He was 18, and I had no business being there. It was too much, too soon, and yet, I didn’t want to leave.
I was playing right defense on my brother Scott’s “over-the-hill” soccer team, guarding a kid who’d tagged along with his dad so he could get ready for his league match later that day. Apparently, dribbling around me – a middle-aged mother of two who was not quite a year in remission from an aggressive form of lymphoma – was this kid’s warm-up. For me though, just standing on the turf field in my soccer cleats so soon after completing six rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation was a comeback. Or it was supposed to be.
When he blasted a shot on goal past me, I looked over at the giant blue “W” painted in the middle of the field and thought: W, for What the hell was I thinking? And then the ball – and that kid – headed my way again.
Scott must have sensed that I would need some back-up during my first post-cancer game, because he chose to play defense right next to me instead of his usual spot up on offense. Whenever the 18-year-old raced past me, Scott dashed back to cover my position. Meanwhile, I bent over and tried to catch my breath.
Perhaps I should have known better that if you’re going to play with the boys – I was the only woman on the field – you have to be at the top of your game. But I was just finding my way back into soccer after being sidelined by a tumor the size of a softball in my lung. Though I was coaching the sport again, kicking the ball around with nine-year-olds was hardly enough training to get me ready to go back on the field with grown-ups, especially men.
W, for Woman, go home.
Whenever I tried to run, my legs felt like they were wading through molasses, and my passes were off. I felt like I was playing soccer for the first time, even though I’d been on defense hundreds of times as a kid up through college and beyond. Just 10 minutes into my comeback game, I subbed out.
W, for Wimp.
As I sat on the players’ bench watching Scott run across the field, I thought about the time he had shown up in my hospital room with a filet mignon and dessert from a fine Manhattan restaurant. I’d missed our usual quarterly lunch together, so he brought it to me while I underwent the second of two five-day chemotherapy infusions in the hospital.
As he poured ginger ale into specimen cups in lieu of Champagne in flutes, I promised that I’d be back soon for lunch and, perhaps even for some soccer. We both toasted to my plan, ignoring how terrified we were. His little sister had cancer –stage III non Hodgkin’s lymphoma– at 40, younger than most of the other patients on the oncology floor by some 30 to 40 years. As I rolled my chemo pole into the bathroom where the toilet soon filled with orangey-red chemo drugs, I conceded to myself that playing soccer again seemed like a pipe dream.
And yet, there I was about a year later, in my cleats on the sidelines.
“Done already?” one of the players from our team asked me as he adjusted his shin guards while somebody else scooped the ball out of the bushes along the fence that surrounded the field.
How could I explain to him that 10 minutes of mediocre soccer was actually a bit of a triumph for me? Instead, I nodded, embarrassed and disappointed that my comeback might have been premature. A moment later, the game started back up again, and he ran off.
W, for Why not sneak out while nobody’s looking?
Instead, I signaled to Scott that I wanted to come back into the game. He gave me a new position on defense, guarding someone closer to my age yet a good four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. I managed to keep up with him when he closed in on the goal, and I even shut him out a few times. When he accidentally pushed me down, I took him down with me, and then I popped right back up again.
“I kicked cancer’s ass, and I can kick his, too,” I whispered to Scott as we jogged up to the midfield line together. He laughed and then suddenly, someone passed me the ball. This time, though, my legs moved just fine. This time, I belted the ball – left-footed, even – to our center forward in a perfect would-be assist, if only his shot hadn’t zoomed over the goal post, landing with a thud on the oval track that surrounded the field. Still, I was triumphant.
One of my teammates cheered, “Nice pass!” while Scott high-fived me. I smiled and scrambled back to my position. For the rest of the game, I never subbed out again.
W, as in Wow!
After the game, I heard Scott explain to one of our teammates that I’d recently had cancer.
“And she came here?” he replied.
I changed out of my cleats and went to my car.
W, as in Wait’ll next year, boys.
Watch Jen’s speech “If Cancer is a Gift, Where Can I Return it?”