The child who first made me a father
Today I almost ran out of gas. I’ve had a busy 5 days. Graduation party for my oldest, first ever theatre performance by my youngest (4 plays throughout the weekend), and my 2nd child was in an accident in which the car was totaled.
I’m zipping down the highway. Coming back from the compound yard where I retrieved our belongings from the totaled car, a black Toyota Highlander I bought 13 years earlier. All my family is currently out of town. I look down and see that the gas tank is stone cold empty. The digital reader says 0. How could I have missed that? How long had it been that way? Did I have a chance of reaching a gas station?
Thoughts flit across my brain: me by the side of the road, thumb held out, trying to communicate to speeding cars that I ran out of gas.
I turn off the AC and slow the rpms down to 2000. Trying to conserve what fumes I can. I take the nearest exit. The Sharon Road / Glendale exit. Two quick rights as I inch my way toward the Sunoco Station on Chester Rd.
I make it. I say a little prayer of thanks. Fill my tank and ease back onto the road toward the highway, a little more attentive than I had been before.
Maybe this was why I notice something I might not otherwise have thought so deeply about. The Queen City Racquet Club, down the road, on the right, from the Sunoco station.
I turn in. I feel memories here. I want to taste them.
The Queen City Racquet Club, though located across town from our home, was the fateful place where I once brought my oldest son on a rainy day in 2010. He was 6 years old then. I brought him to play a game of squash on their converted racquetball court. At the time, there was no squash program in Cincinnati to speak of. I had grown up playing the game and had once wanted to teach it to him. I had even introduced him to the game at 2 years old. I sawed off a racquet to make it pee-wee size and re-fabricated a grip for his little hand. I used to take him with that racquet to play. It was father-son time. He soaked it up. So did I.
But as time wore on, I realized there was no competent program in town where a child could learn the game, be surrounded by peers and be guided by a Coach who was skilled and had great love for the game and for the kids.
So I turned off the squash spigot and enrolled JP in one of the best tennis programs in the City. By that stage, he could hit a decent squash ball and he quickly learned to hit a tennis ball with equal skill.
On the day of this memory, I had picked up JP from a birthday party. It was August. He had plenty of energy left. It was raining. We had no memberships to indoor tennis clubs. What could we do?
“Wanna play squash?” I casually queried. It would prove a fateful question.
“Sure!” came his reply.
Well, come to think of it, my question was not entirely casual. I had been wondering what I was going to do with this boy, who was already showing promise in squash and now was showing equal promise in tennis. He would need to make a choice. I was thinking – in that split-second kind of thinking that busy parents tend to do – that I would bring him back to the squash court, reintroduce him to the sport he hadn’t played in over 6 months and have him experience the radical deterioration of his skills.
Then he could conclude “Let’s ditch squash. This is lame. I’m not good at it anymore. I’ll stick to tennis.” That would have simplified my life and and would have helped him focus.
That’s not what happened. After maybe 10-15 minutes of a stroke clinic (I had some experience as a Coach), I re-taught him the distinct squash swing plane and technique. Soon JP was stroking the ball like he had never left the squash court. With a kind of zing and power that took my breath away.
“This is not normal,” I thought to myself.
We proceed to play a few games. As we do so, we brush up against the spirit of childhood and of fatherhood that we had first encountered on the squash court 4 years earlier. I remember the day. He was 2. I had given him some kind of target. I don’t remember what the target was. Maybe it was 10 forehand hits in a row. Maybe it was 3. After all, JP was just 2 at the time. I can’t quite recall. But what I do recall is that he nailed it. He hit the target. It was something momentous and I wanted him to remember this moment. I drop my racquet. I raise my hands and whoop. I scoop him up and we celebrate. I run him from corner to corner in that little white court with the red lines and the wood-paneled floor. Like he had hit a walk off homer and we were running the bases. I sing some silly song. Some celebratory song. His name was in the song. It was a fantastic celebration.
Turns out, at age 18, he can still recall that moment. He told me about that memory one day, just out of the blue.
Anyway, back to age 6, on the converted squash court of the Queen City Racquet Club. Here again we brush up against the joy of the father-son bond. It was electric, that day. I was caught up in it. Squash was a game that was a big part of my own growth and life learning. It would be a joy if the sport might serve as a bond between me and my oldest son.
I lob a question to JP.
“Wow, JP, you’re doing great. Would you like to play in a tournament?”
“Yeah!” he replied, full of the zeal of those who know not fear but only promise and possibility.
I knew enough about tournaments in those days to know where to find the website where they were listed. I looked to see if there were any tournaments nearby in the coming weeks.
Bingo. A tournament in Cincinnati at the club where I had grown up playing. It was listed as a Bronze event, though I did not know what that meant. The hosting program had once been a region-leading program but it had fallen into a lull at the time. I had decided not to enroll JP in their program but was glad they were hosting a tournament. In like 4 weeks.
