30 July 2009

And Then There Were Three

Adriana Burkhart State Tournament Jennifer Barko Serving The QueensIn this photo: HOPE. Alive and well.

Approximately three weeks ago in our state, All-Star tournaments started.

120 teams suited up and took the field in the hopes of going to the state finals and fighting for the chance to be called "State Champs".

Three of those teams are left now.

I thought that I knew a lot about parenting. I thought that I knew a lot about life. I thought that for the most part, I wanted time to stand still so that I could have my children be children always, even though I knew this wasn't possible.

I thought that over this past six months, I'd cried myself out. I thought I had nothing left in me, no matter how happy or sad.

I've been wrong before, but never so wrong.

Today was one of the happiest days of my life, watching Big A's team win.

Pieces of my heart are scattered across softball fields everywhere, and the same remains true not with just my sisters, but with so many members of my family. It felt like with each play made, they were returning bits of myself to me.

They must win each time game that they play now in order to march on. During the game that they lost, I was furiously chatting on my Blackberry with my sister A, detail by detail, including counts on batters. It was down to our teams last at-bats and they were down by two.

I was standing alongside the fence, moving back and forth, trying not to cry when I read this message from A:

The boys have on their rally caps. And then an image, right to my heart, from 500 miles away, I could see them. Then the next message: And we have our shoes on the wrong feet.

Because they can't get cell service in their house, those three sat in her car in the driveway for the entire game and wept with me at the end when Big A's team fell into the loser's bracket.

During the game tonight, 500 miles away, A and her children and my niece again assumed their positions around her phone. It was an inning by inning battle; again I paced and typed. They would score, their opponents would score. This continued inning after inning.

Finally, the last inning arrived with Big A's team up by 2. "We need 3 outs", I typed.

With two runners on and two outs on the scoreboard, I didn't think I would be able to take one more breath, then finally, the final out. Our girls advanced again.

"WE WON!" I sent to the faithful fans assembled around a phone so very far away.

"You should have heard me and the kids praying together in the car", A typed.

"I did." I replied.

And I did.

Somehow, across all those miles and somehow, through all of the dust and dirt and tears, there they were, right next to me, staring down a dream--a dream that we've each dreamed for ourselves, and a dream that belongs to each of us now as this magic summer continues.

120 teams.

Three remain.

Go, Girls, Go!

17 July 2009

Dear Big A: A Letter From Your Adoring Mother

Dear Big A,

As you're gearing up for your big game tonight, there are a lot of things I'd like to tell you, but I don't think that I can say them without losing myself in a sea of tears, so I'm writing them instead.

I want to tell you to swing for the fence, each time, unless you are supposed to sacrifice for the good of your team.

I want to tell you that if you strike out, make eye contact with the pitcher, nod your head, and run back to the dugout.

I want to tell you that if you see a ball coming at you and you think, "No way", dive anyways. Sometimes you might miss it, but sometimes, you won't. It won't be the missed catches that haunt you, Big A, it will be the ones that you wonder about--wonder what would have happened if you'd tried.

If you're going to slide, kiddo, slide with gusto. No half slides, no "Should I or shouldn't I"? Run as hard and as fast as you can and plan on sliding with everything that is bundled inside of you.

If, at the end of the game, things go as you hope and pray and you and your teammates see the last out called and can raise up a banner that reads: "State Finals Bound", don't forget about the girls on the other team that are going home that night without that banner. Look each of them in the eye as you shake their hands.

Just go for it, Big A. Go for it all, with everything that you have within you. You have no idea what this moment is, how could you? You are, after all, still a child. I am telling you, as an adult, as an adult that stands inside your room at night and stares upon your sleeping face, unable to figure out where the tears are coming from and where this thing called life is going so fast, that even I am unable to comprehend things until the moment has passed, even after all of these years. Or maybe it is that I can comprehend too much; I don't know anymore.

