Wednesday, July 15, 2015

NFL wives

Just down the winding street from our house is a charming little school called North Elementary that my family knows very, very well. It's home to the little playground with the grey "spinny thing" that Lennon has loved (to watch, not ride) since he has had an opinion. Home to a sprawling field where Danny and I used to take our sweet pup to run the furniture-chewing willies out of her. Next to a rustic, wooded nook where we had our engagement photos taken back in 2009 and about twenty years before that it was where I played kickball and four-square as a rambunctious fifth grader. North is where we meet 95% of Lennon's playdates and where he gets 99% of his knee scrapes. And when it's just me and him, we make sure to swing by Starbucks on our way there, even though it's not actually on our way. This morning was one of those days, he asked and I conceded. It was chilly out but it was just us, so we took full advantage.

When we got to the schoolyard we sat down on our favorite bench and Lennon ate a small slice of pumpkin bread before running off to join in a game of tag. As the heat of my latte warmed my fingers I was thankful that I'd won the morning jacket debate that day. The clouds in the distance had become the clouds overhead and the sun had been reduced to a bright spot in the corner of sky. A mom called out to her daughter, requesting a break from swing-pushing, and then walked towards me with her hands in her pockets and a smile on her face. She asked if the seat next to me was taken and then sat down.

We chatted a bit about the weather, about Lennon and then about her daughter. It was the usual Park-Mom conversation. How old is he? What school does she go to? Where do you guys live? We talked about the foreign concept of "TK," a new program called Transitional Kindergarten, and then somehow started talking about the local high school ratings. Lennon ran over to me, yelled that he was "it" and threw his New York Giants ball cap on my lap. The woman looked down at the hat, raised an eyebrow, and then asked if we had ties to the East Coast. Before I knew it we were knee deep in football speak. She vented about her issues with her beloved 49ers' and their lack of offseason acquisitions and I told her a little about why Danny was excited to return to the Giants for another year. I asked her how she liked the new Santa Clara stadium and she asked me which city I enjoyed the most on our journey. Before I could respond, she grinned eagerly and placed her hand on my shoulder. "Wait, what's being an NFL wife like?"

I smiled and shrugged. The answer that I have bookmarked in my brain for that oft-asked question rolled off of my tongue. I told her that there are proverbial ups and downs that come with being married to a professional athlete and that the chaotic lifestyle keeps me on my toes. That sometimes it's fun and exciting and other times it's a ball of worry in the pit of my stomach. She nodded empathetically and then hesitated. "So are you friends with the other wives?"

I looked out to the playground and caught Lennon's eye as he turned a corner. He waved and I waved back. As my gaze followed him to the top of the slide I contemplated reaching back into my archive of easy answers. I contemplated a short response that would quickly answer her question and fulfill her enthusiastic inquiry. Then a cool breeze sent a chill down my spine and I looked up at the darkening sky. For a moment I wondered if maybe I would allow the moment be as authentic as it felt...

Most of the NFL wives who I've had the privilege of meeting over the past nine years have been much more than just persons who are or were married to professional football players like my Danny. In fact, if you met the majority of them on any given day, you would never actually know that their husbands play or played the game. They simply wouldn't care to mention it because they're too busy being dentists, teachers, trainers, and business owners. Supermodels, singers, TV personalities, and pageant queens. Mothers, friends, daughters, and companions. Listeners, mentors, therapists, and life coaches. Managers, missionaries, philanthropists, and activists. They are women who prefer to be called their first names rather than so and so's wife and women who are happy with who they are, with and without the game, with and without their husbands' celebrity. 

When Danny told me he had been signed by the St. Louis Rams almost a decade ago, I, honest to God, didn't even know what state St. Louis was in. I didn't know what it was close to or how far it was from San Francisco. I didn't know a thing about what it would be like, not the weather, the culture or more importantly the people, and I was immediately nervous about how little I knew about the Midwest. I was also nervous about the idea of following my husband's career rather than focusing on one of my own so I began to constantly remind myself that I could write anywhere and that the length of the average NFL career was only three years. But when I realized that most of my anxiety came from the immense unknowns of moving, I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed knowing that regardless of where St. Louis was and what it was like, it wasn't my hometown and I was going to miss my family and friends every single day. I soon found, though, that I was in good company.

By the time the regular season started I had learned that the NFL lifestyle was one that, undoubtedly, brought women together. With our husbands eating, breathing and sleeping football for the entire month of August, the other wives and I quickly learned to fill the void they left behind with each other. By September I had a gym buddy, a game night crew and a cooking class carpool. A few of us started a book club (that was unashamedly more of an excuse to have a daytime cocktail than to read) which eventually morphed into a "Ladies who Lunch" safe-place that, quite frankly, kept all of us sane. As we got to know each other on deeper levels, we created a culture where nothing was off the table and no feeling was too big to share. We laughed and cried and ate and drank. When four of us got pregnant around the same time we made mocktails and threw each other heartfelt baby showers that even our out-of-town besties would've been proud of. I was lucky to be in the company of women, extraordinary women, who were also hundreds of miles from their own families and friends and who were building a new normal right alongside me. We all had different personalities and some individual bonds were closer than others but when we sat at the same table, we broke the same bread and sipped the same wine. We listened and advised. We conferred and inspired. And we took care of each other so that we could take care of our husbands in a career that could consume them.

Lunch was always a great time but we learned to lean on each other for more than just good food and good conversation. When the guys left town or had to stay in the team hotel on the evenings before home games, we had grown-up slumber parties. It was unsettling knowing that anyone who looked up the Rams game schedule could tell when our husbands wouldn't be home. And when the same blue car drove slowly down our street for the third time in ten minutes our alarm systems didn't always feel like enough. So we congregated under the same roof, ordered Papa John's thin-crust pizza, drank red wine and caught up on reality TV. When the guys volunteered at charity events, which was often a weekly occurrence, we manned booths together and got involved in the community. We took turns bringing each other snacks and giving each other occasional bathroom breaks and always, always managed to make the event photo-booth attendants completely sick of us. We supported each other in raising money for causes that were near and dear to our hearts, walked in fashion show fundraisers together and picked each others' brains about offseason football camps and foundation dinners. When family came to town to visit we helped each other run errands and offered up our air mattresses and spare bedrooms. Why wouldn't we? Family of family was family too.

