How I Learned the Difference Between Miscommunications and Missed Connections
Talking about my years as a serious athlete feels like recounting a past life. I played Division 1 field hockey (because yes, I am a Middle-Class White Girl from the East Coast) and although my last collegiate game was only a little under a year ago, I already feel incredibly far away from it. I’m relatively un-athletic and noncompetitive, at least as far as athletes go, and it always felt like an accident for me to be there, especially at the level that I was. I like to joke that someone dropped me off at practice one day in seventh grade and forgot to ever pick me back up.
I played for about ten years. For eight of those ten, it ruled my life. I have endless gratitude for what athletics has done for me; it paid for college, took me halfway across the world, brought lifelong friends and mentors into my life, and taught me an unbelievable amount of life lessons about hard work and compromise and selflessness and myself and the world and how to be my best self in it. I’m also someone who struggles with mental instability- diagnosed with PTSD, a dissociative disorder, and depression- and sports gave me a steady ground to stand on and accountability when I was at a rock bottom with my brain. At the same time, though, it takes a lot of energy. Physical, mental, and emotional. To put so much of yourself into something, you need a powerful motivator. In sport, it’s often the adrenaline of competition. Others find purpose and passion in team environments, some love to push themselves physically, and even more just love the sport itself.
There are these and a million other reasons to play, however I was never quite sure of mine. I’m no adrenaline junkie. I really do like the sport itself, but my love for it has never been transcendental. Also, running sucks. To my parents’ credit, they always told me that if I didn’t love it anymore, I could stop. I didn’t, though. I thought about it, especially once I’d gotten to the collegiate level, but always hypothetically. There were a lot of practical reasons not to quit, finances being at the top of that list; I decided it was way better to puke after running sprints than take on student debt, which I’m eternally thankful to have been able to avoid. But even this wasn’t my number one motivation for sticking with it, and I didn’t know what that was until after the final whistle blew.
My father was killed in an unexpected accident in June of 2018, just before my senior year of college. Our relationship was far from perfect. He was a scientist, a decorated physician well-respected in his field. I was the problem child, a moody middle kid with low self-worth whose brain imbalances have been around for a long, long time. While he could make sense of almost anything, he couldn’t make sense of me.
He grew up dirt poor on the south side of Chicago. The only child of an emotionally absent mother and abusive father, he didn’t have a bed until he was ten- his parents wouldn’t let him have one until he started paying them rent- and by twelve years old he was working two jobs. He was parentless by 21. My grandfather, a WWII veteran who survived the Burma Road, drank himself to death when my dad was fifteen, and my grandmother passed away a few years later. I know it was from some kind of illness, but I’m not sure exactly what.
Armed with an extraordinary work ethic and eternal optimism, my dad became a poster child for the American Dream, rising above a traumatic upbringing riddled with poverty and grief. We counted once how many years of higher education he put himself through: seventeen. SEVENTEEN. Undergrad and Ph.D. in Biochemistry, got his M.D., and then did his residencies, working multiple jobs throughout his studies.
My dad built something really, really beautiful out of nothing, and the physical manifestations of his prosperity were all around him. He had success in his career, a healthy marriage with three kids to show for it, financial stability, and what we called his “Farmer Fantasy”- we lived in a large house on four acres of land that sat adjacent to the cornfield he liked to think was his (it wasn’t), complete with a swimming pond, a dog, a few cats, and the six chickens he brought home on Easter one year. My mother was not consulted before he made this purchase and she was less than thrilled.
He was driven and tough but gentle, and though abuse had been his modeling in his childhood home, he never laid a finger on us. His mother was emotionally absent and always leaving and he was dedicated to being present with us, despite his demanding job. Still, though, elements of his upbringing shaped the way he showed up in the world and the way he showed up for us.
Loneliness leaves deep wounds. Every child deserves safety and security, and alone for most of his life while navigating grief, poverty, and violence, my father had neither. The more he accumulated in his adulthood, the more fearful he was that he might lose everything. On a scale of one to ten, he was probably what I’d call a level six hoarder. He definitely wasn’t dirty or gross, but he couldn’t let go of anything, material or emotional. Rows of filing cabinets packed with neatly tucked away but meaningless papers and receipts from decades past lined the walls of his offices and he owned multiple storage units in different states that were generally filled with what you and I would consider junk.
It was more than stuff, though. An only child orphaned by 21, he was constantly terrified he would lose us, too. He wanted us to be around physically, hating when we would want to hang out with friends on the weekend instead of staying home with him and our mother, most often not allowing us to. And because he knew the pain of insecurity and instability so intimately, he was intent on instilling his children with skills and values that he believed would keep us from experiencing the nothingness that he was so familiar with. To him, security meant conventionally defined success akin to what he had achieved. Go to school, major in something practical and lucrative. Meet someone and settle down. Buy a house. Send Christmas cards. Anything else was invalid.
