My Son's Greatest Struggles Became His Sweetest Successes

JackMy husband Tim told me our local Little League would like to name a sportsmanship award for our son Jack, who died in a freak accident in 2011 at just 12 years old. Right after I spit out my tea in surprise, I paused to think about whether this would be an appropriate way to honor our son. You see, sportsmanship did not come naturally for Jack.

But really, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute.


A lot of things came very easily for Jack -- talking at a ridiculously young age, reading, math, Latin, logic, art, acting, and earning stellar grades.

But when Jack was young, we wondered if he would EVER be able to play a team sport. Sure, he had intense, laser-like focus, but the happy-go-lucky camaraderie of being on a team? Not in evidence. You could see this at his Cub Scout meetings where he would sit quietly while the other boys, who knew each other from school, would be squirming and giving each other wedgies. I blamed some of this on Tim, also an introverted, “mild mannered reporter” who hasn’t so much as once (voluntarily) farted in front of me in the past 20 years! I mean, if a dad doesn’t teach a son about lugees and farts, how is he ever supposed to fit in as a guys’ guy? “You and Margaret are good at being around people,” Jack would say. “Dad and I don’t really know what to do.”

And there were other issues.

You know the kid who might have fun at a party or might leave wailing at the injustice of it all? Well I do. He lived in our house for a time.

Or the one who walked around by himself for a few years during recess because he didn’t know how to integrate himself into games?

The one who cried easily and bitterly when things weren’t "just so"?

Uh huh.

But around second grade, after I had decided Jack would be relegated to staying home doing origami with me, his love of baseball took off, fueled by sharing an obsession with his dad. Jack did very well in baseball and was blessed to have warm, compassionate coaches he admired -- the coarse, tough as nails types didn’t appeal to him at all.

But who can EVER forget that four-month period (unfortunately spanning part of both a basketball and a baseball season) when Jack would go crazy about close losses? I told you my little guy was quirky, right?

Close wins, great.

Big losses, fine.

Close losses?

Oh dear.

My laid-back friend and mother of four said, as she watched Jack freak the freak out after one close loss, “Don’t worry, gifted kids are just more sensitive, Anna.” Jack’s little sister Margaret put it a little more bluntly, “Mom, I feel kind of sorry for him and kind of embarrassed for us.” Amen, sister. A sportsmanship award seemed as likely as being given a free trip to Fiji.

But here’s the thing: Jack grew and changed. Birthday parties became a pleasure. Recess found Jack not only playing games, but commentating on them like a sportscaster, using crazy nicknames he made up for all his classmates, who loved and accepted him. He was a leader and inventor of neighborhood games, which they still play today. Jack became more flexible and more forgiving of himself and others. All of this seemed like an impossibility to us in earlier years.

My point is, while it may seem ironic to name a sportsmanship award after someone who didn’t always exhibit it, the fact that Jack’s sportsmanship was so hard fought makes it all the more precious.

Jack’s final season of baseball illustrated this.

Here’s what he faced in a more competitive environment than ever before: Reduced playing time. An adjustment to a different sized field. A slew of kids who were bigger, stronger, faster, more talented, and in many cases YOUNGER than he was. Practices every day, when often Jack would rather be home playing with friends or practicing for the school play.

The protective mom in me wanted him to play down a level, to take the easy way out.

No way. Jack was so stinking excited, and he chose the harder path.

And then, he found himself struggling to hit and to make plays in the field, things that had come fairly easily before. But his shoulders didn’t sag, game after game. He did not complain about going to practice every day, as he might have in years past. He never railed against the injustice of it all -- why could Joe and Devin hit home runs, when Jack couldn’t even connect with the ball anymore? He calmly talked about his progress, or lack thereof, during our bedtime chats, and I silently prayed that his season would turn around. Didn’t happen. But he didn’t let it ruin his attitude, his season, or his love of the game.

I know I’m not writing about anything extraordinary. Kids play on teams all the time. They make sacrifices. They suck it up. But for Jack, an intense and sensitive kid, all of this was hard fought and notable. It was just one more way that we witnessed this amazing kid growing through struggle and growing into the best person he could be.

Here’s what we saw all season: a great attitude. Someone who threw himself into practice. Someone who helped carry the ball bucket. Someone who held his head high, even as the people on the bench and in the stands may have been thinking, “Oh, boy. Jack’s up again.”

After the season ended, he signed up for baseball camp so that he could improve his game for fall baseball -- a team he got to play with in only one scrimmage before an accident took him from us. I don’t know what, if anything, the other boys remember about Jack from that one measly game. Was it the fact, as one of his old coaches said, that “Jack was the only player who looked like he could fit inside his bat bag”? It surely wasn’t powerhouse hitting, but most likely it was a big smile, a quiet nature, and great sportsmanship.

Sometimes, for our children, out of the greatest struggles come the sweetest victories.

What are your kids' greatest struggles?


About the Author: Anna Whiston-Donaldson writes about motherhood, loss, and faith at An Inch of Gray. Her memoir “Rare Bird: A Story of Loss and Love” will be published in September 2014 by Convergent Books. You can 'like' her on Facebook.

Image via Anna Whiston-Donaldson

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