If one of our husbands decided to play through a harrowing injury we all held our breath together when he was on the field. Every game, every play, until the whistle blew, we watched him prayerfully and clapped hopefully. Most of the time we sat in the same row but that didn't keep us from checking in on each other with subtle head nods and hip-bumps. And if someone had to get through a scary moment we always came together to see her through every second of it. We let our lives intertwine and overlap, blend and conjoin, and we did our best to ignore the risk that came with getting close to peers in a temporary career. But there was no denying that turnover was a huge part of the game and that the business side of the league was just as ruthless of a place as the field turf.

One of the more difficult things an NFL wife has to do is welcome the woman who replaces her best friend on a revolving roster. Sometimes she and her husband move right next door, into your best friend's old house, and they take down the wind-chimes that she sprained her ankle trying to hang. And sometimes you manage to avoid them at all costs. Sometimes your eyes well with tears on quiet car rides to big games when your gameday carpool isn't there to cut the tension with her unfailing humor. And sometimes you try not to feel sad when you can't celebrate a playoff win with your signature handshake. In some situations, a new wife comes in knowing that she and her husband are there because two people you love no longer are and other times she has no idea at all. Regardless of what she knows or doesn't and regardless of what's right or wrong, giving her a chance can feel like cheating and befriending her can feel like betrayal. It wasn't until I had been both the replacement and the replaced that I began to better understand the revolving carousel that we were all on. Through the turbulence of the trade, I learned a very important truth that will resonate with me forever more. I learned that no matter the city and no matter the year, no matter the reason and no matter the outcome, we are all part of the same short story. We are all part of the same snapshot in time when our husbands were part of something spectacular and no matter who came and who left, no matter who won and who lost, we are all on the same team.

Another reality that I've found to be true over the years is that there is no quicker way to get close to someone, whether you want to or not, than to experience the pitfalls of life with them. And sometimes that someone just happens to be whoever's there. There are no sick days, no holidays and no family emergencies for the blue collar NFL player. No days off for the man who values his unique opportunity and strives to prove his total commitment to his craft, each and everyday. So the set-in-stone calendar that dictates our husbands' rigid routine for six months of the year exists with no exceptions. Danny has played football with a 103 degree fever and has gone to work on Christmas morning like it was just another day. In 2009 it took an in-house Swine Flu epidemic to shut down Rams football for just one afternoon. When the fifth guy tested positive for the miserable illness everyone was sent home after practice.

According to an age-old schedule, NFL players get Tuesdays off during the regular season. They get Tuesdays off if they don't have an injury or ailment that needs treatment, but life never waits until Tuesday to transpire. Sometimes we miscarry on Saturdays and our parents pass away on Wednesdays. Sometimes our pups escape our yards on Mondays and we fall down flights of stairs on Sundays. When my car broke-down on a snowy St. Louis highway on a Thursday morning, I knew better than to call Danny for help. I knew his phone was in his locker, where it generally stayed until his last meeting of the day and I knew that his ringer was most-likely on silent. I also knew that if, by some miracle, he was actually able to answer my call, it wouldn't have mattered anyways. There wouldn't have been anything he could do to help. I called my sweet friend and she didn't think twice about no-showing a doctor appointment so that she could pick me up right away. An appointment I would never have known existed if I hadn't overheard her reschedule it two days later.

When I found out, back in 2013, that I was pregnant with a "season" baby, restlessness crept over me like a dark cloud. It wasn't the surprise of the pregnancy that made me uneasy and it wasn't the real possibility that Danny would be out of town when I went into labor that rattled me. My nerves came from knowing that, during a time when I would need my husband's support the most, he simply wouldn't be able to give it to me. They came from knowing that I would need to learn to juggle both a newborn and a toddler without my only constant by my side, and I'd have to do it 3000 miles from home. Night feedings, diaper changes and teething fits would surely consume me but no matter how tired I'd become, I'd need to send Danny back to bed when he got up to help. In the end, I understood that when your body is your livelihood sleep is a necessity not an option. And I also knew that tired legs could be more hazardous to his health than a two-ton lineman. As my due date neared I smiled through my angst and hoped that my mom could make the trip when the time came. And if, for some reason, she couldn't I knew that it would be ok. If, for some reason, she couldn't, I knew that my girls would make it ok.

My NFL wife friendships are mostly rooted in the novel experiences that many of us maneuver through at one point or another. From moving five times in three years to awaiting a third MRI result over the span of two weeks. From prying our crying toddlers off of their bleeding dads during training camp to holding our husbands' hands while they transition from the career of a lifetime to an entry level desk job. There's something therapeutic about talking to someone who gets me in an unexampled way, someone who sympathizes with the unique concerns that I harbor behind my confidence. I worry about my husband's longterm health and they worry about theirs. I speculate about how my husband will adjust to a life away from the gridiron, and they do too. When I stress over the fact that Danny's battle-wounded body will only be covered by NFL provided health insurance for five years after he retires, they stress with me. When our husbands joke about how we will be pushing them around in wheelchairs in their mid-life we shake our heads and say "God forbid." In the three minutes that follow the coin-toss and precede the kick-off I chew at the walls of my mouth and run through all four of my gameday prayers in a specific order. They all have their own versions of that moment and they understand when I don't respond. When a man is down on the field, writhing in pain and unable to walk, I reach out and touch his wife's knee in compassion. I don't touch her knee because I can imagine how she feels, I touch her knee because I know how she does. I know how the nausea starts in her gut and works it's way up to her throat and I know that it gets harder to breath with each second that he's down. The injury cart always comes out onto the field in slow motion and the rumbling of the crowd is always silenced as she fumbles for her mom's number in her phone.

