Between Gratitude and Grief

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Every Wednesday and Friday, I wake up sore and stiff.

We play ultimate Tuesday and Thursday.

Every time I get up on a Wednesday or Friday, I’m grateful. I mean every single time.

I spent almost three months last summer incapacitated by a back injury. Being in my fifties, I saw with absolute clarity that I had no guarantee I would be back running full speed again.

I’ve always felt gratitude that I have a sport I love that makes me feel more alive when I play. But if I’m honest, I’ve focused more on improving (or not losing ground) than I have on rejoicing simply that I can play. Something shifted in me as I hit my fifties, as Corin took interest, and especially as my back forced me to the sidelines and then healed.

Back when we found out we would have Corin, who was born in 2007, I was thirty-eight. I committed to myself (and him) that I would remain an active dad. In fact, I made it very specific: by the time Corin turns 18, I will still be able to play basketball one-on-one with him and not humiliate myself. Or, implicitly, humiliate him for playing with me. I don’t have to be able to beat him, just not have him feel pity for me or say, “That’s okay, Dad. You can’t really do that anymore.”

Last night, we played goaltimate, the indoor version of ultimate we have until spring frees us to put on our cleats and head back outside. We ran hard for almost two hours and had a blast. For those who get the implications, Corin and I were the first players to arrive. (Some of you just had to sit down and could probably use a glass of water. Or perhaps help up from having fainted.) We both played really well, neither of us flawlessly but both with highlights we recounted while we drove home.

On one point, Corin and I were on opposing teams and his teammate threw him a pass in the goal. I was the one back guarding that area and I jumped up and knocked it down–just as Corin also jumped and arrived a split second later. We collided.

If any of you gasped for my little son, you have not seen Corin in a while. He’s now almost as tall as I am and more muscular. Or you may have gasped for me, which would be more appropriate. We were both fine. His hip was a little sore this morning from where he landed on it.

A discussion ensued as to whether or not I had committed a foul. If you’ve played ultimate, or seen it played, you can picture exactly what I’m describing. If not, the crucial info is: ultimate is self-refereed and there are both detailed rules about what constitutes a foul and a process in place for disagreement (basically a replay). I would call the discussion earnest but not heated. We all concluded we need to go back and review the rules and an instant replay would have helped.

I know some of you are not enthralled with the specifics of ultimate, while, on the opposite end, a couple of you are asking, “What exactly happened and who initiated contact?” I’m describing the play because it simultaneously shows that I am back to full speed for the middle-aged athlete I am (feel free to put that word in quotes, if you prefer–either of them) and that Corin has reached the level at which, if I hold back at all, he will destroy me on the field.

I suppose if I were smart, I’d be worried about how I’m going to keep up until he’s 18. But fortunately for me, I’m not. I’m thrilled, out of my mind thrilled, that my fourteen-year-old is rapidly closing the gap on being a better ultimate player than I am. Please don’t tell him this.

I’m joking about that last part, of course. I tell him all the time how amazing his progress is and how proud I am of him. He, in turn, tells me how I will soon be eating his dust.

He’s not wrong.

But I have to keep trying to express how wildly, soul-deep grateful I am to God and for my own little body that I can do this.

Last Tuesday, I had a bad night at goaltimate. I got angry and could not shake it off. I played sub-par to my own expectations. I shouted in frustration. More than once.

Last Tuesday, I arrived at goaltimate angry and disheartened. All the news (which I’d been scouring all day) indicated that Russia was on the verge of invading Ukraine. I’d lost hope that this brutality might be averted.

Last Wednesday, with Ukraine ten hours ahead of Washington state, confirmed this horror.

I’ve mentioned (roughly a thousand times) that playing ultimate helps me stay sane and functional. Or as close as I get. But some problems are too big. My brain couldn’t unplug, even for that therapeutic hour and a half of sprinting and jumping and bantering.

Corin was a bit bummed. I don’t blame him. I was unpleasant. It was not the enjoyable experience he’s come to look forward to.

BUT, that car ride home was the real deal. He’ll be fifteen in two months. He has a better idea of what’s going on in the world than I did at 15, and I thought I was enlightened and informed.* We discussed what this war will mean for Ukraine. We talked about how some have praised Putin and what that means, how that emboldens a dictator.

There is no perfect balance. We’re constantly adjusting and readjusting, trying to love well within our limited capacity. Last Thursday morning–our next day to play–Corin suggested, less-than-half-joking, that I not spend the entire day reading bad news, so that I wouldn’t be so riled up that I couldn’t enjoy playing (or that he couldn’t enjoy it as much–he is 14, after all).

So we talked about that. We discussed balance, staying informed versus overloading. I told him that sometimes you need to know about others’ suffering, so you can pray and because it feels wrong to ignore, even when it doesn’t impact you directly.** I’ll never forget an editor for a major publisher telling me that, while I’d written a good book, he couldn’t publish it because people here don’t care that much about what happens in Nicaragua. In fact, he said, “Unless there is some major international incident to make people care…”

I wasn’t praying for Ukrainians before this major international “incident” began. I was keeping an eye on the news, hoping that this violence could be averted. I wasn’t yet weighing in my head the contrast between their hiding in a cellar, trying to survive a bombing, and my getting to run around with Corin. I love the people of Nicaragua, especially our friends and family there. But I understand that’s a personal connection I have from living there for seven years. I grasp this reality that we cannot focus everywhere at once. My purpose is not to make you feel guilt. I’m talking about how we live our lives in this balance between gratitude for what we have and awareness of others’ hardships and suffering.

This is real life. I’m grateful that at 53 I can run around with my son. In Ukraine, people are deciding whether to stay and hope they survive or flee and become refugees. People make the same decision in Nicaragua literally every day. I don’t have any insightful conclusion here. I’m simply sharing my own version of this impossible tug-of-war. When I lost my mobility, I realized how precious it is simply to walk, much less run. When I wake up sore, I’m grateful to God for life. These days, I’m acutely aware some are not waking up at all. My heart is torn between gratitude for simple things and grief for those in Ukraine, in Nicaragua, even in Wenatchee, who are having these ripped from them.

*I thought a lot of things about myself.

**There is every reason to believe Russia’s war against Ukraine will impact all of us, indirectly and directly.

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