Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Letter to Leslie

Dear Leslie,

We are merely friendly acquaintances, most often nothing more than passing and smiling "hellos." We are mothers of boys, something I could never have imagined in terms of wonderment and confusion. My boy and your youngest son played football together this past fall, our sons attend the same small school. I am at times a conflicted mom of a young athlete, not because of the severe, life-changing injury your oldest son Jack sustained over Christmas vacation, the one that severed his spinal cord after he was checked from behind. As a result of that hit, Jack sailed headfirst into the boards while playing a JV hockey game and he didn’t get up. He said to your husband, his dad, from the ice the words no parent ever wants to hear, he said, "I can't feel anything."

I was conflicted before that unspeakable accident; I've called out too-intense, inappropriate coaches and parents over the years because I cannot understand the need to verbally abuse a child in hopes of inspiring him or her into athletic greatness. I understand that this is a philosophical argument, and I am merely reacting to gut feelings that are viewed as unpopular given the context. I know excellence is achieved through training and self-discipline, but it also requires heart, brains, and luck. What happened to Jack could've happened to any of our kids while playing a demanding game that they love. Parents, friends, and relatives of young athletes everywhere collectively gasped in horror when the details of Jack’s injury were reported throughout our community.

There's, to my mind anyway, something wrong with the culture of youth sports and the way our kids are driven and rode like our very own little unfulfilled dream vehicles. They're our cherished children, and my kid loves sports. For that reason, I help my son find situations in which he can pursue his passion just like you. I love watching him play, win or lose, and just like you, I’ve learned to love and appreciate the beauty and intricacies of these games. Sometimes I'm too vocal during a tight game because I've crossed a boundary I've promised myself I'd never cross. Regardless of my own blurted out "Heys" and "Open your eyes ref," I hate hearing a coach or a parent scream "Hit someone!" It sounds too close to "Hurt someone!" I understand that some sports are rough and command intense physical contact; it just seems that somewhere along the line finesse, skill, and sportsmanship have been replaced with something that feels and looks mean, desensitized, and violent. This outspokenness of mine embarrasses my son; he wishes I'd keep my concerns to myself instead of hollering "Cool it!" way too loud. Growing up in a hockey-centric family, I'd long marveled at the tolerance for bullying and brutality that is sometimes collectively accepted in the name of winning a game years before Jack received the hit that has changed his and your life irrevocably. I cannot get him and you and the rest of your family out of my heart or off of my mind. I feel so sad for the kid who hit him. I don't blame the game of hockey, or football, or any game for that matter; it's the misplaced intensity and the beyond-appropriate aggression I find problematic.

When I try to place myself in your current position, I am overwhelmed with the enormity of what lies ahead for all of you. You can't let down, but know that there are battalions of parents all around you trying to absorb the shock and sadness for you so you can remain strong and focused. Collective helplessness helps no one; lean hard on friends and strangers. Delegate. It is not your job to reassure us and let us know that we are lightening your emotional load. I hope that our collective energy and empathy can somehow keep you buoyed.

I was on a flight to Mexico -- a well-deserved respite that suddenly felt frivolous in light of your situation -- when I read the headline that stated that Jack would never walk or skate again. I burst into tears in the middle of a sardine can jammed full of traveling strangers. Everyone pretended not to notice; something that is both polite and distressing. A few days earlier I was sitting in the orthodontist’s office while my son was being outfitted for his dreaded headgear when I picked up the newspaper and saw a picture of you on the front page that was taken while you were addressing the media on behalf of Jack and your family. Your strength, grace, and poise are inspiring to parents everywhere. To see the stunned determination, the deep sadness intermingled with optimism that was captured in that image of your pretty gamine face was to send me into my first spasm of wracking sobs in front of polite strangers. When I opened that paper to page four and saw the picture of Jack in a hospital bed wearing a neck and head-stabilizing halo, I saw with horror what no parent ever wants to have to see. But that’s your reality now, and we're making it ours too because in our onlookers’ helplessness we want to help alleviate something, anything.

I don't know why I'm writing you a public letter Leslie except that writing is how I try to make sense of the world; it’s how I reach out. I hope through writing, my way of speaking, that I can speak for others beyond myself. Hopefully I can somehow manage to say, though clumsily, that the Jablonski family is not alone. We’re in it with you for the long haul.