I can hardly believe it’s been 3 days since I was sitting in a another country having dinner with the families and teammates of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, directly after their win over Germany in the World Cup. As each player trickled in, the entire room would erupt into applause, regardless of what their role was on the team, that night the sound was the same. I felt full of pride as my favorite player made her way through the tables and plopped her backpack on the chair next to mine. I couldn’t help but notice the oversized goalkeeper gloves sticking out of the mouth of her bag, her name stitched across the Velcro: “Naeher”, and I wondered what else she had in there.
I thought I was going to Canada to support my cousin who was living out her dream of playing soccer on the national team, but what ended up happening was a very different thing. She reminded me about perseverance.
What many people don’t know about Alyssa and I, is that it was she and I together who came up with the word: “Persevere” and chose it to be the mantra of our family as we battled against my youngest daughters illness.
Shortly after that we had wrist bands with that word embossed across them, and we all wore them in solidarity. Because you aren’t allowed to wear jewelry on the field, Alyssa would often stuff her wrist band in her shoe or hide it somewhere else on her body, refusing to take any kind of break from her support of Naomi. Occasionally, when I would see a close up of her on tv, I would be so encouraged to see that word peeking out from under her gloves, written in sharpy across her wrist.
Alyssa became my hero when on one visit home she lifted her shirt slightly to the side and with a smile showed me her first and only tattoo: our word Persevere, permanently printed on her body.
Monday, July 6, will mark 3 years since Naomi lost her fight to Niemann-Pick Disease and left us. It has not gotten any easier for me, and I can feel my body fighting despair as the date quite literally closes in on me. There was something cathartic about sitting with Alyssa after her game and taking a few quiet moments to talk about her journey. As I sat across from her, and remembered the young girl who helped me define Perseverance, I was able to see how far she had come, probably easier than she could because she is walking in it right now. She was driven and highly motivated, she sacrificed time away from her family and friends, she missed countless Thanksgivings and skyped in on many Christmases. She trained through pain, and played through injuries. She did not come to this place in her career without a very keen sense of where she wanted to go and pushing herself to move forward at all cost.
Since losing Naomi I have had the opportunity to meet countless other moms who have lost their children, it’s just what happens when you have something so unusual in common with other people. What surprises me however, is that there is nothing unusual about grief in general. Along with connecting to the moms, I have also found myself chatting with women who have suffered the biggest betrayal imaginable, families with broken relationships who desperately want to be mended, young girls who battle demons and fight depression, grandparents who sit in nursing homes waiting for their loved ones to visit, husbands taking care of wives with debilitating illness, people who have been confined to wheelchairs, children who feel abandoned by their parents, the list goes on. Everyone is on their own journey, and every single journey is full of blessings and disappointments, turmoil and happiness, losses and victories, ups and downs, backwards and forwards. My favorite verse right now is Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. We’re all running the race a race together, it just looks different for each one of us.
Part of the flaw in my running pattern is that I tend to look over my shoulder a lot. I take a lot of steps forward, but then I look back to see what’s been left along my path. When I was forced to lay down Naomi, I found a very large rock and placed it in a backpack, and strapped it on my back. I don’t go anywhere without that backpack. I hold on to it like a child holds a security blanket, it is exhausting to run in a long distance marathon with a boulder strapped across my body. Occasionally, but not very often, I let a friend who might happen to come alongside me, hold the backpack for a few miles, just long enough for me to catch my breath, then I snatch it back and keep moving.
I believe there will come a day when I can lay that burden down, maybe it will be just a few miles from here, maybe it won’t be until I cross the finish line, I’m not sure, but it‘s my decision to make, and it‘s not now.
What I am sure of is that I am determined to press on, to stick to it, to be stubborn and refuse to give up, to hold on and to persevere in this journey, running alongside all of you.
PS: I know Alyssa, and all of American soccer fans passionately wants the US to take the gold medal in the finals next week, and I want that too. But win or lose Alyssa Naeher is already my hero. Thanks for running with me ‘Lyss.