The boy stood blinking back at me with a shy grin peeking out from his mop of dark brown curls, clad in a faded red Alabama Football T-shirt and black gym shorts with the words TRINITY CHURCH emblazoned on the side. His worn-down Nikes were caked with mud from the field, and his ankle socks revealed scratched gray shin guards. It was a normal Monday night in October and practice for the Pelham YMCA 7-8 FireFlames soccer team was about to begin. The boy’s right cleat was untied, and he held his foot out to me with a questioning glance, saying “Double knot, please?” I just nodded, pretending—and failing—to look annoyed. As I bent down to tie Emiliano’s shoe, I happened to notice a flash of his small stomach, covered with a large white bandage. I dismissed this and finished tying the bow on his shoelace, standing back up and brushing off my grassy knees. “Thanks, Coach!” he said with a wide smile, running off to join his teammates as they ran laps in a single-file line.
I stood on the sidelines as the players practiced short passes, periodically blowing my whistle to make corrections: “More power, Anthony! Hustle, Kayden!” As they continued, I started making conversation with Emiliano’s parents and recalled the stomach bandage. I mentioned it casually to make sure that his injury hadn’t happened at soccer; however, before I finished my sentence, I noticed his parents exchanging an almost-imperceptible glance. They sent his sister away, instructing her to practice her cartwheels and backbends in the grass to the side of the field.
Emiliano’s father cleared his throat, unable to meet my eyes. “Coach Brooke,” he began, his voice thick with his El Salvadoran accent. “The bandage is from his most recent surgery.” He continued speaking, but my head was swimming from the one word I could hear clearly: cancer. The boy who was my seven year-old star striker, the boy who was a triplet to a brother and sister with two other sisters, the boy whose shoe I would always grumble about tying even though I secretly loved it; this boy whose body was now riddled with aggressive tumors like land mines throughout his abdomen and pelvis, who had undergone 11 surgeries in the past year but had somehow never missed a practice. I stared back at Emilano’s parents, my mouth open and feeling dangerously dry, a lump forming in my throat. I was unable to speak for fear of bursting into tears.
All my lips could form was, “I am so, so sorry.” Emiliano’s mother, Rosa, enveloped me in a hug. After she let go, we just stood there silently for a moment as the players practiced their own drills around us. I could not bring myself to ask any of the questions I wanted to know the answers to. Was it terminal? Was it okay that he was playing soccer? How was he coping?
I returned to the field slowly, gathering my thoughts and yelling for my team to huddle so we could split into teams for a scrimmage. I handed out penny jerseys and they began to play, all nine of them suddenly becoming a tangle of limbs as they fought for the ball, rushing back and forth on the browning grass. I watched Emiliano fight for the ball, cheering and laughing when he stole it from a teammate. He exuded so much speed and energy on the field that it was difficult to believe that he could have cancer. Practice eventually ended and I began my drive home, but I could not stop thinking about Emiliano and the words his mother had whispered in my ear during our embrace: “We don’t know how long is left.” Despite the fact that his beautiful young life may tragically be cut short, Emiliano still made it to practice and games every week without fail. He was by far the best player on the team, not only because of natural gifts but because of the effort that he put in to develop his skills. No matter his circumstances, his work ethic was unrelenting. Even in the face of a murky future, he smiled just as brightly as before.
As the season went on, Emiliano kept coming to practices and games, even when he was too fatigued to play. He stood on the sidelines, laughing and smiling and yelling louder than anyone else in support of his team. He was always there for his team, a beacon of bubbling energy, who could hardly contain his excitement when the FireFlames won the league championship. He ran onto the field with no care that his body was growing skinnier and more frail, tightly hugging each of his teammates, as well as me. At the team banquet at the end of the season, he brought me a thank-you card that I keep on my desk to this day. It reads, “Coach B— Thank you so much. It was the best season EVER! You are awesome and so are the FireFlames. Love, Emiliano.”
Emiliano’s relentlessly upbeat spirit taught me a concept that I needed to learn; no matter the ending, a crucial idea to living a worthwhile life is to always enjoy what you have while you have it, whether that be time, people, a feeling, or a thing. Embracing the quality of your life and its content is so much more important than placing all of your value in the measure. My entire life until this past fall, I constantly struggled with seeking a life of “quantity”; I wanted titles and achievements and activities to list in huge numbers, not to brag about but simply to fulfill myself. Yet, I was always seeking more, and I could never be satisfied as long as there was possibly something bigger and better on the horizon. Emiliano, however, completely changed my perspective. He indirectly encouraged me to live a life of depth and quality instead of quantity; though Emiliano may not get the longest life, that fact does not deter his joy or positive energy. From him, I learned to be content with my life and to savor every moment that I get here on Earth. I recently heard that Emiliano had another successful surgery and is recovering well. It cannot cure him, but it can give him more time to enjoy the life that he is living. Now when I look down at the red-and-white rubber bracelet on my left wrist that reads, “ISAIAH 40:31. BUT THOSE WHO HOPE IN THE LORD WILL RENEW THEIR STRENGTH,” I remember the way that Emiliano taught me strength in the face of uncertain circumstances. I remember the way that his chocolate-brown eyes viewed the world as full of light, and how he chose to embrace his life, and squeeze as much quality into his time here as he possibly could. And every day, I try to live like Emiliano.
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