We first fell in love in gritty Pennsylvania. Just four months into young widowhood, my job forced me to go back
I was in my second season as the head womens lacrosse coach at Drew University, and there was a game on the spring 2014 schedule that I dreaded: the University of Scranton.
Scranton gets its reputation from the infamous fictional company Dunder Mifflin from the Office, but I didnt fall in love with Steve Carell there. I fell in love with my husband, George. The thought of traveling there again was like a python constricting my entire self. My muscles cramped, my stomach twisted, my heart shriveled all because I might have to return to the place where I first met him, only months after he passed away.
We met at graduate school in the Scranton/Wilkes Barre area. Our friendship, attraction and love all started in this ramshackle region of the Keystone State. We both attended Wilkes University, and the moment I first saw him walk into the classroom he grabbed my attention the kind of moments John Hughes made films about. I couldnt explain it, and I fought it at first because he was 18 years older. But our connection was undeniable.
From a distance, we were a very unlikely pair. He towered almost a full foot taller than me, tall and lean, with salt-and-pepper hair. Wrinkles across his forehead provided him a look of good humor. I, meanwhile, have a button nose and chubby cheeks that some have said look like a baby-face. He probably looked to some more like a father than a boyfriend. But his icy blue eyes were kind and mesmerizing, and the world was brighter when we were together. We could conquer anything together, and we damn near tried.
Several months into our young relationship he told me he had been diagnosed with a rare liver cancer. Being 23 years old and relatively uncouth, I asked if it was serious. He said it was being monitored and he had to go to the hospital for a routine checkup. This was in 2009. Over the years, I saw him fight and get stronger, but his health worsened in the fall of 2013. On 25 November 2013, cancer stole his last breath. My life froze, too.
Spouses go the rest of their lives without trekking back to the place their love initially bloomed. And now I had to return to north-east Pennsylvania less than four months after his death. I did everything I could to get the game schedule changed, pleading with my athletic director to do something.
Theres nothing to be done, he told me, as my body slumped forward and my cheeks burned in my hands. Its how the games rotate this year.
I looked up at him and said: Did you explain the situation? He pushed up his shirtsleeves up and shrugged.
Coaching had always been my salvation as I nursed, and then grieved, for my husband. Strategizing, recruiting, budgeting for my program provided me a break from reality. Ive always felt blessed to do what I love for a living. But the impending trip to Scranton darkened everything. Id go to practice a shell of who I used to be. My players tried to give me a reason to wake up every day anyway. They brought me coffee in the morning, told me jokes. But as the trip to Scranton neared my emotions became uncontrollable, and the nights were unforgivably restless.
But I got on the bus to Scranton. On game day, I greeted my team in the hotel lobby and befriended the barista at the cafe in hopes of receiving bottomless amounts of coffee. All the days the girls brought me coffee before practice made me feel loved and appreciated, so sipping on a hot brew was the perfect medicine to head into game time. But soon enough, it was time to leave the hotel.
Before even sighting the familiar citys skyline, which had become in my mind ghoulish, I recognized an eatery my husband and I visited one evening years ago right across the street. As we filed onto the bus, I was elsewhere, the memory of that long-ago dinner with my love dangling in my mind like a puppet just waiting to be picked up. But his lively face only lasts moments in my minds eye before vanishing like a plume of smoke and the vast emptiness that image leaves behind is what lingers.
When the girls boarded the bus I didnt look up at them. I wanted to hide the puffiness and streaks the tears left on my face. I wiped my nose, stood up and read the team the starting lineup from my notebook. My voice quivered. I glanced down at my pre-game speech and a tear plopped and seeped into the paper. I looked back up at my team.
Im sorry, I said. I want to win, but I cant do this. I grabbed my coaching backpack and hustled away. I was racing, practically running toward the bathroom. Once inside I clicked the lock and fell to the floor weeping. I never wanted to be back here without him. Curled on the floor, I rocked side to side, wondering if he was here with me. If he was, I couldnt feel it.
I hated how weak I felt. I was already there, and feeling sorry and bad wasnt going to change anything. I decided that it was time to piece myself back together; I needed to lead the team who continued to show me love when I thought Id lost everything. I looked at myself in the mirror, brushed my hair back, wiped the tears away, and walked out.
Twenty girls circled around me when I got to our bench. They were all smiles, telling me they won the first victory of the game: the coin toss. Their chirpiness and eagerness warmed my heart.
I love you all, I told them. Play the way we know how; play with passion and love in your hearts, and for those who support and care about you. We placed our left hands into the middle, grabbed a wrist and sounded off the way we always do: Together Drew!
The opening draw whistle sounded. I had survived was surviving.