The Angels You Need

Ryan at hockey practice
Somewhere in there: Ryan, working his (butt) off during his second practice of the day.

There’s a Courtney Love song (don’t judge me) that I, well, love called “Hold On to Me.” It’s a sad song, and may or may not be about her late husband Kurt Cobain. It opens with the verse:

Hey this life is never fair.
The angels that you need are never there.

As I said, the song is one of my favorites, a tortured, sad song full of passion and emotion. I have a thing for songs like that. It’s a regular in the various playlists that are in heavy rotation on my iPhone.

I thought of those lyrics the other day, but not because they resonated with our current situation. Just the opposite. I thought of those lyrics after an instance of finding just the angel we needed.

Monday was the first full practice of Ryan’s new hockey season. Our original plan to hold him back another year in peewee met with some bureaucratic resistance, but also a satisfactory conclusion. He is going to play bantam, which is his proper age group, but the games in his bantam league are non-checking. With our injury fears allayed, we decided to move ahead with the plan.

There are a lot of things different about the bantam program. Among the most significant: no more 6 a.m. practices on Saturdays and Sundays. Instead, Ryan’s first practice was 8:40-9:40 p.m. on Monday night.

Uh oh.

Now, I will not miss setting my alarm for 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday, but I knew getting up at that hour would never be a problem for Ryan. Staying up well past 10 on a weekday night? Not so much. Oh, and did I mention that Ryan already had hockey practice on Mondays? He attends another clinic every Monday from 5-6 p.m. We talked it over with him. We explained that he’d have to do his homework immediately after school and in the period between practices. We offered to switch the other clinic, but he declined for the most wonderful reason: He has made a friend in the group. That was pretty much the end of that discussion.

And so I found myself on Monday night taking Ryan to his second practice of the day. He still wore his sweaty clothes from the first practice. His gear was still damp. I thought back to the year in high school when I played on two different teams and often skated twice in one day. I did that because I wanted to — because I loved the sport. I asked Ryan if he was excited. I wanted to make sure we were doing this for the right reasons, for him.

“Yes!!!!!” was all the response I needed to hear.

He was excited. Certainly more than I was. I was nervous as hell. Nervous about the transition to bantam, checking or no checking. Nervous that it was a shared practice with one of the bantam travel teams (Ryan plays in a house league). Would he be able to keep up with the pace? Was he good enough to play with these kids? Would he get discouraged?

But there was one fear that nagged me above all: a new team meant new coaches. Though our experience with this program has been nothing but wonderful; Though I knew there had been major behind-the-scenes efforts on Ryan’s behalf to get him into the most proper program; Though I had no reason to fear the new coaches would be any different than the others we had met, I couldn’t help it. I was nervous.

While Ryan got dressed, I lingered outside the locker room. Parents were a common site in the peewee locker rooms, and I would pop in to help him tie his skates. There were no parents in the bantam locker room. Most of the kids were dropped off. I did not want Ryan to be ostracized because his dad had to help him with his skates. I told him to get dressed as fully as possible then come outside the door where I could quickly make his skates tight enough — this being a skill he has yet to master.

But not being in the locker room prevented me from having a chance to speak to the coaches. I wanted to introduce myself and give them a brief picture of what they could expect from Ryan, as well as refer them to his previous coaches if they had questions.

I listened from outside the door as the coaches joked with the kids. I smiled as Ryan participated in the banter. The social aspect of being in a locker room with 15 kids his age is as important as any physical skill we hope Ryan gets out of hockey.

He popped out as instructed and I tightened his skates out of the view of the other boys. While everyone waited for the Zamboni to finish, I went up to one of the coaches and introduced myself.

I’ve had “the talk” with coaches several times now. And though I know it is exactly the right thing to do to advocate for my child, I’m far from comfortable. The sentence “Ryan has autism” or “Ryan is on the autism spectrum” never comes out easily. As I fumbled with my words, a smile crossed the coach’s face.

“I have a 14-year-old son with autism,” he told me. “You’re in good hands.”

I let out a huge sigh as all the nervousness and tension drained from my body. Once again, we had found just the person we needed in just the place we needed him.

We talked a bit about Ryan and I told him what he could expect. I told him what my expectations were. I told him to push Ryan to get the most out of him, but that my goal for him in hockey was as much social as physical. He nodded in agreement and told me he has had a player with autism on his team for the last five years. He thought Ryan would get a lot out of being in the program.

When the practice began, I almost had to remember my other fears, the ones having to do with Ryan’s ability. Once again, they were unfounded. He kept up with the quicker pace. He’s not the fastest, but never finished last in any of the sprints. He was receptive to individual coaching in some of the skill drills that were harder for him. And he skated with the joy and freedom that has marked his entire time in ice hockey.

He never complained about how late it was (at least not until we got home and he learned that a giant bowl of ice cream he felt he earned was not going to be his reward at 10:30 p.m.). The coach found me to say “he did great out there.”

Ryan loved that the coach’s three rules for his team are “have fun, work hard and make friends.” He loved that bantam coaches use the word “ass” a lot.

It was a remarkable day, and night. Ryan tackled a schedule that would have been impossible for him not so long ago. He gave maximum effort in a pair of practices. He found time to get his homework done and eat dinner and do all the other things he needed to. He never let anxiety get the better of him.

Returning to Courtney Love’s lyrics, I don’t feel life is “never fair” to Ryan. Sure, it’s more difficult at times and I hate when autism messes with his enjoyment of the things he loves the most. But the other part of the lyric? The part about the angels? I know I don’t agree with that one. I’ve had far too many examples to the contrary.

On Monday night, we found that the angel we needed was, in fact, there.



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