The Nashville City Track Championships bring all local high schools – large, small, public and private – together for one great week of track and field. The competition is fierce. My son Owen was competing in his best event, the 110 hurdles. As a freshman, he had earned a place on the varsity.
110 meters. 10 hurdles. Three steps between each hurdle. The same leg extending, flying up yet relentlessly forward, straining toward the finish in 16 seconds or less. A hurdler in rhythm is a beautiful thing, not unlike a dancer, grace masking tremendous exertion. Owen had hurdled 3 years. Right before his race I said that I had almost gotten over being nervous.
Owen is in third place nearing the end. On the next to the last hurdle, his trailing leg hits it. He falls, gets right back up, navigates the last hurdle, and finishes the race. But his fall cost him. He would not advance to the finals
I expected to see anger. Instead I saw anguish. Owen lifted his jersey and covered his face. My throat hurt like it does when I am trying not to cry. I wanted to run to him and envelope him, but instead I had to sit there and watch him grow. Perhaps because he is my fourth son, almost immediately I told myself “I am seeing him become a man. This is why our family invests so much in sports – through these challenges our boys have opportunities for growth. It would be a waste of our time if it always went well.” Thinking these words comforted me.
When pregnant with Owen I prayed that God would give him a bold spirit, capable of holding his own with three older brothers so close in age. God answers prayers . . . abundantly. Owen was a man-child. Even as a little boy he strove mightily for independence, emotional as well as physical. Mothering him was a special challenge. Unfortunately, Dad was out of town this night.
So I knew I needed to tread lightly.
After the meet, we met and walked to the car. I’m sorry . . . It’s O.K . . . You were really running well . . . Yeah . . . Does your leg hurt? . . . A little. . . .Silence.
Then we were in the car. I love words, but had none to offer. My mind raced back to little league games when the sting of defeat on dusty fields was by numbed by post-game Popsicles, sticky sweetness mingling with salty tears. “So, do you want to go to Chick-fil-A?” I asked.
Sure, he answered with a hint of a smile. Yes, thanks Mom.
Two chicken sandwiches, some waffle fries, and a large lemonade later, his heart still hurt but the rest of him felt better.
He came in, showered, and sat down to his three hours of homework, as usual. More chances to become a man.
The next morning I emailed his coach. I never do this. Owen is really bummed I told her.
Yes, she replied, he has been in here for the last hour talking over his race. He realized that he was not mentally prepared. He will be fine next time.
She had something more to offer. She had been a record setting hurdler. Hurdlers fall, she had told him. And he accepted it. I had Chick-fil-A to offer. And he accepted that too.
Thank you, God, for wise coaches, life’s hurdles and Chick-fil-A.
If this essay has you craving Chick-fil-A, tomorrow – July 13 – is Cow Appreciation Day. Dress like a cow and get a free meal! Seriously.