On the field, a tangle of feet, tennis shoes slick with wet, flat grass, green-smeared on Converse white. Some of the kids sprint, others twist and skitter, like wind-blown seeds. It’s a game, a favorite: the prey try to make it across the field to grab up a bit of foam “food” in their fists, one of those pool noodles sliced into manageable pieces. Then they race back, dodging the predators who lurk in the center of the muck, prowling around safe-zone “bushes,” just some awkward bent hoola hoops tossed down on the ground. The object is for the prey to stock the pantry back at home base before they get eaten up themselves. I wander over to the sidelines beside my friend, thinking I feel about like those kids trying their best just to survive a mad dash through the grass. Most of us feel more like prey than predators. The hankies the kids have stuffed in their pockets look like wadded white flags, crammed and dangling, and I feel one mock effort away from a surrender, week-bruised and looking for a hideaway. One of my parent friends got recruited to play, and he walks up to me now, wearing a too-small reflector vest that labels him predator. He dumps about six “lives,” those flags he’s pulled off of the hips of grinning kids, right into my arms and then runs back out into the middle of the field. I want to sit down, but the grass is too wet.
My kids have a bright friend who can’t speak very clearly and who, except among these extraordinary people, is often underestimated. He stands in the middle of the field now, tall and vibrant-eyed, with one foot planted inside a “bush,” his arms resolutely crossed. He watches the other kids fly by, making no move himself to continue. The expression on his face says no thanks, I’ll starve. He eyes about three predators and waves his hand. Move along now. I’m not coming out, and you can’t get me while I’m hiding. Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do about now, hide forever so no one can get me.
“Uh-oh, sorry,” I hear Adam say, his voice throbbing deep from the other side of the field. He only just picked up some “food,” paused to brush off the grass that dirtied the edge, when a snickering predator grabbed his flag. In the middle, Riley, the most conspicuous and unintuitive predator alive, chases her prey in circles, laughing too hard to breathe.
But at home base, another fearful friend hangs back. Anxiety freezes her “hungry” in the safe zone, where she watches the field warily. Seeing our friend, I’m reminded of something I said to Zoe recently about running, something I learned by practice over many slow miles: Fighting the idea that you can’t is often much harder than the physical effort itself. I know this child hiding at home; there’s little chance she’ll play the game. Except. Except for the flash of dayglow red invading her base, and that dad friend of mine gets down on his knees, back bent in front of her, asking her to let him carry her across. Before I can even think how to help, he’s scooped her up and dashing, predator now becoming prey himself. Her feet swing, dangling dusty shoestrings at his waist, and her dark hair flies, and she laughs wild, the best sound all day, as they mad-twist and crooked-lunge their way across that field. He kneels down on the other side so she can climb down safe and pick up her “food,” and then they take off together again, dodging past reaching hands. He is her legs, her eyes, her confidence, and she’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her.
“Oh. I love that,” I comment quietly.
“I know,” my friend says, watching beside me. “He loves her.”
Yes, he does, I can see, but my friend would know, because that dad friend of mine is her dad, and she his full-grown daughter.
All the way across the field and back and back again, and not a single competitive child complains or charges him a cheat, and I find myself laughing out loud, smiling with my friend over her tender-hearted dad, because this love that carries is a love I know myself. I am that girl afraid to run, afraid to try, ready to give up on the whole crazy thing. But every time I want to hide away, I feel God’s back bobbing against my cheek, and I remember that although I can’t, He can. He’s my legs, my eyes, and all my confidence, and that’s what makes the whole mad dash an adventure. So, he runs and twists, and my dark hair flies, and I laugh wild at the days to come.