It didn’t get real bad, and my husband wouldn’t even talk about it, until our son’s senior year.
Another concussion, but we didn’t call it that because that word wasn’t allowed in our house. He got his bell rung, that’s what my husband would say. That’s just how Jerry is, ever since I met him.
And our son, Jerry Jr., or J. J., is like his father in that way. Jerry is just like his father was too. We always talk about how unfortunate it is J. J. never got to meet his grandpa. Well, he met him, but he was too young to remember. We didn’t take him to the funeral either. Not because he was too young, but because Jerry wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t even want me to go, on account of how shameful it all was. For him, for the family. What he did, Jerry said, it’s just not something a man would do.
I know it’s been hard on J. J. because he’s always done things and Jerry will say, your grandpa would love that. But any time J. J. asks about him, Jerry gets angry, or won’t want to talk about it. It’s confusing, even for me, even after all these years. It’s like we do talk about Jerry’s father, and what happened, all the time, but we never really talk about it. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.
The only time Jerry and me went more than a day without speaking was when I got fed up once and told him he was acting just like his father did. So I learned that’s something I can’t ever say to him.
I’ve always hated it when Jerry fights. I just don’t like seeing people get beat up, even if they’re asking for it. Like the most recent time, when that jerk stole our parking spot outside the grocery store. Even Jerry will say he hates violence, but that’s why God made men. No one wants to get hurt or killed even, he says. God made men so things can get settled, otherwise it’s all talking and crying, and that’s what women are for. He knows that part gets under my skin, but it’s what he always says. The world makes a mess and then men clean it up.
Anyways, I hate that he gets so worked up that he always has to have the last word. If he comes home with a bloody nose or swollen eye I never even ask what happened. He’ll just hold up his fist and say he started it, but we finished it. Like I said, I don’t like it, but it’s better than if he gets mad at J. J. or me.
Thank God for football. He always says that, too, and I agree. We met in high school when he was starting linebacker. He tells everyone he got varsity letters his sophomore year, but it was junior year because it was the same year I made varsity cheerleading. I sewed that #32 ribbon, and Mrs. Kowalski told me to take it off. You’re not Jerry’s personal cheering section, she said. So I wore it on the inside of my uniform, me and Jerry’s little secret.
It’s funny, Mrs. Kowalski seemed so old and crabby, but I bet she was younger than I am now. I know that’s probably the way all J. J.’s friends see me. They would never guess I was runner-up for Homecoming Queen.
But thank God for football, we say, because we may never have met. I would never have talked to such a pretty girl, Jerry says. But I don’t believe that: all my friends had crushes on him. The truth is, I might not have talked to him either, as he was so popular and all. And that’s why marriage is so special, the way you grow to love someone and see things you’d never notice when you’re only a teenager.
And thank God for football, because otherwise what would J. J. and his father talk about? I always say that to my friends, but I really wonder sometimes. Or if we’d had a daughter instead.
Like I said, J. J. is definitely a chip off the old man’s block. Even more so his grandfather’s grandson. They have the same kind of humor, never taking things too serious. Except football, of course. What are you going to talk about, my mother said, when I told her Jerry asked me to marry him. She never understood that it’s true, opposites really do attract. If it wasn’t for you, Jerry always says, the only sound in our house would be the TV, but not like he’s complaining.
Like right now, this kind of quiet. Everyone is quiet in a library because they’re supposed to be, but everyone is quiet in a hospital because they’re afraid. Afraid to say something bad or maybe hear something bad. Quiet because other people are also afraid, and nobody wants to bother anyone or make things worse than they already are.
I’m afraid to say anything to Jerry because I know he’s really upset. I’ve never seen him like this, like he might run off or even start crying at any second. We’ve been in the hospital on account of J. J. so many times. How many broken bones or stitches or minor sorts of surgeries? J. J. has spent more time with doctors than teachers, was Jerry’s big joke. That’s part of being a football mom, I always said. You never really think too much about it because it’s never anything that didn’t happen before.
But this time it’s different. I used to say I never worried about J. J. until he got old enough to drive. All the times he laid out on a football field I felt like I was part of it, even though I was only watching. It’s like when he was a baby, as long as he stayed in sight nothing too bad could ever happen. Once they start driving, you can’t be there unless you go everywhere with them. But J. J. never caused any real problems. He took his football too serious to ever do anything ignorant, like some of his buddies.
Pain is part of sports, I know. Not feeling pain runs in our family, Jerry says. I always say I can’t understand how you can teach someone to be tough without hurting them. He says I say that because I’m not a man.
But my son’s going to be okay. He had his seatbelt on. That shattered thumb might have ruined his football career, but everyone except Jerry knows his playing days are behind him. Usually he asks the doctors a bunch of questions and compares whatever J. J. is in for against what he’s had or seen himself. But when we got here tonight, he only said the same thing he said when we got the phone call: Tell me he’s going to be okay.
