, no time-out to draw up a new approach. We marched into the stadium, marched onto the field, and marched into the stands. Then we adjusted our hats and plumes, rested our instruments in our laps, and gossiped for a quarter. A group of lanky brass players yelled, “They threw in the yellow hankie!” We startled to attention when the bass drummer beat 1-2-3-4 and the snare drum signaled instruments UP into the fight song. Apparently, we scored a touchdown. To compete, we chanted, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit, how ’bout you?” and every Columbia blue-clad band dork in white gloves pointed across the field at the opposing team’s band, waiting for their response. “We’ve got mo-ore, we’ve got mo-ore!”
There was a score, but it was measures of musical notes. There was a drill, but it was a rigid 8-to-5 march, turn at the bridge, count and play and march and count and play and listen for the staccato rap-tap-tap of the snare, watch for the raised wand of the conductor. No opponent’s tuba player charged from the sideline to blast the bass drummer or intersect the trumpeter. There was no piccolo stand-down on the forty-yard line to see who could trill the longest. We just…played.
Brandon and I practice soccer with Lydia and Elvis in the backyard on weekdays during soccer season. My workday is over and dinner is smoking on the grill. We set up vague goals between the playhouse and our neighbor’s cherry tree, the opposing goal between the ten-foot stretch of grass that separates our houses. Brandon passes the ball to Lydia and Lydia giggles and prances and I giggle and prance to defend her and Elvis giggles then grumbles then pouts. Eventually Elvis slumps off to the garage to find a tractor or dump truck to push in the sandbox. Brandon and I take turns blocking Henry from his tenacious attempts to waddle around the side of the house and into the street. As we kick the ball, Brandon gives Lydia some tips and encouragement, and we all cheer when she scores. She is elated but soon tires of soccer, skitters into the garage for her golf clubs, then her baseball glove, then her basketball.
Elvis and Henry squat next to the sandbox, maneuver die-cast tractors and equipment, pour the piles of grit from one hill to a bucket to another corner and then back. Brandon calls to Elvis, “Hey buddy, you want to play basketball with us?” and Elvis shakes his head, pushes the claw of the excavator into the sand. Brandon shakes his head and turns back to where Lydia is waiting to learn how to use the backboard to shoot.
I love watching Brandon with the kids on afternoons like this. During the summer, when he’s home more, they take long bike rides and chase each other on the playground. They shoot hoops or kick or throw or hit balls back and forth and laugh, he is the Tickle Monster in the living room, he is “it” on the playground and nearly knocks himself unconscious under the spiral slide, he is on his belly on the floor pushing cars and building Lego sets or assembling the Thomas train tracks for the 100th time, lecturing the boys for taking it apart, again. This time during the summers and the rare days when he is home are golden. I know how much fun they are having, my children and my husband. This is important to him. This is important to them. This is important to me.
And now I am at Lydia’s first basketball practice. I’ll refrain from going into all of the details about chasing Henry up and down the hallways, blockading him from trying to run onto the basketball court, laughing at him as he threw a mini-tantrum on the floor, and restraining him while he screamed and cried in my arms because he was tired. I also won’t mention how the parent meeting was supposed to take place at 7:00 but the speaker didn’t show up until 7:25, so I could have darted out with both boys until it was time for the parent meeting instead of trying to manage the over-tired toddler in the peripheral vision of all of the other parents with their perfect younger children sitting so obediently by their sides, or the other parents who have one perfect child, and that perfect child is on the court practicing, or the parents who left their crazy 19-month-old at home with someone else, maybe a grandparent or a sister or a dad.
Brandon is out of town, again. T.S. Eliot was wrong, it isn’t April that’s the cruelest month, it’s December, because that’s when football and basketball overlap, when my husband works basketball games on Tuesday nights and leaves Thursday for a college football game somewhere out of state and then returns on Saturday night or Sunday. December is when I foolishly forget about soccer season and indulge in fantasies about my orderly family arriving on time to weekend sporting events, sitting attentively and cheering when a sibling makes a move, or simply sitting still so I can clap with pride, clamp my palm against my chest to keep it from bursting with delight.
