In matters of life and death, it’s hard to believe that sports matter.
“Haley, pay attention!” Megan, the team captain, shouts. The sound echoes in the small utility room the Central High women’s soccer team uses for our meetings. “It’s important you know where to be when we’re defending a corner kick.”
I try to—really I do—but the X’s and O’s blur on the whiteboard as unshed tears hang in the corner of my eyes. The thought comes, the one I’ve had over and over since my mom died last winter: Why do I bother playing? Sports seem so…unimportant, trivial, pointless. Shouldn’t I be doing something more worthwhile with my precious time on Earth?
When I told my dad I was considering not going out for soccer this year, my senior year, he gave me the old “That’s not what your mother would have wanted” speech. So I tried out and made varsity again.
For the most part, I manage to put aside my ambivalence and give my all during the games, but practices and meetings are tougher. At least no one’s complained about my performance, and I’m leading the team in assists, so there’s that. But that’s just it: I don’t really care if we win or lose.
It’s my commitment to the team that’s gotten me through the season so far…and my dad. He shows up for every game, cheering and smiling from the sidelines. It’s one of the only times I see him smile.
I heave a sigh and rest my head on my hand. Megan’s pre-game strategy session drags on, her voice and the tick of the clock not enough to keep thoughts of my mother at bay. How I would visit her in the hospital when she was in for chemotherapy, reading to her until she fell asleep. The silence in the room when the doctor said the cancer was terminal and recommended stopping treatment. The feel of her limp hand in mine when she took her last breaths. At least she was home with me and my father when she died, like she had wanted.
I look around and no one else seems to notice how warm the room has become. Brooke and Sadie both sit upright, raptly paying attention to Megan. Denise picks her nails and exchanges a look of boredom with Mac, both of them probably figuring they can get away with not paying attention because they’re seniors.
And I’m remembering my mom, not the pink hue of her cheeks when she would come back in from her early morning runs. Nope, all I can picture is the sallow, sunken look of her face right before she died. My chest tightens and it’s hard to breathe, like my insides are filling with molten lead. It’s like this at school, too. I can’t focus in class and my grades have slipped, but the teachers are all cutting me some slack, given my “situation.”
The meeting ends and we head to the locker rooms to change into our uniforms. As I lace up my cleats, I try to force the heaviness from my chest. Pretty soon the noise of the game will drown out my sorrow and I’ll be able to focus on playing.
Once warm-ups are done, I take my place at center midfield and wait for the whistle to blow. I catch my dad’s eye and wave. A wide grin spreads across his face and he waves at me with one hand. His other holds a mini school flag, which is red with a white bulldog on it.
“Go dogs!” he shouts. I can’t help but smile back. His enthusiasm is catching and helps me focus on the game.
The tough match demands all of my attention. The bliss of being lost in the moment overtakes me. We’re locked up 0-0 at half, neither team able to put one into the net. The second half is just as brutal as the first.
Megan is a tornado on the field, screaming directions to the team and doing some of the best defending of her life. Olivia, the goalie, makes a spectacular save to keep the game scoreless. By the 85th minutes, my body is heavy, but not because of grief; it’s simply the fatigue of a hard fought game.
One of the opposing team’s forwards bends a nasty shot toward Olivia, who just manages to swat it away. The ball bounces off Denise on defense and out of bounds. It’s a corner kick for the other team.
Megan screams, “Remember your positions!”
My heart drops as I think about the strategy session…and my mom. I try to push those thoughts away, but my vision blurs. The aching heaviness of mourning compounds the fatigue of playing. I have no idea where I’m supposed to be, so I stand next to a random opponent and hope the ball doesn’t come my way.
The ball thumps across the field from the corner and soars into the box in front of the goal. I can barely see it though my tears. The player I’m supposed to be covering is several feet away, and I’m dumbly standing on the goal line. She volleys it right for the net. Olivia is too far right to make the save.
Of its own accord, my body dives feet first to the left. I have no recollection of doing it myself, like someone else has taken over my faculties. The ball hits my shin and bounces away before being cleared by Megan.
The referee blows three long toots on the whistle, signaling the end of the game. My teammates crowd around me, while I remain on the ground, stunned over what has just happened. They help me stand and despite the fatigue, a lightness has taken over my body.
Megan squeals in delight, “We’re still undefeated!” Mac, Denise, and Olivia surround me. Brooke pats me on the back and says, “Nice save, Haley.”
I glance into the stands. My dad is hugging the other parents. Then he’s bounding down the stairs and onto the field. He rushes over and wraps me in a hug.
“I think mom was watching,” he whispers into my ear. “She would be so proud.”
I nod into his shoulder and burst into tears. I don’t stay it to my dad, but I think my mom was more than watching. As unbelievable as sounds, I think she helped me make that save.
I watch my dad cheer and celebrate with my teammates and realize that although sports may not cure cancer or stop wars, they are healing in their own way. Like a good book or movie, they let us forget our troubles for a little while and revel in the moment. I guess my mom wanted to remind me of that.
For the first time in a long time, I consider the idea of playing in college…as long as it doesn’t interfere with my studies to become a doctor.
Want more from the young women on the Central High School varsity team? Check out these other Tales from the Field: "Captain Megan", "Addison in Love?", and "Lucky Brooke".
Katie L. Carroll is a mother, writer, editor, and soccer player. She began writing at a very sad time in her life after her 16-year-old sister, Kylene, unexpectedly passed away. Since then writing has taken her to many wonderful places, real and imagined. She wrote her YA fantasy ELIXIR BOUND so Kylene could live on in the pages of a book. Katie is also the author of the picture app THE BEDTIME KNIGHT and a contributor to THE GREAT CT CAPER, a serialized mystery for young readers. She lives not too far from the beach in a small Connecticut city with her husband and sons. For more about Katie, visit her website at www.katielcarroll.com.