“Heyyy! Hey Maria!”
I wove through a gaggle of 10 year old girls, trying to get their coach’s attention. Like them, her long hair was tied back in a pony tail. Her running shoes, form-fitting athletic pants, and sporty v-neck were diametrically opposed to my grubby sneakers, baggy shorts, and loose, untucked t-shirt, her ordinary straight woman’s presence a contrast to my bold lack of femininity.
I beckoned Maria away from her team. We didn’t know one another well, but my partner Susan had ovarian cancer and so did one of her best friends. Before I could run my boy’s practice, I needed to calm my mangled emotions and thought she could help. Biting my lip, I told her, “Susan’s markers are sky rocketing. I don’t think she’s going to last as long as I’d thought.” Maria’s pep talk began something like, “don’t worry. Stacy’s chemo worked great and she’s doing fine. She doesn’t even have it anymore.” She ended by patting my shoulder. “You’re too negative. She’ll beat this. She’s going to live for a long long time.”
“Well,” I said quietly, “I’d better get my practice going. Thanks.” Feeling empty and my worries not understood, I yelled “Come on boys,” and jogged off to my section of the field. I’d wanted companionship and empathy, not the platitudinous optimism with which people meet disease. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t misread Maria’s sincerity.
About a year later, Maria offered to help raise money for the youth soccer program and so, like the rest of us who’d innocently volunteered, was rewarded with a position on the board. My cynical assumption was that, as a traditional girly girl, she would jump to help with any of our “feel-good” seasonal events. That proved to be true, but she also immediately waded into the raucous banter at meetings, needling everyone, right and left. While I sometimes thought she was overly upbeat, she also had a decent amount of skepticism about, for example, how many who had volunteered would actually show up an event. Her boundless optimism turned out to be tempered by grounded realism. Her “can do” attitude was based on the self-confidence that there sometimes has to be an “I” in “team”: if others couldn’t, she could, and would. And she knew I would too.
The first time I went to her house, I was greeted by yips from her little dog, who would have jumped all over me had she not been so old that Maria had to carry her to her food dish twice a day. Despite her apologies, her house was, of course, neat and tidy, even in the dining area where she was arranging donated loot into raffle baskets, like flowers into bouquets. Without a pause in conversation, she produced crackers and cheese dip, chips and salsa, and seltzer water, and invited me to sit. Before I knew it, we’d been talking for an hour in her kitchen, with its marble-top pub table, walls and cabinets crisply painted in contrasting tones, and just few enough knick-knacks to stay on the better side of kitsch. Ever since then, I’ve known that Maria means it when she says “come by anytime,” it pays to be hungry when you go, there will always be doo-dads to play with, and her warmth and generosity are both deep and real.
When my partner died, Maria was one of the constant friends who kept me going. She let me vent my sorrow, though sometimes only because I was unwilling to let her stop me too soon. She would tell me “it is what it is,” or ask, rhetorically, “what’re you gonna do.” Then and still now, I point out the meaninglessness of such trite phrases, but her repeating them soothes me.
We are from different worlds. Her parents were born in Portugal, mine in New England. She grew up in the city where we both live. I grew up in Nebraska. One of her hobbies is shopping, especially for bargains. One of mine is avoiding brick and mortar stores at almost any cost. Her living room holds two books. I use words like “rhetorical.” She was shocked when I explained that many of my friends and I are accustomed to facing “the look” when we come out of a women’s room. “How could people be so stupid? You don’t look like a guy!” she said, indignantly.
Now, we coach a team together and we alsoplay, sometimes as teammates, others as friendly foes, her as an attacker, me on defense. One day, I thought I had her cornered with the ball, along the sideline.
“Yuck!” she exclaimed, shaking her hand as she dribbled away from me.
I dashed after her and, confused, asked “what?”
“Your arm. It’s all wet. What is that?” She turned with the ball, and passed to her teammate.
“It’s sweat. I sweat a lot.” I replied, only panting a little.
“Well, don’t get it on me!” she said with disgust, moving further away to get open for a pass back.
“How else am I supposed to stop you, girly girl?” I said, shadowing her and then intercepting the pass. “Chasing you with my sweaty arm: great idea! I like it!”
Sometimes there are still nights when I can’t get myself to go to bed.
“I hate being alone,” I tap.
In a few seconds, my phone “swishes” back, “Ur not alone. She’s always with u!”
“She’s not here. I’m alone. I hate it,” begins my multiple message rant.
“It is w
hat it is. ? Go to bed.
Hey, did Jovan email you back about” . . .
She starts texting about soccer business until finally I cave and climb into bed.
“Stop. You’re killing me. I have to sleep,” I write.? ?
“Kk. ❤️ ❤️ ?
Call me tmrw.”
I suppose that sometimes, the sincere optimist is right. It is what it is. You gotta do the best you can with what you have. Happily for me, that includes Maria.