This week is pretty special to me, for two reasons: the first (and more trivial) being that the St. Louis Cardinals are in the World Series. Anyone who’s been following the postseason, or perhaps more significantly, the regular season, knows it's more a Cinderella story than Cinderella.
The second is that Saturday, Oct. 22 will be what would have been the seventh birthday of my little sister, Tarah. Tarah, or "Sugar" as we affectionately refer to her, passed away from a rare lung disease in April of 2008. She was 3 1/2.
There's actually a pretty intimate connection between the two. I’ve been baffled before by the power of sports, but when I realize the number of memories we've built with Tarah that are somehow associated with sports, some of it makes sense.
And I'm not talking about a power that makes people lose control, scream at TVs, throw things and spend hundreds of dollars on tickets (though yes, that does happen to the best of us). I'm talking writing stories you can't script and cementing connections across zip codes and generations.
Sports gives me a happy memory everytime I see Fredbird (the Cardinals' mascot), watch SportsCenter or even pick up a football. All three have very specific connections to Tarah, and relive a moment with her every time I see them.
Tarah loved Fredbird. Fredbird is nothing more than a big cardinal in a t-shirt and baseball cap, but she loved him. He was what she noticed everytime we'd watch a Cards game with her. We were able to take Tarah to at least two Cardinals games before she passed away, and seeing Fredbird was a dream of hers. Not only did she get to see him, but my brother Joel bought her a little stuffed Fredbird when he was in St. Louis once on a seminary visit.
Two of my favorite photos I have of her were taken in St. Louis. The first was at her very first Cardinals game, two months before her first birthday. We were in the car still, just before we walked over to Busch Stadium. She was still in her car seat, but the picture is a close-up of her face. Her big blue eyes are strikingly alert. She was wearing a red shirt and white headband with a bow, her lips pursed in a coy smile so telling of her personality, even then. We have it blown up and hanging on our refrigerator.
The other photo was two years later. This time, we’re outside the car, walking to the stadium. Joel was holding her. Tarah was wrapping her tiny little arms as far around his neck as she could. She'd started having episodes at this point, but you'd never know it looking at that picture. I pulled out my camera and snapped a picture. She pulled out her cheesiest smile, pushing her round little cheeks up so high her eyes squinted shut, hugging Joey hard as ever. She used to say she was going to marry Joel, and if any picture captured that, it was that one.
Those St. Louis trips expanded into countless other stories about Imo's Pizza, Ted Drewes, Sem housing, getting lost in St. Louis and Tarah clapping at all the wrong times. Memories are made anytime, anywhere, and sports just happened to be one of the ways we created them with Tarah. And that's pretty cool.
Sports may seem a bit trivial and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, maybe even just a bunch of stats and numbers, but it's also a venue for something special. Be it universal principles, endurance, pushing limits, heroes, cross-country connections, experiencing your team'ss Super Bowl victory with your Dad or pounding backs in a sports bar or stadium full of people you've never met, or some of your best friends, a love of the game. It's a connection to people.
For me, among others, it's family. Our sports organization we created as kids. Thanksgiving football games at our Grandparents' house in Wisconsin. Every Sunday afternoon in the basement after church for NFL Sunday. Cheering for Texas A&M just because Adam went there. Cheering for Tim Tebow just because he's Sam's hero. Tossing around the baseball in the backyard with Sam. Shooting hoops in the early fall evenings. Filling out March Madness brackets together. Dancing to "How You Like Me Now" with my little brother after the Cardinals eliminated the Brewers for a "happy flight" to the 2011 World Series. Screaming so loud we scare our dog after a good play. The list goes on.
And come Wednesday, it'll mean hugging that little stuffed Fredbird for game one of the World Series and wondering how Tarah's going to be celebrating her seventh birthday in heaven. She probably wouldn't want to watch Saturday's game on her birthday, though, as inferred by one of her favorite lines, spoken anytime we opted for SportsCenter over Barbie of Fairytopia: "No spowts!"