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The Silence

Nothing could compare to silence.
The distance rumble of wheels on asphalt, the clamor of birds, nor dull murmur of the sidelines fazed us – even the deep, exasperated breaths of our teammates didn’t seem to meet our ears.
A cluster of blue uniforms at his feet, Coach towered with arms knotted over his chest, staring at the bruises in the grass. With tense muscles, we waited for the signals; a sniffle, a sigh, an adjustment to his hat…or, if we’d really done it, the sound of his clipboard clattering to the ground. Half-time was the moment of truth; feedback translated into, You’re doing alright. Silence meant, This isn’t what we practice for.
The younger girls played with the grass; they tore it up, sprinkling it over their cleats, and didn’t raise their eyes. The rest of us looked at Coach, or his son, Brian, and waited for the quiet to end and the storm to begin.
None of us looked at each other.

I was babysitting when I heard from a friend what had happened. People always make a sympathetic kind of noise when they hear that, but it wasn’t really the worst place to be. There is no comfortable place to be for that kind of news.
The first thing I did was call my mom.
“It’s Catherine.” I dragged my fingers along the edge of the granite countertop, keeping y voice low.
“You sound upset…what’s the matter?”
“Mom…did coach Brian die?”
There was a pause. I was standing in the kitchen of the family I babysat for, staring unseeingly at a ceramic clock shaped like a cat, its eyes moving from side to side with every tick. I wouldn’t believe it until the words came to me in my mother’s voice.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Is it true?”
“Oh, honey…”
She was quiet again for a moment, and that’s how I knew.


I met Brian off of I-95, in a matter concerning an old pickup truck and a runaway couch. My mom had loaded our five-seat pickup truck with all five of her children and old furniture. A half-hour into our road trip, a floral-printed couch sprung free of my mother’s bungee-cord workings and went bouncing down I-95. When we stopped at the neighborhood Auto Zone to try and secure the bits of broken furniture, a young, friendly man had helped my mom strap down the couch with immense amounts of tape and rope.
Several years later, my sister and I heard Brian telling some girls on the soccer field about a crazy family he’d once encountered at work, and how they had asked him to secure a couch that had fallen out on the highway to the back of their truck. My sister and I looked at each other in disbelief, and then burst out laughing.


When my mom said the words “car accident” on the phone that night, for whatever reason the image of that stupid floral couch appeared in my head.

The next thing I did was call my sister. I pressed a hand to forehead, trying to keep calm for the sake of the sleeping children upstairs. I dialed her number over and over, pacing the bright orange kitchen, my fingers getting shakier every time I punched the keys. I could feel hot tears threatening the backs of my eyes, so I closed them and leaned against the granite countertop, waiting for Emily to answer.


“I don’t want to be a goalie! Why me?” I asked, gawking at Brian and my sister. It was two summers before Brian’s death, and he had called to ask if Emily and I would meet him at a high school field to do some shooting. Little did I know that I was being conspired against.
“Because you’re clumsy and you fall a lot,” Emily answered. Offended, I looked at Brian. He shrugged.
“It’s true,” he said.
“Well at least I don’t get sunburn on my head,” I retorted. Brian laughed, touching his scalp.
“Just give it a try, I know you can do it,” he insisted, walking me toward the misshapen soccer goal at the end of the deserted field. “I’m gonna help you, Cath. You’ll be fine! And if they score on us, that’s on the whole team, not just you. You’re still one of eleven out there.”
When I stared at Brian, unconvinced, he sighed.
“Do it for Coach Chrimes, okay?”
I looked at Brian, letting the suspenseful pause play out. Truth be told, I’d already made up my mind.


Emily didn’t answer. By the time my parents came to pick me up, I had lost all composure. I crumpled in the passenger seat of my father’s car, trying to catch my breath.

I had an image of Brian in my head; leaning against the post of the soccer goal where I stood, arms and ankles crossed, laughing. He was in grey sweatpants, Burkenstocks and a pink Williams T-shirt, and the way he laughed made him bounce a little, his glasses glinting in the sun as he shook his head.
On the day of Brian’s wake, when I heard Brian’s name among the chatter of the school, or saw something to remind me of him, that image projected itself across my mind, and I had to bite my lip to keep it from trembling.
The girls’ soccer team wore their black GVS T-shirts to school, and seeing one at the end of the hall drew my teammates and me together like magnets. Older, graduated girls from former teams could be found in the lobby, greeting old teachers and embracing younger teammates. How strange a reason it was to be meeting again in such a familiar place.
All day there were arms around me, my shoulder was damp, and voices spoke softly to me, the way people gently pick a flower so as not to draw up the roots.

