“Why are you putting on your tennis shoes?” I ask Ryan, even though I already know the answer.

“So we can go play handball,” he replies.

He grabs the red, bouncy playground ball and runs out the door shouting, “I’ll meet you at the court.” The “court” is a wall near our laundry room.

Ryan is nine and generally plays handball five days a week, twice a day at school. He’s gotten so good that this year his classmates named a move after him. He was the first child to hit the ball so hard it went over the top of the court. Now, when he or anyone else does it, they’ve hit a ‘Ryan.’”

 

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I’m 41 years old and play handball only when I play with Ryan at home. And, I am a disabled parent. Not a parent confined to a wheelchair, not a parent with limited vision or hearing, but a parent with an autoimmune disease that leaves me with intense pain and fatigue in my legs.

If I’m honest with myself and my body, I shouldn’t be playing handball at all. It’s physically taxing for me and, after a play session, my pain is always intensified. But I play anyway because I know there will most likely come a time when Ryan will not invite me to play with him. The days of hearing “Mommy, let’s play” are not infinite.

I play with Ryan while I still sort of can. No doctor can predict the progression of my disease. No doctor can assure me it won’t worsen to the point where I am forced to rely on a cane, walker, or wheelchair. So I play with the hope that Ryan will remember that I did these things with him.

Before the first serve, Ryan always recites his list of rules – rules to ensure that the game is played fairly, and that we’re both in agreement about what is and isn’t allowed.

Ryan may think of these as nothing more than handball rules. I, however, have realized that his rules aren’t just limited to a playground game. Ryan’s Rules for Handball have become My Rules for Life.

The Rules

“No friendships”

In handball, it means my son isn’t going to go easy on me. When we’re on the court, we’re not Ryan and Mommy. We’re two competing players. In life, it means that bad things sometimes happen to good people. No one gets an easy pass.

“No sticky fingers”

In the game, it means you use proper form, keeping your hand in a closed fist. For me, it means remembering to keep proper posture. When pain is bad, I have a tendency to start to curl up, or hunch over, or try to make myself smaller. I’ve been told it’s common for people in chronic pain to do this.

“No cheats”

There’s no getting around it. If I hit the ball and it goes past the line, I’m out. If Ryan hits the ball so hard it goes over my head, I’m out. There’s no trying to talk my way out of it. It’s just a game, after all. In life, it’s more complicated, of course, but the basic idea is the same. Life can’t be cheated.

“Clear re-dos”

Ryan and I play on a wall that has a ledge jutting out near the top. Sometimes, the ball hits the ledge and bounces back and forth like a ball inside a pin-ball machine. That’s when Ryan will call out, “That’s a clear re-do.” So we start again and go from there. Generally, life doesn’t offer re-dos, but life does give us the chance to re-do certain moments, certain situations.

When the pain hits so intensely that I’m tempted to lie down on the hard asphalt and cry, I can’t re-do it. Pain is already there. But I can sit down on a nearby bench, have some water, take some deep breaths. And go from there.

“That made”

When Ryan shouts, “That made!” it means his hit counts. The ball may not have bounced the way he was expecting. He may not have hit it the way he wanted to, but it was still an allowable play. In life, it means my plans haven’t all worked out. Things haven’t gone the way I thought or hoped they would. But life does go on, and I have to readjust my expectations and adapt.

Sometimes, when Ryan and I play, we have a good round. Every time he hits, I’m able to hit the ball back. Life can be like that, too. Sometimes, I can take what comes my way without much fuss or heartache or worry. Sometimes, all I can do is react quickly because something’s coming right at me.

Like a red, bouncy playground ball.