My siblings are both gifted in math and science. I, on the other hand, have always been miserable in these subjects and naturally gravitate towards the arts. This was extremely concerning to him; he was fearful for my future and didn’t believe my affinities would bring me any sort of abundance.
At the time, I didn’t understand that he was afraid. I just thought he didn’t like me. It seemed that everything I excelled in, he could never take seriously. Sometimes his distaste was direct, resulting in slammed doors and yelling and subsequent silent treatments, other times more subtle. Passing comments and jokes about how I’d have to marry rich were common. He saw my talents and dreams as hobbies, and because they didn’t seem to have value to him, I didn’t think he saw any real value in me. I internalized this story and my self-esteem- which had never been particularly high to begin with- plummeted.
Then, sports happened.
He wasn’t the dad from 2000s teen movies who was living vicariously through his quarterback son. Sure, he liked sports. He was content to watch the White Sox play for hours on end, but he wasn’t the classic “man’s man” and in no way was he placing any broken dreams on my shoulders the way many parents of athletes have a tendency to do. But sports he understood and could see the value in. He knew how to be proud of me for hockey. It was a way for us to connect, a common ground, so I latched onto it. I didn’t love playing but I did love seeing him in his UMass gear, showing up to games with binoculars because he was truly the dorkiest of them all, cheering me on from the sidelines. I dedicated my final season to my father, of course wanting to be successful for my team and myself, but mostly wanting a winning season and conference trophy for him.
Butterflies, monarchs especially, are what I like to call my “sign.” Anytime I’m anxious or unsure or upset about a situation but notice a butterfly somewhere, whether it’s a real one or an image in some form, I immediately calm down. I’ve felt connected to them since I was a child; there’s a massive monarch migration that sweeps through an area of Jersey that we lived in for a bit when I was quite young. My earliest memory- I had to have been only two or three- is of walking outside and into a wave of butterflies. It was something out of a dream.
A few games into my senior season, I began to notice monarchs on the field before each match. Every single time. And I know this might be a bit too esoteric or woo-woo for some, but since my father’s passing, monarch butterflies feel like him, like he’s trying to tell me something or is sending me a reminder or even just giving me a hug. It was comforting for me to think of them as my father, wishing me luck as he had each weekend for years. First whistle would blow and I would once again be playing to win his acceptance.
More than that, I was also desperate to keep my connection to him. Hockey was our moderator. As the days got colder and end of my career drew closer, I found myself terrified that I might lose a relationship to him completely.
This fear reached its peak the day of our conference semifinal; if we lost, we were done. I stepped on the field, shaking a bit from adrenaline as I scanned the field for a monarch. No luck. I felt a lump in my throat and began to panic, feeling abandoned and alone. A little angry, even. We’d played twenty games and this was the day he decided not to show up?
We ended up losing in overtime. I felt like a failure. He must have known I couldn’t do it, I thought, that’s why he didn’t come. I couldn’t deliver. I wasn’t enough and never had been. It sounds extreme, I know, but it’s human nature to seek that which reaffirms existing beliefs, twisting new feelings and experiences into stories that align with what we already think to be true. Our belief systems shape our reality, and once built, that’s a difficult thing to confront. Even if it’s painful, it’s what we know. Anything else is the unknown and the unknown is scary as hell.
I was sat silently on the bus ride back to Massachusetts, old stories on repeat in my mind, when everything suddenly shifted. The tape had somehow reached the end of its roll, and in the radio silence, I finally understood.
It was okay.
Not just losing, but everything. I’d been so angry that he hadn’t been there, certain he knew I was going to disappoint him yet again, but it didn’t matter if we won or lost because while yes, hockey was an arbitrator for us, I didn’t need it to win his pride because I’d always had it. He was there and he was proud, with or without, and always had been.
Hockey gave me a lot, but it didn’t give me my father. We were both too wrapped up in our own stories to see that we had every ounce of the others’ love; what we were missing was a shared language, therefore trying to get our our feelings across was always clumsy, sometimes harsh, and dysfunction followed suit. Stories are what construct how we show up in the world, for ourselves and for others, and how those around us do the same. They inform how we communicate and connect. My father had a story about the world based on his own experiences and his relationships were deeply affected by such, just as yours and mine are. We love the best way we know how. Scarcity had built him and he never wanted us to know the insecurity and lack of safety that he knew so intimately. He was hard on me because he was concerned for me and was concerned for me because he loves me. Loves, present tense, as love, real love, is the only thing that really lasts.