Monday, May 13, 2013

#457: Put Me In, Coach

I don't have a lot of experience in the athletic world, but this spring has taught me about one thing... there are few frustrations in life like being sidelined by an injury. Last summer it was a groin pull that kept me from running for a couple of endless months. This spring, it's a very different kind of injury, and a very different kind of game.

When I pulled my groin, I was trying to press for more speed. I tried to go faster than my body was ready to travel, and wound up with a nagging pain inside my thighs that seemed like it would never go away. When it did give me a little relief, and I would test my strength, it kept coming back, sometimes as a twinge, sometimes as a pain strong enough to double me over. It took most of the summer and fall for it to mend completely. I'm a lot more vigilant about those muscles these days. I knew that if I pressed them when they were damaged, I would make things worse. I also know now that a re-injury is more likely, and could be much harder to rehab.

Now that I am past my April of discontent, I have finally decided to bring that same mentality to healing my injured mind. It's been a hard lesson, but the people at the Y have been gently trying to convince me of its wisdom. Like a pulled muscle, an injured mind keeps you from performing. It can strike with a twinge, or with crippling agony. Rushing back into action too quickly can re-aggravate it, and make things worse than they were before.

An athlete hates the sidelines. There is a special kind of shame that comes from sitting on the bench, watching your team mates struggle without you. You want to pull on your helmet, get on the field, and hit somebody. Four days after tearfully begging my boss for time off, I was standing in his office announcing that I was ready to get back to work. I believed it, too. I knew in my heart that the worst had passed: I had had a rough couple of days, but the Kid Was Back. Put me in, Coach. Cancer Boy is ready to tear up the turf.

My heart was wrong.

What I thought was the bottom was barely the beginning. What I thought was the worst loss of my life was just the tip of the iceberg. There would be many more days to come. Many more tears. Many more pain-filled blogs about shadow and despair. And through it all, my only wish would be to get back to work. I threw myself into my training, my fundraising, anything to take my mind off the fact that LIVESTRONG at the YMCA would be starting three new classes without me. I was suffering. But I was healing, too.

Three more times I returned to my boss's office. "Put me in, Coach. I'm ready." Like a careful training staff, they would ask me questions and listen to my answers. Whatever they heard told them that I needed more time. I never tried to bluff them. I'm not sure that I could have, even if all my acting skills had been sharp. I'm not sure I wanted to. But I was becoming more aware, more mindful. Now when they told me that I should take another week, my heart knew they were right. I was still hurt. And I knew that a re-injury would be much worse than the first one.

Last week, they heard something new. I was ready to start testing myself. Not with sprints, and not by jumping right back into the game, but by stepping onto the field to see how the grass felt under my feet. I would make a speaking appearance, one I had booked many weeks ago. A director would come with me to observe and evaluate my performance. I wasn't going to be side-by-side with my team mates, not yet. But I would be out on the empty field, learning and showing just what I could do.

And so the first test was in place. I began to prepare. I didn't know that God had already scheduled my first workouts.

Out of the blue, I got the call. Coach Carrie rarely calls me on the phone. I looked at the screen and saw her name. Was she calling me back to work? Just checking in? No, she was calling with a shocker. My last remaining Coach at the Y, the last of the three amazing women who had coached my class of Eight had gotten a new job. Coach Carrie was calling to tell me she was leaving. I felt my heart catch, and my eyes start to moisten, but then my weary brain pulled itself up and did something it hadn't done in a long time... it had a rational thought. "I'm disappointed, Coach, But I'm so happy for you. It sounds like a great chance for you and your family. You have meant so much to me. And I hope you have a great time in your new gig."

There is a training technique, one Carrie never used with me, by the way, where you put an athlete into a plank position, tell them to brace their core, and then whack them with your hands or feet, as if to knock them down. The challenge is to hold your stability, even though you don't see the blows coming, and don't know how hard they are going to be. I felt God putting a foot in my side as Carrie told me about her new job, and I felt my soul brace and straighten itself back up after the blow. I was getting stronger.

Later, there was another blow. A man I respect and admire, a warrior who had never been in LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, but who had fought the Damned Thing for 12 years finished his battle this week. He had never given up his love of life. He kept acting and directing. He loved the young people who came to him for guidance and inspiration, and he gave it to them with a sweet and generous spirit. And cancer had killed him. Another loss. Another death. A few loving tears. But no collapse. I loved him, and was able to love his life more than my own pain.

Finally there came news of a young boy whom I don't remember ever meeting. He was an actor. He had lots of friends. He cared about politics and justice and freedom. And a few days ago, he chose to end his own life. Such a cruel reminder of how easy it is for someone to slip out of the safe harbor of love and into the dark waters of depression. The grieving friends and family who are left behind may be filled with confusion and anger and even guilt, but the truth is that the tide was just too strong. The lonely swimmer was pulled out to sea. My prayer is that he now knows the peace and comfort that he could not find here. The church has always called suicide a mortal, unforgivable sin. Some of us know better. I do not accept that God will punish us for falling to a fatal disease. I believe that this sad, wounded boy is resting in Jesus' arms today. Finally resting.

The Y is going to test me on Wednesday with a speech and a Q&A session in front of a room full of strangers. But God has tested me already. Not so God can learn if I am strong again, but to show me that I am. It may not have been game speed or full contact, but I have taken hits and gotten back up on my feet for the next play. I can't say that I never went down, but I promise you that I never stayed down. The Y will test me. God has already shown me that I'm ready for the test.

There are going to be other tests. Other losses. For all I know, the worst is yet to come. But I know two things. I will not face them alone. My Creator will never abandon me, and will always send loving people to help me to mend, no matter what the injury. And I also know that there is nothing that can make me give up. The ones who give up... they all die. And I am in no mood to die. I am in the mood to play.

I'm almost ready. God has sent trainers with wisdom and experience to judge my progress. It wont be much longer now. Soon, I'll be back in the dust, mixing it up. Not wanting to come back off the field.

Soon, coach. Soon.



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