8 Years Mourning: How the Beautiful Game Healed Me
by Mark Falkin
Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.
– Joan Didion, from The Year of Magical Thinking
The penultimate reason I am about to board an airplane bound for Paris is to see that city I haven’t seen in twenty-four years. I will be seeing it this time with my wife of twenty-one years and daughters, eleven and fifteen. The ultimate raison d’etre I’m going to Paris, however, is to watch a couple of World Cup matches, including the US Women’s National team. They are to play Chile. Parc des Princes is sold out.
There’s a photo I’m looking at as I write this. It’s me and my mom standing on a street corner in Paris in 1980. Grainy and very much a tourist’s snapshot taken by my dad it depicts a standard street corner. There is no obelisk, tower, arc or painting behind us. My mom wears a red scarf, a beige trench coat that billows in the breeze, her hand in her coat pocket. I stand next to her at arm’s length. I wear a red Tulsa Roughnecks jersey, the Roughnecks being that city’s NASL team of the era. The S in that acronym stands for Soccer. My dad never played soccer but he coached my soccer teams off and on, from age five until eighth grade. We went to many a Roughnecks home game at Skelly Stadium. My jersey emblazoned with Iraj Danaeifard’s #9, on a Paris street corner in June of 1980 I am all about soccer. I still am, as an admirer of the game and its culture.
I am almost a year older than my mother was when she died of cancer at 47. But this isn’t about her. It’s about my dad and soccer, a sport he never played.
I found it difficult to mourn for my dad. Though there were symptoms, the insurance wasn’t there temporarily and he didn’t want to trigger a preexisting condition which would make getting insurance impossible in 2005. He tried to play the healthcare system, a system that shouldn’t have to be played, gamed out. In other words, he gambled. He lost. A massive heart attack killed him on the floor of a Panera Bread in east Tulsa. He was 57. Sitting in my little rainmaker solo practice law office, an infant at home with the nanny, I got the call from Tulsa. Coming ten years after my mom’s untimely death, it was my own version of an IED, a bomb. I understand when they say PTSD and depression. There was a time when I literally didn’t answer the phone. Sometimes I cannot drive long highway distances.
Let me go back. That’s not true about my mom. This is about her, too, obviously. What did I do after she died on Christmas Eve of my 1L year? I needed to make myself do something, to obligate myself so I wouldn’t wallow in self-pity and fail out of school. So, I was gifted a black lab I named Steve and I volunteered to coach recreational soccer in Norman, Oklahoma. It was an under 12 boys team, the Panthers. We had a good season. Steve came to games and rolled around in ice the kids had dumped. One of the kids called me in Dallas that summer to tell me he had been practicing. This stuff heals you.
Once my girls became old enough, I coached their rec soccer teams. Two hundred games, two hundred plus practices over those eight years. I communed with my dad every moment. Not consciously, per se, but sometimes . . . especially when I lined the fields, he popped into my head and I’d smile to myself in the dawn.
Lining the fields. This was one of my favorite things. The dawn, the quiet, the pregnant expectation in the air. Anything could happen. Everything would happen: The cheering and wailing and meltdowns and maybe too-hard high-fives and post-game parent tunnels and ankle sprains and parent meltdowns and hugs so tight that the kids’ eyeballs pop out a little and they can’t help but smile. Then there’s that one kid, one every Saturday, that one kid who turned the corner as a player, you see the light going on, the fulsome click in her head where muscle memory and practice come together — I get it now, that one kid, one every Saturday, thinks to herself. And there’s all the other glorious kids who think this is fun but I really don’t care. All this wild vituperation, this madness over what? A ball, a goal, a field, fictions all. Meaningless. What’s for snack, man?
Because it was one of my favorite things, I could rhapsodize longer over it, explode it into this way too sentimental, maudlin, sacrosanct moment. The smell of the dew on the grass, the hiss and scent of paint coming off a rickety paint-caked wheeled contraption, the lines going down straight in my mind but upon review the line is so jittery it looks as if I had been beating back the hairiest of hangovers or that I was still actually drunk. But I was, usually, neither. I wasn’t booze drunk, but on some of those mornings I was a little intoxicated. Intoxicated in that hard-to-describe way but maybe I can say that I was sometimes disembodied and mindful of the fact that these are the days when your kids are young and you’re out here in the dawn doing something about which they have no idea. How’d those lines get there? The fields, the nets. Who does this? I remember thinking this when I was young and playing but never thought too much about it because I was too busy playing. As a kid you always had the innate sense that the adults were doing all this stuff behind the scenes but you never fully understood it, the machinations of the adult world obscured by the film of innocence and inexperience, that opaque scrim lining, walling off childhood from adolescence.
There was magic in those mornings. I felt my dad’s presence, or, rather, thought of him more acutely at those times. Drawing a line across wet grass, the hiss of paint, I thought of him and the other moms and dads coming out to help. And though I never got overly sad when my coaching days ended last year — feeling rather that a baton had been handed over and glad for it — during the eight years of accretion, eight years, two hundred games, two hundred plus practices, maybe eight miles of paint lined in the dawn, I finally felt a drip of mourning. It took eight years of soccer Saturdays for me to finally feel like maybe I’d contended with most of it, most of it occurring not during the now-feeling of the warm-ups or the game itself, but those quiet times right before everybody else started arriving with their fold out chairs and coffees and hair tucked under hats and bound in scrunchies, while I’m walking the field, lining the field, shaping its confines for the day’s play, the moon still up and the paint spraying down.
Now, as I’m watching my kids playing on without me coaching them — just an involved spectator now which presents its own unique set of joys — all those memories start to force themselves together, compressing and merging from distinct identifiable moments into a two-dimensional summary. Put the team in the photograph. Echoing Didion: let those times become the photograph. It’s another kind of mourning happening, an immeasurable bittersweetness that, when I think about it, never ceases to bring a smile to my face and, if I let it, wetness to my eyes. It’s a sting I’m so glad and proud to be having.
I’m off to Paris to cheer on the daughters of dads as they achieve their dreams. It will be a great Father’s Day. I’ll likely think of my dad again; I’ll think of lining the fields in the dawn. And when it’s over and the crowds go off into the city of lights, I will think to myself — it was a game and it was beautiful.
Mark Falkin is a writer living in Austin, Texas. His latest novel is The Late Bloomer.