By Lewis Brett Smiler
Chris Doyle knew soccer tryouts would be the most brutal week of his life, but he was prepared. He had wanted to play varsity soccer more than anything else and spent the whole summer training for this moment. Whatever the coaches demanded, Chris would do. He would perform an infinite number of pushups, squats, and other exercises. He would run two miles in fewer than fourteen minutes. The weather was oppressively hot and Chris’s feet got blistered, but he never complained. He was tough and could endure any aches and pains the coaches sent his way. They would expect nothing less from their players.
Whenever Chris came home looking even slightly tired, Mom worried. She failed to understand that he was no longer a kid. Kids do not try out for varsity soccer and they certainly do not pay for their own equipment. Mom’s paychecks could go only so far so Chris had to earn money by walking dogs and babysitting. His summer had been very busy, and the best thing Mom could do was leave him alone.
When Chris was one of only two sophomores selected for the team, he was too elated to sleep. However, as soon as one challenge ended, another would quickly come along. The team had soccer drills where he had to master new kicking and passing techniques. Before Chris knew it, he was practicing for the first game of the season. He had to learn everything there was about the opposing team. Who were the players? What would be their strategy?
In the days before the game, the team ran up a long hill, shouted the opposing team’s name, and ran down again. This activity was repeated countless times until everyone was worn out. Chris was so sick of yelling the enemy’s name that he could not wait to beat them. All his training paid off when he scored the winning goal in the first game. Chris was overjoyed as everyone rushed to congratulate him. It was a perfect way to start the season. Still, the coaches told him not to get cocky and reminded him of the other games ahead. Chris knew very well that this game was only the beginning, but no challenge would be too big for him.
One week passed. Chris had come home from a grueling soccer practice when he noticed Mom looking distressed. He did not have time for this.
“I have something important to tell you,” Mom said.
“Not now, Mom,” said Chris. He went to his room and closed the door.
“This is very important,” Mom repeated. “It concerns Arianne.” Arianne? Chris had not heard her name mentioned in a long time.
“What about Arianne?”
“She isn’t well,” Mom responded. “She has cancer. I don’t know all the details, but I heard that it’s serious. You need to call her . . . let her know that you’re there for her.” Chris took a deep breath and opened the door.
“Does . . . Does she still live in California?”
“Yes, near San Francisco.” Mom pulled out a page from the newspaper. He recognized it immediately. “Your soccer victory last week . . . it happened for a reason. Do you remember Mr. Isaacs? I used to talk with him at the pool. He recognized your name in the paper and called to tell me about Arianne. I think he knows her family, but I’m not sure. I have her parents’ phone number and I think it’s still good. You need to call her this week.”
As Mom continued to lecture, Chris tried to push away painful memories. Six years ago, he was struck by a man speeding by on a dirt bike. He was bleeding badly. Arianne was the only witness and had called for help. If she had not been there, Chris would have . . . he did not want to think about it.
“Arianne saved your life,” said Mom. “She’s the reason why you’re here today, and you can’t forget that.”
Chris was unable to sleep that night. He knew he was expected to call Arianne, but what could he say to her? What do you say to someone fighting cancer? Chris thought about all the motivational speeches he had heard from coaches. Would inspiring words help Arianne beat cancer? No, she needed good medical care, not bullshit. But she was probably getting the best care already. Her parents were super rich and could afford the world’s top doctors. What could Chris offer Arianne that she did not already have? Her family was rolling in money while Mom struggled to pay the bills. Perhaps Chris did not need to do anything. He tried telling himself that, but now he was feeling guilty. Arianne had saved his life and he was supposed to do something.
She continued to dominate his thoughts throughout the day. During soccer practice, the head coach yelled at him more than usual. “DOYLE, what are you doing? Is your head in this? My five-year-old daughter can play better than you!” “DOYLE, where the hell did your heart go? It’s obviously not in soccer!”
But Chris’s heart was in soccer! There was nothing he was more passionate about. Yet, if not for Arianne, he would not have been around to play soccer. What could he possibly do for her? Calling her on the phone would be a start, but what could he say? It had to be something far more compelling than “thank you.” Chris realized that he owed Arianne such an enormous debt. Why did it take her cancer for him to discover this?
Chris endured two more rough days at school and more yelling from coaches. Mom also continued to lecture him about how important Arianne was. Did she think he was stupid? Chris knew how important Arianne was but, try as he might, he could not crack the mystery of what to say to her. Riding home on the bus, he noticed a few houses with “For Sale” signs in the yard. Mom had once tried to buy a house, but her mortgage was not approved.
Chris remembered Mr. Robertson, the realtor she worked with. He always walked around with a smile and loved to talk high school sports. How long had it been since he died? Was it one year or two? Chris could not recall. But he remembered that Mr. Robertson had cancer and that it took his life very fast. One month Chris had seen him at a soccer game. The next month people were saying that he was too weak to receive visitors or even talk on the phone. Everyone was shocked at his quick decline. Could Arianne have the same type of cancer? Chris kept telling himself that there were many forms of cancer and some cancers were worse than others. Perhaps Arianne had a less severe cancer. Chris could not procrastinate any longer. He was calling Arianne that evening.
