We had little in common, other than the fact that we were in the same gym class, and shared the same name.
She spelled her name Kristen, as did the other handful of Kristens in our elementary school. Mine is Kristin, a slight difference, and a moot point when our gym teacher called out first names for attendance.
Kristen came from a family of athletes. We were third-graders when she won the chin-up contest for the entire elementary school. It seemed unnatural to watch this small girl pulling up on that bar effortlessly, beating out every boy. We all stood, mouths open as she kept going. While most of us were eating Cheerios each morning before school, Kristen’s parents were leading their kids in calisthenics routines. Pushups, sit-ups, dips, and chin-ups. They were a highly competitive bunch. I had actually played little league under Kristen’s mom, and it was not pretty. Forget having fun. We were little soldiers going to battle. And if the umpire made a remotely questionable call against our team, her temper flared.
One Saturday, we had to drop off something to Kristen’s family. Their house was at the end of a long, deeply wooded driveway. As our mothers were talking, Kristen invited me up to her room.
As we were standing there, her three-year-old brother wandered in. I gasped. An angry red gash spanned his face, from the corner of one eye, across his cheek and lips, then trailing down his neck.
He was attacked by a flying squirrel, said Kristen.
He nodded his small head in agreement, and lifted up his t-shirt, revealing yet another wound.
As it happened, this flying squirrel had nested in their attic. The little guy’s room was beneath, and somehow the creature had chewed its way through the ceiling before sailing downward and attacking him as he slept. Not only had he been scratched and bitten, but he was painfully treated for rabies, a precautionary measure, since the flying squirrel was potentially rabid.
The worst part of this situation was that flying squirrels are a protected species, and to have this creature hunted down and destroyed would take mounds of paperwork and lots of time.
As our mothers continued talking, we wandered into their kitchen. I watched Kristen’s father at the table, building a turkey on rye. With an eyebrow raised, he recounted the frustrating rules of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
I asked: Are you going to catch that flying squirrel?
Well, it is a protected creature, he said, scooping up his injured little boy and hugging him tight.
I thought about that sentence as we drove home. He had not answered my question. But I had seen the way he held his child, and I could feel the protection pulsing in that kitchen. It felt a lot like love.
Kristen ran over to me the next week during gym class.
Don’t tell, but my Dad killed that flying squirrel, she whispered, as we stretched in the gym.
I nodded. Of course he had. That was his son.
Friday night lights. Those were some of our family’s favorite years. Our oldest son was a tight end with a wicked stiff- arm yet soft hands; our second born son the consummate quarterback. My husband helped coach, and our third son was the ball boy. It was a fun time of life.
From the moment our boys could run, they played backyard football. There is something about that familiarity and chemistry that translated, quite seamlessly, to the high school football field. Words were not necessary, our tight end knew exactly what his quarterback brother was planning, and their timing was golden. To see those two in tandem, scoring touchdowns, was thrilling. They never owned all of the high-end gear or expensive cleats, but had something far better: a brotherly bond that was as natural as breathing. What everyone witnessed on that field was formed by years of play.
And then the time arrived for our oldest to go to college. Those Friday nights under the lights were still wonderful, just different. Our quarterback son’s arm was as accurate as ever, but the chemistry with receivers took more effort and patience. They weren’t brothers, after all.
One Saturday morning, during this time, I leashed up our two Golden Retrievers, and headed out for a walk. Our youngest three joined me. We discussed the football game from the previous night. Having fun conversation, I chose to lengthen the walk by going one street farther than usual.
Our discussion was suddenly interrupted by a deep, chesty growl. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a massive Pit Bull, watching us; stone still. Thankfully he was chained, and his owner was hollering for him to shush. She gave us an apologetic wave as we quickened our steps, anxious to put space between us.
We turned off that street, rounded the corner, and headed for home. That is when I heard a snap and a clink.
The ground thudded, and as I looked back I froze. The Pit Bull was charging us.
I have read stories of people freezing in the face of danger. I never really understood how that was even possible. Until then. My legs were weak yet fastened to the ground. I held tightly to the leashes, and life unfolded in slow motion. The dog was now at my feet, snapping its fangs, biting our terrified dogs.
A true quarterback is wired to function at a high level on the field; especially under pressure. Reading the field and assessing the rushing danger is paramount. He must protect the ball at all cost.
As the beast began to attack, my quarterback son’s foot thudded against its wide chest. His arm swept his younger brother and sister behind him, to safety. He took the dog leashes from my hand as he continued to pummel the aggressor with his foot. He was calm; focused. The Pit Bull, bloodthirsty for our dogs, did not even seem to notice the beating.
My son then jerked our dogs away from the Pit’s jaws, handed their leashes back to me, pushed the menacing creature’s head to the ground, and straddled its back in a forced position of submission.
Looking directly at me, he spoke clearly as the monstrous dog beneath him kept trying to lunge.
Mom, stay calm and walk away. Slowly. If he tries to chase you, know that I won’t let him.
So I did.
Moments later, the dog’s owner came flying, a spiked choke chain in hand. She flung it over her dog’s head, and it ultimately took three people to drag the frothing beast back to its yard.
After we were safely home, and I had taken some deep breaths, I realized.
We were safe. My son’s actions had not been simply those of a quarterback. This wasn’t that. It was so much more. His swiftness to protect held an intense likeness to the heart of God; rescuing and leading his own to safety.
It felt like love to me.