Claire, daughter of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale, walks with umbrella

Just Like You

Claire made the volleyball team last month. To be quite honest, Chris and I were pretty surprised. Yes, she’s a decent athlete, but she’s never played volleyball before and there were many kids who tried out. On top of all this, her Spanish is pretty limited, and the coach doesn’t speak English. We don’t really know why she was picked, but she was elated. “I get to go to Cartagena!” she shouted, as she announced her team placement.

Yep, this is what it meant that she made the team. At the end of the season, we would be sending her across Colombia. Without us.

But that wasn’t the hard part, at least not for Claire. Figuring out how to actually be on the team was a much bigger challenge. We had many mixups when she didn’t understand what she was supposed to bring to practice, or when various things were happening, and ultimately Chris had to coordinate almost everything with the coach directly. Still, it was worth it. I had no idea what occurred during her practices, but for the first time since we arrived, she was coming home every day smiling.

A few weeks ago, I got to actually observe one of her practices. I was picking her up and came a bit early and sat on the sidelines. For a long while, she didn’t see me, and I watched her interact with her team. It was amazing. They played without any breaks, one ball after another, kids yelling at each other and the coach bringing them together every few minutes to discuss strategy. Again, this was all in Spanish, a language Claire has only just begun to learn. Somehow, she seemed to get it. She didn’t appear to lose any steam, and she bounced around at the start of each play. At one point, I saw her high five another kid.

At the end of the practice, I walked up and introduced myself to the coach. I tried to communicate (as best I could) how much volleyball had meant to Claire and how important it was that she was finding such a home in the team. I wanted to tell her how much being on the team had changed Claire’s whole perspective about being in Colombia, but I’m not sure she understood me. Still, she held my hand at the end and smiled at me and I figured that she got the gist.

When we left the gym, I asked Claire how she understood what was happening during practice. “Well, I sometimes ask a friend to translate,” she said, “and sometimes I follow their hand signals and do what everyone else is doing. Sometimes I don’t understand and I just keep moving. And you know, mom, sometimes I even actually understand what the coach says!” She shrugged and I hugged her. “You’re so amazing!” I said, with tears in my eyes, and Claire pulled away. “Mom….” she said, embarrassed at my emotional state. 13-year-olds have a way of bringing you back to earth, I suppose.

That night, Chris messaged the coach to ask about a few logistics. The coach told him that Claire was doing great, working really hard and seemingly understanding most of what she needed in order to play with the team. She also told him that I had met her.

“Claire is full of energy and a hard worker,” the coach said in her message, and then she continued discussing Claire’s progress. At the end, she added, “It was also great to meet your wife. I can see how much Claire is just like both of you. She’s the perfect combination of you and your wife!”

Chris and I chuckled because we’ve been hearing this for the past few years. People see our family and think he’s the biological dad and say things to our kids like, “wow, you look just like both your parents!” It happens in the street and at back-to-school nights and in a million other places. People assume we all share DNA, and are trying to be kind with their words. We don’t get worked up about it.

That night, I kept thinking about what I’d seen on that volleyball court. Claire missed some of the shots. She couldn’t have understood everything the coach said. She had messed up what she was supposed to bring to practice that day. She was corrected at least a few times by her teammates. She wasn’t the worst player, but she wasn’t the best player.

But she bounced around on that court even after three and a half hours of practice. She went to the front of the huddle to be close and try and understand what was being said. She kept messing up…but she didn’t quit.

It’s a skill she built early on in her life. One I wish she hadn’t had to learn so early, but one that seems to have stuck. When things are hard – even really, really hard – she knows to keep moving.

It made me think. Maybe the coach wasn’t talking about how Claire looks like both Chris and me on that phone call. Maybe she was talking about something I hope is apparent in our family life here: yes, we have all clearly struggled over the past few months, but we haven’t given up. Chris keeps communicating with the coach, and I keep trying to figure out what’s going on with Claire, and our whole family keeps going to school and work and practice and classes and doing the best that we can, even when it’s very sub-par. We feel like we aren’t doing anything right most days, but we are still here, doing each day the best we can.

Right now, I like to imagine that what the coach sees in Claire is not just her beautiful eyes, because those come from Shawn. I hope that she also sees what our family values: the promise that even when things aren’t great, you just have to keep trying.

Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.