Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An October roller coaster of emotions

This is a long post. Absurdly long. You don't have to read it. Really, you don't. I just had a lot to say, is all. If you want to read it, go ahead. I just felt I should warn you...

Bill Cosby began what is, for my money, one of his funniest stand-up comedy routines many years ago by saying, "I must tell you about my problems driving around San Francisco..."

Of course, there was nothing "must" about it. He wanted to tell you about those problems, and you wanted to listen because you knew it was going to be funny. Or at least you wanted to be nice to Bill, back when he seemed like a person to whom you should be nice.

In the same way, I must tell you about the emotionally exhausting ordeal that has been my October 2016 to this point. I don't "have" to tell you about it, but I want to tell you about it, and I thank you so much for listening. Or reading, I guess.

Sports, kids, and painful nutshots

If you're someone who indulges me on Facebook, you know that most of my posts these days have something to do with my kids' sports activities. The youngest three are all in the latter stages of their soccer seasons, and of course Jared, my 18-year-old, is also serving as the kicker for my beloved Wickliffe Blue Devils football team.

There are highs and lows when you're the parent of an athlete. You rejoice when they succeed, you agonize when they fall a little short, and you cry inside when they have a difficult time or seem to be losing their enjoyment of the sport, for whatever reason.

Jack, who is 10, is playing his first season of travel soccer. He's a defender, and his team is very good. Very, very good, actually. Jack has had periods when he plays every minute of every game, and other times when he sits the bench. This level of soccer is new to him, and while he has mostly adapted well, there are still things for him to learn. His coach, Arturo, is tough but fair. You earn your spot and you work to keep it. That's the way life goes, and I don't think 10 years old is too early to learn the lesson.

Melanie is a sophomore in high school, and statistically she has had a tougher time this year than she did as a freshman. She's a forward, so Mel measures herself by statistical output: Goals and assists. As of this writing she has one of each. Last season she had something like seven goals and two assists. The fact is, the talent level on her team has risen noticeably this year, and playing time is harder to come by. Again, you get it by earning it.

Virtually no soccer player I've coached or watched over the past 15 years works harder than Melanie. She's the soccer equivalent of a hockey grinder: Someone who goes out there and fights for loose balls, bangs bodies and plays physically when needed, and consistently puts her head down and does the dirty work in front of the goal. Those are the types of things that help teams win, even if they don't always show up on the stat sheet.

Mel is going through a crisis of faith these days. She's a bit disillusioned by her position in the team hierarchy, and she doesn't see much room for upward movement in the next two seasons. My advice to her is simple: Keep doing what you're doing. Work on every facet of your game: Ball control, first touches, decision making, speed, conditioning, etc. Be the hardest working player on the field. The rest will take care of itself.

Not a bad lesson there, eh?

And then there's my boy, Jared. He's one of two boys I have, of course, but for a long time before Jack came along, I simply referred to him as The Boy. And let me tell you, that boy is one busy dude these days.

He's a starting forward on the boys high school soccer team, and the team's second-leading scorer. He does the kicking thing in football, of course, and he also puts on his saxophone and plays (while still in his football uniform) at halftime on Friday nights. Every day is another practice or game, or a combination of all of the above.

He is nearing the end of a football career that began three years ago, but more importantly, of a soccer career that began when he was a fuzzy-headed, six-year-old kindergartner. That's how it is when you're a senior in high school: You do something for years and years and work so hard to get better at it, and then suddenly it's over. Unless you're one of the handful of people who go on to play at the collegiate level, you're done. Just like that. Done.

This realization is coming quickly for Jared. It will all hit him in 3-4 weeks when his fall activities end without the promise of a next year. Part of him will be relieved, I'm sure, as the grind of fall sports and band starts to wear on him noticeably after a while. But part of him will grieve, no doubt in that silent, I've-got-this, keep-it-to-yourself manner of Jared.

And if I'm being honest, I will grieve right along with him. I love watching him play. Just love it. I love watching all of my kids play, but you only get the Senior Experience once, and it has been wonderful. He plays some sort of key role in everything he does, and I couldn't be more proud of him.

But the rest of Jared's life is calling to him, urging him to move on from where he is now and to experience new adventures. I'm excited for him, but I'm going to be so sad when this all comes to a screeching halt in November.

Oh, but you know what I won't miss? Jared taking hard-hit soccer balls to his testicles. Seriously, this happens to him at least once a season. He'll be going about his business playing the game, and someone on the other team will inadvertently launch a rocket shot that will absolutely destroy his Man Region. Jared goes down, he gets tended to by a snickering coach or trainer, both teams on the field laugh while trying to seem like they're not, Jared gets up and hobbles off, and he comes back later in more or less decent shape.

This has happened so many times that I can't imagine watching him go through it again. Maybe it's just as well this soccer thing is about to end.