I want this to be fun. The optimist in me knows that it has the potential to be fun, and then nights like this happen and I watch myself yell and stomp and scream like I’m just a smidgen older than my 19-month-old, and then all three children are crying because Mom was mean and asked them to buckle their seatbelts so we could leave, so we could be ON TIME because that’s important, and please just get into the car sit DOWN, close the DOOR, buckle UP, let’s GO…
It isn’t that I hate sports. I really like baseball and basketball, football and volleyball, tennis and golf. My brothers and I played backyard baseball all summer long. The tall spruce in the front yard was second base, and when we reached it, we called in a ghost runner to take our place. I threw pop-ups to my brother in the side yard, and he sent them sailing back. Since then, I’ve played summer softball with girlfriends from church and golfed on autumn afternoons with my husband, whacked a tennis ball with a racket under lights. The first five years of my relationship with Brandon were spent at sporting events, him a coach and me an eager spectator. Date night was varsity basketball games or hot Sundays around a double-header baseball diamond. The two of us drove to Cleveland on summer days to sit along the third-base line and watch the Indians lose, like they do. I navigate the bleachers in Kates Gymnasium at Ashland in order to find a bench long enough for the five of us to sit to cheer the girls basketball team through an undefeated season, the kids most ecstatic when Tuffy the Eagle makes an appearance. On Sundays in the fall after lunch, the kids playing a game outside or in the basement, Brandon and I recline on the couch, snooze along while the Browns lose, like they do.
And when my husband is out of town, sometimes I’ll even venture out to attend a Saturday football game, watching the scoreboard from the Little Tikes playground as twenty toddlers and elementary-aged girls squeal and run. I cheer when the quarterback makes a successful pass, mumble They threw in the yellow hankie!, anticipate the cannon’s boom and my youngest son’s sudden wail at what he didn’t know to expect. I escort the kids back to our seats to watch the half-time show, the part I know best, and then it’s time to go, our patience for sitting still expired and my willingness to watch from the playground over.
But when my husband is out of town, and I have to set my alarm clock on Saturday mornings so that I can take my three children to soccer games or basketball games in which at least one child whines for a snack or cries because he’s too cold or bored or wants to run across the court to get the ball and won’t sit on my lap, and when I forget the drink or snack or forget that it’s picture day, or forget the water bottle or cleats or hair twisty or which way the shin guards go, or we’re running late and one child won’t put on his shoes or coat and takes twenty minutes to get out the door…well, then I hate sports.
I’ve been trying to figure out why, exactly. It isn’t the sport. It isn’t the noise. It isn’t that I live in a town without family, with friends whose kids are unborn or younger, swinging this sport-thing, kid-thing, weekend-thing alone. I hate sports on mornings like these because they make me feel incompetent. They expose the side of me that isn’t sharpened and honed, that isn’t professional and collected. They reveal the skillset I lack: no one is impressed with my resume on Saturday when I forget the snack. No, I am not actually perfect; no, I cannot actually do everything, like I try to do. No, this isn’t fun, and I hate that you are seeing me this way, I hate that I am back in middle school with my greasy hair pulled back in a high ponytail, glasses sliding down my nose, braces protruding from a nervous grin because I’m fine, I’m fine, all is great, can’t you see I’m okay and happy and fine?
I keep thinking that next season will be better. Soccer is coming again in the spring. Brandon will be traveling, again, and lately my sanity has been leaking out from underneath the lid of my travel coffee cup. I keep sipping at it, SLURP SLURP but it just keeps dripping. It’s only one season, and baseball is right around the corner, in the summer when it’s warmer and sunnier and brighter and my husband is home more, here to coach their team, and I’ll become one of the perfect parents, the coach’s wife, a role I know, and I’ll only need to bribe Henry with snacks, keep Henry contained on a blanket or chase him down the left-field line, and maybe I’ll even have time to change out of my dress pants for once, into something more suitable, like jeans, like a t-shirt, maybe pull my hair back into a high ponytail and smile.