“Hi, Catherine!”
I smiled back at Emily, my fellow soccer captain, as she passed me in the otherwise-empty hallway. Since Brian’s death, she had been unfailingly strong.
“Hi, Emily,” I called back to her. I was about to round the bend when I heard her voice again.
I turned. Emily was standing at the far end of the hall, clutching her binder close to her chest. She bit her lip, looking over her shoulder. We were alone in the hallway, standing far apart in our black soccer T-shirts.
“I’m scared.”
I froze. Brian laughed inside my head, the image projected across my mind, and I ran back to her, throwing my arms around her. I could feel her body start to tremble, and as it did, she drew back. She took a deep breath; her eyes were red. The unspoken thought of Brian’s wake – his family, his body – lingered between us.
“Me, too,” I told her.



My eyes feasted on his familiar form from across the field; I sprinted to the steel bleachers, where he stood, arms crossed, beside my sister.

“You played really well, Cath,” he said, and I could tell by the sad look in his eye that he meant it.

I hugged him, my arms not quite meeting behind his back. “Thanks, Bri,” I mumbled into his shoulder. As I drew back, I glanced behind me at the rest of my team, slowly walking across the field of our Rhode Island opponents. Most of them were younger than me, and few of them recognized Brian now.

Brian didn’t look quite right. He looked tired and sad as he took in the sight of us, the last of the girls he had ever coached, waiting on the cue of somebody else.

Brian took a deep breath, leaning back on his ankles. He told us of his plan since Coach had moved to Florida– he had a new job in hotel management – and what he’d been up to since he left Williams. It wasn’t a very long conversation; the bus was waiting.

“It was really nice of you to come see our game,” I told him. Behind me, a handful of girls waved at Brian, trickling toward the bus with their bags full of gear. “But you could’ve come to a home game, you know.”

“I know,” he sighed, then turned to my sister. “But I decided to wait for Em to come with me…it’s been really hard to drag myself here,” he explained. Emily smiled at him knowingly, the same sad spark in her eyes that came with being a graduate. I looked down at my cleats, digging a small hole in the grass with the spikes. I swallowed.

“I’m glad you came,” I told him, stabbing the whole I’d made in the grass with the toe of my cleat. It was harder than I’d thought it would be to see him so lost.

“You played really, really well,” he said again. I looked up at him and smiled.

“Well, I’d better go…we miss you, Brian,” I said to him, and I held out a hand for him to high-five. He did so without hesitation; it was a lost ritual.


My mother’s shoulder wasn’t shelter enough. I could not bury my face deep enough, could not curl my fingers in her jacket tight enough to escape. My sobs were hysterical now, my face hot and tear-stained. My ribs ached, my lungs burned – I could see only Brian’s body in the confinement of my mind when I closed my eyes.
Brian didn’t look like Brian.
“They never do,” my mom whispered to me as I told her this in a broken voice. I didn’t like that answer – I didn’t like that Brian was one of the “them.”
The image of him, ankles crossed, laughing beside the soccer goal, vanished the instant I saw him lying there. The glossy wood cover of the casket was drawn back, revealing his upper half. He wore a red plaid shirt, his arms limp at his sides. I kept thinking to myself, Where are his glasses? He should have his glasses…
His skin had taken on a slightly yellow hue. His beard was longer than I had ever seen it; the chin grey, the upper lip brown, and the sides auburn. I could hear the soccer girls in my head, teasing him for his “multi-colored facial hair.” The memory of their playful jeers was so unlike the sound of the horrified gasps they tried to suppress behind me now.
He looked deflated. His chin rested on his chest, his neck undetectable. I kept staring at his round belly, waiting for it to inflate. I’d never seen anything so still…there was something instinctual about seeing him there, lying like a puppet whose marionette strings had been cut, that registered his absence before I could even blink.
My mom kept stroking my arm with careful fingers, whispering in my ear, “Be strong for Coach, honey.” I nodded, over and over again, trying to breathe more slowly.
Do it for Coach, okay?
Coach stood beside his son’s casket, his wife and relatives on his right. He was talking to a faceless couple ahead of me, and I found myself studying his features; I tried to place them back several months before, with the smell of dirt and grass and the sound of his whistle.
His eyes were red when they met mine as he leaned forward to hug the person in front of me. As he took in the line of unhinged girls in old soccer jerseys, his eyes harbored an age I’d never know. I squeezed a handful of my mother’s jacket, biting my lip so hard that it nearly felt numb. I saw him give someone behind me a tired smile. A man among a dozen bouquets of flowers, he maintained unfathomable composure, standing with pride beside his dead son.
The steps I took toward Coach were the three most difficult steps I’ve ever taken. To find this weathered man’s focus once again on me made me feel like a child in his broad-shouldered shadow.
“Hey, kid,” he said calmly, as though I were just passing him in the parking lot at the sports complex, on my way to the locker room.
“Hi,” I managed. Fresh tears eased down my cheeks, and I felt my body start to quiver, my insides raw.
Do it for Coach, okay?
But “I’m so sorry, Coach” was all I could say, crumpling against my mother. The flowers around Coach blurred together in watercolor as I squeezed my eyes shut. I felt my mom gently push me forward, and I felt Coach’s sturdy arms pull me into a hug. I didn’t open my eyes, didn’t allow myself to look over his shoulder at the man in the red plaid shirt.
When Coach released me, I went from his arms to my sisters. Her arms wrapped around my waist, and I could feel her shoulders quaking. Her short, uneven breaths were warm against my ear, and I could feel her tears seeping into my hair.
“How are you, Coach?” my mom asked him.
“I’m okay for now,” he replied. “I don’t know how I’m gonna be when I get home…but right now I’m a hell of a lot better than she is, that’s for sure.” He nudged me with his elbow, his tone gentle and familiar. I brought a hand to my mouth, a piercing pain shooting through my chest as I realized that he would never stop coaching.

