In an Autumn of Challenge, I’m Counting Special Blessings This Thanksgiving

I thought I knew what a really bad clock was — the one that counted down the Capitals’ demise in game 7 here against the Pens a couple of springs back. Not a terrific reckoning of time to be sure that night. But no way that moment in time had anything on the really bad clock. That’s the one you survey incessantly while your dreamgirl is in a doctor’s office getting a verdict on bloodwork related to a cancer concern. She’s there in the office because the verdict for some reason can’t be rendered over the phone. You’re somewhat unproductive at work during that hour. That clock I encountered late in August, on a Friday, for the first time in my life, and I knew, after the hour that seemed to take three days, that I’d have no normal autumn. Hockey was the furthest thing from my mind.

Angela’s family has 10 seasons tickets for the Hershey Bears. That’s but one of a couple of hundred novel facets signifying my lottery ticket number being called in meeting her. Some manner of family summit took place in early September to discuss how best to use an un-accounted for 10th ticket. It was determined that I would have it. Can’t say I’ve encountered family generosity quite like that before. Angela went to Giant Center during Bears’ training camp to retrieve her family’s tickets. That’s a very special evening for Hershey’s hockey fans, as they go down on the arena ice and are handed their tickets by individual Bears’ players, with photo-ops accompanying. Angela is a beauty one’s eye remembers long after an initial meeting, but Francois Bouchard saw her just as he had in previous Septembers and spoke up with concern: “If you don’t mind my saying, something doesn’t look quite right.” Angela briefly explained her new challenge. Bouchard then motioned over Graham Mink. Then more Bears players enveloped her in a circle of concern. Angela was very excited as she relayed this moment to me over the phone on the ride home.

Of course, the patronage of hockey games together this autumn is a far-fetched dream for Angela and me. Six days a week, alternating between chemo and radiation, she endures four-hour treatments at the Hershey Cancer Institute. Some days she can do no better than digesting a banana. I’m happiest this autumn when her text messages relate entire breakfasts consumed and kept down. What should be a spectacularly beautiful and fit frame of 130-plus pounds is today a spectacularly beautiful warrior’s frame of less than 100 pounds.

That life-altering August Friday the first person I reached out to in my frightened agony was my blessed puck chum goalie of a beauty queen, Tara Wheeler. When Tara was Miss Virginia and competing in the Miss America pageant a few years ago she seized a mission to immerse herself in the cancer wards for children at hospitals all over the state of Virginia. And I mean all over the state. I doubt there was one she didn’t visit. Most memorably, after her run at the pageant title, she shaved her head in a show of extraordinary solidarity with the brave children. She made national television appearances for it.

I remember not having the courage to call Tara initially, as my friend had never heard me sob. Silly notion. Our call lasted approximately 25 minutes, and the crying felt good, and I remember how there wasn’t more than a few seconds of commiseration before Tara issued me unmistakable marching orders. This wasn’t a moment to wallow in self pity, as sad as such news is, she delicately but forcefully explained. The partner against cancer plays an exceptional role, a durably taxing role, she explained. One of unwavering sustenance and optimism and encouragement. For the partner, it’s a bit of a poker table requiring all chips in, so right this moment, my friend told me, you have to decide if you’re all in. I hung up the phone with my pal, sobbed for about two minutes more, fell asleep deeply, and awoke Saturday morning calm and seemingly battle ready — knowing of course my engagement with this challenge was ludicrously limited relative to what Angela was confronting.

This autumn, instead of composing blog files, I compose love letters. I’d have done that anyway, but I seem to have energy and interest only for writing to Angela. A couple of weeks after my phone call with Tara, after I’d received a text from Angela that she was shopping for a wig with her mother, I wrote Angela and told her about the time I saw my friend Tara step onto the ice at Verizon Center and belt out the most beautiful rendition of our national anthem I’d ever heard, the arena ceiling lighting well illuminating the peach fuzz on Tara’s head. I looked down from the press box in that moment and tears streamed down my cheeks, because my friend, in her baldness, never looked more beautiful.

Another fortification for my fright-fight this fall: the return of Eric McErlain to my 18th St. office in Northwest. Long-time readers will recall my bragging about having Eric as a close-by colleague some four years ago. I met and befriended Eric in the Verizon Center press box. I learned about hockey blogging seated next to Eric. I became a hockey blogger in large part because of Eric. More importantly, I was blessed by his friendship. I once wrote a file here bragging about what it was like to come to the office every day and share the day’s first cup of coffee with one of the most accomplished hockey hearts and minds in new media. Eric left our office a few years ago for an exciting new challenge. Now he’s returned, and again he’s immediately next door to me.

Eric knows I can’t be in rinks this season as I’ve grown accustomed to being, thanks to the Capitals, and he knows precisely what I need with each and every coffee and lunch outing — my puck fix. I genuinely believe that God returned EMac to my office this autumn for a role well beyond managing our industry’s pressing need for deft stewardship of social media. I also don’t believe he’s leaving my office again any time soon. Thank God.

Rather impulsively one day this autumn I gave a reckoning of my anxiety to another great buddy in pucks, a fella named Killer. Week after week had passed with hardly an iota of complaint from Angela of what she was enduring; I was beyond inspired. I wanted the tough guy ex-Cap to know about the battle she was bravely waging. “You’re gonna love meeting her,” I wrote. “Send me Angela’s address,” one of the Capitals’ all-time great warriors texted me from his team’s bus. I knew what was coming next. In the package Killer shipped to Angela he penned an inscription on one of his warrior photos themed on how the biggest fights sometimes are waged by those in the smallest frames. Killer knows a thing or two about that. I regarded that outreach as a love letter in its own right.

A week or so ago I messaged Killer to give him an update on our region’s increasing concern with the struggling Caps. “Ok,” he replied. “Now tell me what really matters — how’s Angela doing?”

This fall I notice a lot my pacing in a path opposite that of the Red Army on game nights. It’s an odd experience, after marching with them all these years. None of them know it but they are all my friends, as this autumn has verified. I’m looking forward to rejoining them just as soon as I can.

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This entry was posted in Eric McErlain, Francois Bouchard, Hershey Bears, Hockey Heroes, Kevin Kaminski, Morning cup-a-joe, Tara Wheeler, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In an Autumn of Challenge, I’m Counting Special Blessings This Thanksgiving

  1. Excellent job on a very personal post that while hard to write, was probably cathartic as well.

    Prayers and good thoughts are sent to Angela, her family, and you.

  2. Angela Dalle-Molle says:

    Wishing you and Angela well…

  3. penguin pete says:

    I have to say I’ve been wondering about the lack of posts over here with my Capital friends (an oxymoron?), and reading this brilliant expression certainly clears the air.

    Now I’m not the praying type, but my 6 year old daughter (who thinks Sidney is a girl’s name!) is, and you can be sure that you and Angela will be in them tonight.

    @Angela: Keep Fighting!

  4. Quinn says:

    Pucksandbooks you have thoroughly and artfully explained my missing cup o’joe every morning and there isn’t a much more understandable reason than that. Like Penguin Pete I am not the praying type but you can be sure that my thoughts are with you both.

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