UNDER THE LIGHT
“Just do your double leg, like you practiced.”
His mouth is closed, nostrils flaring with adrenaline chest heaving. He doesn’t argue. He makes eye contact. He nods. 70-pound Kaden steps out onto the mat and wrestles as if he’s been listening all along. He hits a fireman’s carry—a takedown we showed one time in practice, just for fun, never imagining a kid would hit it in a match. His form is nearly perfect. My hand slips across my face to cover a smile. The ref blows the whistle and Kaden looks at me so I can tell him what to do. He cares what I think.
This is the last time he wrestles for me.
His apology note is freshly crumpled in my pocket. Sorry he pretended not to care. Sorry he disrespected his coaches. Sorry he hasn’t ever tried. It doesn’t say he has cancer. He doesn’t know it yet.
* * *
Kaden and I would sit on the curb sometimes after practice, waiting for his mom to pick him up an hour after everyone else. “You can just go,” he says. I can’t. I’m legally bound to be here until he leaves.
His mom is a flight attendant. He used to live in Mississippi. He spells it for me. He used to get expelled all the time because he would run away from classes and teachers and dance around the adults trying to catch him in the hallways. He has ADD. Or ADHD. Because he runs, he’s in a class for behaviorally challenged kids. Being in the class makes him worse.
He resists directions of any kind.
* * *
“Well hey, I got 50 bucks out of this, so I’d say it’s been a good day.” Andrew cracks a smile and winks.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation is granting Kaden’s wish. As his brother, that comes with some perks for Andrew, too. His wrestling shoes dangle from his backpack. He’s skipping practice to be here. So am I. I hand a couple of Kaden’s teammates signs I scribbled: Sign my face. Kaden is THE MAN. Ain’t nobody as fly as Kaden.
“What if Kaden actually wants to sign my face?”
You let him.
Strangers ask me who I am and why I’m here. I tell them. “Oh, you actually know him?” They’re from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Or some college class. A community college professor offered extra credit for her students to come. They pretend to care. But it doesn’t matter if they do because they are part of making this wish come true. Someone from Make-A-Wish finds a red carpet and rolls it out in the lane they roped off for him.
Kaden is beaming. Open mouthed, every-tooth-showing beaming. We stand, whooping and yelling his name like the adoring fans he has always wanted. A wave of little kids rush him with fliers and he is covered by pictures of his own face. He signs every single flier before he sees our sign asking for a sharpie facial.
We can’t whoop forever.
* * *
“My first match is against the guy who took third at Nationals last year,” Andrew shakes his head and smiles. “I can’t wait to test myself.” He’s only been wrestling for two years, and he’s already good enough to go to state. Every wrestler dreams the cliché of being a State Champion wrestler. The uniqueness of their lives only fits within the context of the podium. Andrew is not a cliché. He’s won a sanctioned amateur Mixed Martial Arts fight against a grown man. Andrew doesn’t dream of podiums. When his eyes close he sees Kaden on display under the light, not on a table, but wrestling varsity beside him.
The first tumor was the size of a grapefruit.
* * *
A week after the Make-A-Wish day, Kaden comes to practice. The first time I’ve seen him since the smile. He’s not wearing it anymore. Andrew comes in to help us with our practice. He works with Kaden, shows him high school moves. He tells Kaden to work hard, that it will only be harder next year. During warm ups Kaden’s shirt comes up and I see the scar.
He sits by me after practice and we talk like we used to. He’s been playing his new game—Far Cry 3—on his new Playstation 3, with his new 52” plasma TV. Make-A-Wish bought it all. That’s why he hasn’t been here and that’s why he’s out of shape. I say I bet he’s been eating healthy too. His doctor told him he needs fatty foods to keep his weight up, so he feasts on candy and short-term energy.
He asks how many more practices he needs to be eligible to wrestle in a meet. It’s too many, but I tell him it’s just a few more than he has. He counts the practices and the meets and there aren’t enough left.
“I would only have like two matches.” It’s all we can give him.
“Well, are you going to wrestle next year?” It’s the closest I can bring myself to ask the question hanging in my throat.
He doesn’t want to come back to practice, and he doesn’t.
