“Detroit just fumbled a punt and Chicago scored,” I tell her.
“Oh, no,” my 84-year-old mother blurts too loudly for those nearby reading their programs. “How many seconds to the half?”
A man next to my mother nudges her and shows her his phone. He is also checking the game. As the house lights dim, they whisper about the fumbled punt and Stafford’s two interceptions. She is enjoying the attention, so pleased that she can sustain a conversation with a stranger with insights like “We sure need Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson to get healthy.” In the dark I smile and my small heart grows three sizes.
This is so much better than the typical holiday rant just a few hours earlier in which my mother wanted to know once more why couldn’t you find a husband, someone like Kurt the guy repairing the basement window and the sticky front door, someone reliable and decent so I could have had grandchildren.
But that’s how it is with football. For my mother and me, football fills in the gaps, eases the losses, covers a multitude of sins.
Football first started filling in the empty spaces for me when I was a tween spending much of my time in and out of the hospital with a congenital knee condition. Numerous surgeries thwarted all dreams of becoming a cheerleader or an Olympic figure skater. So with the help of two distant cousins who visited our house often during their college breaks, I learned about the wisdom of Bo Schembechler and the Power I formation.
From there it was not a far leap to becoming a Steelers fan with the help of my high school guidance counselor, who had played with Joe Namath in a Super Bowl and had the ring to prove it. We would discuss the week’s upcoming games instead of attending math class. Forget algebra; football had plenty of math. There were angles and lines, measurements and statistics that made more sense to me than solving for X or solving my adolescent angst.
It’s more difficult for me to chart my mother’s history with the game. If I had to guess, it stemmed from her steadfast belief that her father wished she had been born a boy, so she acquired an interest in all things traditionally masculine: climbing trees, shooting guns, playing sports. The interest gained yardage when I went to college, the first in our immediate family to do so. Football became her connection to me, even as I pushed her away, desperate for some distance from Some day you’ll appreciate everything I do for you but too bad I won’t be around to see it.
It introduced her to the world of Parent Weekends at Spartan Stadium and Parent of a Spartan T-shirts. It was, in fact, one of those Parent Weekends when I told my mother I wanted to become a theater major. After a several rounds of my mom telling me how disappointed I am in you; I didn’t teach you to be so foolish and impractical, I responded with something mature like I don’t care what you think, you can’t tell me what to do anymore. My father called a time-out and we ignored each other during the entire homecoming game.
True mother-daughter bonding over a pigskin didn’t really happen until decades later, during my father’s crippling descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Not that in the midst of dressing and feeding my father, taking him to doctors’ appointments, or rushing him to the ER, there was a specific moment when we decided it would be a great idea to spend Saturday afternoons together in matching Rose Bowl sweatshirts eating pizza.
I had moved home after living for several years in Los Angeles, proving to my mother she was right again, and I shouldn’t have been a theater major or even a person with dreams of any kind. What’s wrong with you that you can’t realize you need to grow up like everyone else? So I took on graduate school, freelance journalism and caring for Dad. And l did it the first two years while living under my parents’ roof again.
In those early months of tag-team caretaking, by Saturday afternoons my mother and I would often hit complete argument exhaustion. We had survived another week of I thought you were picking up the medicine. / No, you said you already picked it up. / Well, I didn’t. You should have told me your father hid my purse. I had no money. / Why would I know where he hid your purse? Why did you leave it out to begin with? You knew this would happen.
And then hit the replay button. Same song, different verse.
While Dad napped, we slumped in front of the TV and watched a football game. Any game. Didn’t have to be Michigan State. Didn’t have to be the Big Ten. We would watch Miami of Ohio against Appalachian State if we had no other options. For two women who had plenty to be angry about, nothing was more cathartic than jumping up and down over a ninety-yard punt return. For a woman filled with rage over the slow disintegration of her husband as she knew him, screaming at the ref for missing another obvious face mask was therapeutic. There had to be justice and fair play somewhere. Couldn’t it at least be found on the gridiron if nowhere else in our lives?
Even after Dad died and I moved four hours away to start a new teaching job, football remained our link as we faced new obstacles and found new arguments. Mom has struggled through shoulder and knee replacements and trigeminal neuralgia. Macular degeneration has forced her to buy a 52-inch plasma television and sit five inches from it to see the game. I decided that after I moved, I would join her in person for as many games as I could. I would drive up for the University of Michigan-Michigan State game, of course. The Big Ten Championship, obviously. The Super Bowl, usually.
We cling to our mutual love of the game now more than ever because we both know time is running out. Because what we wish for in our scarred relationship is to know exactly how much time is left on the clock. We each worry as she declines that we don’t have a strong two-minute offense to fight whatever the next disease or injury will be. We want a clear playbook, we want to practice our signals, and most of all, we need some guy dressed like a zebra to referee our moments when we hurt each other the most. We both wish we would simply commit fewer penalties to begin with.
It seems far too much to expect from a game. Of course it is. Except I wouldn’t have attempted to take my mother to The Nutcracker without the bond football has established for us. I would have assumed we would argue on the way there, that she wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and that the whole experience would frustrate me. Over time the gridiron has given us a safe space to step back from old habits of dysfunction and dissent and has created a sanctuary for us to talk about the scary future–even if only in sound bites the size of a Geico commercial or a Super Bowl halftime show.
Want to discuss this post with Kris? Catch her on Twitter!