Last weekend, our family traveled to Topeka, Kansas for the Kansas State Wrestling Tournament. The trip was an anxious one. Even though Andrew was to enter the tournament with a fantastic 30-5 record, none of us knew if he'd even be able to compete...
The previous week, he was supposed to be perfecting his moves at practice, and capitalizing on all of the conditioning exercises in preparation for what is usually an exhausting weekend, but instead, he was confined to the couch, unable to eat, covered from head to toe in a paleness that overshadowed even his most pronounced freckles.
For 4 days he did not eat. There's a place inside of every mother that wilts with worry when her child can't eat. All I thought about for those four days was food. There must be something he can eat. I thought that thought a million times. In wrestling, every ounce against your opponent counts. I knew he was a little worried about losing weight, but I didn't want him to go anywhere near a scale. I knew my heart couldn't handle it, couldn't handle his disappointment in facing the possibility that the season might very well be over.
On Thursday afternoon, he turned a corner, began to eat a little, and by that evening he asked if he could walk to the track with me for my daily run. Sure, whatever you think is best. I'm here for you, whether you wrestle or not.
On the way to the track we chatted about other things...I wanted to avoid him having to talk about the obvious. That's when he brought up the subject of balance. As much as our family loves sports, we don't allow our boys to play any sport year-round, to be a part of traveling teams, or to practice excessively. Family life comes first. Childhood comes first.
With that in mind, and in heart, Andrew asked:
Mom, I know that you and dad always talk about balance when it comes to sports. And, I know that whatever decision I make, you will support me. But, how will I know if I'm supposed to stay home this weekend, or or push through all of this and just go and try my best?
That's when I knew that the essence of wrestling had found a seat in his soul. He didn't talk about winning or losing, about medals and trophies or notoriety. He talked about trying, and what that effort would mean to him personally and to our family...
I know what wrestling looks like from the outside.
It looks like boys with crazy haircuts competing against one another in gyms that smell worse than a windowless locker room in August. It looks like all of them, big and little, who signed up for this gig have no idea that they've been given the single most unattractive uniform in the arena of sports - the singlet (only slightly less awkward than that of a sumo wrestler's diaper-looking ensemble). Wrestling looks painful. It looks like it could make you cry. It looks like only the parents who don't know the game of basketball let their kids wrestle.
After watching my brothers wrestle year after year in high school, I still felt like an outsider looking in. There was nothing about wrestling that I understood or even appreciated back then. And, certainly nothing that would make me say, "someday I want my boys to wrestle too." Not even close.
Then there was this day, four years ago, when my husband somehow managed to convince me that wrestling would be a good thing for our boys to get involved in (that was about the time I started appreciating wine).
He didn't didn't know what I had been through, giving up days of my adolescence in exchange for hours in bleachers filled with screaming people just to watch my brothers contort themselves for 3 minutes. I was supposed to be curling my hair. I was supposed to be talking with my girlfriends on the phone, not hanging out at big fat stinky wrestling meets.
NO, thank you, honey. My cup hath already overfloweth with wrestling.
Four years post wine-wrestling conversation, I'll be the first to admit to admit conversion status on the matter, to finding a completely new perspective on the sport. Trust me, I'm not dedicated enough to get into the fundamentals of the sport itself - the technical moves, the physical endurance, the scoring, the coaching etc., etc.
What has turned my heart around is what wrestling has done for my sons, one son in particular. And, it's really what sports, any sport, are meant to do for athletes in the first place: help them discover the very best in themselves, to obtain and exercise particular virtues through the rigors of training, the beauty of winning, and the disappointment of losing and even the obstacle of illness.
Go to any tournament and you will see parents and coaches screaming unnecessarily at kids, unsportsmanlike conduct on and off of the mat, parents yelling at parents, kids crying, moms crying....I suppose those unfortunate behaviors can be observed in just about any sport.
Somehow, we've been able to insulate ourselves from the negativity, focusing only on the positive. Andrew has been a bright light in every gym he's entered, in attitude and action, and other parents have approached us with gratitude for that. I have gratitude for that. He's wise beyond his years. I was no where near his equal at that age.
We arrived in Topeka Friday night for weigh in. Those of us who waited anxiously in the car for Andrew's return sat quietly, no music or videos could distract us from the wondering. 88 pounds. He had only lost 2 pounds. None of us could believe it. We expected the loss to be so much greater. Now, we would could only wait and see if there was any strength left in that 88 pound body.