Another facet of the game that NFL wives know all too much about is the immense pressure that comes with being an entertainer. The pressure on our husbands to be flawless is very real and the pressure on us to hold it together when they make a mistake is too. It's true that nobody's perfect but very few have their missteps magnified by the howl of seventy thousand roaring fans, very few are publicly reprimanded in their professional workplaces and even fewer are on live TV during those low moments. And when our guys perform well we brace ourselves for a good verbal bashing, for the relentless heckling that is courtesy of the angry mob that's cheering for the other team. Danny says it's funny and that it's all part of the gig but I'll never, ever, get used to it. Say what you want about me, but utter a word about my love and all I see is red. In those infuriating moments, it's a gift to be in the company of women who remind me that it's not as personal as it feels. Women who remind me that it all comes with the same territory that brings so much good to our lives and who make me laugh to distract me from the incessant noise. Incredible women, who cheer just as loud for my husband as I do when he scores a touchdown and root for me with the same enthusiasm when I submit an op-ed to the local newspaper. We're each others' bodyguards, cheerleaders and confidants. Each others' preschool emergency contacts, marriage counselors and scary doctor appointment buddies. When surgery on Danny's leg took two hours longer than it was supposed to, I didn't have to worry that our pup wouldn't be let out. And when we finally got home from an exhausting day, a three course meal was waiting for us in the fridge.

When I found out that Danny and I would be leaving St. Louis for a new opportunity in Denver I was inconsolable. Leaving the women who had become my pillars of strength over several years was a daunting idea and I didn't know how I was going to get by without them. When we flew to Colorado with our newborn in tow I told Danny that I didn't want any new NFL friendships. I told him that I couldn't take the heartbreak of goodbye if we had to pick up and leave again and he told me that he understood. He apologized for the emotional rollercoaster that came with his unstable career and I felt terrible that he felt terrible. But true to my word, when the season started up I kept to myself. When I wasn't Skyping with my St. Louis girls or with family and friends from back home, Danny and I had some fun times together. We spent a few nights out on the town, dined in a few steakhouses and checked out the Sixteenth Street Mall. Most nights we stayed in and let Lennon entertain us and when he went to bed we had two-person dance parties and played movie trivia games on the Xbox. It was different from the life we grew to know in St. Louis but we tried to make the most of it. There were no game nights for us to make appetizers for or slumber parties for me to join when he flew cross-country. No surprise birthday dinners to attend or baby showers to help plan. No girls lunches, no chat sessions and no help with the baby or the pups when Danny was at work and I was sick. The team Halloween party was fun and I talked to a few wives at a couple home games but that was the extent of my interaction with them. When Danny played through an injury I held my breath by myself and when he was heckled for scoring I bit my tongue and only talked to God. When he had to leave town on the morning of my birthday, Lennon and I celebrated the last year of my 20's with a Friends marathon, some smashed avocado for him and Chinese take-out for me. I was so very lonely but I wasn't willing to do anything about it.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in December, I returned to our Dove Valley home from a quick trip to the grocery store to find what looked like the scene of a botched home-invasion. Heater vents had been lifted up out of the floor and the sliding glass door to the yard was wide open. Sideways rain clamored onto our dining table and muddy footsteps were smeared onto the hardwood. I rushed Lennon back into the car. Danny was out of town and I had no one to call and nowhere to go. I sped down to the corner of our street and pulled over at the stop sign. I put the car in park and lost it. I struggled to catch my breath but the tears wouldn't stop. I banged on the steering wheel and Lennon started to cry. I felt so very helpless and alone. When I finally caught my breath I climbed into the backseat of the car and pulled my sweet boy onto my lap. I hugged him until the rain stopped and I promised him that it would be ok. As tears streamed down my cheeks, I rocked him to sleep and came to realize that I'd had it all wrong. I'd let fear overcome faith and I'd put up cement walls that separated my boys and myself from the support group that was the NFL family. I realized that unparalleled friendship and incomparable support did outweigh the hurt of goodbye and no one, including me, should ignore that fact. No one should try to go it alone. Because the truth is, no one ever has to.

I'm beyond grateful for that difficult day and for the hurt condition that consumed me several years ago. I'm thankful for the helplessness that set the stage for the remainder of my journey, the realization that built doors where walls once were and the epiphany that built hope where anxiety once was. I can't imagine my life without some of the ladies I've met since that day and I'm so incredibly glad that I don't have to.

Today, the dear friends who I've met on my crazy, cross-country ride are scattered all over the U.S. but so many still feel right next door. When Danny trades his cleats in for Oxfords and we set out to adjust to "real life," I know who I can call for direction. If one day Lennon decides that he wants to play football like Dad and I can't seem to talk him out of it, I know who I can call for counsel. When the 80 percent divorce rate for NFL relationships knocks on the door of my marriage and my strong resolve, I know who I can call for guidance. It's a sorority you can't graduate from, a club with no association dues. It's a lifelong sisterhood, like it or not, and neither your husband's roster status or the status of your relationship with him are relevant to your membership.

I can lean on my girls, in any hour for any reason. Any day of the week. And they can always, always lean on me.

...I lowered my eyes from the sky and looked towards her anticipating stare. As much as the authenticity of the moment existed, the words that could convey the veracity of my answer didn't. Deep down, I knew, in that time and space, there was nothing I could say that would make her understand. There was no explanation that could do the truth justice, no matter how badly I wanted to share it.

"I guess you could say that we're friends." I said. I took a sip of my latte and smiled. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Our family bed

My new years resolution for 2015 was to make time to write again. A little over two months into the new year and here I am. Maybe it was the writer's equivalent of the age old resolution, "I'm gonna make time for myself this year" or maybe I just missed being able to read my thoughts out-loud. Either way, I've reaffirmed that one of the best feelings in the world is crawling into a cold, crisp bed and pulling a warm, weighty laptop onto my lap. The bright screen is all the light I need and the click clacking of the keyboard against the silence of the night does something good for my soul. Two babies are sound asleep in their rooms, two monitors are humming quietly on my nightstand, the man I've shared my bed and moments with for 13 years is side-sleeping next to me with a pillow in-between his knees, all is well. When Danny had ACL surgery in 2004 his knee pillow became a mainstay in our bed. I never truly understood it until I was forced to become a side-sleeper in pregnancy and ended up adopting one of my own. From knee pillows, to puppies, to babies, to toddlers, our family bed has endured it's fair share of chaos over the years. It has become a symbol of all that has evolved around us. Or more accurately, all that has evolved inside of us.

