The vicarious lives of parents
I wasn’t very good at sports when I was a kid. I wanted to be good — the star of the team, the captain, the leading scorer, the clutch player — but I was barely good enough to make the team in football and baseball, and not much better in basketball. I worked hard and attended practice faithfully, and I could execute a bounce pass or finger roll lay-up with considerable verve, but what looks good in practice doesn’t always translate into real games, and I seldom made much of a splash once the buzzer sounded and the fans were seated. I seldom even made a plop. Most of the time, my role was to join the other benchwarmers during timeouts in a huddle around the starters, our arms wrapped supportively around their sweaty torsos, or to yell encouragement from our seats, which were, after all, the best in the house. Once in a while, if our team was up — or down — by 30 or 40 points with a minute or two to play, we were sent in to finish the game, peeling off our warm-ups like banana skins and hustling to the scorer’s table with great earnestness, as if something important were about to happen.
For us, something important WAS about to happen. We were going into an actual game, a game that counted, a game for which records were kept and names were published in the paper. If I could manage to make a jump shot or a free throw, in the next edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, I would be able to scan down to the box score and see it right there in black and white, among the other names and numbers: Cox, 2. For some reason, that mattered to me. It mattered a lot. And it mattered to my parents, who often attended the games, even when they knew full well I would play little, if any.
I was blessed with parents that supported my participation in athletics but did not press the issue and did not, mercifully, measure their self-worth or their success as parents by what I did or did not accomplish on the field or in the gym. I had friends on the team whose parents were like that, and they never failed to embarrass their kids by making a big display in the stands whenever their child did something good — or bad. I remember fathers who kept their sons out past dark trying to perfect a tight spiral in the backyard, or would not let them have dinner until they had made ten straight free throws in the driveway. I remember lectures on the way home after games lost, and the tension in the car.
I always regretted spending the night with those friends when we had games and lost. One time, after a particularly bitter defeat to a school rival, I spent the night at our point guard’s house. His dad was always critical of his mistakes, even when we won, but on this night he had committed a key turnover late in the game that had figured heavily into our loss, and his dad burned his ears for at least an hour afterwards. Later, after the lights were out, I could hear him crying softly in the bunk bed above me. I pretended to be asleep.
Now I sometimes wonder what my parents felt when they first realized I wasn’t going to be much good at sports, regardless of how hard I tried. I wonder if they were disappointed, or a little embarrassed, or hurt for me, as some of my closest friends, the very kids I had grown up with, turned into the stars of the school, while I faded into a supporting role no one would notice or remember. It couldn’t have been easy, but I have never actually FELT how it must have felt for them until recently, when some parents we know pretty well experienced a disappointment with one of their children. The details are better left obscured and are not important anyway. Let’s just say that at some point, every parent (and every child) is going to face a similar experience. My child isn’t the very best at this, or at that. Now what?
The question is not why we, as parents, live vicariously through our children, but how can we not? It begins when they are born, and we breathe every breath with them and feel every ache and sniffle in the marrow of our bones. It continues when they begin to toddle around, falling into things, and we fall with them, our hearts falling through our bodies as if through an empty elevator shaft, every time they get hurt, or come close to it. As long as they live, we are bound to live with them, and perhaps through them. I guess the real trick is remembering that their lives belong to them, regardless of how deeply we feel what happens to them, and for them, and because of them.
We hurt with them, tell them everything is OK, get up and try again tomorrow. We make it about them, not us. We hug them tighter, and try to let go a little at the same time. Figuring out how to do that may be the hardest part of all.