A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Bay Meadows is an old racetrack with art-deco facades, tawny rafters, and palm trees. A row of low-lying azaleas and a chain-link fence separate my father and me from the track. From where I stand, I can see the lips of the briny blue San Francisco Bay. Even though I’m only ten, my father, a high-school biology teacher, often brings me with him to Bay Meadows. In a few years, when the stables are closed for the winter, we will play golf on the nine-hole course in the middle of the track. When I am sixteen and prom is held in the Turf Club, he and my mother will surprise me: they’ll show up in their formal wear and dance all night on the parquet floor to his students’ delight — and to my chagrin.
Deep down my father is drawn to the track. So am I. On more than one occasion he will tell me with great reverence that I could have been a jockey, due to my size and athletic ability. He’s partial to the female riders, often betting on them even if the odds are bad.
There are many things I love about the track: the horses lining up in the starting stalls, the ringing of the bell, the eruption from the gate, the thought that my bet could be lucky. But mostly I love the way the horses run, that long-evolved economy of movement, the low thrum of hooves, the rush of the last hundred yards.
And today is no different: I am white-knuckled with excitement when the horses round the last corner of the track, the pack all mud and brawny bodies pushing toward the finish line. Fevered cries rise from the crowd. In the home stretch the jockeys whack the horses’ haunches with their crops. And then a horse goes down. And a second horse and a third. The jockeys who’ve been flung to the ground leap to the side, trying to save their lives. My father cups his hand around my head and presses me to his chest, but I’ve already seen enough. There is a chestnut filly on her side, screaming as she tries to right herself, a mess of mane and muscle. But she cannot stand. One hoof hangs from her leg by only a sliver of skin, blood dark against the red dirt. I’ve seen dead animals, roadkill, but I have never witnessed anything this gruesome. A gasp issues from the crowd, and then we are silent. We watch this horse struggle, flailing in the dirt, trying, it seems, to finish the race.
An ambulance arrives within seconds, and a green canvas barrier is quickly erected where the horse went down. “What’s going on?” I ask, but I know the answer. I imagine the injection, then the death, swift and painless. I am reminded that these horses are alive and breakable. Today we are not watching a sport. We are watching a life end.
On Christmas Day when I am a senior in high school, my family and I sit down to our traditional holiday breakfast of mimosas and eggs Benedict. After we’ve opened presents, my father leaves with my brother and my uncle for a remote duck-hunting cabin. As he is unloading his truck, the heart murmur he had his whole life suddenly becomes fatal. His death is instant.
It falls on my family to clean out his classroom. I don’t go to help sort through what I know is there: the specimens in their jars of formaldehyde, terrarium plants growing over the lids, the slouching green chair he rescued from the dump — the detritus from a lifetime of teaching. By the time students return from winter break, a new teacher is standing in front of my father’s blackboard, using the same chalk my father left in the dusty trays.
I cannot escape my father’s memory at school. He is everywhere — in his classroom and the auditorium and his old parking spot. For days after his death, kids write him messages in chalk on the sidewalks, so that in between classes I have to step over his name.
One day Jim, the teacher who shared an office with my dad, tracks me down.
“I miss you,” he says.
“It’s too hard for me to come by,” I explain.
“I know,” he says.
I can tell by the way Jim shuffles his feet, hunches his shoulders, and avoids eye contact that he is suffering, too.
At home my mother and brother and I move in quiet orbits around one another in the heavy silence that filled the house after the flowers and family were gone. People have told us we need to move on. To get back to work. To go back to school. I’m told I should go to the next soccer game. Behind these words is the well-meaning but useless idea that routine breeds normalcy, that recovery is just around the corner. But this encouragement strikes me as being born of selfishness: these people cannot bear to see how grief has cleaved our lives.
Jim says, “I found this in a box of papers,” and hands me a letter written by my father, addressed to the Chinese embassy. He mentioned a trip to China a few times on our drive to school, but I didn’t know his plans were already underway. In the letter he requests visas for our family, citing the fact that my brother and I have seen the Arctic Ocean from an aluminum canoe, backpacked in the Sierra Nevada, and traced John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’s route through Baja California. We want, he says, to ride our bikes along the Great Wall of China. He speaks briefly about each of us: I am an athlete; my brother is young and curious; my mother, he says, is the strongest, toughest woman he’s ever met.
That day, after school, I wander into my favorite Spanish teacher’s classroom and sit quietly near the window. Kids file through the hallways, yelling, laughing, raucous. It’s early January, and the skies are gray with fog.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I say. My Spanish teacher thinks I am talking about returning to school so quickly, but what I am really talking about is being alive.
I think of a picture of my mother that hung on my father’s office door: She is perched on a boulder in front of a small waterfall somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness, wearing a backpack, her hair pulled back in a kerchief. Behind her, water flows over moss-covered rocks. She is smiling at my father, who took the picture, blew it up, and taped it to his door so he could see his wife all day. His tough wife.
