Sometimes things just happen, good and bad, that you just can’t predict. Despite my propensity for planning and my natural tendency toward being a hunter, I have learned that sometimes you have to roll with the punches and trust there is a lesson you need to learn. I didn’t always feel this way. No, this is a lesson I learned the hard way (my preferred method even as a young adult). In the words of my favorite character, Captain Edmund Blackadder of Black Adder Goes Forth, “I, on the other hand, have a degree from the University of Life, a diploma from the School of Hard Knocks, and three gold stars from the Kindergarten of Getting the S*** Kicked Out of Me” (www.imdb.com/title/tt0758160/quotes ).
It was my second year of teaching. As most new teachers are, I was very (very, very) enthusiastic. I think I would have volunteered to teach Latin had I been asked, even though the only Latin I knew was the classification of species. Those kids may not have been able to conjugate vini, vidi, or vici but they would have known a cervus elaphus from an alces alces. It was my dream to be a science teacher and coach. I worked really hard to prepare. When I was student teaching, I was a volunteer coach. Unless you have been a student teacher, you can’t appreciate the sacrifice of adding anything stressful to your life. But I wanted to coach so bad. After a couple of years of being a volunteer coach and then an assistant coach, I finally got my first head coaching job. I was hired in the fall to coach softball in the spring. I spent the whole fall planning workouts and reading every book I could find on coaching, training, and leadership. I remember it was a month before softball was to start because, even while hooked up to full body traction, I was trying to convince the surgeon I would be practice-ready in a month.
It was a Saturday and I decided to get up early and clean the house. Stylishly dressed in old sweats and a t-shirt, hair in a ponytail, makeup free, I surveyed the kingdom. We were newlyweds and lived in a small duplex in town that was built before building codes (possibly before electricity and indoor plumbing). There was a small living room in the front of the house. A very narrow hallway led to the back where there was a miniature kitchen and a slightly larger bedroom. I started in the bedroom. The first thing I picked up were my husband’s Bunny Boots. If you are not familiar with them, Bunny Boots are artic military footwear and they are heavy (apparently too heavy). As soon as I leaned over, I felt it. I sharp, shooting pain down both of my legs. I tried to straighten, but I couldn’t. I flopped on the bed, like a salmon on a fish ladder, hoping I would flatten out. The pain just increased and made me nauseous. I fell to the floor on my stomach. I don’t know why that seemed like a good idea because now I was wedged on the side of the bed staring at a mine field of dust bunnies that I knew I could do nothing about. I couldn’t move my legs. The only phone we owned was in the living room, of course. I lay there for several minutes willing the pain to pass but it was clear I needed help. I started to drag myself to the hall when my two large dogs, sensing something was amiss, lay down on either side of me and joined in the belly crawl to the living room. I tried to get them to leave me, but they were grimly committed. When I reached the living room, they took their posts, one on each side, and hunkered down. There was no moving them. Now, I tell you this not for sympathy, but to illustrate just the level of denial I was in at this point and for months after. Here I was, lying on the floor (covered in dog, dog hair and dust bunnies), and I literally called my doctor and told him that I “threw my back out” and it was “probably just a muscle spasm” and could he “call in a muscle relaxer”. I laid on that floor wishing the pain away, bargaining with God for my first coaching job and convincing myself it was nothing. When my husband got home hours later, he was, fortunately, not in denial and called an aid car. I had ruptured three discs in my back and they were crushing my spinal cord. I was in the hospital for a long time, all the while hoping and praying that I wouldn’t have to have surgery. I wasn’t out of the hospital a week before I sneezed and found myself paralyzed with pain again. Surgery was imminent and unavoidable. It was devastating and, at first, I just refused to give in. I refused to hear. When the surgeon told me that I was not going to hit another softball ever, I pushed back and said, “You mean this year, right?” At first the challenge motivated me to heal fast and prove him wrong. Then, I’m not proud to say, I got a bit self-pitiful. I started thinking about it like it was the end of a dream I had invested so much in achieving. Fortunately, one of my doctors challenged my thinking. He pointed out that he said I would not coach softball. He didn’t say I wouldn’t coach. He pointed out that I was a three-sport coach and he had no problem with me coaching volleyball or basketball. He pushed me, unmercifully I felt at the time, to see that I could choose to see this as the end of my dreams at the age of 26 or I could see it as a detour in the road to my dreams. I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, if I wanted to, but that would be my choice. He pointed out, to my mortification, that there were people far worse off who accomplished far more than me. He was right, painfully so. When the fall came, I was at a new high school. I coached volleyball, basketball and track that year. I had the time of my life teaching and coaching. Those students (now long grown up) will always be in my heart. It was everything I thought it would be. I nearly missed it. The next year, I coached only volleyball and track but not because of my back. It turns out that I was a terrible basketball coach, but that is a story for another day.
In the end, it was a lesson I have been reminded of often. Change happens. Sometimes those changes are what we wanted. Sometimes those changes are the last thing we would ever want. There is a lot in life that is beyond our control. Some argue all of life is beyond our control. Even if you are a planner or a hunter like me, there will be times when you must accept and find a new path. Grieve the loss, but don’t miss out on great stuff that happens between what we planned for and deeply wanted, and what actually happened. Life is short.
Coaching at Granite Falls High School circa 1992