For those of you who read my sister’s blog post ‘Seventeen‘ – thank you. Perhaps you were like myself – a crying mess. Maybe you weren’t. That’s okay too. It felt right when I read it the first time and still does that I put to words something of what the number means for me and what was happening for me when Suz chose to wear ‘my number.’ Tell the other side of the story, so to speak.
What she illustrated about us playing volleyball for hours growing up was true and largely forged our close relationship. We loved playing volleyball together all day at practice, getting home totally exhausted, taking one glance at the other and saying, “I’m bored…wanna pepper?”
Of all the games we created, one of my personal favorites was when we had to keep a pepper going but could not contact the ball while also contacting the ground – tricky, but so so fun!
Those will always be treasured times.
I think Zan was also right when she said I didn’t originally have a particular reason for choosing the number seventeen. For brief times I have been the numbers 7, 12, 28 and 2 over the years – but 17 has always felt like home. I just liked it. The way naming a stray cat begins a sort of relationship to and ownership of it – wearing ’17’ began to mean something to me. It was a “strong” or “solid” number (if we’re going to put characteristics on them). There was even a times as a player I cringed when I saw someone else wearing the number who wasn’t personifying the strength, character and work ethic I had come to associate with the simple “one-seven.” Thankfully, this usually didn’t happen.
That acknowledged quirk aside, I didn’t realize how much confidence the number seventeen gave me until I started playing in college. No matter what level you’ve played in school, club ball, etc. – college athletics are a whole different animal. The challenges include, but are not limited to: number changes.
When I got to Penn an upperclassmen already had my number (she was doing it justice). This meant I was given a different numeral: 2.
“2?!? What kind of a number is two!?” My internal conversations repeatedly reminded me that there was a reason silver metals are generally received with less “huzzah” than bronze. To the competitor, 2nd place means you were so close – but didn’t win. Besides simply not being 17, that was the ‘con’ of #2 for me. However, I came to learn another perspective.
An honorable yet understated, usually under-appreciated, and certainly not flashy characterization of the number two is one of service.
Others first – I’m second.
I remember (which is a cool thing, considering my life) exactly where I was in the weight room when I decided to intentionally adopt this as my role full-time.
Did everyone applaud this decision? No. There was no applause. There were no great positive acknowledgements I knew about for nearly two years, actually. Did I serve those around me perfectly all the time? Also no. I am a fully normal human even if I aspire to fulfill good intentions. So then, what did this look like, exactly?
Overwhelmingly, being second looked like being the first to the door and last through it – every time. I mean every time.
Idealistically, this is a great example of what some call servant-leadership.
In real-life application this meant a couple of other very real things: Mostly, I was always the last person into the room. (If you’ve ever been on a team you know “first-come, first-served” applies to getting the good seats in the locker room, the favorite weight racks, training tables, and food if there happens to be some). I had picked the short stick(s). Yay. Also – people, even friends, sometimes responded with comments like, “Well, you know your place.” Which is not exactly “Thank you.”
All because of a two!
Thanks to this new number – my life was not easier. Looking back it built some major endurance of character but unfortunately at that time I simultaneously internalized the weight of backlashed negativity a bit too much and started to doubt I had ever been that same girl who slipped into the #17 jersey. I even had the opportunity to change my number (and seventeen was even an option!) but said no because I didn’t think I was worthy anymore. I had stopped believing in myself. I knew it. And that was eating me alive.
(Side note: If you’re wondering if it’s true that “girls need to feel good to play well and boys need to play well to feel good,” my experience is that yes, that’s generally true).
Anyways, around this sorrowful time in my history of confidence as a volleyball player I managed to get hit in the head an estimated 15 times within six months. I fought to keep going through life and recovery normally but inevitably I was forced to accept the reality of my condition.
Hello, brain trauma. Goodbye, everything else.
The obvious things left first – no more volleyball, no more school, no more loud or bright places, and no more social interactions. Then, the loss of the less obvious surfaced – no more emotions, no more ability to think through simple processes (e.g. ‘How to take a shower’ was an extraordinarily difficult thing to think through, let alone do), no more control of my body (it’s terrifying, let me assure you), no more ability to annunciate or “find” words, no more certainty, and no more fully trusting anything going on inside my head. It was all “hello” pain of a thousand varieties and overwhelming internal chaos.
Through the worst of this, each member of my immediate family played a unique and critical part in my ability to recover and heal.
Briefly: My father had previously instilled in me the habit of writing out lists of “Things that are true or facts” and “Things that I feel (so, maybe not truth or facts)” which eventually became a life-saving skill. My mother went with me to many, many appointments and patiently listened as I talked her ear off for hours while I wandered my way back to myself. My sister Abby kept me alive (I’m not kidding) by (among other things) begging me to wake up at least once a day and shoving food in my face. She also made fun of my condition whenever possible, to keep things light. (Whipping up jokes in the face of my uncontrollable bone-rattling muscle jerks is no easy skill, dear people. She’s a total gem). My sister Jackie was also concussed at the time. This created an often-unspoken and heartbreaking yet comforting bond of knowing between us. I think I should also take moment to say my dog Midnight (R.I.P.) never left whatever room I was in. She could sense my pain and would nudge my hand with her muzzle – a comforting thing even when I was completely unable to respond.
And my sister Suzanne?
Well, you know what she did.
She chose to honor me. Not just personally, but also publicly.
Her simple, “It’s my sister’s number. I wear it for her.” Was a huge deal to me.
When in the depth of all my deepest pains, she honored the me I was but had stopped believing in. She was far away and in the middle of her own life changes. When she made the hard choice to give herself the best chance to become the best she could be and then honored me while doing it – she did keep my dreams alive. I think I actually cried when she called to tell me (which is saying something). She called out something great in me of which there was no current evidence. (I was an un-moving blurry-eyed ball of pain buried under a mountain of blankets on a couch).
Perhaps it sounds only too simple or too little a thing, but I have no doubt her choice to wear my number was the spark which marked the beginning of much of my healing. Why?
Seeing, speaking to, and acting on the value in others really does rebuild whatever is broken.
I don’t know why you’re reading this. I don’t know what you do for a living or what you aren’t daring to do in life. I don’t know what pain you carry or which dreams you are too fear-full to attempt. But, I do know every pain and every hurt you’ve ever or will ever experience can heal.
Confidence is, among other things tangible or intangible, a thing which can be rehabbed – better than rehabbed, actually. It can be totally transformed and made whole again.
Honor has the power to do that.
I’m living proof.
In way of an update, I recently had lunch with a friend (someone who has consistently claimed the word “giddy” to describe how my being back at UPenn as a student makes them feel) and they told me that when they heard of the things I was going through, they sincerely never thought I would ever be back.
Thing is, I am! I’m healed up and healing up.
Is life different now? Yeah. It is.
Do I miss playing the sport I love? Absolutely.
Do I sometimes wish I could step on the court with my sister, even for just one play? For sure. There are days she’ll get a text from me which reads something like, “Heyyo! Play some volleyball for me today, mmk!?” Then there are happy tears in PA and Iowa.
We both appreciate and participate in the ability to actually do stuff more now, which is a beautiful thing.
What is next? I don’t know.
Is this the end? Absolutely not.
Life is meant to be lived.
Go be brave,
For whatever they’re worth to you, here are a few of my favorite words:
Hope – believing that something good can come out of something bad.
And, a line Jackie and I use to keep each other going:
Don’t give up! Don’t EVER give up! No! Not you! YOU keep going! And YOU keep trying!!