Ben loved tennis, even at the young age of three. While in the hospital in the summer of 2008 we watched Wimbledon together as a family and after that he was hooked! He asked his grandfather for a racket and off he went. Ball after ball after ball, Penns and Wilsons – inside, outside, wherever – he practiced. Ben was insistent in his final month of life that he learn to serve overhand, “just like Roger Federer.” When he could no longer stand or maintain his balance, Jeff, Uncle Brian, Uncle Steve and Aunt Kristen played for him – virtual tennis on X-Box. Ben would sit on the couch, pick out what the players were going to wear, and what court they would play on. He involved himself in the video game as intensely as he did watching a real tennis tournament.
By Christmas of 2008 Ben was mostly in bed, not able or interested in coming downstairs anymore. Aunt Deborah thoughtfully gave him a copy of Wimbledon 2008 (Men’s Finals) on Christmas Day. Immediately after opening it he put it in his DVD player where it played on loop all day and night for four days – until his death on December 30th. He listened to the match over and over with his eyes closed. And if ever I thought he was sleeping and turned it off, he would quietly insist, “Mom, turn the Roger Federer movie back on.” Something about listening to tennis was a comfort to him.
I wonder now, looking back what Ben was really hearing. I wonder if he was hearing the cheers of that audience, watching an epic tennis match, or the cheers of those on the other side calling him home. Or both. Perhaps he was between both worlds for those few days. The only smile that crossed Ben’s face in his last conscious 72 hours was seeing Rafael Nadal hold up that trophy. I wonder (or hope) if in that moment he could see himself. Almost there. Almost done.
The US Open began yesterday. Last year Jeff and I had the privilege of attending for the first time – thanks to the generosity of some kind friends. It felt like a pilgrimage we needed to take. To see in live time and space the men and women who had inspired Ben’s love of tennis and the two men who had walked alongside us in his death, not even knowing so. As Mr. Federer came onto the court to the thunderous applause of the evening crowd we both sobbed. I’m sure the people next to us thought we were crazy. We looked to the purple sky and wondered if Ben could see us there rooting him on. It was an amazing and bittersweet experience.
It is impossible for us to separate tennis from Ben now. The last loves of his life are what we are left with and what we will remember. So as the tournament begins again this week I am missing Ben acutely and all his passions. I just want to sit with him on the couch and hear his commentary. To hear him say, “Dad, did you see him smack that tennis ball?” or “Come on Roger!” or “Yaaaaah Rafa!” And I rue the day when his favorite players will retire – for in watching them play, I feel comforted and closer to my son. But there will be a day soon when those guys and girls will no longer be on the tour. It will be another marking of time without him. Perhaps at that point I will just play the Wimbledon 2008 Final on loop myself. But in the meantime, I am thankful that this tournament has arrived again. And I look forward to the day when we can take Ryan with us to our first Wimbledon!
I miss you champ.