Three Miracles in Philadelphia
I’m thinking about the end of my son, JP’s, junior squash career. His last tournament: the US U19 National Championships, held in Philadelphia. March 2022.
It started rather ominously. Two days before the tournament he rolled his ankle in a practice match. Rather severely. As we packed the bags, loaded up the car and hit the road, it was hurting him. It did not look good. 9 hours to Philadelphia. Reminiscent of a 9 hour trip we had taken 8 years earlier, when he won his first US Nationals at the age of 10.
We arrived around 5pm in Philadelphia. Early enough for JP to a get a hit and work out the travel cobwebs. I had told him in the car that I would pray over his ankle that night. I believe in the power of prayer. I wanted to pray that he would have the grace of health to finish out his junior career.
We arrived at our friend’s house in Philadelphia. He changed. Came downstairs. He took off his right sock and sat down. I sat down facing him. I took his ankle in my hand. I had experienced healing, thanks to the power of prayer, after a back injury once. I knew it was possible. But I had never been the pray-er when healing happened. I was stepping into uncharted waters.
JP sat there and I prayed. I felt nothing. Neither did JP. He put his sock back on. He went out to hit. His ankle hurt. It was hobbling him. Pain like this would make it impossible to make his way through the arduous tournament ahead.
We had dinner. I told him I would pray once more, after dinner. Once Jesus prayed twice over a blind man because the first time the full healing had not happened (see Mark 8:24). Personally, when I was healed, the same thing happened to me. The first prayer did nothing. My friend, Rusty Geverdt, sensed this, and asked if he could pray again over me, about 10 minutes later. I said yes. He laid his hands on me, again, this time more intently and prayed, full of faith. And, in that moment, something shifted in my back. Some kind of alignment fell into place, clicked, a sudden shift. It was a bit shocking and astonishing. The pain I had felt was gone.
So I believed in the power of prayer.
After dinner, I had JP sit in the same spot. Again, he removed his sock. I scooted this time a little closer. I put his ankle between both of my hands. I massaged the area where his pain was. There was tenderness but no bruising. I leaned forward. I prayed some prayer from the bottom of my father’s heart. My son had invested 10 years of his life in the pursuit that was now at its culmination. This was his last junior tournament. I yearned that he would know the grace of being able to compete in it. To the end. That he would be able to finish the race he started. I prayed with the full faith that God could work a miracle. I concentrated all my heart in this prayer. I had encouraged JP to activate his faith that prayer and faith could move mountains. He too needed to take a step of faith and believe in the power of prayer, to put his trust in it.
I remember this moment, clear, like a soft, mild summer day after a rain. Flowers glistening beneath dew, warm in the sunlight. Making an impression upon the eye. This moment stands out in my memory. This second time of heartfelt prayer, desperate prayer, poor prayer, expectant prayer. A father and his son entreating the Father in heaven. From my side, I gave all my heart into this prayer. I cannot say what it was like for JP. I don’t remember any heat moving from my hands to his ankle. I don’t remember any clicks into new alignment.
All I can say is that the next morning – and this is something like what we prayed for – he had the mobility he needed to play a squash match. We had prayed that we he would have the strength and mobility he needed. The next match his mobility was even better. In fact, he saved 2 or 3 match balls in the 4th game of that match and went on to win against the #8 seed. JP had received the grace in order to compete. That was our prayer. He would play three more matches that weekend, on that bum ankle. And in none of them did he complain of pain or mobility. This was miracle 1 of the weekend.
My father would be attending the Saturday matches this weekend. He was in New York City at the time and was able to take the train down to Philadelphia with my Mom on Saturday, late morning. They would come and watch JP’s match against the #1 seed around noon. This presented a kind of challenge and obstacle. My father, an internationally renowned neurosurgeon, is accustomed to promoting winners, champions, excellence, performance, distinction. He has always been always hard driving.
I myself have been this way in the past. But I have learned to soften the edge and to celebrate my child for who he is in the moment. I wondered how Dad would react if this match did not turn out well. JP is the lone elite national level junior squash player his age in Cincinnati. For several years now, he is already better than all the adults in our city. He no longer has the training partners at his level in Cincinnati. Consequently, he has had insufficient high level match play practice going into this tournament. I knew he was likely to face some stern tests. That he might not get past this #1 seed. For me that would be understandable – given the reality of his training environment as the only top level player in the region. But how would Dad react? Would Dad register his disappointment, as he had done with me so many times as a child? Would Dad be able to send a message of love and support, even if JP’s results weren’t a victory?
JP did not win that match. The #1 seed, Agarwhal from New Jersey, was just too sharp, too polished, too accurate, too speedy, too in-form for JP’s game to handle. JP lost 3-1.
JP had won US Nationals three times before, at 10, 12 and 14. He had skipped his U16 Nationals so he could compete in the U19s and qualify for the U19 Junior World Team, which he did. He had run cross country this past fall and track this past spring, rather than compete on the squash tour, because he came to believe that balance, and being a part of a team was also important. Still, to lose in the U19 quarterfinals to the #1 seed, while it may have seemed pretty good to some, was a major loss to JP. A devastating blow.
