A week ago Monday, I experienced a day so perfect, so beautiful, that right in the middle of my bliss I snatched the nearest napkin and scribbled swift notes as fast as I could conjur them. I can't fit it all in one post. Too many observations came to mind, too many "must share" details. So I'm going to share that day in a series. Before I do that, however, I need to share a chapter from my book. This story is called, "Game Boy," and when you read the first part of my to-be-yet-named series, you'll understand why you needed this intro.
"How precious it is, Lord, to realize that you are thinking about me constantly! I can't even count how many times a day your thoughts turn toward me. And when I waken in the morning, you are still thinking of me!" --Ps 139:17 (TLB)
"Let's go, let's go, let's GO!"
I sink further into my folding chair as the echoes assault my ears. I've only been in the school gym five minutes and already I'm claustrophobic. How does that happen in a room with a forty-foot ceiling?
Please, Coach, I beg silently, please don't yell at my boy.
"Zachary – we’re not here to skip around the gym. Grab a ball!"
I began my silent pleading again, but this time I've bypassed the coach and gone over his head. Way over his head.
Oh, Lord – I can't do this. I can't sit here and watch the coach watch Zac who's not watching anything but that one crazy, flickering ceiling light. I can't sit here and wait for him to get in trouble. Please stop this. Make the coach be nice.
Something – maybe the Lord? – urges me to pick up my book and ignore the scene on the court.
I read twelve words, and then I hear his name again.
"Zachary! Hey, Zachary – what position are you today? You're a forward, a forward! That means you have to guard Alex. Do you want him to make a basket and have it be your fault?"
It's a rhetorical question, and not even directed at me, but I answer anyway. Of course not, Coach. I don't want that. I hope, briefly, that he hears my unspoken answer by proxy and lightens up. I know the truth, though. Zac wouldn't mind a bit if Alex got a basket. He happens to like Alex, and this happens to just be a practice game, for crying out loud.
The coach has words, warnings and lectures for the other boys too, but somehow I'm able to read my book past those echoes with no more than the slightest register. Every time I hear his lips forming a "z" sound, though, my eyes lock on his face. Time drops to its knees and crawls while I wait for the rest of the coach’s word, although there's no question, really, about who he's berating. There are no Zanes, Zekes or Zeds out there. Only my Zac.
Only Zac, for whom the gym floor is nothing more than an indoor skipping hopping galloping surface. Zac, for whom the painted black arcs and lines are imaginary tightropes. Zac, who tries every week to jump higher so he can see out the impossibly high windows. "Maybe I grew this week, Mom. You never know."
He revels in things sensory. When the coach calls them all to the center of the floor for a midget huddle, Zac tries hard to concentrate. He makes a fairly good showing, but I know – because I'm his mother and mothers know everything – that he's really thinking about how to get the loudest and longest squeal out of his tennis shoes the next time he charges down court. I know he's counting the kids and wondering if he should invite them all to his birthday party, even though it's four months away. He's noticing the dampness under his arms and formulating a really good argument for buying deodorant, one he'll try on me the moment practice is over. "Mom, when I get hot, my armpits get all yucky and horrible. It's time, Mom. I am eight now, you know."
The huddle ends. Zac collects his thoughts and makes an adult, "I mean business this time" kind of face. At least a portion of the coach's lecture permeated Zac's brain. I can see within the first ten seconds that he's made up his mind to be the world's best guard. Poor Joey. He doesn't stand a chance. As the white shirts take the ball down court, Joey discovers he's grown a second skin. He moves left. Zac moves left. He breathes. Zac breathes. He blinks, he spins, he runs. Zac follows every move, the perfect shadow, the perfect little mime. I feel the first sense of relief I've felt since entering the gym. Surely the coach will notice his doggedness and praise him for such tenacity.
The blue shirts get the rebound and head to my end of the court. Zac is still shadowing Joey. As little as I know about basketball, I know enough that I'm pretty sure it's Joey's turn to guard Zac. I'm all but certain Zac is supposed to be trying to get away from Joey now. But no. He follows Joey into a corner and continues his mirroring.
