Lennon and I visited a Montessori toddler program a few weeks ago in Mansfield, Massachusetts and were both pleasantly surprised that he absolutely adored it. He loved all of the colorful gadgets and toys, the festive alphabet that decorated the wall, the sweet teachers and of course the fun-sized sink where he could wash his hands fifty times a day if he chose to do so. He got a kick out of high-fiving the other children, pounding fake nails into the wooden tool bench with a scarily real looking hammer and dumping the basket of plastic letters on the floor so he could pick out his faves. But his absolute favorite thing to play with in the classroom was a “Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar” Jack in the Box. No matter what he was exploring, he continuously found his way back to the small metal box that was painted with lollipops, ice cream cones, pickles, cake, salami and whatever else the hungry caterpillar ate in the famous storybook. With wide eyes, he would, ever so slowly, rotate it’s silver crank around and around, knowing that at any moment the inevitable would happen. Knowing that at any moment he would be scared out of his shorts when the caterpillar eventually burst through the roof of the box and flailed around turbulently, inches from his face. And every time it popped he would leap back, shriek with excitement, quickly close the lid and take a deep breath. Without fail, he would grab for my hand to make sure I was within arms reach. Then once again he would reach for the handle. It became a guilty pleasure, a strange addiction to the rush that he felt when the music suddenly stopped and he found himself face to face with a googly eyed creature that seemed to spring from the depths of the underworld. I couldn’t understand why he kept going back for more and more of the same torture but there was no reasoning with him about it. Some part of him loved the chaos of it. Over and over, he cranked that handle, knowing exactly what would eventually come, and he couldn’t help but perpetuate the insanity.
Two days later, the Jack in Box that Danny and I had been cranking over and over for 8 years popped right in front of our eyes. The lid just flung right open. It had no regard for how many cranks we were sure we had left and we were shocked. We were beyond shocked. We honest to God just didn’t see it coming. And we were abruptly reminded that when you’re addicted to the thrill of a game, one rule that you can never discount is that you don’t get to decide when it’s time to pass dice. You don’t get to question it, you don’t get to debate it, and it simply is what it is. You are forced to realize that at the end of the day, there is no reasoning with a game. No reasoning with past decisions or roads taken. No reasoning at all. And if you’re all in, no matter how scared you may be to do it all over again, you just have to close the lid, take a deep breath and keep cranking.
When Danny was recently released by the New England Patriots we were abruptly thrown into unchartered territory. For the first time in almost a decade, the football season started without us. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the NFL is a business first and a livlihood second and when you’re in the thick of it all it can become an Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure in which you can’t quite decipher what’s real and what’s not. Regardless of the unpredictability of the game, we had figured that as long as Danny did everything he was asked to do and if he did it well, nothing else would matter. So when he did well, we made plans. When he did very well, we got comfortable. We enrolled Lennon in school, we got a dog walker, we gave Lennon’s babysitter a calendar for the season that highlighted games, date nights and charity events, and with the help of friends we found a doctor who would deliver Baby Fells #2 come November. As much as our nomadic past existed, we refused to accept the possibility that business politics could outweigh performance. So when I got the text message that set the pandemonium of uncertainty into motion, I was more confused than anything.
Just as we had done in the previous weeks, we spent the following few days making plans, only they were plans to leave rather than stay. And we did so with urgency. Over the years we had learned that there is very little time in which you are allotted to dwell on the emotional side of the game and this is especially true when you have a family. There is less oxygen in limbo and, as you can imagine, it doesn’t have the comforts of home. If you make the conscious decision to keep playing the game you must first acknowledge the truth that there will continue to be ups and downs, there will continue to be turbulent surprises, and if you’re lucky, there will continue to be fun to be had. So here we are, back home in California, attempting to savor each day of the offseason that has come mid-season for us this year and just simply staying ready. Staying ready to stay, staying ready to leave, staying ready for our family to expand at a moments notice and staying ready for new beginnings, no matter where they may be and when they may come.
Moving around the country at the drop of a hat isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but we manage it well with moving companies and car shipping services on speed dial. Missing birthdays, weddings, and the births of our closest friends’ children because of the grueling schedule of the NFL season can be incredibly difficult, but we know that one day when this temporary career is over we’ll make up for lost time with them. But one thing that is simply unmanageable, the one thing that without a doubt hurts the most, is abruptly leaving the friends that became family on each one of our stops on our wild journey. The turnover in the league is staggering and just as quickly as you say hello, you are often forced to say goodbye. It is a part of the package that never gets easier, one that you never get used to. A part of the deal that makes you afraid to let people in. When we left St. Louis three years ago, I swore off friendships with NFL wives forever because leaving some of my closest friends in the world had left me reeling. But sometimes you get comfortable, sometimes you let your guard down and sometimes you make a life long best friend even when you weren’t looking for one. In an industry where every move is a wager, you can’t go all in without putting a piece of your heart on the table and when you lose you have to leave it all behind.
My sweet Danny turned 30 years young last week and I can’t help but smile when I think back on the 12 years that we have spent in each others’ lives. So many highs, so many lows, so many moments just like this, when we had no idea what the next page in our book would read. Whenever I get anxious about the “what ifs” I remind myself that every “what if” before this has brought us to where we are today, so no matter what happens, I know in my heart that tomorrow will bring love. Tomorrow will bring resolution and tomorrow will bring a plan better than one we could have drawn up ourselves. Maybe sometimes we learn more from our children than they do from us and maybe Lennon has the right idea. Maybe as long as we can reach out and grab each others’ hands for reassurance, as long as we’re always in arms reach of each other, we can continue to play games that both terrify and excite us all at the same time. And maybe we will.