An Unassuming Hero

The big blonde kid, number 9, smashed through our middle line. I think they called him Riley. He was unusually tall. A parent from the sideline joked that he drove himself to the game. He was fast, too, though he didn’t look it. He sped past our center and fixed his sights on our goal. Our defenders, only two in range, scrambled into position. My eyes swept the field in search of support. Our center scrambled to catch the attacker, but he was yards behind with little hope of gaining. That’s when I noticed my son surging forward, angled on a path to intercept racing number 9.

I don’t know why I was so surprised. He had long since graduated from daisy picker to average player, but his performance was a constant source of frustration. All season long he lollygagged and socialized. He had a habit of standing around when he should have been running or hustling on the play. Two games before, I warned him to display more effort. I reminded him that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. He nodded understanding, but the next week he once again meandered through the game, spending more time cracking jokes with fellow teammates than contributing to the mix of competitive play.

He wasn’t meandering now. He was bearing down with ferocious determination. Number 9 spotted him and broke right to throw him off, but my boy countered with an easy course-correction. Attacker and defender danced. I looked on with hesitant, suspicious hope. Any minute now, I figured, he would lose steam and the attacker would continue on. But the boy was unrelenting. He spun on the attacker, tackled the ball and kicked it out of bounds. The sidelines cheered him. So did I. He spied me applauding his play, but he made no acknowledgment. Instead, he thrust himself into the game and helped his team secure a spot in the semifinals. It dawned on me that he was due far more credit than I had given him. I am proud of him. Not because of his play, or his effort, or even his development as a soccer player. These are small achievements in the scope of what he’s navigated in life. I am proud of him because his character always rises in the face of adversity. Truth be told, Jordan’s journey has an unassuming hero. His name is Lucas.

Last night he fell asleep laying cross-wise on his bed. He likes to sleep that way. The difference on this night was his face, which was covered by a leather fedora. He’s going through an Indiana Jones phase, and he wears the hat constantly, spending hours in his room swinging a makeshift whip attempting to lasso the doorknob. When he’s not practicing for adventures yet to come, he passes time on his computer or sketching comic books of his own design. It’s all very peaceful and productive until his sister enters the room.

Jordan adores her brother. She adores him so much that she makes a point of inflicting herself upon him whenever she can. Try as hard as she might to leave him alone, she just can’t help herself. She bosses him. She sasses him. She pesters him constantly. He ignores her until she can no longer be ignored. Then he explodes in fits of bitter annoyance. She seems to take great satisfaction from the emotion she can conjure from him. It usually takes Jeanette or I to restore the peace. The front quiets and then minutes later we’ll hear them giggling. Perhaps Lucas has finally secured the makeshift whip to the doorknob and they take turns swinging on it. The door bangs against the wall, chipping paint and reverberating through the flat. Again a parent intervenes, this time to restore safety to the household. The pattern repeats – a quarrel, then a party – like it does in just about any house with school-age children. Lucas and Jordan are at once an inseparable and an insufferable pair.

But throughout her illness, Lucas has been an anchor. When she was in the hospital, she asked for him constantly. She beamed when he came to visit. He was a motivating factor for quick recovery. She wanted to go home to be with her brother.

Lucas is likewise affected, but he is stoic. Though born and raised in Southern California, his family’s farmers’ roots run deep. He is reluctant to spend much time analyzing feelings. He grows restless when discussing Jordan’s situation. He’d rather discuss baseball, or schoolyard conversations, or scientific discovery, or anything that doesn’t flirt with the gravity of cancer. The night before she was to undergo surgery the first time, he revealed how deeply he felt about his sister as I tucked him in for bed. All day long I’d tried to prepare him for what was to come, soliciting his feelings. I was honest with him. He was quiet, reticent to make eye contact with me, eager to drift off into some idle conversation. But as I leaned in to kiss him on the forehead, his emotions finally escaped.

“Dad, I’m scared for Jordan.”

His eyes flooded and he hugged me, sobbing. He couldn’t speak. I couldn’t either. I didn’t know what to say. So we just held each other in the dark, both of us afraid, feeling helpless. When he finally fell asleep, I rolled him onto his pillow and stood near his bed for what felt like a very long time. We weren’t so different, we two. We both like to fix the things we can and ignore the things we can’t. But there was no way to ignore how we felt about Jordan. There wasn’t much we could do to fix her, either.

Jordan’s recovery is due in large part to her brother. He is an ally she relies upon for strength and rejuvenation. They are sometimes friends, sometimes adversaries, sometimes conspirators against their parents. He has never once given her any reason to be afraid. He challenges her and supports her and often cheers her on. Though there are plenty of times when he’d rather she just leave him alone, he’s always there when she needs him. In her life, Lucas can always be counted upon to run down the field and chase challenges to the sidelines. She views him as a brave and sometimes bothersome hero, worthy of his cowboy hat and always good for adventure.