When I glanced at my last blog entry to see where I left off, the emotions that consumed me when I wrote it washed over me. Almost a year ago I was adjusting to being a mom of two and trying to figure out how to juggle my first baby love and my precious addition without feeling guilty for splitting my time and energy into two. Although incredibly optimistic, I soon found that multiplying love easily equaled more love but multiplying bottles and night feedings by diapers and baths never equalled more time in the day when I needed it to. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence for Danny to find me tucked into bed, swiping through photos of Lennon on my phone, with tears streaming down my cheeks. As much as I adored every minute I spent bonding with my sweet Layla Liv, I so missed my silly little boy. I missed our park dates and grocery store excursions. I missed our morning car rides to school, counting the mailboxes and singing along with Taylor Swift. Danny took over the majority of my daily rituals with Lennon (and also added a few more to the routine he already had with him) in order to keep him occupied when Layla was feeding every hour on the hour. It was hard to swallow that Lennon's long, therapeutic hugs were becoming few and far between and when I caught him looking at me from across the room with confused eyes my heart hurt. When he would cock his head in my direction, as if to ask me where I had gone, I would cry. But thankfully, just the way all difficult times do, the hardship passed. As Layla became independent enough to entertain herself and as my arms became available for more hugs and snuggles from my little man, Lennon began to fall back in love with me. And more importantly, he began to fall in love with his sister.

Around the same time, Danny signed a one year, no frills or guarantees, contract with the Giants after a tumultuous season out of football. All we could see on the horizon was the unknown but regardless of the uncertainty we celebrated his huge achievement and decided to cherish the good of everyday rather than fear the missteps of every tomorrow. We made plans both for successes and for failures as if either path would be the best one because we navigated it as a family. And when Danny made the team in September and it came time to take another leap of faith and uproot our little family, yet again, our family and our friends (who can only be described as family) assured us that it was okay to jump. So with their love, we leapt. And we're so glad we did.

Just as Fall fell, we moved. 13 moves in 13 years, dating all the way back to college. We dove head first into a new city and a new adventure. Three timezones away, we went all in and we have not one regret. Danny played well and we had fun exploring the concrete jungle that was Manhattan. It really was all I had imagined it would be. We calculatedly maneuvered our way through date nights on Broadway, Central Park horse rides and sightseeing in Times Square, afraid we might miss something. We showed our Cali roots when we took the kids outside to play in two inches of dirty snow, because why not? And we started referring to pizzas as pies and picking up bagels and lox every Tuesday morning. We even learned to love New Jersey's common BYO policy, as foreign as it was to us, and learned quickly that one should always take full advantage of the possibility of pairing corner market enchiladas with Silver Oak. I did have one hang up with the East Coast lifestyle though, one that I had experienced in Foxboro a few years prior as well. As hard as I tried I just couldn't become a true Dunkin' Donuts coffee convert. I gave it my best but at end of the day I still missed my soy lattes. Luckily, I found a Starbucks drive-thru down the street from Lennon's school and there they learned my name and my order by the end of his first week of class. And oh Christmas in the Big Apple. It was, without a doubt, all it was chalked up to be. Watching Lennon's smile go from big to enormous as we strolled up to the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center will forever be on the highlight reel of my life and introducing the kiddos to Santa at his NYC pad in the Macy's on 34th Street was a bucket-list type treat. It was more than I could have ever hoped for.

And then there was football. The ever-present catalyst for most of our moves, the catalyst for most of the change. The game that has had a hand in shaping much of our experiences over the years, shaping the nomadic lives that are shaping our children. And it was as as loyal as ever. Watching Danny find success on the field on Sundays was so incredibly exciting. He courted the game he loved in a way that I hadn't seen for years and it was simply magical. Something that had soured had become sweet again and it was such a treat to watch him savor every bit of it. MetLife gave him life. And for that I was truly grateful. Since time flies when you're having fun, football season went by in the blink of an eye. Before we knew it we were on a flight back to California with new experiences and friendships stuffed in our pockets like a foreign currency that we would never exchange.

Our offseason plans were to spend time with our favorite people and to allow ourselves to become completely immersed in all things Lennon and Layla and so far we have been successful. As exciting as football season in a new city is, it's always nice to get back to the West Coast in time to ring in the new year with loved ones. To spend some time in a place that Lennon calls "the cottonwood house" and I call "where all of our stuff is." Although our house, our little town, is the place we'll always come back to we know better than to call it home. Because over the years we've learned that home isn't a place, it's a feeling. And wherever our family bed is, as chaotic as it might be, wherever we lay our heads down together, is home to us.






Monday, June 9, 2014

Same roller coaster, different year

No different than any other year, these last few months have been one heck of an emotional roller coaster. It's hard to believe that the last time I sat down at my computer to write a blog my sweet baby Layla Liv was still in my belly. It's even harder to think that just months ago I didn't know if she was a boy or a girl, a mini-Lennon or someone completely different. I didn't know what she would look like or when she would show up. Not what I would feel when she looked up at me for the first time or how I was going to love another child unconditionally who wasn't Lennon, who wasn't the precious little boy who had my whole heart. I didn't know if Danny would be local when I went into labor, if he would be on a tryout, in a different city, on a different team or right next to me where I wanted him. And here I am, looking back at the uncertainty, with every answer to every question.

She was a girl, to our apparent surprise, and we were even more surprised to realize just how surprised we were to find out that she was a girl. When Danny said, "It's a...girl?" I sat up and turned her towards me in disbelief. It was a girl? Really? I had a daughter? We had made something different? I have no idea why we were both sure that we were having a boy again but we truly just couldn't believe it. And we couldn't take our eyes off of her. I was utterly bewildered by the mere sight of her. She was so mellow and calm. Dainty and petite. I held her tightly as she peeked through the folds of a warm blanket that seemed to swaddle us both. She gazed at me like she loved me and I gazed back. Oddly, right along side the shock of finding out her gender, I felt as though I had seen her before. I felt as if I knew her. Like I knew her well. Tears streamed down my cheeks and onto hers and for some reason they wouldn't stop. I wasn't sad, I wasn't happy, I suppose I was just touched. I was simply overcome and I was so so in love. Her lips were red and perfectly pouty. Her dark hair was wavy and soft and her big brownish grey eyes were curious from the moment they opened. My beautiful Layla Liv had arrived.

