Nothing about the visit had gone as planned.
Back in August, my husband, son, and I had envisioned spending a few precious days with my football fanatic, 90-year-old father-in-law — a rare West Coast trip for our Boston-based family. We looked forward to roses in winter, oranges hanging on trees at every street corner. We planned to visit Santa Monica, get stuck in human traffic at the In-and-Out at the Glendale Galleria, and of course, to watch football — lots of football — in the den.
Instead, a few days before our arrival, my father-in-law was placed in a grim nursing facility following a brief hospital stay. We were picking our way around the sagging bodies of demented octogenarians strapped into wheelchairs, listening through the walls to shrieks or amplified TVs, the gray smell of yesterday’s dinner not even close to refreshed by anything like real air. The extended family we’d hoped to see had developed strep, and the room my son was sleeping in lacked heat and dropped to 40 degrees at night. We were living on takeout and unopened Christmas packages.
Even before the Patriots football deflation scandal, even before the game against the Colts, we had been disappointed.
It is never what we plan for, hope for, imagine. Always, it seems, the unexpected flaw is exposed when we are least able to rebound. Or those we put our trust in fail us. We are disappointed, we blame one another. We make ourselves miserable — almost on purpose, it sometimes seems.
I was wide awake at 3:28 a.m., looking out over the valley that is Los Angeles. Below me sprawled a blink-scape of neon, a galaxy of grounded stars. It happened to be Sunday, football day. Also, the one we call The Lord’s. Even when the embroidery of stars below me faded and the sun flipped the mundane world face up again and we gathered round the television to watch the big game, the low-lying stars would still be alive. The sad thing was, we would be far less visible as stars, to ourselves and to one another.
In an earlier life, I would have turned on a dime, jetted back to Boston on the first flight. But here’s the thing: My father-in-law was ecstatic to see us. I waited out the sunrise. We made our way back to the facility we had decided to dub “The Leisure Dome.” That day, we told stories, remembered, ate jelly beans, bought a space heater, took naps, and watched the game in metal folding chairs staring at the mounted Cyclops. Despite every conceivable aspect of the trip not going as planned — not going at all, really — a deeper purpose was fulfilling itself behind the questionable staging. A far-flung family, a small human constellation, was drawn together in common orbit for a few days, warming each other with our light, hope, and affection.
Two mornings later, we jetted back to the other side of the country, glowing a little brighter (or with head colds and worries about The Leisure Dome). The orbit in which we move will again become invisible to others. But never to us. It is our DNA; it is who we are, part of what animates and shapes our beings.
How do we hold onto the good feelings in the midst of broken promises and pipes, accusations, a cat that does her business in the bathtub, the job that’s about to be terminated, the threat of eviction?
After years of experimentation, I have learned that here is the answer, here the only place. This is kick-off for me; it is where I start. Every day.
Sure, I could vent my frustrations with professional sports — for many, many reasons. I could carp about the decisions that led to my father-in-law’s current situation, rant about a bad night’s sleep. In the background, I know that out there are troubles beyond measure: children slamming into padded walls over the violence and neglect that has damaged their young lives. Teens shuffled through disgracefully inadequate schools and random families who now dodge bullets or bury friends who’ve overdosed. I know that cheating is a way of life for some, even at Harvard.
We are here just a little while. Stars burn out and die. “Here” is the place we are given to start from, to live as fully as we can, every day.
In the few hours before kick-off, we will dial out to The Leisure Dome. If past experience is a guide, the guys will have been lined up in their wheelchairs in the activity room in front of the big screen. We will place our dollar bets. We may do a little Facetime with the old man, kvetch about bad throws, glory in the interceptions, remind ourselves of the orbit that holds us fast. It is worth a trophy when we return to the heart of the matter: We are made for love, and our work is to rediscover every day of our lives what it is to be a walking, breathing star.