By Jon Johansen
My son is the worst, yet happiest, player on his youth basketball team.
And it’s not his fault.
When Michael was just 10 months old his first cancerous brain tumor hemorrhaged, permanently damaging motor functions on his right side.
Nonetheless, a few days ago, nearly 10 years later, Coach Aaron Amidon called Michael’s number to join an exceedingly close game at crunch time. On the line? An undefeated season.
My boy, huge smile on his face (just above the sealed trach hole in his throat), clumsily jogged onto the court. I held little hope that he’d help his team, but with him you never know. After all, he’d faced much greater odds. Poor kid was supposed to be dead by now. The earliest days of his disease were the hardest.
Back when he was a baby in a pediatric intensive card unit, he gave no sign of movement for days.
Unexplainably, one night, as I whispered-sang into his ear, his tiny arm raised and brushed against the side of my head. Swear to God. Around that time his doctor made a bold prediction: “This boy will walk!” I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe.
Michael’s trach and feeding tubes came out over the next couple of years, yet his body remained a wreck. Feelings of gratitude and grief coexisted. Grief won out when, around the time he finally started to walk, Michael’s insidious cancer returned.
Best case scenario? He’d probably live two to five more years. I alternated whispering expletives with begging God to take my life instead.
One morning Michael heard a children’s story about eternity. That night he began babbling about “Heh-been.” I rolled my head toward his non-deaf ear and swallowed hard.
“Son, do you want to go to Heaven?” I whispered.
Michael broke into a lopsided grin and nodded his head. I choked out the words, “It’s OK, you can go.” Suddenly peaceful, he rolled over and fell asleep. I lay there and wept.
Weeks later Michael had Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Workers augured metal screws through his small skull, attaching a halo vest to prevent an accidental jostle that could cause the radiation to melt his brainstem.
When he awakened, with Bugs Bunny bandages over the holes in his skull, he requested a grilled cheese sandwich. I dropped to my knees and gave thanks.
Over many seasons, Michael’s miraculous recovery continued and he learned to jog, galloping like Red Grange, push a scooter and eventually ride a bike. And he fell. Hard. Constantly.
Despite the challenges, he sometimes tried to emulate me and dribbled a basketball. My mouth fell open when, after many attempts, he bounced it several times in a row.
Birthdays came and went. My son turned 7, and joined Coach Amidon’s Upward Basketball team in Gig Harbor. Teammates and coach greeted “MJ” with warm smiles over two seasons.
He only cried once, when he confided to me: “I’m tewwible.”
During the 2012-13 season, in the final minutes of the last game, both teams’ coaches conspired to help Michael score a basket. When it dropped through for two points, I buried my face in my hands and choked back a sob.
This season the mini-Heat joined a more competitive league, yet insisted they’d only do it if Michael stayed on the squad.
Since then Michael has been an easy target for checked shots and swarming steals. And yet he just keeps smiling. A few days ago, I was able to update friends and family with the following news:
With the game near “crunch time” and the team’s undefeated season on the line, Coach Amidon put Michael in anyway.
Michael didn’t play great defense (I think he barely knew where his man was), or make a good pass (he was pretty far from the ball, sort of jogging around and grinning). Michael didn’t get a rebound or even set a screen — the one thing he’s decent at.
In fact, my son’s team lost. The undefeated season was gone. And though the coach knew all of this was more likely if Michael played — and I’d even told him to never feel any pressure to get my boy in the game — Coach Amidon put Michael in anyway.
On the way home from the contest, Michael excitedly chattered about how much fun he had.
I discretely wiped my eyes, swallowed hard and cherished the fact that my son’s coach is a better man than I.
Fact is, this is probably Michael’s last year participating. But you know what? My oldest boy is nearly 11, and his cancer has never returned.
Recently his mom and I have dared to hope that he will eventually get married and hold a job. Maybe even have a boy of his own. If he is so blessed, I know he will be a good father.
When Michael’s boy gets a little older and wonders why his dad limps, I’ll tell him how tough his daddy is, how he endured knee-buckling odds, beat the experts and is the strongest person I’ll ever know.
I might even be able to teach that tiny grandson of mine how to dribble a basketball.
On second thought, nah.
His dad should do that.
Jon Johansen works as an assistant principal and school counselor in Gig Harbor. He used to work a lot of overtime, but after almost losing his son to cancer, he gets his rear end home and spends time with his beloved brood.
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