It's true that you multiply your love rather than divide it when you have a second child, but it's also true that the love you have for each baby is very unique. There is no such thing as a generic mother-child love in my opinion and every smile, every word and every moment shapes each individual bond. My Lennon will truly always have my whole heart and somehow my Layla will always have it too. When Layla would wake up to eat in the middle of the night there were times when I was actually excited to hear her rustling around because it meant that I got to snuggle her and smell her and feel her heartbeat on my chest. Of course there were times when I literally moaned "nooooooo" and exhaustedly buried my face into my pillow but when I finally sat up to pluck her out of her sleeper I, more often than not, had a smile on my face. And when she started to smile back at me I wanted to reach for her a million times.

Ms. Layla was a bright spot, an answered prayer in a somewhat tumultuous time and she was the perfect distraction from the chaos that was the 2013 NFL season. From September to January Danny was continuously summoned to participate in various tryouts for teams around the nation, a process that was much more emotionally charged than we ever thought it would be. For every trip he went on he had to pack a suitcase as if he wasn't coming home until the end of the season, all while knowing that there was a good chance that he would be flying home the very next day. Before catching each flight he would scurry around the house and do things that I couldn't do without his help in my last trimester or while toting a newborn. I'd say, "Baby, set me up for success" and that was code for fill Lily's dog food container with a new 32lb bag, put Lennon's big, heavy toys in the garage from the backyard in case there's a storm while you're gone, prep the room next to our bedroom for Lennon because I don't want to sleep far from him while you're away. He had to kiss the kids (or Lennon and my belly) goodbye like he wouldn't see them for weeks just in case, and those kisses were always sad.

A typical Monday afternoon flight often got Danny to his destination well into the night and his "day" usually started only hours later. Tryouts were always accompanied by early mornings and long, invasive physicals. I once asked him if the constant X-rays and MRIs were safe and if it was ok to get so many back to back and he shrugged as if to say that they were the least of his worries. At each tryout Danny had to "try" to be exactly what the team he was visiting needed, without knowing at all what they were looking for. But really, in a league where 30 is geriatric, he had to try to be about 8 years younger than he was and that was always the hardest part. His age was a number that continuously worked against him in a huge way and it was frustrating that it was the only thing he couldn't do anything about. He tried to explain, to anyone that would listen, that although he had made it to 8 years in the NFL, two of the years he played were spent as a developmental player who didn't play in games on Sundays. He felt young and healthy and in the prime of his career, but it didn't seem to matter. His age would continue to negate workouts that were good enough to garner rave reviews from the coaches who lead him through them. It seemed to tip the scale against his favor even when he was the only tight end to catch every ball or the only one to do the right blocking footwork. Half of the teams he visited didn't end up signing anyone they brought in and simply said they were doing their "due diligence" in creating a call list in the case that someone got hurt. The other half signed young, inexperienced guys because of potential or a meaningless workout statistic. A good 40 yard dash. A high vertical jump. It was hard to accept that a few football related drills could outweigh actual football. The ticks of an old stop watch suddenly had more clout than game film, more clout than experience, more clout than leadership. The fifth time we heard, "Stay ready, you're our guy" we started to become numb to it all.

There were times when I asked Danny to consider throwing in the towel, to sign his retirement papers just so that the roller coaster ride would end. Just so that we could be in charge of our own destiny again and take misplaced power away from orange cones and punching bags. So that we could make plans further than a Sunday away because that was usually the day his agent would call him with news of another tryout. There were times when I wanted the NFL to just be a magical part of our past but there was no denying, when I watched Danny train, that football was still in his heart. The politics of the game had betrayed him, but the game itself was still as loyal as ever. After so many years it still made him smile. The field remained his sanctuary. So I tried hard to understand that he so badly wanted to rectify something that had gone wrong somewhere.   

When Danny signed with the New York Giants in January we celebrated. We hugged, jumped up and down (well I jumped up and down), uncorked a "special occasion" bottle of champagne and even shed a tear or two. In the past we had reserved that kind of celebration for September when final rosters were announced but this year September felt incredibly irrelevant to us. We decided that we would prefer to move into the moment, unpack and make ourselves at home there rather than in limbo, again. We bought the babies Giants gear and told Lennon all about "The Big Blue" and the "G-men." There would be no waiting this year, there would be no superstition. This year, Danny didn't just sign a contract, this time, he didn't just join another team. This was incomparable. This was validation. This was a huge achievement in it's own rite. Getting signed after not playing one snap, one down, for an entire season was rare and special and it deserved to be recognize as such.

So here we are, one more time. And in this moment we have decided that this year is not about making plans. It's not about what if's or what then's and it's not about what now's. It's only about celebrating. It's only about controlling the things we can control and leaving the rest up to fate. Today none of the hard work, the sad goodbyes, the long flights were in vain. None of it was wasted, none of it was for nothing. And for that we are incredibly grateful. Grateful to the loyalty of football. Grateful to the New York Giants for giving a seasoned veteran a chance to prove that he still deserves to play the game that he loves at a high level. Grateful for the opportunity to get back on the roller coaster that we were asked to exit mid-ride. One that has as many loops as it has hills and dips. One that makes our stomachs rise up into our throats and hides our screams in the howl of the wind. Grateful for one more ride. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Staying in arms reach of each other