When I picked up your uniform this morning before I left, I held it to my chest, like I held you once, and I wished things for you, things that I probably didn't need to wish; you don't need magic when you are magic, but you don't know that yet.

When it's all said and done, no matter how the dust settles, I will still be amazingly proud of you and what you've accomplished.

Now, go get them, kiddo.

The world awaits.

All my love,
Your Adoring Mother

Signs: On the Corner of Mt. Hope

I was walking to an appointment in 87 degree humid weather, in my heels and skirt, trying to figure out where I was going to come up with a gas can, more cash to put gas into it, and how I was going to do it in enough time to get Little A from daycare, 99 miles away.

My employer had let the gas card run out, again. I was encouraged to put in $10 increments of my own money until they found time to put the funds on the card. That proved especially difficult to do when my checks were consistently short with promises of "catching up" the next pay period and I had two Queens at home with a budget that, literally, was balanced to within $8.

I had gambled with fate; my GPS had told me I had .8 miles until my destination. The car quit running at .4 miles. I rolled into an abandoned parking lot (not hard to find where I was working) and proceeded to hoof it.

I took deep breaths to calm the storm brewing inside of me while I apologized for being late. It was his time--my clients--not mine. I was meeting with him to talk about his hopes, his ambitions, his triumphs and failures.

So many times I want to tell my clients, "I've been there, I completely understand, and that's why I'm here, helping you," but none more so than that day. I didn't, of course--it's often a mystery to employers and others what drives me to lengths that I go to in order to help the people that I work with, but I will never, so long as I live and breathe, forget what it was like to be at the absolute bottom, and how desperately I needed a helping hand. That recollection and that gratitude for second chances are some of the things that I am most grateful for in my life.

Our meeting ended and I looked at my watch. I made a call to ask one of my friends to get Little A and I put my clients file in my briefcase, looking out the window where storm clouds were moving in. I called my employer again, to which she suggested again that I add some of my own funds to the card while she "tried to correct the situation".

"I don't have any more funds," I whispered into the phone. "I don't have one.extra.dime." She sighed a sigh of someone who really didn't have time for this. I knew that her sigh meant that I was supposed to respond and tell her I'd figure it out, but instead, I just quietly shut my phone and stood up to head out into the rain, wondering how far Big A's $5 for lunch money that I had in my purse would get me.

I looked the man in the eyes that pulled up along side me and asked me if I needed a ride. His van was battered; his beard was scraggly; his cap was pulled down almost to the point where I couldn't see his eyes, but at that moment, he was what I had.

I sent a text. "Just got into a van with a stranger. The car is here" And I went to snap a photo of the road sign. And that's what the intersection was:
Corner of Mt. Hope Serving The Queens

The corner of Mt. Hope and Cedar.

And I felt something inside of me move again; stir; whisper, "Remember me"? And suddenly, in that one moment, I did.

I remembered me.

I turned and conversed with the man beside me. He drove me to the gas station where he paid for the gas that filled his can; then to the car, while he waited to make sure that it started. I felt shamed and then overwhelmed when I tried to hand him the $5 that I had left and he refused to take the money.

My employer called to tell me that there was money on the card again, with a reminder that I needed to "be more resourceful" about my billing so that we could bill more frequently. I heard this often, but this time, I didn't feel the usual frustration rising within me; I was too busy trying to adapt to the sudden feeling of not being weighed down by what I wasn't any longer.

I used my inability to sleep that night to replay the intersections of my life over and over. "It's not too late. It's not too late. It's not too late. The corner of Mt. Hope".

The next day, I turned my planner page to the current month. I tried to take a picture of what it said, but it turned out too dark, it said:

"Be unafraid of life's changing tides. Each new day gives us a chance to sail our ship."

I was standing outside over the weekend, Little A in my arms. I gasped when I looked up at the sky; the stars were so bright--there were millions of them. "What mommy?" Asked Little A. "The stars, baby. Mommy forgot they were there." "That's silly, mommy. You're silly." 

