One of the many things that get short shrift in most handbooks for parents of elite athletes is the question of the other kids in the family. True, some families are so deeply committed to a sport that it would be unthinkable for a sibling not to play. Most of us, though, have children with varied interests, and the tug-of-war can be excruciating.
The Tree Climber
One cold November weekend, I took my younger son Dan to play a crucial tournament in New Hampshire. His brother, Luke, then 14, had gotten into rock-climbing the summer before, an exciting activity that had spilled over into tree-climbing at home. More than once, working in my upstairs study, I’d heard Luke calling to me and been unable to locate the sound until I looked out the window and saw him at roof height in the tall maple that graced our front yard. “You’re scaring me to death!” I would tell him, and I would stand underneath the tree until he’d worked his way down.
Luke was also at an age where the Youth Group at our local Unitarian church was a safe place to start flirting with girls. So, while Dan was playing the semi-finals of the tournament in New Hampshire, Luke was with his father, Mark, at the church.
The Tennis Player
Watching the second set from the airless upper room of the indoor tennis club, I got a cell phone call. I stepped outside, service being almost nil indoors. It was Mark, at the hospital with Luke. It seemed that the Youth Group had broken up before the coffee hour was over. Bored with adult conversation, Luke had attempted a tall evergreen at the back of the church parking lot. He fell 35 feet, breaking five bones in his back. Looking through the glass at Dan playing, I felt my chest pulling in two. “Is he in pain?” I asked Mark. “What are they doing for him? Can he walk?”
“They’ve got him on morphine,” Mark said. “The doctor thinks he’ll be fine, but they’re doing X-rays. They’ll keep him overnight.” When I didn’t answer right away, he added, “You don’t need to be here right now. He’s sleeping. Just … as soon as you get back.”
This was a big concession from Mark, who had never been very supportive of Dan’s tennis ambitions. “Dan’ll be in the finals in an hour,” I said. “If I let him play – I’d say four hours till we’re home.”
“I’ll tell Luke when he’s awake.”
I thought to myself: I am an awful parent. My son has broken five bones in his back, and I am not doing 80 down the interstate, flying to his side.
I thought to myself: My son is going to be fine. His father is at his side. He’s asleep. My being there would make no difference.
I thought to myself: I am a coward. I can bear the thought of Luke’s being asleep alone on morphine better than I can bear the thought of Dan’s howling that I ruined his chances for national ranking. I am a bad parent.
When Dan came off the court, I shared the news. “We don’t have to leave, do we?” he said.
“I’m wondering how tired you are,” I said. “If we can step up the final.”
His eyes flicked from me to the other kids to the court. Somewhere behind his selfishness lay a concern for his brother, to which he could not admit. “I’m fine,” he finally said. “I can get a Gatorade and a Powerbar and go right back out.”
“Great,” I said.
I kept leaving the waiting area to take phone calls from Mark, but I watched enough to know Dan was playing badly in the final. “What’s up?” asked the mother of a boy playing for third place, on the next court.
“My older son,” I answered. “Fell from a tree. He’s in the hospital.”
“My god,” she said. “I’d be frantic.”
“I am frantic,” I said.
Her son came off court and stayed to watch. I heard him tell his mother, “Dan’s stinking out there. He shouldn’t be in the final.”
“You hush,” his mother said. “He just learned his brother’s in the hospital.”
Tennis, I thought, following her gaze out to where Dan had just double-faulted, is all about controlling emotions. But in my son’s case, it was all about channeling them too. Everything he could not say about his love for Luke was there in his distracted stroke, his effort to stay in the game.
As soon as Dan lost, we hightailed it home, two hours in the gathering dark, to where Luke lay doped up on a hospital bed, peeing through a catheter. “Hey Dan,” he said sleepily as soon as we burst in. “How’d you do?”
“Better’n you, I guess,” said Dan. Then he sat in the one chair, blood draining from his face.
I remember that afternoon because it reminds me not only that you can’t be two places at once, or that accidents can happen no matter who’s in charge, but also that results are rarely the thing that matters. One way of looking at this incident is to say I did the wrong thing in two ways. That is, if I was going to tell Dan about his brother’s accident, I should have insisted that he default the final match and come home. If I was going to allow Dan to play the final, I should have kept mum about his brother and thus enabled him to play his best game and possibly win.
But this one match, important though it was, neither made nor broke Dan’s national ranking. And I believe one important aspect of growing up is making our own decisions about what we can handle and what we can’t, what we care about and what we don’t care about. In this case, Dan thought he could handle playing that final match because he cared more about tennis than about his brother. He learned he was wrong. As for me—well, I still don’t know. Mostly, I am grateful that both my sons forgave me—Luke for not rushing immediately to his side, Dan for giving him information that played havoc with his concentration. We mothers, so easily prey to feelings of guilt, need every ounce of forgiveness we can get.