"Zac!" I whisper as loudly as I dare.
He's too busy guarding his own guard to notice.
I clear my throat and try a slightly more intense version of the first whisper. "Zachary!"
I notice with my peripheral vision that the father next to me has glanced over to see what is so urgent. Ignore me, I demand wordlessly. I'm just a crazy, overprotective mother trying to spare her son a little misery. That's it … go back to your sports page …
This time it wasn't me. It’s the coach. He noticed Zac’s tenacity, all right – but on the wrong side of the court.
"Why on earth are you doing that? You're supposed to be getting away from Joey! Look at Peter there. He's open. He's standing there waving his arms and making it easy for someone to pass him the ball. That's what you should be doing."
Zac nods his little 'yes, sir' nod. Invisible hands strap me to my seat, preventing me from marching out and giving the coach a piece of my mind. At this point it would be the last piece.
The coach blows his whistle. "You guys need to take this more seriously. This is serious business. No goofing off. This game counts! It COUNTS!"
Again with the intensity. What is he talking about? It's practice! I glance down the meager row of parents lining the court. I don't see any scouts. Even if there were – even if a whole bunch of scouts had snuck in, noticed Zac's prowess, and started a bidding war over him – I’d really have to insist that he finish third grade before signing any deals.
Zac gets the ball. He dribbles, stops, dribbles again, and shoots. It's short.
"Short!" the coach yells.
"We know!" I growl.
Sports page dad glances over. I consider asking him what the point of all this is. Am I supposed to just hand my son over to this … this … professional man maker and let him work his magical wonders? Is that it? Is this some sort of rite of passage intended to turn my humming, skipping, ball sharing boy into a serious competitor? And if so, why? So that someday he can become a sports page reading father himself?
Before I can begin my tirade, Zac gets the ball again. I hold my breath as he dribbles. He dodges Joey. He spins around Alex. He lifts the ball and shoots. All eyes follow the arch of the ball as it approaches the net and swooshes through.
A couple of parents clap. The coach yells again, but this time he's cheering, "Great shot, Zac!" He jogs over and slaps his hand. Zac grins. He'll carry that high five all week.
Me? I've been proud of him all along.
I talk to the Lord again. This time I'm not begging for intervention; this time I just need my Father. I tell Him how frustrated I am, how I don't understand how the coach won't understand that Zac can't understand what the big deal is.
I tell Him it's not a love of basketball that keeps my little boy getting up early on Saturday mornings – it's simply a love of being eight. It's the exhilaration of grabbing that beautiful bumpy ball and feeling the cool but stale gym air caress his face as he charges down the miles long floor. It's the chance to lounge against the back wall with two or three of his teammates, laughing together in fake tiredness while they fan their shirts and talk about the candy they have at home stashed in their p.j. drawers. It's all that. Nothing more.
God listens. And then He whispers.
He tells me He understands. He shows me, in a vast and indescribable moment of revelation, my own court in a game called Life. He points out His position, there on the side of the court, where His eyes never leave me and His heart beats in sync with mine.
He tells me how proud He is of me when I resist the pressure to become point minded. He tells me He loves it when I share the ball, when I don't mind someone else taking it down court, when I cheer for a teammate who finally gets enough coordination to dribble.
And He tells me to never stop. He tells me this game was made for His pleasure and as far as He's concerned, I can hop all the way down court if I want to.
He tells me I've already won.
There he is. My sweaty little game boy, with flushed cheeks and one pink ear, a sure sign to me, his eagle eyed mother, that he's played hard.
"I have this problem. When I'm out there running and I get hot, my armpits get all buttery and slickerish. It's really horrible."
"Hmmm. I guess we know what that means," I say.
"Are you telling me … are you saying …"
"Yep. We'd better stop by the store on the way home. After all, you are eight now."
He hops all the way to the car.
Next: The boy grows up and plays at Key Arena.
Excerpted from A Whisper in Winter: Stories of Hearing God’s Voice in Every Season of Life (New Hope Publishers, 2004). © Shannon Woodward.