I realized I couldn't remember the last time that I looked up.

And finally, today, as I was driving to meet a client on a busy road, I saw an animal darting across the five lanes of traffic. I was in a panic; certain by the time I got there, it would be run over. I came closer, watching it weave its way through the gauntlet, and started to pull into the center lane, my hazards on, when I looked around me.

There was a truck stopped, a man lowered near the ground, his hand outstretched, crouching to eye level, beckoning the frightened creature to him, exactly as I'd have done. There was a semi stopped, his hazards flashing. The lane of traffic next to me had stopped as well, all of us, eyes upon this man, willing the dog to go to him.

As it slowly crept to him, we all smiled, some beeped their horns and waved. I got in my car and sobbed. But it wasn't the type of sobbing I'd been doing since I'd hit rock bottom, had Little A and my life had shifted into a shape that I didn't recognize. It was the type of crying that happens when you see an old friend; when somehow you are so overcome with the good, with all that might be right with the world--with hope-- that you just cannot contain yourself.

I came home that night and wrote out my intentions. My words jumbled themselves as I jotted down wisps of my awakening, my hopes, my plans, my beliefs about all the good that I could do and people that I could help, about the paths of my life finally making sense, and somehow, the valleys in my life were suddenly filled not with my constant thoughts of regret and loss and fear and what could have been, but rather with hope. And belief. And possibility. And for the first time in so very, very long, self worth.

And this is the day, today, when I'm no longer afraid of stepping out over the ledge that I've been balancing on...I'm certain that I can fly. 

And it can all be traced back to Mt. Hope. And for once, for absolutely once, I'm know that I went the right way.

08 July 2009

Bases and Fences

Sports is something that I rarely write about here, which is odd, since they taught me most of the lessons that I've learned kept in mind throughout my life. They were also a connection to the first public introduction of me as an author.

We had been asked in a writing class in college to write a paper about the greatest betrayal that we'd encountered. Two weeks later, in front of a class of 300 of my peers, the professor said that many of the papers were very good, but that there was one paper in particular that in all his years teaching, stood out, because it didn't deal with human betrayal as one would assume.

It was at that moment that my face began burning and I murmured to myself, "please, no". He picked up my paper and began to read aloud the words that I had written.

I had recounted the last basketball game that I played on my home court as a senior. We needed a three pointer to go into overtime. Our coach called time-out and said to in-bounds the ball to me; I would make my shot and we'd go on.

It went according to plan, and as I launched to ball into the air, it felt right. I began stepping backwards, out of habit, to head back down the court, not inwards to rebound a shot that I knew that wasn't going in. I dropped to my knees as the ball spun around the rim and ultimately fell out while the buzzer rang.

Still, after all those years, I dream about that shot. Not that it would have catapulted us to greatness, not that it meant anything more than a different end to a game that mattered not at all. But that I was so certain it was going in.

I had made that shot so many times throughout my life: in the gym and in our backyard, the beam of the large yard light stretching across our cement court, in my grandparents barn, the moon peeking through the slats in the barn walls. 

The one time that more than ever I wanted it to dance through the net with a quiet swish, it landed differently, and I had to get up off my knees and start something new after that. There were no time-outs or practices left. I had practiced for that moment, and I had failed. Life went on, and I needed to go shake the hand of my opponents and move on.

Last month, Big A had a ball tournament. It was hot that day, and I was sitting in the shade with some other moms there. Big A got up to bat and connected, hard, with the ball. I clapped as it landed in the outfield across from where I was sitting by third base.

She began running around the bases, and as I saw her looking at her coach on her way to third base, I expected her to slow down and hold up; I expected her coach to tell her to stop, to do the safe thing.

He didn't. "Go for it, kid!" he exclaimed, and Big A, her eyes wide, began to round third base.