As for football? Well, Jared has settled into a nice routine every game of executing a series of pooch kickoffs and converting extra points. He had some trouble on the extra points earlier this season, but now he has rounded into form, and the team itself is 6-2 and on its way to its best record in 15+ years. And there may be playoff football in our future, which is stunning.

So I start thinking about whether Jared will be called on to decide one of those playoff games. He hasn't kicked a single field goal in three years of varsity football. Not one. Twice he has lined up to attempt field goal kicks, and both times they were blocked.

What if they send him out there to decide a game with a 35-yard field goal in the final seconds of the fourth quarter? Physically I know he can do it (easily, actually), but mentally, how will he handle it? How will I handle it, for crying out loud?

I'll tell you how I'll handle it: by fainting. Seriously, I'll just pass out on the spot. I'll never see whether the kick is successful or not, because I'll be laid out flat on the bleachers while everyone else is watching nervously.

I'm tough that way.

Saint Terry: The Savior of Our Lives

I am married, as it turns out, to one of the most amazing people on the planet. I've said this before, and if you know her then you know the truth of my words. She is a whirlwind of ability, empathy, laughter and grit. She keeps six of us going every day while maintaining a house that has somehow not fallen down around us in the 13 years we've lived there.

She is, in short, the most remarkable person I've ever met. By a longshot. No disrespect to you or me or anything, but we simply don't come close to her on the Awesomeness Scale.

Which is why her recent emotional struggles have come as a bit of a shock.

When I say "emotional struggles," I don't mean she's going nuts or anything. I just mean that even the mighty Terry has reached the limits of her endurance at a time of year when she is constantly being called on to drive a kid to practice, mend a band uniform, clean up a mess someone else has made, or tend to a very sick cat (more on that in a bit).

Some people can handle more than others. Terry's threshold for work and responsibility is high, but it is not infinite. And over the past several weeks, we've finally reached it.

Which is why I've been on the kids and on myself to step up our games. It never should have gotten to this point in the first place. The family, as a whole, allowed itself to grow entirely too dependent on Mom. That's not good for her, and it's certainly not good for them. You raise independent, resourceful adults by forcing them to be independent and resourceful kids.

We're working on it. Some are better than others, but I'm confident we'll all get there.

In the meantime, Mom has applied for a job for the first time in nearly 20 years. I won't get into the details here, but suffice it to say that she has an interview in a few days, and I know she'll do great. Because that's who she is. If and when she gets the position, even though it's only part time, we're all going to have to adjust and fend for ourselves a little bit more.

This is, by all accounts, a good thing.

Yeah, he was just a cat, but...

A few hours ago, before I had the chance sit down and eat my lunch as I type out this post, I took our cat Bert to the vet and had him euthanized.

That's the medical term they use for it, of course: "euthanized."

What it means, in reality, is that I allowed the doctor to inject a lethal substance into his veins that almost instantly ended the life of the beautiful mess that was Bert.

That phrase "beautiful mess" came from our friend Kelly Gabriel, and I love it. They are the two words that best encapsulate the Bert ethos.

My oldest daughter, Elissa, found Bert sick, cold and alone on Eddy Road one winter evening a few years ago. She called Terry, and they took this smelly, bedraggled creature home. A long bath, a warm bed and several bowls of cat food later, he joined our household as Cat #4 (there would later be five).

We don't know where Bert came from, but it was always clear that his ordeal had left him permanently shy of 100% health. He was fat, he walked with a limping waddle, and one eye appeared to be semi-functional, at best. But he was so, so lovable. He enjoyed being petted. He enjoyed being fed. He enjoyed sleeping in sunbeams.

And best of all, he seemed to enjoy being part of our family.

Not long ago, it became clear that something was wrong. First it was an infection in his mouth. Then it was clear he wasn't eating or drinking much. We quickly discovered that he couldn't eat or drink much, because something was wrong with his tongue. It stuck out sideways, and he couldn't coordinate it with his mouth and jaw to draw in needed food and water.

There was something neurological going on with Bert, though we honestly never paid the vast sums it would have taken to determine exactly what. A brain tumor? A stroke? Something else? Who knows? What was obvious was that Saint Terry, who made it her personal mission to care for Bert every day despite the fact that he couldn't clean himself and quickly became repulsive and smelly, couldn't hand feed this increasingly emaciated feline every day for the rest of his life.

And so the decision was made to put him down. I took him in because there was no way Terry should have had to do that herself. She had already done more than her fair share. The vet, Dr. Richman, was so incredibly kind and empathetic. It was almost as if it pained him more to put Bert to sleep than it did for us to agree to let it happen.

The process itself, if you haven't been through it, is quick and almost painless for the animal. Bert was gone before they even finished fully injecting him with whatever it is they use for this sort of thing. His eyes didn't close. They were just kind of half open. But the life that had been in them moments earlier was obviously gone. It was his body, but it wasn't Bert.