The doctor said his vital signs all checked out, and that’s all we needed to hear. But then the police officer said he needed to ask us some questions, and that got Jerry going again. Yes, we said, J.J. could drink too much sometimes. No, we weren’t sure about the drug use anymore, it was on and off. We had to admit that sometimes he didn’t make the best decisions, especially since he got cut from the team. Like any kid would do, especially someone who was like a famous athlete, at least in this town. It’s been hard on everyone since he had to move back home.
But this wasn’t the first time a doctor or police officer asked us some tough questions. We’ve just done the best we can, as a family. Maybe it’s time for that big halftime speech, Jerry said. But then he got quiet instead of angry when the officer asked that last thing, and it made me more scared than I already was.
Do you think there’s any reason our son would want to hurt himself, he said.
* * *
Football has been very good to our family. That’s what we all said when J. J. got his scholarship. Like his daddy, he played linebacker but also fullback. I go both ways, was his big joke. That’s something his father would never say. There’s certain things you don’t even kid about, he said. I know Jerry’s father would have thought it was funny. He was real quiet, too, but he sure could tell the best stories, and he’d laugh real loud even when he hadn’t been drinking.
We still don’t know why he did what he did. I don’t think Jerry and his mother have ever talked about it. My sister-in-law, the last time she visited, said the word we never say in this house. Too much wine with the turkey, maybe, but she asked Jerry how he never could put the pieces together. All those empty bottles, she said. All the altercations he got in, all irritable over nothing or else ignoring everyone for weeks at a time.
I do all that stuff, Jerry said, and you don’t see me making my wife a widow. We didn’t have depression in our day, he said. That’s a new thing, like not being allowed to spank your kids.
I thought that was a good one, but then Jerry’s sister said a bunch of other stuff, right in front of our son and everything. That was three years ago and we haven’t seen her since. It was J. J.’s freshman year at college, the year before he decided to take some time off. We never say failed out because failure’s a decision, Jerry says. We just need to figure out the next play, he said. One play can change a whole game, he told me. And J. J.’s life isn’t even in the second quarter yet.
But it seems sometimes like Jerry’s father is sleeping in our son’s room. I mean, at least with my husband, even when he’s not saying anything, I know what he’s thinking anyways. Don’t look at me with that tone of voice, is one of his favorite sayings, but all I need to do is watch his face and I can tell if he’s mad or happy or if he just needs to be left alone.
With J. J. I just can’t tell. When he was younger, he couldn’t keep anything from me, and I reckon that’s how most boys are with their moms. Even if the father gets to have the final word, sons also listen to their moms. When he started playing football, it was more about pleasing Jerry, and I understand how that is, just like it was for Jerry and his father. Winning a game, that was the only thing that could make him talk and shut up at the same time, Jerry says. It’s about the closest thing to him saying he loved his father.
Football was good for our family, like I said. All I ask is that you be the best player on the field, Jerry liked to joke. But it was funny because J. J. always was the best player, and it seemed like all his teams could never lose. Even we he got to high school, when they didn’t win, each week it seemed like J. J. broke another record or did something else to get in the paper or cause a recruiter to call. Those were the greatest days, for all of us.
Even the concussions didn’t seem so serious. We called those headaches when I was a kid, Jerry would say. When the team wouldn’t let him suit up for a game one time, on account of the new school policy, Jerry about lost his mind. It’s just as well your grandfather isn’t here, he said. He would have stood on the fifty-yard line cussing at everyone, and they’d have to carry him away by his boots. J. J., just like his father, smiling and shaking his head, never allowing anyone to see any weakness.
Pain is just fear leaving the body — that’s another one of Jerry’s favorites. I know he would repeat things like that, especially when he coached Little League, to keep the kids motivated. Even I’d admit a lot of parents want to pretend they can keep anything bad from ever happening. Life is also a game, but you don’t get to wear a helmet, Jerry says.
The thing of it is, all this happened with his helmet on. Some people say these things keep happening because of the helmets. They say boys are so big and athletic these days, it would be safer without helmets and pads. But even Jerry talks sometimes about his father, a quarterback, and how he’d complain about feeling dizzy after games. Or that there was never enough aspirin for the way his head would hurt, like a faucet he couldn’t turn off. When he’s drinking or around his friends, Jerry will say stuff like I got my bell rung so much I thought I was a church. Or how he and the other kids would throw up on the sidelines. Playing through the pain is what separates the big boys from the little bitches, he always says. That’s what the men in our family do, he says. If my father was here, you could ask him.
The doctors can confirm that J. J. had three official concussions during high school. Nobody is sure how many in college, even J. J. doesn’t know. Jerry says college made our son soft, and only losers need excuses. My husband blames it on the doctors who prescribe too many painkillers, which leads to other things. But Jerry knows he drinks too much himself, just like his father did. Take away sports and beer, what’s a man got left, he says.