Lennon and I visited a Montessori toddler program a few weeks ago in Mansfield, Massachusetts and were both pleasantly surprised that he absolutely adored it. He loved all of the colorful gadgets and toys, the festive alphabet that decorated the wall, the sweet teachers and of course the fun-sized sink where he could wash his hands fifty times a day if he chose to do so. He got a kick out of high-fiving the other children, pounding fake nails into the wooden tool bench with a scarily real looking hammer and dumping the basket of plastic letters on the floor so he could pick out his faves. But his absolute favorite thing to play with in the classroom was a "Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar" Jack in the Box. No matter what he was exploring, he continuously found his way back to the small metal box that was painted with lollipops, ice cream cones, pickles, cake, salami and whatever else the hungry caterpillar ate in the famous storybook. With wide eyes, he would, ever so slowly, rotate it's silver crank around and around, knowing that at any moment the inevitable would happen. Knowing that at any moment he would be scared out of his shorts when the caterpillar eventually burst through the roof of the box and flailed around turbulently, inches from his face. And every time it popped he would leap back, shriek with excitement, quickly close the lid and take a deep breath. Without fail, he would grab for my hand to make sure I was within arms reach. Then once again he would reach for the handle. It became a guilty pleasure, a strange addiction to the rush that he felt when the music suddenly stopped and he found himself face to face with a googly eyed creature that seemed to spring from the depths of the underworld. I couldn't understand why he kept going back for more and more of the same torture but there was no reasoning with him about it. Some part of him loved the chaos of it. Over and over, he cranked that handle, knowing exactly what would eventually come, and he couldn't help but perpetuate the insanity.

Two days later, the Jack in Box that Danny and I had been cranking over and over for 8 years popped right in front of our eyes. The lid just flung right open. It had no regard for how many cranks we were sure we had left and we were shocked. We were beyond shocked. We honest to God just didn't see it coming. And we were abruptly reminded that when you're addicted to the thrill of a game, one rule that you can never discount is that you don't get to decide when it's time to pass dice. You don't get to question it, you don't get to debate it, and it simply is what it is. You are forced to realize that at the end of the day, there is no reasoning with a game. No reasoning with past decisions or roads taken. No reasoning at all. And if you're all in, no matter how scared you may be to do it all over again, you just have to close the lid, take a deep breath and keep cranking.

When Danny was recently released by the New England Patriots we were abruptly thrown into unchartered territory. For the first time in almost a decade, the football season started without us. Sometimes it's easy to forget that the NFL is a business first and a livlihood second and when you're in the thick of it all it can become an Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure in which you can't quite decipher what's real and what's not. Regardless of the unpredictability of the game, we had figured that as long as Danny did everything he was asked to do and if he did it well, nothing else would matter. So when he did well, we made plans. When he did very well, we got comfortable. We enrolled Lennon in school, we got a dog walker, we gave Lennon's babysitter a calendar for the season that highlighted games, date nights and charity events, and with the help of friends we found a doctor who would deliver Baby Fells #2 come November. As much as our nomadic past existed, we refused to accept the possibility that business politics could outweigh performance. So when I got the text message that set the pandemonium of uncertainty into motion, I was more confused than anything. 

Just as we had done in the previous weeks, we spent the following few days making plans, only they were plans to leave rather than stay. And we did so with urgency. Over the years we had learned that there is very little time in which you are allotted to dwell on the emotional side of the game and this is especially true when you have a family. There is less oxygen in limbo and, as you can imagine, it doesn't have the comforts of home. If you make the conscious decision to keep playing the game you must first acknowledge the truth that there will continue to be ups and downs, there will continue to be turbulent surprises, and if you're lucky, there will continue to be fun to be had. So here we are, back home in California, attempting to savor each day of the offseason that has come mid-season for us this year and just simply staying ready. Staying ready to stay, staying ready to leave, staying ready for our family to expand at a moments notice and staying ready for new beginnings, no matter where they may be and when they may come.

Moving around the country at the drop of a hat isn't the easiest thing in the world, but we manage it well with moving companies and car shipping services on speed dial. Missing birthdays, weddings, and the births of our closest friends' children because of the grueling schedule of the NFL season can be incredibly difficult, but we know that one day when this temporary career is over we'll make up for lost time with them. But one thing that is simply unmanageable, the one thing that without a doubt hurts the most, is abruptly leaving the friends that became family on each one of our stops on our wild journey. The turnover in the league is staggering and just as quickly as you say hello, you are often forced to say goodbye. It is a part of the package that never gets easier, one that you never get used to. A part of the deal that makes you afraid to let people in. When we left St. Louis three years ago, I swore off friendships with NFL wives forever because leaving some of my closest friends in the world had left me reeling. But sometimes you get comfortable, sometimes you let your guard down and sometimes you make a life long best friend even when you weren't looking for one. In an industry where every move is a wager, you can't go all in without putting a piece of your heart on the table and when you lose you have to leave it all behind.

My sweet Danny turned 30 years young last week and I can't help but smile when I think back on the 12 years that we have spent in each others' lives. So many highs, so many lows, so many moments just like this, when we had no idea what the next page in our book would read. Whenever I get anxious about the "what ifs" I remind myself that every "what if" before this has brought us to where we are today, so no matter what happens, I know in my heart that tomorrow will bring love. Tomorrow will bring resolution and tomorrow will bring a plan better than one we could have drawn up ourselves. Maybe sometimes we learn more from our children than they do from us and maybe Lennon has the right idea. Maybe as long as we can reach out and grab each others' hands for reassurance, as long as we're always in arms reach of each other, we can continue to play games that both terrify and excite us all at the same time. And maybe we will.







Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Another year, another campaign

I recently came across a craft lesson on Pinterest that showed me how take an ordinary map of the US and turn it into a cute wall hanging using pins and thread. When done correctly, the pulled thread would create a cozy heart around the city that I call home and the framed product would be absolutely adorable. Once I decided that this might be a DIY project that I'd actually like to take on, I started to think about all the "homes" that Danny and I have had over the last decade.

Over the past 10 years we've endured more than 10 moves. Some of them hand in hand, some of them independently, but all of them together. With each year that went by, each move got more elaborate and more demanding. More loaded in a way. With each truck that we filled to the brim with boxes, we had more to move and more to lose.

Lennon lived in three different states and was a passenger on 16 different flights all before his first birthday. And now, with 3 more round trips under his belt, he's racking up miles so fast we might as well get him his own SkyMiles credit card. As our tiny family of two expanded we couldn't help but feel that we had more and more on the line and this year was no different. With a little one and two aging pups in tow we couldn't help but realize that we were suddenly responsible for more than just our own ambitions. The lifestyle that is the byproduct of following a job around the country would soon begin to shape the childhood of our sweet little boy and we needed to take heed.

