I spent a lot of time this past Labor Day weekend glued to television coverage of the US Open. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always found something soothing about the game of tennis. The rhythm of a long rally, the squeaking noise the shoes make as players scuffle across the court, the sotto voce commentary. But the main reason I can’t let a major tournament pass by without at least tuning in is because of my mother.
My mom played tennis throughout high school and college, and in her day, she was superb. Though I never got to witness her play when she was at the height of her game, I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the trophies and awards she won, listened with rapt attention to the tale of the legendary match where she and her female doubles partner outplayed – and beat – the boys.
Throughout my life, I was keenly aware that mom’s biggest regret was the fact that she didn’t pursue a pro career. She certainly wanted to, and from everything I understand, she was good enough to at least give it a shot. But her parents – both successful court reporters – were adamant that she choose a more conventional life, and they pushed her to attend law school. Mom didn’t push back, at least, not hard enough. She went. And she failed out – or dropped out, I was never sure – after her first year at Gonzaga. Mom ended up following in her parents’ footsteps and becoming a court reporter too. Her career was short-lived (she worked just a few years before marrying my dad and moving to Alaska, where she managed his law firm), and I’m not sure that she ever enjoyed it. She suffered from severe anxiety throughout much of her life, and she once confessed to me that she’d get so nervous about the pressure of the job that she’d often throw up before showing up for work.
The reminder of her unfulfilled dream was a constant companion throughout my childhood. It was present when we rose early on weekend mornings to watch breakfast at Wimbledon, present in her obsession with Chris Evert (her favorite player), present in the infamous screaming match she got into with my grandmother during a holiday dinner we hosted at my parents’ house in Olympia, during which years of my mom’s suppressed rage boiled to the surface and the only thing that kept my grandmother from storming out of the house was the ice storm swirling outside, making the roads impassable.
And it was especially present in the fact that my mom was constantly signing me up for tennis lessons, whether I wanted them or not. I was a good kid. Quiet, shy, polite, I earned straight A’s in school and generally didn’t rock the boat. I was my mom’s only child, and a tremendous source of pride for her. I felt the weight of that pride from an early age, and, not wanting to screw it up, I towed the line, and for the most part, stayed out of trouble.
A rare exception was one summer in Anchorage, when my tennis instructor called our house, concerned, because I hadn’t been showing up for my lessons. I was 11 or 12, old enough to walk by myself from our house on Hidden Lane to the tennis courts at a downtown recreational area called the Park Strip, and bratty enough to decide that I’d rather blow off my lessons in favor of killing time at Fifth Avenue Mall with my friends.
Busted, I confessed to my mom what I’d been doing. I felt my face flush with hot shame as I admitted lying to her, telling her that my lessons were going well when I was really hanging out at the food court with my buddies. I prepared for the storm of her anger – after all, I deserved it – but it didn’t come. Mom didn’t yell. It was much worse than that. She looked sad – almost as though she might cry – and so, so disappointed in me. It was as though by rejecting the sport that she loved so much in such a cavalier, spoiled, pre-teen way, I had destroyed her dream all over again. I had let my mom down. And it felt awful.
She never signed me up for tennis lessons again. I went on to dabble in various other sports – volleyball, softball, track and field – but I never got really good at any of them. In my heart of hearts, I was a nerd, a bookworm who loved making up stories, who loved poetry and art, who sang in the choir, who read Shakespeare and imagined myself a regal, corseted, high-born lady in Elizabethan England.
I don’t think my mom ever fully understood my decision to pursue a career in the arts. She didn’t feel the goose bumps I felt when sitting in a darkened movie theater, didn’t know the rush I experienced from standing on a stage in front of a live audience. She certainly didn’t understand the draw of Los Angeles, with its urban sprawl, and smog and traffic and crowds.
My mom and I were very different people with very different dreams. But I think the fact that she lived with the regret of giving up on hers also made her so fiercely protective of mine. Time and time again, she defended my choices to family members and friends who didn’t understand what the hell I was doing. She offered financial support when I struggled, which was often. She sent me flowers on every opening night. And when she did travel to Los Angeles to see me stand up on a stage and tell stories, she was so very proud. And she made sure everyone knew it. Especially me.
I’ve spent the last two years overwhelmed by grief. First, in denial of it, pushing myself to ignore it, throwing myself into work, pretending it didn’t exist. Later, paralyzed by it, unable to make important decisions, unable to move forward with my life. Finally, lately, I’ve been succumbing to it, allowing it to wash over me, to consume me.
But it has only been very recently that I’ve begun to get angry. Angry for letting circumstances that are out of my control dictate my fate. Angry for acting like a victim, for feeling sorry for myself, for sleeping too much, for whining too much, for indulging in my vices too much. And mostly, angry for abandoning my fighting spirit.
Watching the US Open this past weekend made me miss my mom something fierce. But it also made me feel closer to her than I have in a long time. It made me pay attention to her ever-present voice in my ear, telling me to be as brave as she knows I can be, to stop moping, to get off the couch and to fight for my life. Watching the US Open made me remember that the greatest gift my mom ever gave me was her unwavering belief in me. It reminded me that the worst thing I can do – like that summer when I ditched my tennis lessons – is to let her down.
Sometimes it takes something as innocuous as a tennis tournament to remind us that our dreams are fragile, precious, ephemeral things, and if we don’t grab onto them, they can disappear. Many people don’t get to live their dreams, either because they’re afraid to, or because life throws obstacles in their way that they don’t think they can surmount.
I am one of the lucky ones. Despite circumstance, despite pain and trauma, despite grief, I have everything I need to live the life I want, and the only person standing in the way of that is me. And though my dreams might look different than they did when I was 18, that’s OK. Because I’m different, too. The thing that hasn’t changed – that has never changed – is my desire to stand on a stage, or on a set, or behind a camera, or in front of a computer, and tell stories. Stories that entertain, that inspire, stories that have the power to heal.
Thank you, mom, for reminding me how precious my dreams are. I promise that every day, I will continue to fight for them. I promise that I will never give up. I promise to do it for you, and most importantly, I promise to do it for me.
Until next time, friends.