There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately that I can’t figure out. It’s sports. Specifically, watching my kid play sports.
There is so much about parenthood that a regular, human, fake-doctor like myself has found herself completely unprepared for. So much grueling physicality, so much sleeplessness and wiping up vomit, etc. But I have found that none of the physical demands of parenting are that much of a hurdle in the big picture. In the big picture, the hurdles are more these little, subtle, non-physical things that there aren’t any helpful parenting books on, so when they happen, they are completely mystifying and affecting. This is how I have been feeling, taking my oldest son to the Y on Saturday and Sunday mornings to play basketball. Why did no one prepare me for this?
You’d think I would have a handle on this sports-watching milieu, having been an athletic kid myself. I was a figure skater who woke up early and practiced before and after school, etc. I know what it’s like to be practicing, to be working, to be playing— whichever word you want to call it, they don’t quite encompass it anyways—while adults sit on the sidelines and drink coffee and watch. But that’s the thing: I knew one side. I am on the other side now.
One of the most moving performances I have ever seen in my life was five minutes of a free puppet show that I happened upon at the Brooklyn Public Library, when I had a lowly PR job there. The puppet show took place in a two-story area in the library’s giant, Grand Army Plaza location, and I saw it from the second floor, where there was a hallway to the offices that overlooked the stacks.
The puppet show looked like this: there were six or seven male puppeteers walking among the spectators with their puppets, which were fashioned like crows. The crow-puppets engulfed the men’s forearms, and the men held their forearm-crows straight up, over their heads. With their free hands, the men were manipulating two rods that moved the crows’ wings and beaks.
The men were walking in the aisle, among the audience members, who were seated on folding chairs. They were walking in a line, in a somber, synchronized march. This walking-dance was made possible, and sensible, by the fact that the men were singing a sad song.
The most striking thing about this whole presentation—besides the obvious, unusual fact of men singing and walking in a solemn march with crow puppets on their raised forearms—was the expression on the men’s faces. They were absolutely blank. The men made no eye contact. The effect was that your eye was drawn to the crows, which were making all the emoting gestures typically associated with singing a song in front of people.
I sobbed watching this. I couldn’t even tell you why. I didn’t understand what they were doing. Why weren’t they onstage in front of everyone, singing the sad song? Why go to all this trouble to put a puppet on your arm, and make the puppet sing, and make yourself disappear? What the hell was this? What was this stoic, beautiful, nonsensical split?
This image has come back to me now as I sit on the bleachers at the Y basketball court, watching my son. I sit among the other adults; we read and drink coffee. None of us talk much. The camaraderie is palpable.
To watch your kid play, without playing, to just watch, to just be there, to offer an ice pack or band-aid or water if need be; but overall, just to watch, in a loving way, with joy, without an investment in the outcome, requires an acceptance that is humbling because it is an acceptance of a restraint. It is not fandom. It can’t be fandom, because fandom is a passion and fans have merged their identities with their team. To watch your kid play, and love it, is to know that your role is to witness, even as you can feel every step your kid takes, even as you know his thought process and can anticipate his moves, as if they were yours. They are not.
You are on the other side. And maybe this is why I find myself riveted to the heroic actions that happen each week, to the kid who is six inches shorter than everyone else, say, snaking elegantly through the towering defense to make the shot.
I am not playing and I am not rooting for a player as the short, scrappy kid takes my breath away. I am doing something else, something which is like stepping in a slow and somber line while singing a song. I am moving. I have been moved. I have been moved one step away from the court, and I am on the bleachers, and I am not, exactly, holding myself in check so much as holding my son, and all the sons out there, and all the daughters, in a regard which is as soft and generous as I think I have ever held anyone. I love to watch them play. And I see myself watching them, and all the parents watching the kids, and beyond us is the entire Y, and Central Park, and the City. I see all this softly and easily, as if I were flying, as if I were a crow flying overhead, and I realize that this move, from player to watcher, is but one step towards the move I will one day make where I am watching in a way that I can hardly imagine now. I will be flying. This is a step. This is a slow march. I am a parent. I am aging. This split happens, this split grows and swells like a peach on the tree. And then it drops. I will be blank-faced. I will not make eye contact.
And I am here now. I am sitting still, watching my son. My son is on the court. I am watching him play. There is work to be done. There are steps to take. I am watching. And I love these kids, my God. I love these parents, like me, with their coffees and papers and craggy grins. I am singing. I am being moved. I have a crow on my forearm, singing. I understand it now.