It was 7:00 PM when he was about to call her. Would he be disrupting dinner? California was a different time zone, but Chris was not sure what the difference was. It would be easy to look up. Perhaps it would be best to call later. When 8:00 PM came around, Chris stared at the phone. He wondered if he should finish his homework first. No, he was going to make the call now. He nervously listened as the phone rang once, twice, three times. How long would it take before someone answered?
After two more rings, a deep voice finally said, “Hello?” Chris was not sure what to say. “Hello?”
“Hi, could I speak to Arianne?”
“What was the name again?”
“One minute.” Chris’s heart was beating rapidly as he waited for Arianne to come to the phone. He still had no idea what he was going to say to her. Chris guessed that the man at the other end was her dad.
“I’m sorry,” her dad said, “but Arianne can’t come to the phone right now.”
“How is she doing?” asked Chris.
“Her cancer hasn’t been easy. She’s had to put many plans on hold . . . . How do you know Arianne?” Chris took a deep breath. He did not want to talk about the bike accident.
“You and Arianne were visiting New Jersey six years ago,” said Chris. “I think you had a college reunion . . . and Arianne . . . she . . .” Chris took another deep breath. “I was hit by a bike and she saved me.”
“Oh yes, I remember,” said Arianne’s dad. “That was very scary what happened. How are you doing now?
“You must be in high school now.”
“Yes, I’m a sophomore.”
“Hold on a minute.” Chris’s heart continued to beat fast. He tried thinking of things to say, but his mind was blank. It seemed like an eternity before Arianne finally came to the phone.
“Hello, Chris Doyle,” she said.
“Hello . . . I don’t know if you remember but . . . but you were in New Jersey six years ago. You saved my life and . . . I owe you . . .” Chris was breathing hard. “Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“I’m here today because of you.” Chris went silent as the words were escaping him.
“It’s not that big a deal,” said Arianne. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That’s all there was to it. So, tell me, how are things in Jersey?”
“Things are good.”
“So what have you been doing? My dad said that you’re a sophomore in high school now.”
“What have you been up to?”
“Well, I’m playing soccer. I’m on the varsity team.”
“Varsity . . . that’s impressive. My high school had a soccer team, but I never followed it much. I was on the swim team.”
“I love swimming!” said Chris. “I didn’t have much time last summer but it’s something I love.” Before he knew it, he was sharing his fondest memories from the town pool. Arianne mentioned how pools had been a status symbol in Hollywood and asked Chris if he watched any old movies. He started talking about the cars that appeared in old movies only to discover that Arianne shared his interest in vintage items. Arianne told him that she also loved dogs, but her Mom was allergic to fur. Chris discussed how he had to balance his time over the summer between walking dogs and soccer training. He mentioned that his Mom worried about him to the point of insanity. Arianne insisted that her parents were even worse, a claim that Chris found highly doubtful. He continued to emphasize how much his Mom pestered him during his soccer tryouts.
Chris was soon telling Arianne how demanding his tryouts were. He was in the middle of describing his first game when she was called for dinner.
“Thanks again for calling,” said Arianne. “I’m facing a tough battle now with cancer, and I really dread the chemo. Hopefully, it won’t be more brutal than your tryouts.” Chris could see that Arianne was joking but was not sure how to respond. He had no idea how brutal chemo was.
“Please keep me posted on all your games,” Arianne continued. “I want to know all your wins. You will score more goals, right? I just wish I could watch them live . . . perhaps I’ll get to see you play professionally sometime. That would be great. Seriously, please tell me about your games.”
“I have to go now, but we’ll talk again soon. I’ll give you my cell number.” Chris added Arianne to his phone contacts. He could not believe how easy it was to talk with her. Chris had never expected Arianne to be interested in his playing, but it made sense. If Chris had saved someone’s life, he would have been eager to learn about that person. Arianne was probably the same way. Chris would definitely call her again and keep her posted on his games. For the first time, he felt that he had something to offer her.
Over the next few weeks, Arianne followed Chris’s games on social media. However, she said that his descriptions over the phone were far more interesting. She had cheered Chris on as he netted three more goals. The team had not lost a single game so far, but some of the games were really close. Would the winning streak continue? Arianne was in so much suspense. She insisted that his team win the state tournament, an extremely difficult feat. Chris was amazed at how Arianne remembered the names of his teammates. She started behaving as if they were her buddies. Did he talk about them that much?
Chris learned that Arianne was a junior at Stanford, but she was taking time off for cancer treatment. It was her dream to attend law school and become a civil rights attorney. Did she even need law school? Arianne was already a fountain of knowledge on the subject. Chris was learning so many unusual words like torts, deposition, and stare decisis. She clearly had the same passion for law that he had for soccer.
