A new game

Last night, I watched a hockey game on TV.

This may not, at first, seem like the most earth-shattering news. But it does symbolize the shifting of a few personal tectonic plates.

I grew up in Inman, South Carolina, and I can promise you my brother and I didn't race to get the Sunday dinner dishes done to watch NHL Today. I was dimly aware of the sport, played by foreigners wearing shorts in places where it was really cold, and as I got older and went into sports journalism, I developed a passing acquaintance with team nicknames and successes as I put together NHL roundups and briefs and such.

Hockey still didn't register on my radar. It would crop up in the conversation from time to time, usually after the not-first beer had been cracked and the barbecue consumed, with my friends and I postulating that more teams should employ the "fat goalie" theory - that is, stick the widest person you could get on skates in front of the goal, and thereby clog any space through which an intrepid puck might pass. "Find the five-hole now," the gargantuan goalie might sneer - though of course I didn't know the term "five-hole" then.

Years pass, change comes, and people find themselves in once-unimaginable situations. Like me last Friday, texting with my husband, who had taken our child to a Florida Panthers game while I was off freelancing. The conversation that ensued once I got home and turned on the game would have been indecipherable to me not that long ago. "Should be a penalty shot!" I wrote, followed by, minutes later, "PP sucks."

I'm sorry to say that the Panthers' power play - the man advantage when your opponent has a player cooling his razor-sharp heels in the penalty box - does indeed suck this year, as do the Panthers, just a season removed from an exciting playoff run. That really doesn't matter, however. And I'll tell you why. It only involves a small trip around my elbow to get to my - er, point.

Two weeks after our wedding, on May 14, 2011, my husband took a fabulous job in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. We were living in Newport News, Va., where we'd met and gotten married among the azaleas and sculptures of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, a place where I'd been introduced to beautiful art and even more beautiful friends. So commenced a one-year long-distance relationship. (I was depressingly familiar with LDRs, but I had never really pictured having one with my husband.) The challenges of that are a discussion for another blog, but the relevant information is that during our Christmas visit that year, my husband, my stepdaughter and I went to a hockey game. 

The $6 soda remains a jarring memory, but it is not the overriding one. That would be my then-12-year-old's face as she watched the players skate at dizzying speeds, crashing into each other or the boards - or crashing each other into the boards - while chasing a puck so difficult to make out on television that a station-that-shall-not-be-named once resorted to attaching a little flaming tail to it. Hockey in person is a totally different animal. It's the pleasant feeling of your toes slowly going slightly numb, even though it's 77 degrees outside. It's the excited buzz, perhaps more resonant in the cold, that percolates among even the most modest crowds. It's Stanley C., the six-foot-tall cat mascot who sidled over and took a picture of us with my cell phone. It's the Blue Moon stand and the evil enclave called "It's Sugar!" and filled with a luscious array of point-proving product.

It's my husband's blue eyes, following the puck. It's the amusing commentary of well-lubricated fans behind us, a fair amount of it sprinkled with a Canadian flavor, as the Maple Leafs are in town. It's the swim-against-the-stream streak I so adore and admire in my stepdaughter, deep into a Michael J. Fox obsession fueled by Netflix (Back to the Future, Family Ties), as she decides to root for said Maple Leafs in solidarity with the diminutive actor and his native Great White North. It's the ebbing of the stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling that hovers around the back of my brain, replaced with a contentment that feels like family.

It's odd, life. It uproots you and gives you a good shake just when you thought you had it relatively figured out. It lets you know that, closing in on 40, you're going to have somehow reinvent yourself because a job you didn't have the sense to love is dead and not coming back. It says insidiously hurtful things to you as you sit in middle-school car line at 3 p.m., watching women with perfectly highlighted hair share the steering wheel of their gleaming black SUVs with multicolored tufts of four-legged fur. It mocks you from the box of clips - actual folded, ink-smeared newspaper pages - on the top shelf of your closet. It kicks, and sometimes you dodge.

It's odd, life. It gives you things you didn't even know to ask for. It makes your heart so full with a happiness you're afraid to believe can really be yours that you can't breathe. It entrusts you with responsibilities you never envisioned but now view with equal parts gratitude and terror. It demands that you pay attention, that you fight the destructive demon of complacency, that you define and declare who you are - yes, again. It gives, and sometimes you deserve. 

I never expected to be 39 and just barely employed. I never expected to be hundreds of miles from family and friends, sometimes craving adult conversation and a glass of wine in the fading evening light like oxygen. I never expected to be going to bed at 10 p.m. and not back in it at 8:30 a.m.

I never expected a good, decent man to love me, and to promise to love me forever. I never expected a fearsome, wonderful teenager (!) to say things to me so full of simple sweetness it makes my well-worn way with words seize up and utterly abandon me.  

I never expected to love hockey.

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