I’d never met Coach’s wife before. All I knew about her was that she’d had breast cancer, and that one year my mom had given Coach a framed picture of the two of them holding hands beside the soccer field. It was so surreal to be faced with the small, grey-haired woman now without a word to say.
She had Brian’s lips. I kept thinking about that, while my mother greeted her for the pair of us. I hadn’t even realized that I could recognize Brian’s lips, but I was sure that I was looking at them now, set into the face of a warm, weary woman embracing me with thin arms.
She released me, sliding her hands down to mine. I was surprised at how soft they were, and how carefully she held my fingers. She, too, wore glasses; behind them, Brian’s eyes looked into mine one more time.
“I’m so sorry,” she told me.


“You’re coming out,” Brian told me, reaching down to help me up off the field the previous year. It was the last game that we would play that season.
“I’m fine,” I hissed through my teeth, prying my hand from my ribs as I stood, knowing that Brian would take notice if I didn’t let them go. But it was too late – pain throbbed in my side and I could do nothing to stifle the sob that corresponded. Brian put his arm around me, steering me off of the field.
“No, you’re not,” he said gruffly. We reached the chain link fence on the sidelines and I fell into it, clutching the links. My broken ribs screamed in protest as I turned my body to face the field again. I cried openly now, glowering at the scoreboard. We were losing.
Brian sighed, turning to the bench. He called Kat, a midfielder, over to take my goalie gloves. I slowly peeled back the Velcro, staring at the empty space between the goalposts in despair.
“I’m so sorry,” I gasped.
Brian sighed again, placing a hand on my shoulder and shaking his head.
“Things happen, Cath. People get hurt,” he said gingerly, gesturing to the hand that gripped my ribs. “Now promise me you’ll stop apologizing, okay?”
I nodded, sniffling as I handed my gloves over to Kat. Brian gave me a small smile and a shrug, gently nudging my shoulder with his fist.
“You have nothing to be sorry about.”


The funeral was a symphony of sniffles and sobs, church hymns and the shuffling of feet. The priest spoke about Brian, and I listened to him tell me things that I didn’t know about my coach; the way he loved Ruby Tuesdays, his addiction to mystery novels. I never would have known the funny things he said to his mother and sister, or how his mother would sing him Amazing Grace as a child when he couldn’t fall asleep.
I wanted to tell the man speaking the things that he might not have known about Brian…like how he could do a perfect rendition of the Carlton Dance from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was crazy about Coldplay, and put sunscreen on his head before soccer games. I thought of how playful and fun he was, and all the time he spent mocking me when I wasn’t wearing socks after I lost a shoe on the basketball court. I thought of how he taught me to smear mud on my cheeks before big games, because “everyone’s afraid of The Dirty Kid”, and how we used to joke around that he and Emily would be neighbors someday, and I would live in a box in her backyard.
When the priest spoke of how much Brian cared about coaching and the girls he coached, I silently added how much we loved him, and that we would miss him more than he would ever know. But I hoped that much he knew.

Rocking back and forth on his ankles before the cluster of girls in black, Coach stood with his arms tucked inside the pockets of his Williams jacket, staring at the cracks between the tiles. We all stood with tense muscles, waiting for the signals.
He didn’t reach for his handkerchief, sniffling only a couple times. His eyes were clear, but there were deep shadows beneath them. His shoulders didn’t quiver. His breathing was slow and deliberate.

At half-time during soccer season, it had always been Brian’s job to break the silence. It was Brian that would step forward and say his piece, speaking Coach’s mind as well as his own calmly, while Coach listened, or paced, and chimed in occasionally. It wasn’t until Brian was done that Coach would tell us whatever truths and shames that Brian had forgotten.
At Brian’s funeral reception, Coach didn’t let the silence sink into us. Instead, he filled it with words like, “thanks for coming,” and, “Florida’s nice”, and “please stay in touch”, and “I’ll be alright.”
None of us looked at each other. We all hugged Coach one at a time, saying what little words we could find to express our appreciation for Coach, just as we’d practiced.

While Coach and his wife and daughter followed the casket out of the church, the organ sang Amazing Grace, and my sister held my hand.
When the organ was finally quiet, the team - made up of years and years of players - filed out together. We had arms around one another, fingers linked, staying strong for each other and for Coach. Our eyes downcast, we didn’t speak, but thought only of the two beloved men leading the way.

Nothing could compare to the silence.

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