I hoped my father wouldn’t make it worse by demonstrating his disappointment. By calling for excellence. He has a habit of doing this.
He did not. He kept a respectful distance. His demeanor, after the match, was upbeat, positive. He gave JP his space. He made no critical comments. All he let show from his face was a grandfather’s love. Pride. Understanding. Happiness to be there.
I greeted my Dad after the match. He had arrived from New York while I was away from the court and I had not seen him yet. We exchanged words of sorrow for JP. Empathy for his loss. We said a few words. I said I needed to run to get JP food so that he could eat before his next match. I said thank you for coming. I looked him in the eyes and said it again: thank you for coming.
I leaned over, I angled my forehead towards my father’s head, the way some monks do in their greetings. It’s kind of a strange greeting. But it’s kind of like a soul to soul bump, mediated through the human mind. I brought my forehead to rest against my father’s forehead, there, for a moment, in the midst of a busy squash arena. Me, a father, sorrowful, resting his head in love and thanks toward his father; joined there in love for my son in this time of loss. Love for JP in this time of loss. Bonded there in love, father to son, father and grandfather in support of JP who had competed and lost. It was a moment about love not performance. It was something beautiful. It was not quite like anything I had ever known from this man who is my father.
I went to the sandwich shop. I bought JP two turkey sandwiches. I brought them back to the court. Hi face was long. He was in mourning. This loss was a tough blow. He said he had trained hard for this. Done what he could. He stopped there. He wasn’t able to say much more. He was disappointed that what he had done was not enough. He had never lost in a Nationals when he was in the oldest age group.
I stayed largely silent. I let him mourn. I gave him a few words of encouragement. We got in the car. Drove back to our friends’ house. JP showered, ate and iced. His ankle was fine. That was a blessing. A now hidden miracle.
I conferred with his coach about that match and the match to come . I let JP rest and recoup. In another 90 min or so he would need to suit up, drive back to the courts and play all over again. In the back draw. Now he was fighting for 5thplace.
90 minutes passed. I prepared his snacks to nibble on for energy, his towel to wipe the sweat in between games. Made sure his water bottle was in the bag. We headed toward the car. His spirit was clearly broken. I tried to encourage him. My efforts weren’t hurting; but they weren’t really helping.
We get to the courts. He is up against the #5 seed from California. He takes an early lead in game 1, he looks sharp but he is clearly dispirited. He just doesn’t have the finish in him. The desire in him is sapped. The will to win broken. What is there to play for now, now that the Finals are out of sight? Though he had 2 or 3 game balls in that first game, he loses it. Though he won the next game he loses the final two. Another loss, 3-1. Two losses in a row at Nationals in his up year. Unthinkable for a boy who had never, in his junior career, lost a match at Nationals in his up year.
This was devastating. JP looked like a corpse after the match. Like he had given blood, but too much blood. Like blood had been drained from his whole self and he hadn’t eaten to replenish what was lost. I felt so bad for him. I knew there was nothing I could say.
Right away, when he sat down in his chair, I patted him on his shoulder. “Tough one,” I said, or something like that. There was nothing more to be said at this point. He was in deep mourning. Any words I could have given would have fallen limp, like darts without metal tips, thrown weightlessly at a dartboard.
I stepped away. I wondered what I could say and when.
I let him sit there, staring blankly ahead for a time. Let him throw the towel over his head and process what had just happened. Let it sink in a little. I waited for him to get up. Move around. Re-connect with the swirling life and people in this tournament.
In time he did so. I was looking for my moment. I knew there was not much I could say but that I had to say something, the right thing. I knew not what it was.
A few minutes later, JP was up, watching a match on another court. That was a good sign. I went over to him. I stood in front of him, eye to eye. He is my height now. I leaned forward and hugged him gently. He leaned into the hug; slumped forward a little; he let me hug him. This was an 18 year old boy and we were in public.
I put my mouth toward his ear.
“Nothing has changed,” I said. “I still love you. The same as before. Nothing has changed.”
Silence. He took it in.
Of everything that happened that weekend – the many stirring winners, the healed ankle, the comeback in round 2 from match ball down, the positive connection with my father, the final gutsy win the next day to take 7th place – nothing quite approaches this moment. This moment, when I could say, unequivocally, to this boy who had achieved so much in his young life, that achievement is not the measure of the love I have for you. That my love as a father flows freely toward you, in victory as in defeat. That it reaches out to you as a person, a person who stands apart from your performance.
I’m not sure I ever got to give this message to JP before, in quiet this way, on quite such a stage, when his heart was quite so broken from disappointment and loss. To me, this moment was like the final message I wished to send him, father to son, through his squash experience.
I don’t know for sure how that moment impacted JP. It’s been three months since it happened. I have not yet asked. But I know that, as I did it, as I hugged that boy and said those words, I was doing the kind of thing for which I had been created. I was being a father.