But now Arianne was also becoming a big soccer fan. She wanted to fly to New Jersey next fall and watch Chris score a goal. Arianne was also eager for Chris to visit her in California. She planned to show him the Stanford campus, the Golden Gate Bridge, and all her favorite parks and restaurants. Chris also learned about the Winchester Mystery House and its ghostly legends. He looked forward to the grand tour, but he knew it would not happen until her cancer was beaten. How long would that take?
Chris regularly asked Arianne about her condition, but she would never say much. She kept reminding him that soccer was much more fun to talk about than chemo. All that Chris was able to learn was that Arianne once had a brain tumor removed and that her cancer had later returned. It sounded scary. Yet, he knew that as long as her treatment continued, the fight was still on.
As the soccer season progressed, Chris and his teammates continued to run up and down the huge hill before every game and yell the names of enemy teams. He wanted so much to scream the word “CANCER” instead. It was Arianne’s biggest enemy and now it was his, too. Mr. Robertson continued to invade Chris’s thoughts, but he kept pushing him out. Arianne was a very different person.
It was another Sunday afternoon when Chris netted his fifth goal of the season. He could not wait to share the news with Arianne. She would be so elated. Chris pulled out his phone and called her number. To his surprise, her dad answered.
“Arianne is sleeping now,” her dad replied. “She hasn’t been feeling well these past few days.” Chris’s mood sank. “I’ll let her know you called as soon as she wakes up. How was your game today?”
“My team won,” said Chris.
“Did you score any goals?”
“I scored the winning goal.”
“That’s marvelous! Arianne will be delighted. What was the final score?”
“Very good. Arianne really enjoys hearing about your games. I’ll tell her the great news and she will call you back as soon as she can.” Chris wanted to believe that Arianne would call him back, but he could not help noticing the sadness in her dad’s voice. Mr. Robertson was on his mind again.
The soccer team finished their season undefeated, and they were ready to move on to the state tournament. Chris wanted so much to call Arianne’s home and share the news, but he was afraid. He did not know what her parents would tell him. In recent days, Arianne had not been able to talk on the phone. She did not even answer his texts. What was going on?
Chris had been wanting to understand her illness better for a long time and had tried researching tumors. However, he quickly discovered that there were different types of brain tumors and different areas where cancer could spread. Without knowing more about Arianne’s specific condition, the information was worthless. Why couldn’t she have given him more details? He did know that she was too weak to talk on the phone, just as Mr. Robertson had been. Chris tried not to think about him.
Mom had the TV on all throughout the evening. Chris was studying for his history test when a news story caught his attention. A reporter mentioned a ten-year-old being killed by a hit-and-run driver. Chris grabbed the remote and turned the TV off. He was ten years old when the dirt bike hit him. If not for Arianne, he might have died like that boy on the news.
“Arianne saved my life!” yelled Chris, “and I can’t do anything for her. It’s not fair!”
“You do a lot for her,” Mom replied. “You take her mind off her cancer. She is one of your biggest soccer fans.”
“That’s not enough!” shouted Chris. Before he knew it, he was crying. Chris kept reminding himself that he was not a little boy anymore, but the tears continued to fall.
The soccer team was excited about the state tournament, but Chris did not feel motivated. He was not even sure if he wanted to stay on the team. The only opponent that seemed to matter was Arianne’s cancer, but that battle was now being lost. Chris did not know how many days Arianne had left. He did not want to know.
His phone rang while he was having dinner. The number on caller ID was Arianne’s parents. It had to be bad news. Chris took a deep breath and answered.
“We’ve been waiting for your call,” said Arianne’s dad. “We wanted to know how your last game went. Did your team win?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“That means your team is undefeated, right?”
“We all knew you’d win. Arianne will be thrilled to hear it.”
“Did you score any goals?” asked Arianne’s mom.
“Not this time.”
“But your team won!” she said. “What was the score?”
“2-1.” Arianne’s parents continued to ask Chris numerous questions about his team’s victory and what comes next. They promised to share the good news with Arianne as soon as she woke up. But after the conversation ended, Chris began to realize that they were just as interested in hearing about his games. They even knew who some of his teammates were. Mom was quick to offer an opinion.
“You’re a source of comfort for them,” Mom said. “They might be losing their only child . . . and it’s very hard. But you’ll be an important connection they have to her.” Chris went to his room and closed the door. Arianne was dying and there was nothing he could do to save her. Yet, as Chris was getting into bed that night, Mom’s comments continued to linger. He started to think about the endless times she worried about him. What would have happened to Mom if he had been killed by the dirt bike? How would she have handled it? Chris could not imagine the grief Arianne’s parents were feeling, but he knew how much they worried about her. Arianne was quite vocal about it during their first conversation. Perhaps Mom was right. Perhaps he was a source of comfort for Arianne’s parents.
Whatever came next, Chris would be there for them. He would continue to call regularly and keep them posted on soccer, school, and everything else. He would give Arianne’s parents whatever support they needed. But how do you help those in grief? What exactly should he say? Chris was not certain, but he would figure it out. It was the one thing he could do for Arianne.