After finding our seats in the arena Saturday morning, we waited patiently to see Andrew process in during the parade of Athletes. While the other boys on his team bounced around with ornery enthusiasm, waving at all of the fans, posing for pictures, Andrew marched in quietly, clutching his water bottle, and I wondered if even this, would wear him out.
The time came for his first match. It's hard to describe the feelings I had inside. They couldn't just be reduced to nerves. They felt like so very much more. My camera was set, prayers were said. Deep breath, here we go. I barely had a chance to shout out encouragement - in 20 seconds his opponent was pinned!
All of us, brothers, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunt and uncle looked at each other in disbelief, then erupted in cheer! Before getting sick, Andrew's goal was to make it to the championship round and to defeat the young man who had won 1st place for the past 4 seasons. He knew he could end that kid's winning streak. But after being so sick for so long, his only goal was to wrestle strong, taking each match one at a time.Match #3 - his toughest opponent yet, the one his father and I knew could possibly send him to the losing bracket. Not a chance. He mustered some kind of super-natural strength and completely dominated the competition. That singular victory ensured his place in the championship match on Sunday!
Match #2, a victory by points, but only by a close margin. After the win, he sat down hard against a cold wall, head down, exhausted. We all knew the sickness had washed over him again. I wanted to know everything he was thinking, wanted to pack him up and take him home, that's what mamas do. We rescue. We bandage. We soothe. But, not today. Stifling my worry, my overwhelming need to console, I lent him only a hug, and left him to the quiet. It was in the quiet that he decided to keep going.
In many ways, thoughts of Andrew wrestling on Sunday for the championship had faded to the back of our minds. For his father and I, Andrew had already won the tournament. His quiet, graceful resolution to fight to the finish with such humility exemplified everything we could ever hope for in a son.
Before heading back to the bunker for a little r & r, I gathered the boys together for a father-son photo. I love the way Henry affectionately placed his hand on the top of Andrew's head. Such a sweet sign of his great admiration for his older brother!
Are you talking with God, buddy?
Yeah. I just wanted to thank Him for the day, thank Him for everything, he confessed with a humble grin.
Steve returned to our room, sat down on the edge of the bed, hunched over, head down, hands folded. Between tears he shared the story with me. We held hands in the quiet. It was our turn to give thanks.
Following Mass and a quick lunch, we gathered again at the arena, waiting anxiously to watch Andrew wrestle his final match of the season. Charlie was a champ....all of the kids were, really. There's always so much waiting around for the next match, and very little for kids to do during that time, but somehow we all managed to muster up the some patience.
Those tired eyes. Behind that gentle smile he tried to hide his nerves, and any doubt that his condition might not allow any advantages during the match, but I could see through it. And, my heart could not contain all of the emotion I felt, and so it rose, once again up to my eyes. Thank goodness I had a hiding place behind my camera.
The meeting was intense, to say the least. Down by points, at the last second, Andrew gained advantage and had is opponent on his back...just a few more seconds and a pin would secure a title. But, as the official blew her whistle, we all knew time was not on our side.
A reassuring embrace from a loving father after a difficult defeat.
Steve is the best coach to all of our boys. I am so blessed to call him mine. Our boys need him so much. I need him so much!
Andrew accepted a second place finish, and though he must have been filled with disappointment, not one of us could have hoped for more!
Like it or not, he was covered in hugs that afternoon. Hugs for his consolation and for ours. Hugs of congratulations and affirmation from brothers, parents, grandparents, friends, cousins, Aunts and Uncles.
All these boys. I wonder every day what God has in store for them, for their brotherhood. I hope they stand beside each other always.
Our boys are truly blessed to have grandparents who love and support them in everything that they do. Their presence in our lives is a great joy to Steve and me and to our boys as well. They share a particular wisdom and support that only a grandparent can offer.This is us, balancing life, one child at a time, one sport at a time, one season at a time, one adventure at a time. While Andrew could easily continue to compete, could wrestle year round, fill his summer with camps and his evenings with coaching, he has packed away his singlet for another season.
It's time for baseball now, he says. Time to help dad on the farm, and mow the grass and pull the weeds. Time to go swimming with brothers at the pool. Time for fishing and camping and exploring and savoring life...just as an 11 year old boy should.
The verse on Andrew's singlet?
Praise be to the LORD my God,
who trains my hands for war,
my fingers for battle.
~ Psalm 144:1