* * *
One day in the hall at school he finds me to tell me they got it. It’s gone.
We sit on the curb in silence sometimes, waiting.
It comes back.
* * *
“You guys want some kinda inspirational speech or something?” The head coach pushes his tongue out a little as he smiles at his joke. The kids are extra nervous—it’s the first meet of the season.
They stand awkwardly close to us, like they can’t breathe the air outside our personal space. We’ve been showing them how to wrestle for weeks, but now they need to know how to be inspired. “Yeah!” Seventeen voices echo each other. There should be eighteen.
The lines in his face straighten and he glances at me as though we both know something they don’t. But I have no idea what he’s thinking, how he will motivate them. He feigns gravitas and lowers his hands out of respect.
“We weren’t planning on telling everyone this, but Coach Nelson has –”
I know it’s there before he says it. Looming on the tip of his tongue. “Coach Nelson has” hangs in the air just long enough for me to see it’s coming. I want to cover his mouth knee him in the stomach step on his foot but I can’t stop it: “—cancer. So you all have to win for him tonight. We don’t know if he’s going to make it.”
Someone has cancer and it’s not me.
Thank God Kaden quit.
* * *
Kaden steps onto the bus with the team. The only kid not wearing warm-ups.
“Hey,” he says. He’s wearing his apology face again.
I smile. “What’s up?”
“I’m going to wrestle next year. I think I’m going to do freestyle, too.”
“Are you coaching freestyle?”
“I never wrestled freestyle,” I shrug. “I wouldn’t be a very good coach.”
“Oh, well, I just thought I’d let you know.” He sticks his fist out. I bump it. He gets off the bus.
Sometimes when I blink I see him under the light.
* * *
“He’s faking,” the athletic trainer rolls his eyes. “He wants a break like everybody else.” It’s Black Flag Day—the hardest practice of the year. Kaden, now a senior, sits against the wall, crying and clutching his stomach where the scars are. His teammates run, jump, sprint, bear crawl, and carry each other around the gym, longing to be where he is, resting against the wall, even if only for a moment.
Everyone hits their breaking point on Black Flag Day. To go so far beyond what your mind thinks you’re capable of, to break and remake your body. To see yourself in light of what you’ve overcome.
But some bodies have been broken and remade too many times.
“What’s going on?” I plop down on the gym floor beside Kaden, like I used to years ago. I’m not his coach anymore. Just a volunteer. A friend.
He tells me it hurts. The cancer is gone but the damage is still there.
“Do you know what seven surgeries does to you?” he chokes through tears. I don’t. It was in his liver. Was it there every time? Seven liver surgeries? I can’t fathom what it’s done to him.
This is the first high school season Kaden has been able to wrestle. It’s come back every year just in time to rob him of this sport. And even now, after it’s gone, it’s robbing him still. If he gives up on Black Flag Day, he’ll be done.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to call my mom and go home.”
I hand him my phone and go tell his coach.
Kaden’s mom is at work and Andrew can’t give him a ride, so next thing I know I’m driving him home.
“I was supposed to have my scan before the season started,” he says to the window. “But I postponed it so I could wrestle.”
He thinks it’s back. He doesn’t know if the pain is from being cut open seven times or if it means they have to do it again. Neither do I.
He’s risking his life to be on this team and they all think he’s a quitter. That he’s not tough enough.
I return to the gym.
The kids sit in pools of sweat and silence after practice, some of them steaming. Every single kid slumps against the wall, having finally earned their rest.
Then I hear it.
“He doesn’t even have cancer anymore.”
He’s just a kid, but I imagine myself lifting him up against the locker by his neck slamming him against the metal, spew words that will cripple him more than any broken bone, words that will fester inside him and grow back again and again and again and again and again and again and again to steal his greatest joys, his childhood, his still-malleable sense of self.
But I walk back to my car and drive away.
* * *
Senior night. Every senior gets a varsity match, even Kaden. To most fans, it’s hardly eventful. Just another match. They don’t know what hides beneath his blue and gold singlet.
How it pinned him down seven times, and seven times he rose from the table victorious.
How close he was to never getting off his back.
Andrew never wrestled in a varsity meet with Kaden. But now he sits watching his brother under the light, where Kaden once sat watching him.