karendonahueI stood on the opposite side of the court looking at the impossibly tall and handsome, young man who was my tennis partner that afternoon. I was exhausted and we hadn’t yet hit one ball.

“Mom,” he seemed to say to the windshield, “We need to play. I need to play.”

We were on our way back from his weekly therapy session. More and more often lately he’d been emerging from the ugly, low-rise office building agitated with eyes that seemed puffy from crying. There was never any explanation and I’d learned not comment on the crying bit. “I don’t want to be vulnerable in front of you,” he’d explained the one time I’d asked before I knew it was taboo. End of conversation.

I’d responded poorly when he’d said that. I snorted, “That’s ridiculous. Vulnerable? In front of me? Do you know how many times I held you crying until you fell asleep in my arms? I am your mother for God’s sake.”

It only seemed to steel his resolve to expel me from his heart. I could see the angry sneer spread thin under the fixed mask of indifference that he’d seemed to almost perfect.


“How was your session today?”

He pulled out one ear bud and asked me “Huh?”

That gesture should have told me to butt out, but I didn’t want to. “I said ‘How was your session today?’”

“Fine.” Putting the ear bud back in, he looked down at his phone as if he was trying to elicit empathy from it along the lines of “How am I supposed to deal with this fucking idiot?”

The phone responded with a torrent of expletive-filled rap that sounded both tinny and bass-filled as it pumped into my child’s head. I worried about his hearing. Shit, I worried about him all the time. All. The. Time. Probably in direct proportion to how much time he spent thinking about how appallingly awful I was not only as a mother, but as a human.

Actually, that was wishful thinking. With the exception of the times I was a gnat in his face that needed swatting, he most likely rarely thought of me. It would come around.

They promise that happens. They promise that these ugly, contemptuous, teenage boys who take leave of that delicious sweetness they had when they were young and in Oedipal love with their mommies will return sometime in their early twenties as delightful, fully-formed, good young men.

I wasn’t so sure. And I wasn’t so sure that whatever was happening now—and for the past year—wasn’t enough to make it so I wasn’t receptive to that fine gentleman that might someday stroll through my door.

I kind of hated him.

I also loved him so ferociously that I would wake up in the middle of the night crying from the intensity. I had been doing that since he’d been born. In the past though, I could tiptoe into his room and curl around him as he slept making sure to be out of his room by the time he woke. He didn’t need to know about that. It was…a lot.
Lately, we had tennis. Pretty much only that by way of connection. It seemed to be the only way we communicated these days and it was only ever on his terms. Today, he wanted to play. Correction: needed to play.

There was never a warm up. We’d start by hitting as hard as we could and continued at that pace until he decided he was done. My goal, I would tell him, was to see the entirety of his t-shirt change color from sweat drench—today’s from Kelly green to evergreen. Every inch. I had the assistance on this day of the 90 degrees and 85 percent humidity that the DC area often felt in the middle of summer.

My other goal—my private goal—was to never need to stop playing before he asked to. This meant physically outlasting a 16 year old boy as a 46 year old woman. And since playing was only ever on his initiative and I never wanted to say no, there were days when he’d ask me to play after I’d already run 5, 10, maybe 20 miles. I’d barely be out of the shower tending to angry, red chaffing, tenderly applying Vaseline to my raw back when I’d hear him holler from downstairs that he’d like to play. I’d pop ibuprofen and put my wet hair back in the ponytail I’d only just taken out to bathe after the run. As gingerly as I could, I’d put a fresh jog bra over the newly raw skin on my back and suit up.

Tennis was a battle we could both win. There was something crucial in the violence with which he each hit the ball and while directed at me, unlike the his words and frostiness, wasn’t designed to wound. He didn’t even want to win and we never played for points. We wanted to share the beauty of the sport and the safety of loving each other. Of course those words were never spoken aloud.

Tennis was a break from the constant disdain of all things me. All of the lack of affect was left behind and his eyes, bright and alive, waited for my next move.

On the court, I could hold my tongue. Somehow, I could refrain from all the things I would say to him that made him shut off and turn way. I knew that if I said a word about how much I loved it—how much I loved him—it would slip away. He needed to hate me right now. He needed to “individuate” his therapist explained to me. He couldn’t figure out how to be decent to me and do that at the same time. This was the only way—with the safe distance of the court and the ferocious power of the game.

But it was a dance too. A wonderful dance. A perfect dance. And I knew he needed it in the same way I did. I wondered if he let himself think about it the way I did, and if he did, did his heart ache like mine? Did he miss how close we used to be?

When he was very small, he would reach for me, and mixing up his words would say “Hold you, Mommy” when he wanted to be picked up. When I did, he’d burrow into my neck and I’d breathe him in deeply knowing those moments were fleeting as though, somehow then, I knew there would be weeks in the future that would pass without so much as a kind word from him.

“That was fucking great, Mom. Nice playing today.” He made a point to pick up all of things we had brought to the court with us leaving only the car keys and my phone for me to get. A small act but a revealing one.

I let the swearing pass by without comment and let myself bathe in the warmth of the word Mom.



I am a 46-year-old, ultra-running, mother of 2. I have run over 60 ultra marathons and over time have come to understand that there is a breed that gravitates to this sort of compulsion. The draw isn’t always running, but it almost always about pain and healing. I’ve tried to capture that in Running Shorts, my collection of fictional short stories based loosely on my own life and stories told to me on the trails.


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