Brandon and I stand in the kitchen and watch the kids playing in the yard from the window. Brandon runs his fingers through his hair. “I know this is going to sound weird,” he says, “but the other day, I was thinking about how mad Elvis makes me, how slow he is to get ready, how he doesn’t respond when I ask him questions, and I swear God said, not out loud or anything, ‘He’s not a little Brandon. Stop trying to make him into a little Brandon.’” My husband wipes his eyes. I wrap my arms around him. I doubt that Elvis will play soccer this spring. He will run around the yard dressed as a cowboy or Superman, assemble Star Wars Lego sets, collect a bag of cars and run them across the carpet, play tag with the neighbors’ kids, giggle and squeal and then push tractors in the sandbox until someday, maybe he’ll ask us if he can play baseball or soccer or golf, or maybe, maybe the trumpet, maybe the drums, the piano, sit quietly in a corner with a pile of books, push a pencil across paper, whatever, son, whatever your heart desires.
At the last basketball game of the season, the announcer asks us all to stand and honor two of the fathers in the audience, just returned from a year of military duty. The crowd applauds and they smile shyly. Afterward in the team meeting, the coach chokes back tears and says, “Two of our girls got their daddies back this week,” and now I’m crying. I look around at the women I haven’t paid much attention to before, women who have been coming to these practices and games all along, usually with a daughter or son on their lap or playing a game in the corner, women who have looked calm and content, like they have it all together, the women who are now standing beside the husbands they’ve seen over Skype, emailed, or talked to by telephone exclusively, for twelve months. Twelve months, I think, when I have my husband every six days or four days or three, or for three in a row and then five in a row and then one.
They are quiet, modest women with military t-shirts and jackets and bumper stickers. They are women who cart their children from one activity to the next, alone, sometimes arriving on time and sometimes late, sometimes showered and sometimes not, sometimes with makeup but most of the time, no. They have been keeping it together, alone. They are grinning now, an arm draped loosely over their children’s shoulders and the other snug around their husband’s waist, and there in the middle, they cling to whatever they can to carry them through these lonely days.
I look around the room of parents. Suddenly I see them. The grandparents who are there each week, I realize, are with their recently divorced daughter. The mother next to me just got off the night shift. The mother in another row has a husband who drives trucks for a living, leaves at 6:00 p.m. and returns the next day at 11:00 a.m. to sleep for five hours, see his wife and their kids, and then leave again. As Henry arches his back against the floor and cries, their stares now feel a little bit more like mercy and a little less like judgment. Suddenly I am not so alone.
I set the Saturday alarm and showered even though I could’ve slept a little longer under the warm comforter. Before the game, I packed a purseful of dried cranberries and cashews because they both take forever to chew and aren’t as filling, tossed in two bananas for good measure. Thirty minutes before it was time to go to the game I told the kids to get dressed, and twenty minutes later we were still looking for Lydia’s shorts, and Elvis was still in his pajamas picking at his toenails in the hallway while Henry waddled to the bathroom to splash his hand in the toilet. I almost lost it, but then the shorts turned up in a basket in the basement, Elvis had clothes on and just needed to find a coat, and Henry was following me around with his shoes. I corralled them into the entryway and tabulated the arsenal—jogging stroller, DVD player, snacks, water bottle, canned goods for the food drive, tennis shoes, Leapster, purse, cell phone, car keys—and someone was whining about bringing a toy for the ride, but it’s ten minutes down the road. We trudged out into the snow and loaded up accompanied by the usual pre-game lecture—sit DOWN, close the DOOR, buckle UP, let’s GO—and backed out the drive to the game.
Henry wanted to walk into the gym, so I let him. Elvis carried the Millennium Falcon in and set up camp with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker on a chair in the corner while Henry marched up and down the carpeted ramp until the game began, and then I wrestled him into the seat. When he started to arch his back and whine, I asked him, “You want a cookie?” and he said, “Yeah,” relaxed long enough for me to snap the buckle shut. The game began, Lydia hustling up and down the court defending when she was meant to defend and working to get open when the ball was in a teammate’s hands. Because technology is amazing, I called my husband via Skype while he worked in the TV truck in some other city, and he watched his daughter dribble, defend, and shoot from his computer. “I wish I could be there,” he said, over and over.
I slipped Henry some cranberries and a couple of cashews throughout the hour, and when it was over, my heart rate was still normal. “We’ll call you later. I love you. See you tomorrow,” I tell my husband through the camera on my phone. We survived another hour of competitive sports. It was fun. We made adjustments.
Sarah M. Wells is wife, mom, managing editor and writer-lady with a book of poems and a memoir-in-progress called American Honey. Follow her at @sarah_wells or sarahmwells.blogspot.com.