I teared up a little, and not just for Bert. My heart hurts for him, but it hurts even more for the people in my house who loved him. They're dealing with this in different ways, so if you're a praying person, I would appreciate it if you said a few words for them this week.

Which I know sounds silly to those who don't own pets. I realize he was just a cat, but to say that is to deny the reality that Bert was also a presence in our house. He was a personality with whom all of us dealt, just as surely as we deal with each other every day.

And now he's gone. And he's never coming back. The dynamic in our home changes just a little. Among the remaining four cats, it changes a lot.

Ginny, our little semi-kitten, loved Bert. She slept virtually on top of him, helped him clean himself, tagged along sometimes when he walked around the house, and clearly preferred spending time with him more than any of us. It was cute.

Then Bert got sick. And Ginny's tune changed quickly. She avoided Bert. Even hissed at him. A few times in the last week or two, I would see her sneak up on Bert to sniff him. She would get close and take in a good whiff, and quickly recoil.

But you can't blame her. This was nature at work. Pure instinct. Bert had the smell of death about him, and animals avoid death. It's how they're programmed. What had been a loving relationship, at least the way we saw it, quickly became avoidance. Fickle little Ginny moved on to Charlie as her cat buddy. Together I'm sure they'll continue terrorizing the white cats, brothers Fred and George.

And they'll do it without the help of Bert. I don't know how cats' memories work, but I wonder if there will always be a little bit of him in Ginny's mind. I wonder if she'll miss him. Maybe not.

We sure will.

In the end, an October to remember

I have a meeting to get to, so I need to finish lunch and stop typing. But I can't leave without mentioning my Cleveland Indians, who in a few hours will play for the right to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1997.

The year 2016 has been a magical ride for those of us who call ourselves Cleveland sports fans. We endured a comically long period of athletic ineptitude in this town that ended abruptly in one 10-day stretch this past June when the Lake Erie Monsters won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup, and their Quicken Loans Arena roommates the Cleveland Cavaliers captured their first NBA title shortly thereafter.

I had seen so much losing in my lifetime that you would think I would still be on Cloud Nine over these championships.

But in a very real way, I'm not.

And I'll be the first to admit the reason is silly and childish. I never fully embraced or celebrated either title because I wasn't here to see them. I was in Europe for both. When the Monsters won the Cup with a dramatic 1-0 Game 4 victory over Hershey, it was Terry and Jared who sat in our season ticket seats and rejoiced. I was in a hotel room in London on a business trip.

And when the Cavs completed their incredible comeback series win over the Golden State Warriors, I woke up to the news in Barcelona.

That wasn't how it was supposed to happen. It just wasn't. I was supposed to be there with Jared when the Monsters won, and I was supposed to be watching with Jared in our living room when the Cavs finished off the Warriors.

But I wasn't. Best laid plans and all that sort of thing, I suppose.

Again, I know this is stupid, and that I really should be happy for Terry and Jared that they got to witness what they did. I just struggle with it. My dumb little cross to bear.

Enter the 2016 Cleveland Indians.

The Indians were the first sports team with which I fell in love (a statement I realize makes almost no sense to someone who isn't a sports fan). Specifically, it was the 1979 Cleveland Indians. They were a mediocre team that won as much as they lost, finishing in their customary sixth place in the American League's East Division.

But they were my team. The first time I had ever had a "my team." I followed those guys every day in in the paper and on TV. Toby Harrah, Duane Kuiper, Andre Thornton, Bobby Bonds, Mike Hargrove, Wayne Garland. Names that mean almost nothing to most people now, but that meant a lot to me as a 10-year-old fan.

The Tribe has been to the World Series twice in my lifetime, losing in 1995 to the Atlanta Braves and (painfully, unbelievably) in 1997 to the Florida Marlins.

And now they're almost back. One more win and they play for the title, preferably against the Chicago Cubs because that sort of perennial loser vs. perennial loser story is too good for the journalist in me to pass up.

I've been staying up late to watch the Indians games with Jared and paying the price the next day in the form of bloodshot eyes and a stuffy nose. I need more rest, but I won't get it until the playoffs are over.

Hopefully they end with the Indians celebrating yet another Cleveland sports championship. As the guy said on TNT the moment the Cavs won their title, "Cleveland is a city of champions once again!" Unreal.

I want the Indians to win because I want the Indians to win, of course. But selfishly again, I want them to win so I can jump up and down with Jared and hug him and think of my dad and probably start crying.

I cry easily these days. I cry thinking about people who are gone (my dad, my sister), pets we've loved, my kids, my sports teams, etc. Only some of those things are truly worthy of tears, but there you have it.

I am, in the end, a nearly-47-year-old suburban father of five doing my best. And I realize my dad was much the same before me.

So it goes. So it has always gone. So it always will be.

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