* * *
Thank goodness for Sarah, J. J.’s girl. High school sweethearts, just like me and Jerry. I know J. J.’s been a lot to handle, so I’m grateful we have her. For all the coaches and so-called friends who showed their true colors, Sarah is family as far as I’m concerned. Maybe if she’d gone to the same college things could have worked out different. But she didn’t have any scholarships, so she’s taking some classes here at the community college. And she’s putting herself through school waitressing, just like I did before J. J. was born.
I know my son tells her things he won’t tell anyone else because she talks to me about it sometimes. She turned to me when they went through some tough spots, even before J. J. came back from college. And I know she’s not real close with her own mother. I explained to her things I wish maybe someone had told me, mostly relationship stuff. Like, they don’t mean anything by it if they get real quiet sometimes. Or scream at other cars on the highway, or get mad at the ballgame on TV. Men deal with their anger different, is all. I tell her, you think J. J.’s got a temper, you should see his father.
She’s also told me things I’d never know. Things Jerry would never want to know. I wonder what he would say if he knew J. J. was taking pills to help him with his memory. That they told him to talk to someone about it, like a professional. If I talk to a shrink my dad would die of shame, he told her. Sarah said sometimes when J. J. was in the car he forgot where he was driving, or in the grocery store he won’t remember what he’s shopping for. That this started all the way back in high school, and he lied about his symptoms in order to play those last games his senior year. Sarah told me he said it felt sometimes like his brain was being slow smoked, like barbecue.
I wish sometimes that we knew this stuff before he went to college. I wish he could have talked about these things, but then I wonder what it would have been like at the dinner table every night. It was bad enough when the school wouldn’t clear him to wrestle on account of his last concussion. Jerry said it was for the better because he didn’t need anything else to mess him up for college ball. I told J. J. to put that energy into his homework, but he said mom we both know I didn’t get that scholarship because of my smarts.
I know Sarah feels guilty she never said anything about the steroids. J. J. said all the players did stuff behind the coach’s back, and some of the assistants even knew about it. J. J. said in college they won’t let you practice if you’re hurt, so you have to work out on your own. You do whatever you can to get back on the field. You have to have an edge, is what Jerry always says.
I know Sarah’s parents don’t approve of her and J. J.’s relationship. Her mother never did, at least since graduation, and for sure after that time J. J. spent a night in jail. True, they were having one of their rough patches. But even Sarah would confess it was wrong to go on a date with the bartender at the restaurant she works at. He was one of J. J.’s good friends, or used to be, anyways. And no one’s saying it was right what happened, but J. J. paid the price for what he did. Another man’s woman, Jerry said. In our day, that would have got laughed out of court. Fortunately, Jerry used to coach with the boy’s father, and they worked it out so lawyers didn’t have to get involved.
They’re going to take away his driver’s license, at least for a while. The police officer said after the last time that if he messes up this bad again, no one’s going to be able to pull any strings for him. I’ll admit, it was hard those first months after college when he’d never leave the house. But now, after this, it’s better if he stays safe and we know where he’s at. Like he’s a toddler again, I just won’t let him out of my sight. It sounds like he may be in a wheelchair for a while, but we can handle that. Maybe Sarah can stay and help carry the load. Maybe this will bring them closer together. Maybe this will bring Jerry closer to all of us. Maybe all this is happening for reasons we don’t even understand.
As a parent, you’re supposed to do whatever you can to protect your child. I tell Jerry I would give anything to trade places with our son. Give me the headaches, the memory stuff, the depression or whatever you want to call it. I’d go to prison if I had to, or spend thirty days in that facility we can’t hardly afford. But I don’t tell Jerry how scared I really am. That maybe our son won’t ever get better. That he’ll end up getting drunk all the time like his grandfather did. Or that he’ll get in more fights or have another accident and mess up his brain even more. That maybe he’ll really hurt someone one time, like Sarah or me or Jerry. Or himself. That one day he might look at me and not know who I am.
* * *
They’re letting us see him now. Jerry told me and Sarah to go in together, that he’d let us go first and wait until later. Seeing two pretty ladies will cheer him up, Jerry said. But I don’t think he’s ready yet himself. I’m not sure Jerry is able to see his son like this.
Me, I can handle it, so long as he’s alive. If he’s alive I can take anything. I saw him when he came into the world, all wet and helpless. I saw him when they took his tonsils out, tough enough to eat ice cream that same day. I saw him in the emergency room after he split his chin open. I saw when they put his shoulder in a splint, using pins to hold it together. I saw what happened to his hand when he punched our sliding glass door the day he left college. I saw him the last time, when they took him away in handcuffs. The kind of thing no mother should ever have to watch. I saw him cry the other night when he told me he’d never feel like himself again.
I reckon I can handle anything, as long as he’s alive.
But I’m still afraid. It’s not on account of what I’ll see but what I might hear. I’m not worried about what the doctors will say, or even what I’ll say because I’ll say anything. I’m scared that my son is finally going to talk about things no one’s prepared to hear. Things men in our family have never been allowed to say.
*This story originally appeared in Porter House Review on 1/29/20.