My son’s stepfather and nature vs. nurture

Bedtime has passed, but I can still scarcely make out the shape of my son and husband tossing a football in the yard. It is a routine I’ve observed innumerable times, one that fails to change with the season or the weather or the day.

My husband lobs the ball as far and hard as his arm can throw. With no unkindness, he still shows no mercy. There is a hint of the old ninth-grade quarterback there, a touch of unfulfilled potential, as though the loud exhale that comes with the heave of the ball is a 25-year longing for what could have been.

On the other end, my son, 94 pounds and gangly, is running, with his arms outstretched, jumping high. I hear the thud of the football hit him square in the chest, as he catches it with both hands. I cringe and close my eyes. When I open them, my husband is drifting slowly past me. He tugs playfully at my arm, with his stepson trailing close behind. In the orange glow of the porch light, I can see my boy’s face.

Every part of him is smiling.

“I want to play football, mom,” 11-year-old Frankie announced casually in September of last year. He was dressed in a Detroit Lions jersey, purchased at a steep discount a few years prior, as our home team had gone a miserable 4-12.

“Not a chance.” I responded, without missing a beat. I had spent four years on the sidelines of high school football games, albeit with a saxophone in my hands; I recalled the broken bones and concussions and had witnessed the ambulance pull onto the 50-yard line. “Too dangerous.”

“Mike played football.” My son looked pointedly in the direction of my husband, his stepfather, who grinned.

“He can really catch …” My husband’s voice trailed off when he saw my face.

“No football,” I shook my head firmly at them. “You both can forget about it.”

But thus began the Great Football Crusade of 2015. Everywhere I turned, there were little calculated drives in the offense, meant to wear me down and convince me to say yes. First there were their nightly practice sessions in the cul-de-sac. Then, down came the Star Wars posters in my son’s bedroom and up went stickers of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The front yard faded to mud as Frankie recruited his brothers and sister — and then all the neighborhood kids — to play rousing games of 5 on 5.

“No more front-yard tackle!” I demanded, as my 6-year-old wandered in the house, covered in muck, scratches on his bare knees.

“I can’t make any promises.” Frankie said. The 6-year-old grinned a toothless smile at me. “See, mom, they love it.”

“We love it,” said the first-grader.

I called my ex-husband and solicited his thoughts. “Frankie wants to play football this fall. But I’m just not sure …”

“How much is it?” he interrupted. “I’m not paying for anything else.” I was still sighing when I hung up.

I was grasping my cellphone, lying facedown on my bed, when Michael found me. “What’s wrong?” He pulled me in for a hug.

“Football. I don’t want him to get hurt,” I said.

“You can’t save him from every single hurt. Sometimes you just have to let things run their course.”

I put my arms around his neck and closed my eyes. Michael leaned in and whispered:

“Let him play.”

I sit high in the bleachers during my son’s first game, beside my husband. His jaw is set as he watches the field. He claps his hands twice, shouts out to no one in particular. “Let’s go, Rockets.” He’s nervous for our boy. I text Frankie’s dad surreptitiously, my phone cradled in my purse. Are you coming to the game?

For an hour, I receive no reply. And then: I can’t make it. I stuff my phone back into my purse.

At halftime, my son looks into the stands and searches for familiar faces. His stepfather and I wave wildly at his small figure, bolstered by 15 pounds of padding. My husband gives him a big thumbs up.

The Rockets lose, 50-6. Michael hurries down the bleachers to find our son, worried he will be disappointed. But I am too worried myself to pay much attention. I am afraid Frankie will ask about his dad’s absence, and I steel myself for the measured response I mean to give. A lie? He wanted to be here, bud.

But when our number 80 comes up from the field, grass stains on his white jersey and his helmet under his long, thin arm, I don’t have to squint in the sunlight to see that he is grinning.

“Did you see my catch?” Frankie asks us, but I can see he isn’t looking at me. His face is turned to Michael’s.

“I saw it! Twenty-five yards, man! And just like we practiced.” As I watch them pass through the stadium exit, the man I married and the boy that maybe wants to be just like him someday, I think about the unyielding barometer of time.

If I measured out my fears a year ago, football would have weighed high on the list.

Now I measure my days in the shadows of my son reaching high in the empty street, in early fall. I measure my gratitude instead, in my husband’s nervous face, as he watches a boy who will never share his name go in for a long pass on a Saturday afternoon. I measure my growing realization that you cannot save your children from every hurt. Sometimes they will lose the game. Sometimes dads can’t — won’t — make it. Sometimes the pass that is thrown your way is bad. It’s just the course of nature.

If you are lucky, though, maybe someone tall and kind has taught you how to withstand the tough blows. Maybe someone has told you, just keep your head up, reach for every throw. Sure, you might bend a bit, but you won’t break. And all the time, remember — you are growing from it, too. Maybe this doesn’t take life’s hurt away, but maybe it makes it easier to bear.

Nature is mighty, but nurture is a powerful force, too. I know this now, because I’ve seen the spiral tossed high in the twilight.

Who am I to stand in the way of that?

Jankowski is a mom of four kids and two awesome step-kids, a divorcee and a writer. Read about her experiences with autism, addiction and awesomeness at or on Facebook and Twitter.

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