Big Birthdays and the Real Game
My sister, Chris, celebrated her birthday this week. I won’t say which birthday, but it was a BIG one! Second in a line of four kids all born within five years, Chris is the quieter one in the family -- the listener, the thinker – and the only one who doesn’t seem to know that she is also the most talented.
Scott, the oldest, was our leader. He helped to raise us while Dad was on the road. Even into adulthood, he was our champion. David is the blue-eyed baby of our litter. As a cotton blond kid he was constantly in motion and consistently covered with dirt. Me, I was (and still am) the social one; the girl who never met a stranger.
Growing up, a lot of people thought of Chris as shy, and in some ways, that was true. She wasn’t always so trusting of people. When it came to animals, though, she was fearless. At seven, it was nothing for her to strap her 20 pound pet raccoon around her neck, jump on her bike, and ride with Rocky dangling down her back through the suburbs of Maryland.
Nor did she hesitate to come to Rocky’s rescue when a police officer knocked on our door one night with our dog, Charlie, in hand. The officer came in, sat down at our kitchen table and proceeded to write mom a ticket for breaking the dog-leash law. As he was writing, up popped Rocky at the kitchen window, tap-tapping on the glass as he did every evening after his lone jaunt through the neighborhood, ready to come back in for his nightly chocolate chip cookie before going to bed in the cubby Dad built for him below the stairs.
Fast as she could, Chris disappeared. She snuck down to the basement, out the back door and up the steps to the kitchen entrance. Meanwhile, Scott planted himself in front of the police officer. Just as he looked up from writing his ticket, Scott started in with questions, How did you get this badge? What did you have to do to get that badge? While Chris quickly pulled Rocky from between the screen and the kitchen door before his “I’m ready to come in” tapping turned into “I WANT MY COOKIE” banging.
If mom got a ticket for breaking the dog-leash law, what do you suppose she would have gotten for a pet raccoon on the loose?
Chris was also fearless when it came to sports. She could run as fast, throw as far, and climb as high as any boy. And, man, could she tackle!
In 1970, we moved to Barboursville, Virginia, and, because kids in the country were always looking for something to do, we began throwing together impromptu football games. We’d round up friends within a five-mile radius, on our bicycles if necessary, to meet and play in the small field by the old schoolhouse. We’d play in the rain; we’d play in the snow. Meeting after dinner and on weekends. Going at it until it was so dark you couldn’t see the ball until it hit you. Fortunately, the first football in the face usually signaled the end of the game.
Sometimes Scott would gather just us Allard kids in our front field to work on strategies. He’d scratch the plays out in the dirt with a stick or just draw them on the palms of our hands with his finger. He wanted us to be ready for the real game. The big game.
Speaking of big...one of our companions on the field, John, was a few years older than Chris and outweighed her by a good 80 pounds. Of course, because of his size, his team always gave him the ball. He wasn’t real fast, but he was real big. I can still picture five or six kids hanging onto John’s body as he slowly made his way toward the goal. No one could take him down. No one except Chris. Having fully assessed the situation, she figured out that if she threw her whole body at him just below his knees, he’d go flying through the air in one hit. Bam! Of course the other trick, which she also quickly mastered, was getting out of the way before he fell.
I suppose the bravest my sister has ever been was on the day we gathered to say goodbye to our brother Scott when he lost his battle with melanoma. He was incredibly thin by then, and it was hard for all of us to see him so sick. But it was especially difficult for Chris. She wanted so badly to remember him just as he had always been: The strong one -- the leader…her champion.
Not so surprisingly, Scott, being the guy he was, took care of us that day. He told jokes and flirted with his wife. He made us laugh. And then, when he and Chris were able to find a moment alone together, he looked her in the eyes and made sure she knew that in spite of his beaten down body, he was still, and always would be, her champion.
Our brother donated his body to science, and my sister went into hibernation. A year later, when his ashes arrived, Chris resurfaced as our new leader. She painstakingly planned every detail of his Memorial -- from the candles and the music to helping us share story after story about our brother. Then when the candles had burned down and all the words had been spoken, Chris took the lead in scattering Scott’s ashes in our front field, the place where he had led us in so many football scrimmages over the years. And though we didn’t realize it at the time, the place where he’d been preparing us for the real game.
Here’s to BIG birthdays and the real game, with all its victories and defeats. And here’s to fearless siblings who know when to step up, when to step back down, and how to tackle the tough stuff.