It’s Tuesday afternoon. He runs into my room wearing cleats, shin guards and socks that are so long on his still tiny legs that they reach up over his knees and need to be folded over. I sigh and follow him down the stairs and out into the garage, and before I get in and turn the key in the ignition, I put a hand on his cheek. “You going to have fun and listen, right?”
He nods. I take a deep breath and hope it will be different, but some things either don’t change, or aren’t going to change for a long time. He’s no more a soccer player than I’m a soccer mom.
That’s part of the problem: me. I’m an abject failure at this so far. Last Tuesday, we had three kids that had to make it to practice at 5:30 p.m., and the practices were in three locations. Our daughter rode with neighbors, and I drew the easiest lot: taking our middle son, Jim, to his practice.
I paced around and fidgeted and tried to watch Jim run through his drills. I talked to other moms. And then, at 6:15, I checked my watch. Practice was ending at 7, which meant I had time for a 3-mile run. Twenty minutes later, I paused in the thick early September air and checked my watch. It was 6:33, which gave me plenty of time to make it back to the fields with ten minutes to spare. I smiled. Damn, was I on my game, for once.
As I loped back onto field eight a little bit later, a sense of panic overtook me. Those aren’t the same kids, I realized.
Then I heard a little voice screeching my name, “Mom!”
I caught a glimpse of my son standing on the running board of a tan SUV. What the hell is going on, I muttered, and before I could ask the coach what happened, my husband drove up in his black sedan, and smiled at me. The coach had called him because, well, practice had ended at 6:30. I apologized of course, but I felt awful.
At Wendy’s an hour later, I looked over my diet soda at my husband. “How did it go?”
He shook his head. And then, with a bemused smile, he replied, “Ben went searching for fossils.”
I chuckled. “Fossils?”
“Yeah. And when the team scrimmaged, he walked off the field, in search of four leaf clovers.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, his facial expression switching between laughter and frustration. “And then, when the coach told the kids to run around the field, he was in the lead. Then he stopped to look at something. And then, when he ran next to his teammates, they turned left, to follow the field, and he turned right, ran down a hill, and in the opposite direction from everyone else.”
I covered my eyes and giggled. “Wow.”
“Will you please take him next time?”
I looked over at my children, who were busy eating and elbowing each other. “I’ll take him to his game Saturday.”
Fast forward to Saturday’s game. I fidgeted and paced and observed Ben doing anything on the field but playing soccer. He never even touched the ball. When it came his way, he seemed to run in the opposite direction. He bent over in search of bones, fossils, pretty crystals (rocks) and four leaf clovers.
Seeing a couple of dads running around the fields, I joined them. Maybe if I help out, I can get Ben engaged, or so I thought. I had no effect on Ben, other than to confuse the hell out of him. The other dads ignored me. It felt like I was invisible. And then the ball flew toward me, and I’ve replayed this over and over again, because I’m not sure if I did this on purpose or was completely passive when the ball hit me in the hip. I suspect that it was a little bit of both. I’m a lifetime athlete, and when a ball comes my way, my instinct is to go and get it. This instinct to go for the ball is every bit as strong as a border collie’s instinct to herd, or a golden retriever’s inability NOT to chase after an object in flight.
Whatever I did or didn’t do, I wasn’t expecting what happened. The other dad on the field helping our team, an assistant coach, yelled at me to get off the field. “Let the kids play.” And so, with my head down and my face and neck turning even redder than the sun was making them, I headed off the field, where my in-laws sat.
“That was your fault,” my father-in-law snapped at me as he caught me muttering a protest under my breath. “You should not have gotten in the way of the ball. This isn’t your game.”
I stood there, several feet away from him, and tried to listen to this friend of mine, this dad who always has a story to tell, but I couldn’t follow him. Tears were falling down my face, and even though my dark sunglasses hid my eyes, he could see me shaking all over.
“Hey,” he whispered, as he reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay. I’ve been ordered off the field before. To be honest, you did get in the way of the ball.”
“I know,” I sobbed, barely able to speak, “But I’m so embarrassed. Why did he have to do that? Yell at me in front of everyone else? And then my father-in-law has gotta pile on, and he’s never said a nice word to me, not ever.” I cried harder and harder, and my friend listened and tried to make me feel better.
“I’d give you a hug,” he added, his eyes moving from the field to me and back to the field, “But I don’t wanna embarrass you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Sometime in the middle of this, my daughter had arrived, still wearing her soccer uniform from her earlier game. She tried her best to make me feel better, and I tried my best not to cry in front of her. After the game ended, I tracked down the assistant coach, and with tears again falling, I asked him not to ever yell at me in public, and explained about my son, and how he’s doing his best. And so was I.
As I touched Ben’s cheek on Tuesday afternoon, all of this flashed through my mind, and I knew it wouldn’t be any better at practice, but I knew I wouldn’t love my son any less. Sure enough, we couldn’t find the practice field, and I was too anxious and nervous to ask anyone. We were a few minutes late. And we forgot our ball. And Ben ran in the wrong direction of the ball, searched for four leaf clovers, hung off the goal posts, and barely a soccer ball.
When it was over, he asked me how he did. With his gray-blue eyes looking very blue, he chirped, “Am I a good soccer player, Mom?”
I looked down into his eyes and thought of my friend, the dad who put a hand on my shoulder when I cried tears of humiliation and frustration at Ben’s game on Saturday, and I smiled. I wrapped my arm around his shoulders and kissed his head. “I love you.”
“But am I a good soccer player?”
I’m not a fan of lying to my son. The truth is, he’s no more a soccer player than I’m a soccer Mom. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s okay. And we’re going to be okay.
I smiled at him. “I love you.” With eyes shielded from the setting sun, I held his hand and we rambled off to face the close of another day.