“Hmm,” I thought, ever ambitious, “might not be a good idea to debut in tournament play at the club where I used to play. Maybe let’s get a tournament under our belt first.”
So I kept looking. Anything else nearby? I had grown up playing squash on the traveling circuit and was not opposed to out of town events. All this searching happened on my phone while JP was either chilling out or swatting balls by himself.
Bingo again. A Tournament in 2 weeks. In Cleveland. That’s not too far. This one was marked a JCT. I wondered what that was. I didn’t know enough at the time about the structure of junior squash to know that a JCT meant Junior Championship Tour and that these events were for national level players. A Bronze event, on the other hand, was the fourth tier of junior tournaments; these were geared toward rank beginniners.
So here I was contemplating taking my child to a tournament of national level players in order to prepare for an entry level tournament in Cincinnati. Great Dad move.
Well, I wasn’t exactly contemplating. I made the decision in pretty short order. I proposed to JP the idea of going to Cleveland for our first tournament in 2 weeks, and then 2 weeks later to play in a tournament in Cincinnati. He accepted. I began making the arrangements. Caught up in the hunt of experiences where the bond that blossomed on the wood-paneled court at age 2 might continue.
I don’t remember asking my wife what she thought about the idea. Another great Dad move.
I want to skip forward, here, to a brief description of what happened in JP’s first match in Cleveland. He was summarily dismissed by the knowing racquet and fleet feet of a boy 3 years his senior (JP was 7 at the time, the youngest division was U11).
I will never, never, forget what happened on the final point of that match. Point over. Hands shaken. Glass door opens. JP floods out of the court in a single flowing, urgent motion, emotion tumbling out all over his little frame. He leaps – leaps – into my arms and sobs. Sobs uncontrollably. Not screams. Sobs. Deep sobs of the soul. The sobs of a spirit broken but not entitled. A spirit that longed and that felt deep sorrow. A spirit that came up against an impossible, an unimaginable: a stinging defeat in a sport in which he thought he showed promise.
I stood there and I held him. Time stops a bit when I think of that moment. The camera lens of memory zooms in and the other tournament players and spectators fade out of focus. I felt I was in the presence of a tender and aspiring spirit. That I was assigned the task of guiding him.
“That just shows you much he wants to win,” was the response of a good friend and fellow squash Dad, when I reached out to him for wisdom of how to father in such a moment.
A few moments later, we left the busy courtside area and stepped into an empty basketball court next to the squash court. I sat down with JP, amid the solitude of the slick gym floor and the empty bleachers. We chatted. I sought to soothe his broken spirit. I can’t remember what was said. All I know is that this moment sealed some kind of something between him and me. Something that corresponded, in a different key, in a minor key, to the celebratory romp around the squash court at age 2. Now, here, at an unknown squash court at the Cleveland Racquet Club, up against stiff competition, JP was facing the difficult. He was facing opposition. He was facing disappointment. And what I noticed was that, at the heart of it all, his spirit was not wilting. It was calibrating, adjusting; it was growing determined. Growing, in a way, before my eyes. Growing that weekend – in the face of the difficult and the disappointing.
They say trees grow firmer when, early in their life, they are exposed to stiff winds. Looking back, this experience was a stiff wind for the young JP.
He would go on to lose every match he played that weekend. But he showed increasing poise each time. And he did not want to give up afterwards. He still wanted to play in the next tournament in Cincinnati. That happened two weeks later.
In Cincinnati, he lost a nailbiter in round one to a boy three years his senior (another U11 tournament), then he ran the table in the backdraw, winning every match and taking 5th place in the tournament. In the process he tasted what resilience tastes like. He tasted what overcoming setbacks tastes like. He moved about in the air where grit moves and found that he could breathe that air. That it filled his lungs and that he liked it.
Cincinnati was a triumph. But Cleveland was the place where we two trees – my son and I – stood in a sudden storm and drew closer together. Cleveland, in a way, was the birthplace of the player that JP would one day become. The storm took the measure of this young man; and he was not found wanting. JP would draw upon the stores of that experience in years to come and learn to weather the setbacks that would always precede his future breakthroughs.
But what I remember about all this – and this is what draws me to this reflection – what moves like whispering winds through the trees of my memories when I think of that converted racquetball court at Queen City Racquet Club is something a little different. I think of the great gift of 12 years of athletic experiences; these experiences that enabled me to walk alongside my son, encounter difficulties, take stock of them, decide upon a course of action, dig in, persevere, and share in the joy and the learnings and the celebrations and the togetherness that came along the happy road that followed.
JP is 18 now. He is off to college in just a few months. He doesn’t need my shoulders much anymore; doesn’t leap into my arms anymore and sob after he encounters a difficulty. Something is lost. Something is gone.
But something is also gained.
I suppose today, with a fresh tank of gas and now driving back home, I am just looking back and feeling grateful for the journey. For the times we had. Grateful and joyful at this mystery of fatherhood and childhood.