Thus, in 2012 we moved again. Although we had packed up so many times before, something just didn't feel the same this last time. I couldn't put my finger on exactly why that was but I did know that there was a sense of peace amongst the upheaval. It may have had to do with the fact that, in an effort to relieve the stress of it all, Danny and I both made a conscious decision not sweat the small stuff (or even the big stuff for that matter). We decided to trust that no matter where we were, we were exactly where we needed to be. That the road that we were on was the right one because it was leading us somewhere unitedly. The career related ups and downs that we've experienced over the last seven years have taught us that life is, in fact, about more than just following a dream and that sometimes dreaming is often more about who you want to be rather than who you are. While having a goal, an aspiration, even a doggone mission, can be magical and incredibly motivating, it can also be all consuming. And we were really just ready to live in the here and now with the loved ones that inhabited each moment with us. We were ready to stop trying so hard to control our uncontrollable future. Maybe our priorities had changed, maybe our outlook had become more clear, but whatever it was, it was lovely.

This year Danny's job has oriented our furthest move yet. A 6.5 hour flight over three time zones to the appropriately named New England, given that the "old" England is just a hop over the pond. About forty miles south of Boston is a quaint little town called Foxboro, also spelled Foxborough oddly enough, that we will call home for the next 3 years. This last offseason was spent prepping for the move (researching local resources, parks, gyms, doggy hotels, and grocery stores) while also soaking in every minute we could spend with family and friends before heading off to the East Coast. Thankfully the move went smoothly and it didn't take long for the five of us (Me, Danny, Lennon, Lily and London) to get settled in our new, yet temporary as usual, digs.

With training camp in the rear view and preseason now winding down, football season is officially knocking on the door. Danny couldn't be more excited to take this year by the horns and his teammates, the steaming field turf and the endzone are all calling his name. New city, new team, same game, same grind. Same task. Same opportunity. Same passion. Same campaign. Same fight to make a name for himself and earn precious moments under the bright lights. Different reason. Different drive. Different goal. Different perspective

Everytime Danny kneels down and whispers to Lennon, "It's all for you" my eyes swell with tears.
Every single day we celebrate our family, our downright resilience and our relentless spirit. While we love the game and this life, we choose to hold our relationships with friends, family and each other on a pedestal higher than any crossbar on any field on any given Sunday and we hope that Lennon is watching.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Open Letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Dear Mr. Goodell,

I see that you've been catching a lot of heat lately. In fact, you seem to be quite the disfavored crusader these days. I'm sure that you're very aware that the rule changes you've implemented in the NFL over the last few years haven't been very popular among the masses. Fans, broadcasters, even players, continuously criticize the effort you've made to make the league less hazardous to the health of those who play the game. Some say you're trying to take the contact out of the contact sport of American football. That your over-enthusiasm for concussion testing is making the NFL a league for pansies. That by taking the violent, bone-crushing hits out of football, you're making it less entertaining, less exhilarating in some way. Some say that your juvenile safety rules are, quite frankly, making their game watching experience a little less enjoyable. Well, Commissioner Goodell, this is what I say...this is what I say from the bottom of my heart...
Thank you.

I know that in the sticky business of the NFL you and the players often reside on opposite sides of the fence. The lockout we all endured this last year portrayed a player vs. owner scenario in which you appeared to be a ring leader for the "other side." And it's hard to deny that your authority to use your discretion to discipline players for off-field matters occasionally paints the picture of a dictatorship. But I'm willing to look past all of that Mr. Goodell. I'm willing to extend to you an olive branch of hope. You see, your attention to the health of the men who are the backbone of the NFL is attention to the man who is the backbone of my family. And you should know that you have the undying support of a select few regarding this issue.

There is no doubt that being married to an NFL athlete comes with it's highs and lows. A high being a Sunday on which I watch my other half do what he loves for a good living. A low being a morning on which I strip a blood-stained bedsheet off of our bed and wallow to the laundry room. A high being the smile on my sweet husband's face when his celebrity enables him to touch the life of a young soul. A low being the wrenching pain in my gut when I see him gasp for air after a vicious shot to the ribs. He doesn't gasp for air alone, Commissioner, and when he takes a moment to gather himself before standing, I take a moment to pray.

If you were to ask my husband about the car-accident-like collisions he sustains in his line of work, he'd tell you that it's all part of the game. That he'd rather take a dangerous hit up high than a season ending shot to his knees or ankles. He says the battering of his body is worth the opportunity to provide for his family for years to come. He says "sacrifice is simply required," but I'd be amiss if I didn't say that there are many days on which I say it should not be.

I'm sure you've heard the harrowing statistics and that you know the numbers well. Based on the changes you've made to the game, I have no doubt that you are fully aware that the suicide rate for ex-NFL athletes is SIX times the national average. And when it becomes front page news that another former player has passed away before his 50th birthday from heart failure, stroke, or another physical anomaly, I know you take notice. They say that playing in the NFL takes 10 years off of a man's life, but that number is quite modest isn't it? And the life that most of these guys live post-career are often riddled with surgery and chronic pain anyways, aren't they? They replace their knees, rebuild broken bones and medicate the ache but there's no cure for an early onset of Alzheimer's and despite all of the medical advances we benefit from these days, you and I both know that dementia is still a lock him up and throw away the key kind of diagnosis.

Earlier this year, when two time Super Bowl champion Dave Duerson took his own life, I was devastated. He was fifty years young. When I heard that he shot himself in the chest to spare his brain for neurological research I cried. He left a note to his family, asking them to donate his brain to the NFL Brain Bank. He wanted everyone to know, needed them to know, that the demons that tormented him for the latter years of his life were a direct result of the game. That he suffered from the debilitating brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, an unlivable condition brought on by years of head trauma on the football field. A death sentence brought on by the savage hits that your naysayers want to see more of.

