By Jon Johansen
I almost missed it.
The seminal moment of my son cancer-impacted Michael’s youth basketball career, that is.
I nearly stayed home that morning. Told myself that two tough weeks of family illness and outside stress (multiple nights with minimal sleep), earned me a pass.
All I really wanted to do was limp back to bed.
But thanks to the wisdom of my wife Jill, and a small voice inside of me, I gulped down coffee, bundled up youngest child Sarah and drove to the last regular-season contest of the year.
With Sarah snuggling on my shoulder, I entered the gym in the second quarter and sat, beside my bride, on the dusty stairs overlooking the game.
Glancing up I realized that Michael, his surgery-scarred cranium bobbling, was on the court. His Heat squad was up by 10.
It quickly became apparent that my boy’s coaches and teammates were helping him.
Each trip down the court, coaches Amidon and Deese directed Michael to a spot on the right baseline. Star player Dylan gently relayed their instructions to Michael. On every possession, the Heat’s accomplished players passed the ball around until MJ came open.
Time after time they fed him the ball. Again and again Michael made bad passes and shot-putted air balls. But in the second half, things started to pick up.
Michael’s attempts actually started to draw iron!
He missed four tries, took a breather on the bench, and returned to miss a few more. Then it happened: his best look at the basket all year!
MJ, spinning away from a double team (I’d never seen him do that!) headed in for a lay-up a mere three feet from the hoop! He awkwardly tried to rise off his one strong leg.
Both juked defenders caught up and hacked him from behind. Michael fell hard.
MJ free-throw line to the stripe for free throws. But at 15 feet from the basket, the line was too far away for him.
Coach Amidon approached the official and whispered something. She nodded, and moved my boy a foot closer. Maybe, just maybe, it was within the outer limits of his range.
Michael’s first attempt hit the right side of the rim and …
Rolled off. Ugh!
The ref handed the ball back to MJ while the crowd collectively held its breath.
Michael bent his knees, rose up, and pushed the pumpkin with all his might.
And the regular season was over …
Or so I thought.
Couldn’t help myself and said a prayer.
MJ’s coaches kept him in. His chest heaved with the effort of extended playing time.
Near the four minute mark, Michael caught the ball in the low post – without bobbling it! I sat up straighter when my boy pivoted to the left to launch what surely would be a “final shot,” from the heart of the lane!!
Another air ball.
I forced myself to grin at the lady next to Jill and me. Told her that we didn’t need him to score — my words a half-truth. And then it happened.
Two minutes left.
Michael received a pass and cut into the lane! For once, he had a quick release! Time slowed as the shot hit the back of the unforgiving steel rim, yet somehow the ball didn’t carom out.
IN YOUR FACE, CANCER!
While fans erupted (Jill and I loudest of all) and teammates mobbed Michael, his beaming face turned toward his mama, sissy and me.
He galloped down the court, fists held high in triumph, before extending his arms out to his sides as if to say, “Did you see what I did?”
If I would’ve been close enough, or calm enough, I think I would have answered him like this,
I did see you, son, albeit through watery eyes. And it was beautiful!
Truth is, I’ve been achingly observing you for years now… wondering how long you’d be with us.
I often gazed at you when you were a baby. I pleaded with Heaven to let you live through the night.
Months went by, and I looked down on your wispy toddler hair, your weak grip holding onto both of my hands, as you shuffled up and down our steep road each day — your scuffed right shoe dragging behind you. My back ached, but I didn’t care.
I kept a vigil, son, because — and I’ve always felt guilty about this — when you were a newborn I failed … spent far too much time at work, trying to win the praise of acquaintances. But your situation changed me.
Through all the anguish of the past decade, my heart of stone turned to soft flesh. Nearly every day I came home from the job, just as soon as I was done. Eventually a palpable, clinging sadness lifted.
But when that deep pain, from time to time, returned, you always, always knew just when I needed a hug.
You see, you have a gift — intuitively knowing when to come alongside the hurting, whether they be injured opponents or weary parents. As for me, my wounds have almost completely been replaced with hope.
It’s a heck of a thing boy: You … here …
Alive. Scoring baskets.
I’ve gotta rest now, son. I suddenly feel awful’ tired … seemingly weary at the cellular level.
And much as you let your shot fly, I figure that it’s OK if I finally release my worry.
After all, you’re gonna be just fine.
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. Read his first Take 2 post about Michael here.
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