Let’s Play this Mother’s Day

by Nikki Mark

Today would be my eldest son Tommy’s 18th birthday. While I will undoubtedly shed some tears this Mother’s Day, I will also be doing something far more exciting that I hope every mother who reads this article will be doing in her own way… I will be PLAYING.

You see, during Tommy’s 12 years of life, he had mastered something that, prior to his unexpected departure, I hadn’t fully appreciated. It was on the day he left that I realized that he had possessed an innate spirit of play that fulfilled his short life and brightened our world. Ever since, I have been dedicated to sharing this spirit for the benefit of others and learning to embrace it myself.

Dr. Stuart Brown, in his national bestseller, Play, says that “Play is called recreation because it makes us new again, it re-creates us and our world.”

I can vouch for that. Play has been one of the most effective medications given to me on this healing journey of mine, and I remember the day it started working.

It was three weeks after Tommy’s passing when my husband and I decided it was time for my younger son to return to soccer practice. He didn’t want to go. Neither did I. But he loved soccer and had committed to a new team he had worked hard to make. Although our grief was paralyzing, we had to find a way to keep moving forward, if not for ourselves, then for Tommy.

Playing soccer was my younger son’s way. The joy I got from watching him play was mine.

So, together in silence, we drove to practice. After I dropped him off at the entrance of a high school in East Los Angeles where his team trained, I parked and took a few minutes to gather myself. With my head saturated with grief, I wasn’t sure how I was going to walk across that massive stadium field, sit in the stands with the other parents whose lives were still intact, and not fall apart.

But I told myself that if my younger son could get out there and play, the least I could do was get out there and watch.

As Dr. Brown likes to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough go play.”

So, I stepped out of my car and willed myself toward the field. With my shoulders slumped and eyes focused down, my sneakers hit the grass, and I embarked on the longest walk of shame of my life.

I was the mother who lost her child and felt like everyone knew it.

As pity overwhelmed me, I heard a man’s voice shout: “Keep your head up!”

That man’s loud, jarring voice could have been aimed at any of the young soccer players on the field that day who hadn’t yet learned how to dribble the ball with their heads up and eyes alert. But the way his tone pierced my ears, I knew it was directed at me.

I immediately raised my chin, pushed my shoulders back, and locked eyes with the venerable Soccer Club Director, Paul, who was walking toward me in a smart black tracksuit, looking like a military commander ready to deconstruct my positioning on the field.

As I began to sway, he reached out his arms, gave me a hug, and then sent me off to the bleachers without another word.

You will learn how to move your feet and keep your head up at the same time, his four words shouted at me. And training starts now, his hug added.

When I reached the stands where other parents were scattered, I took a seat at the very back and watched my young son run, kick, and engage with his teammates.

For seconds at a time, each in our own way, we stepped outside our tragedy and got lost in the healing powers of play.

“Play is a state of mind,” Brown says. It’s a “voluntary” action that “makes you feel good” and is also “a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time.”

Research shows, and my experience confirms, that it’s also essential to our survival.

“When we play, the brain keeps developing, adapting, learning about the world, and finding new ways to enjoy it,” Brown concludes. “When we stop playing, we start dying.”

Given that I was committed to living, my family had to keep playing.

It doesn’t matter if we are invigorated by creating, storytelling, competing, directing, exploring, joking, or simply dancing and shaking for the fun of it. We all have different play personalities, Brown says, and will live much more fulfilling lives if we indulge them.

And so, on this Mother’s Day from 9:30-4:00 PM, I will be standing on Tommy’s Field at Westwood Recreation Center in Los Angeles watching 240 children from across this city PLAY. With a scoop of ice cream in my hands and music pumping through the air, my version of work will transform into recreation and play as my family’s TM23 Foundation hosts a youth soccer tournament to serve our community and lift our city with the spirit of play.

And as I watch my younger son on the field in front of me and honor my older son’s spirit in the field around me, my healing journey will continue, inside and out.

P.S. If you’d like to participate in the spirit of play this Mother’s Day and don’t have plans, stop by Tommy’s Field and say hi for as little or long as you would like, or consider CLICKING HERE to make a small donation to be put toward refurbishing Tommy’s Field in perpetuity.

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