I jumped up from my chair and ran to the fence so that I could run alongside her. I forgot about my arm and that I wasn't supposed to move quickly, and about the people watching, but I didn't forget about the fence between us--it was at that point in time merely a physical reminder of my limits.

I saw the throw coming in from the second baseman and thought, "She won't make it." There was nothing that I could do, but watch her inevitable fall. She fell with gusto. She slid and banged herself up and was tossed out at the plate. She arose with tears in her eyes, clutching her elbow and when she got back to the dugout I told her, "There's no crying in baseball. You were awesome." It was her pride injured, mostly, I think, not her arm.

Later on that night, I thought about that fence; about that moment. About what it meant to be a mother and the other fences that I will surely encounter along the way. I thought about what kind of mother I ultimately wanted to be.

Did I want to be the mother that stopped her child, congratulated her on a triple and tapped her on the helmet as she shook off her ball pants, or would I be the mother that, arms waving, shouted, "Go for it kid!" and turned to watch either a moment of greatness or a moment of temporary great defeat?

And in my heart, I knew the answer. And for the first time, I was grateful for fences.

And I reminded myself that I must heal my arm.

You cannot properly wave your child home if both of them aren't working.

Run, Big A, Run.

07 July 2009

And The Band Played On

Sometimes, it seems to me that the smallest things; those that would appear insignificant; those that would give most people not even the slightest pause; those are the things that bring tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart.

I was heading into town tonight after work to go to the pharmacy; I'd been up since 2:00 this morning--awake all night while I replayed scenarios through my head; meaningless, of course, because the path has already been taken and I'm starting to realize that at some point, you just cannot turn back.

I pulled out of our driveway and started down our road when I saw a group of teens walking down the opposing lane, spreading fully across it. I slowed down as I neared them; I was so curious about what they were doing--there were six of them in total, three boys and three girls, I'm guessing between the ages of 15 and 16.

One of the boys carried a guitar, a girl carried a saxophone, another boy carried a pink helium balloon that read, "Get Well Soon". Since I was alone in the car, I didn't even need to try to mask my sobs.

My hope is that no matter what and no matter where, the recipient of those gifts will always, always carry with her the memory of opening her door and finding them there. My hope is that she will always have in her heart the music that they played. My hope is that no matter the roads that she wanders, she will know that she is never alone and that she was loved, greatly, and that this knowledge will carry her through even the darkest days.

And if I were going to write of things that I can't at this moment, I would say that after I passed them on my way back home and they waved to me, and my eyes connected with one of the girls that was walking, I would tell you that I walked in the door, checked my caller I.D. and email, pulled out my planner, took out an email that is ragged and has been softened from it's repeated removal and replacement in the place where I stored it, read it one last time with uncontrolled tears streaming from my eyes, folded it back in half and put it through my shredder.

And the band played on.

05 July 2009


Four Serving The Queens Jenn Barko Abrielle Barko


Tonight you'll fall asleep a three-year old, and awaken to the morning sun a four-year old. Still my baby, you know. Always you will be.

Looking back, Little A, I cannot believe the road that we've come. That you've come; from a complete surprise to the complete world of so many. To think that once, I held your tiny little life in my hands, and now you hold mine within yours. Funny how the world works, isn't it?

You are the sun in so many skies, the smile on so many faces, the laughter in so many hearts. To know you, truly, is to love you.

Once upon a time, Little A, I was terrified at the thought of you; having not a clue how I'd manage you, take care of you, be a good mother to you. Once upon a time, I couldn't understand why.

Today, Little A, the "why" that I do not understand is how I have been so blessed. How I was chosen to have you; how you are such an amazing gift. I thank the heavens and stars above for you so many times a day, little one. So many times.

And now here I am, on the eve of four, wondering how it is that just yesterday I found that I carried you within me.

I will always carry you within me, Little A.

Four. And four hundred times over.

Happy Birthday, Love.

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