Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When Everytime You Step on the Squash Court...

Squash often imitates life or is it life often imitates squash? Just as we've all heard the axioms like live life to the fullest -- as if it's your last day, imagine if it were really true. How would you live out your last day? If every time you stepped onto the squash court it could be your last time, how would you play? For my friend and squash student Eric Ma, it is a reality. Eric is a stage 4 cancer patient who shares such a passion for this game, not unlike his passion for life. Eric started playing squash two years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. Squash was one of those things he always wanted to do. Long before I knew he was ill, I could see his talent and his desire to learn. A slight of build middle aged man with quick feet and soft hands, he made his money long ago when he sold his share of a laptop manufacturing company in Taiwan. I remember the first time I stepped on the court with him and introduced myself. He had seen my son and me play and wanted to know how he could play like that. I told him we've had years of being coached and lots of experience. I offered him some pointers on his raquet preperation and noticed immediately he was listening intently and eager to show me what I just told him. We started hitting and I started insticntly barking out my usual teacher admonistions: rqcquet up; fix your wrist; follow through; and MOVE your feet. After 20 minutes I knew he was a student of the game, the look on his face when he hit a crisp shot (one out of a 100) was worth every second we spent on the court that day. We chatted a bit afterwards and the next few times I saw him I offered him some additional pointers. Then I didn't see him for a month and sort of figured maybe he didn't like squash all that much. When I did see him I could see he didn't look well and I asked him if everything was okay? He replied he had to go in for radiation treatment but that he was fine now. I didn't know he meant he was fine for the time being. He wanted to arrange lessons and get on the court 3-4 times a week with me. I was happy to say yes, because he's the type of student that makes coaching rewarding. He questions everything not out of arrogance but out of a genuine desire to understand and learn this game.
We went through a period of 3-4 weeks, he was really picking up the game and learning the fundamentals quickly. When it clicked he walked as if he was on top of the world. He talked to me about religion and business and of course squash. Then he disappeared again. I sent him a couple of emails to see if he was okay. I didn't hear from him. Then one day he appeared, his face sunken and shallow, walking gingerely. He wanted to hit some, but I could see he was week and not looking good. We just hit, it was a wonderful hit, just the sound of the ball and the peaceful respite between the shots. He was tired so we came off the court. He said the medicine he takes makes him very sick and weak, but once he gets through it he will be strong again. He arranged for lessons the following week.
This pattern went on for months and one day I asked him about his illness. He said he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I asked him if the medicine and radiation was working he said yes, "I'm still here", and he laughed. I laughed to I guess not really understanding what he meant. About his squash, he was now playing matches and striking the ball well. I coach lots of technique and he was very technical and loved the lessons. We had that synergy where I was so proud of all his accomplishments from the lessons and just as disappointed when it wasn't working for him. His accomplishments were his, his disappointments were mine. We talked a lot about religion and how much faith he had in god and god's goodness, often he told me he had to learn to trust in something, and god was the one he turned to.
After a good run with lessons, I could see he had become a player. I watched his matches, coached him, but really just enjoyed talking to him about life and living and god and of course squash. It was then that he opened up about his illness and told me was stage 4 and I asked him to explain. He told me the cancer had spread to all his organs. The chemotherapy and radiation he would undergo was just an attempt to keep the disease from advancing. Stage 4 is terminally ill. I felt truly humbled by this, since from his explanation I now knew what it meant. Here I would get so frustrated with certain things and especially on the court if everything didn't go the way I wanted them to. And yet, I was coaching a student in squash that was a teacher in life.
He complimented me once after a lesson that when he hits a good shot and the squash game is working for him, that I become so enthusiastic that even though he might be in pain and tired, he's inspired to continue. I just told him I was so proud to know him and be able to pass on to him something of this great game, squash. I joked that if there's a squash heaven he's going to go there, but he's got to some how get word back to me that there's indeed a squash heaven.
The last I saw Eric he informed me he had to go into intense radiation that the disease had spread again. I remember that day because we had a session when he hit his rails like no other time. I told my son who was at the club to come watch, to see how good he'd become. I know Eric was in pain and he kept holding his back. He wanted to continue and we had an amazing session. He was completely spent. He told me he'd get in touch with me when his treatment was completed. I wished him luck and knew he'd be okay one way or another. I have since sent him emails and tried calling him to see how he was doing. It's been nearly two months now since we were on the court and I fear the worst. I wonder did he not tell me something during that last session? Maybe he came out and just played the best he could play like he did every day, except that time it might have been his very last play -- on earth that is...

1 comment:

chubrock1121 said...

I since found out that Eric died sometime in August. I was so saddened by this, I go to the courts and sometimes believe I see him there, his squash bag his big smile his Dunlop Hot Melt rackets. I miss you, my squash buddy, I hope where ever you are everything is as you expected -- you are in the presence of your lord.