I heard Dave Duerson was a good man. That before he began to deteriorate from the disease that ultimately took his life, he was a good husband and a great father to his four children. I heard that his son Tregg spoke at his funeral and that he hopes that his father's death was not in vain. I share in his wishful hope, and it is because of your recent rule changes that I believe that you may as well.

My husband is a good man too, Commissioner. In fact he is the best man. If you knew him, you'd agree. He's kind, playful and generous. His favorite holiday is Thanksgiving and he's the true definition of an animal lover if there ever was one. He's my best friend, a devoted father to our precious baby, and I need, more than anything, to grow old with him.

It gives me a small sense of peace to know that you're looking out for him. It makes me sleep just a tiny bit better at night. Because I know this man won't walk away from the game as long as his legs hold him upright. And I know that the league will have to shut him out one day in order for him to put it behind him. Even then, I know he won't go without a fight. So thank you for making the way in which he provides for his family a little less dooming. Thank you for doing what you can to try to give the violence of the game an ounce of order. Thank you for giving my husband the bit of protection that may allow him to know our son in his adulthood.

I appreciate your continued attention to this matter Mr. Goodell. Because to some of us this matter is all that really matters.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Oh the Adventures...

Yesterday I put the peanut butter in the dishwasher, a few days before that I put bibs in my underwear drawer and a week before that I pumped hand soap onto my toothbrush. I haven't actually known what day of the week it was at any given point in time over the last two months and it seems as if I've recently spent more time explaining the jumbled words that come out of my mouth rather than having actual conversations. Oh yes, sleep deprivation will sneak up on you when you least expect it. I’ve actually put the lid of the toilet down before sitting on it, thinking it was the seat, even though my husband hasn’t left the seat up in years. Danny and I thought we had seen it all, but these last two months have been our most amazing (and amusing) adventure yet.

Our precious Lennon Daniel has taken us places we didn't know existed and he's made us feel things that we never could have imagined, both for him and for each other. Oddly enough, labor was surprisingly fun in a weird way. Yes, it was fifteen hours of agonizing pain for the most part, but knowing that our little guy was on the other end of it all made it feel like some sort of challenge, like a twisted, cruel game show. Every time a minute was eliminated between contractions it was as if the ante had been raised, like we'd been promoted to the next round. And finally, at the end of what truly felt like a show, thanks to the bright lights, nurses, doctors, family, and even the housekeeping lady who kept coming into our room at inopportune times to take out the trash, we were ultimately rewarded with the grand prize of a brand new baby.

As much as I felt like Mel Gibson in the gut-pulling torture scene at the end of the movie Braveheart through out the process, I quickly realized that there really wasn't anyone or anything that could detract from my excitement to meet my little one. Not the pain, not the anxiety, not even the epidural guy sticking around to ask Danny for his thoughts on Sam Bradford while I was in active labor.

Once our little man finally showed up Danny and I were wide-eyed to say the least. Overjoyed, nervous, ecstatic, confused...the flurry of emotion was unreal. We had always felt like we were family before that day, but witnessing the creation of something that connected us on a level greater than feelings was enchanting. It's true that you can't really describe it, and it's also true that there is nothing like it. It's both magical and extraterrestrial-ish at the same time.

Over the days that ensued, we continued to marvel at what we "did." Every time Lennon smiled in his sleep or did something absolutely adorable, like yawn, one of us surely took credit for his cuteness with a simple "you're welcome sweet pea." Oh yes, we've definitely become those parents. Immensely proud and excited by everything he does. From his neck strength to his "big poops" (said in baby talk), we're impressed, and we aren't afraid to admit it. We've embraced our new family dynamic, and the fact that our lives absolutely revolve around our little bundle, with open arms. In fact, we wouldn't have it any other way.

I guess you could say that the dynamic of our new family is somewhat related to the first nickname that Danny gave our little Lennon. On the day he was born, the first term of endearment that popped in his head was "franchise." Yup, I said franchise. And soon after that, he started calling me "coach" and referring to himself as "the owner." Lennon's the star of the team, I call the shots, Danny supervises. It seems to work so far. Other nicknames that have come and gone have included Tarzan (because he was born lean, mean and muscular), Angry guy (because of the ever-present scowl he had on his face for his first few days of life), and Houdini (because no matter how tight we would swaddle him, he would ALWAYS find a way to squirm out of it). My sister also likes to call him Joo-joo bird. "Joo-joo" means "little bird" in Farsi, so in essence she calls him "bird bird." Not so cute translated, but pretty darn adorable when you hear it in person. At the end of the day though, he will always be my little sweet pea. 

The bond that Danny and Lennon have created has been one of the most precious things I've ever witnessed. Danny holds him protectively in his big strong hands and they interact through a gaze that truly speaks thousands of words. And gaze aside, Danny takes every opportunity he has to talk to him. He likes to ask him what life was like "on the inside" and he speaks to him in the broken Spanish he learned in school to "expose him to other cultures." He sings to him and lulls him to sleep (Bruno Mars' "Count on me" is officially Lennon's bedtime song) and he has been trying to teach him how to crawl since he was two days old. He says he'll have him moving by six months...refer to paragraph number five.

As cliche as it sounds, little Lennon is the light of our lives. And we're not really sure how we've navigated this far without him.

In other Fells family news, it seems that this year the adventures are never ending...Lennon and I will soon be joining Danny in Denver, to cheer on our favorite Bronco, for the 2011-12 NFL season. Although we miss our STL Ram family tremendously already, we're excited about the next chapter. A new city, a new team and the new opportunities that follow in suit. I couldn't be more proud of Danny and all that he's achieved over these last few years. I can't help but smile when I think about how he continues to beat the odds as an accomplished NFL athlete who started out as an undrafted free agent out of the Division II football program at UC Davis. He's the hardest working guy I know and I appreciate him and the physical sacrifice he makes for our family everyday. That guy inspires me in more ways than I could count and I think Lennon is blessed to have him for a dad.

If I've ever expressed a sense of gratitude in any blog I've ever written before this, multiply it by a million for this one.

I am incredibly grateful for the love-filled relationships that I share with my family and friends. I am humbled by the divine process of life and the miracles that perpetuate it. And I am completely in awe of my beautiful boy.

Gifts from God are truly the greatest gifts of all.