I’m wearing the black leather jacket I got as a Christmas present last year, though the thought of that day makes my stomach turn. I will donate the jacket in a matter of weeks and spend years trying to erase Christmas from my life. But today my favorite teacher looks at me and touches the crook of my elbow and says, “You will be fine. You are so strong.”
It’s 6 AM in Berkeley, California. The sun has not yet peeked over the East Bay Hills, and I am on my way to my first rugby practice. I am a freshman at UC Berkeley. My father has been dead for nine long months, and I am trying something new.
We play games of tag with the rugby ball to get used to its awkward oblong shape. We learn the names unique to the sport: scrum, lineout, scrumhalf, prop. We learn to throw the ball backward, never forward. Toward the end of the practice our coach tells us we are going to learn how to tackle. It didn’t occur to me until this very moment that rugby is a contact sport. We wrap our arms around our partners’ thighs and squeeze as we try to advance. Then we play a tackling game, and I stick my first hit.
As I make contact, my shoulder to my teammate’s hip, I am thrilled. Her feet leave the ground, and we fly through the air together, connected, with me on top — the victor. It is the ultimate adrenaline surge, an awareness of my own strength. I feel a sense of purpose. But it’s more than that: it’s instinct, primal and liberating. It connects me to something bigger than myself. I am hooked.
In rugby I find a clan of women who braid their hair tight to their scalps, who have tattoos and girlfriends and are fiercely loyal. They are my comrades on the field. They risk injury for me, and I do the same for them. Since women’s rugby is an underfunded club sport, we fight for field space, wake up early, play on the rocky public fields of Oakland. My teammates become the loud, boisterous family that distracts me from the intense solitude and loneliness I feel at school. When I play rugby, I do not grieve. I am not lost or tired or homesick. I am not merely treading water. Though I am not fast or big or particularly gifted, I can read the field. I can tackle. I am small and can stay low to the ground. I can take down anyone in front of me. What really sets me apart is that I am tough, tougher than anyone.
My freshman year at Berkeley is consumed with rugby. I have no energy for school. Outside of rugby I question the meaning of everything. I flounder in the crowd of eager, driven students who sit beside me in class. In the hallways and on the campus lawns I see people hungry for their future. Without rugby my future is hollow.
Things people will say to me throughout my rugby career: You’ll get hurt. You’ll never get your knees back. You only get one body.
And I do get hurt. Very hurt. I separate one shoulder, then the other. I tear the medial collateral ligament in my knee twice. Concussed, I wander through classes unable to remember words. Stitches cross my forehead in a spidery shape. I get staples in neat rows along the top of my skull. I sprain and bruise. Playing for the U.S. against Canada, I am knocked out cold. I have painful fluid buildups from injuries to my elbows. It’s hard to sit in a lecture hall. It’s hard to write on a desk. In my passport photo I have a black eye. But I am lucky compared to others: I see bones popping out of ankles, feet flipped sideways and backward. I see blood gushing out of noses, faces purple and swollen, the bizarre wandering of an eye whose retina has been detached. My friend’s ears are cut and torn, and the cartilage blooms like cauliflower.
What no one besides my teammates understands is the rush. I can do this without thinking, and I lose myself to the sensation of accomplishment. It is the same high as watching a line of thoroughbreds slip around the last hundred yards of the track. What no one understands is that I am in a place where there is nothing to save. What rules has life taught me other than that it can change and end in an instant? What is the use in hedging our bets if we don’t know the odds? There were no signs that my father would die. There was nothing we could do, and I am still stunned by that, living in a world of numbness.
But in rugby I feel. I feel my pulse: I am living. I am alive.
I am a two-time all-American, captain of every rugby team for which I’ve ever played. Although women’s rugby in the U.S. is a burgeoning sport with limited funding, there are others like me, thousands across the country. Craving better competition, I forgo my last year at Berkeley to play for the local club team, a group of women with full-time jobs who train in the morning and evening. They have won ten national championships. They welcome my work ethic, and I become insatiable. Rugby becomes a job, my life a series of tryouts and camps, workouts and tournaments.
My father did not live to see my debut for the U.S. National Team, nor to watch me run onto Murrayfield in Scotland. He does not see my strength and drive, the athlete I have become, the accolades I amass in his absence with an all-consuming fervor. But through bruises and plane flights, long practices and late nights, I feel tiny sparks of awareness, glimmers of the person I used to be. I hear the echoes of a life I have suppressed to be a rugby player.
On tour in Canada I read about the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage to the tomb of the apostle James in the rainy fields of northern Spain. The pilgrims walk the Camino for health, or spiritual reasons, or simply to walk a very long way. Some walk for their dead brothers or sisters, for a saint, for their neighbor, for grief. I read about the pilgrimage in bed late into the night. I hold the book to my chest and think, What if I left? What if I got on a plane and began to walk all this pain away? What if I slowed down? But I know I cannot go to Spain. My fidelity is to the next tour, making it to the next game. I do not have the strength to quit. Not yet. One day.
Over the years I return to Bay Meadows. Sometimes I come alone, sometimes with a friend. I sit in the Turf Club, the grandstand, or hang on the fence like a kid. I come for stakes races and Free-Sweatshirt Day. I run my hands along the railing of the saddling paddock and eat hot dogs. I am ten again. I come because, like rugby, the track assuages my loss. In those short seconds as the horses round the last corner, driving toward the finish, I am without grief.
From the grandstand I can see the divots in the infield where my father and I played golf, and the spot where he held my head to his chest the day that chestnut filly died. There is something familiar in the faces of the men and women around me, betting, hoping. At Bay Meadows I do not need to worry about how to navigate the terrifying expanse of life in front of me, because I am not alone. My father is here in the stands, in the paddock, on the parquet floor of the Turf Club in his formal wear. He lives in the hallways, in the fever pitch of the last race, and in that secret optimism that comes with gambling.
Then they announce plans to demolish Bay Meadows and build Spanish-style commuter condos. There will be a Whole Foods, ample parking, bay views. They are going to tear down the rafters and uproot the palm trees and pave over the turf and silence the heartbeat of hooves. And I will have to let go of these things, too, and move forward, even if I cannot see where I am going.
It is June in the rolling hills outside Pittsburgh. I am twenty-six, and my bones are stiff. In the car on the way to the rugby field, we pass brick cottages that seem to waver in the heat. Insects chirr in the thick air. I am competing in a tournament, playing in front of the National Team coaches. No one on the National Team “owns” her spot. There are yearly tryouts.
I am nursing an injured quadriceps muscle I’ve torn so many times it cannot heal. At home the laundry and bills are piled up, and the San Francisco summer is a cold, gray affair. I am saddled with the debt I’ve accumulated from plane flights and training camps. I think about it constantly: all the weight I’ve shouldered to play this game for eight years. But it is such a part of my life and personality, I cannot stop.
During a match I go up for a routine kick. As the ball leaves my foot, the momentum of my leg carries me upward, a few inches off the ground. An opponent makes contact with me, hitting me high in my chest, and I flip over. I stick my arm out to break my fall. The pain is instant and searing. When I sit up, I know that my elbow has detached from its socket. My forearm dangles from the upper half of my arm, my skin stretched tight over the unhinged bone.
The trainer runs out to me. On the other side of the field, the game goes on.
“It’s out,” I say.
“What do you want me to do?” he asks, his eyes wide. The field is in a remote location. There is no ambulance standing by. Teenagers with dull expressions staff the first-aid tent.
“Put it back in,” I say.
His hands shake. He twists my forearm up, but nothing happens, just the sickening sound of bone grinding on bone. The pain takes me out of my body.
“I can’t,” he says.
“Try again,” I say, but then I think about the chance of something going wrong that might cause me to lose the use of my entire left arm. The unwavering trust I had in my body — these tendons and their gummy crevices, these muscles with their rippled knitting — has been broken.
He tries again.
Out of the corner of my eye I see people in the stands looking away in horror.
“Stop,” I say. “Stop.”
The game has paused. My teammates, my coaches, and the trainer huddle over me. I’ve been on the other side of this. I know what their expressions mean. They stare at my disfigured arm with their eyes wide and lips pursed. I know what they are thinking: they’ve never seen an elbow come out, and the odds of an injury like this seem nearly impossible. Until it happens.
I hear the echoes of people warning me of this very possibility, and, yes, I was betting that I wouldn’t get hurt this badly. No one ever puts on a jersey and thinks, Today, my ankle will break, my shoulder will separate, my elbow will pop out of its socket. So when it does, it seems like a lesson. But that comes later. In this moment there is only pain and the slow-motion chaos of unhinged joints.
I’m told there’s a call in to the first-aid tent for a motorized cart to get me off the field. Lisa, my friend who plays for another team, appears among the ring of heads. “I’m driving you to the emergency room,” she says.
Someone says the National Team doctor should be here any minute.
I’d like to say that as I lay on that field in Pittsburgh, I could see what was ahead: that my rugby career was over, and that giving up rugby would bring a kind of relief; that up until that moment I had been running away from my grief and toward an imagined finish line, because I simply did not know what else to do.
When no cart comes, when the doctor does not materialize, I sit up.
“Just wait,” someone says.
“This has to happen now,” I say. People hover close as I rise to my feet. Lisa runs to get her car. My friends and teammates, people I have known for years, touch my back or run a hand over my hair, murmuring support, saying goodbye. And, holding my elbow as tenderly as I might my own beating heart, I walk off that field.
What are the odds that Rose Whitmore’s essay about her decision to play rugby after the loss of her father [“The Odds of Injury,” February 2014] would be read by someone in rural Haiti who’s never even heard of women’s rugby? And what are the odds that this decidedly non-athletic sixty-two-year-old reader is a mission worker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the final scene of her essay takes place? And what are the odds that this reader would find out that one of her fellow mission workers coaches a women’s rugby team back home?
Now, what are the odds that, after this friend reads the piece, he looks up and says, “I was at that match”?