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Published on September 11th, 2011 | by Lady Shatterly

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My Father’s Daughter?

From the time I was old enough to know there was a difference between boys and girls, I assumed my dad wished I were a boy. He was a mechanic—a beer-drinking NFL and NASCAR fan who spent his Saturdays volunteering in his buddies’ pit crews at short tracks around New England. I quickly became a tomboy, ignoring my girly cousins in favor of tinkering with go-carts and playing football.

I remember playing catch in the back yard of our triplex when I was 8: He threw the football over my head; I ran and made a diving leap into a cluster of metal trash cans. I came up bleeding—and with the ball. “Now THAT was a catch!” he yelled, with one of biggest grins I’ve ever seen on his face.

My dad wasn’t open and affectionate; he was closed-mouth, sarcastic, smart-ass. I became the same. “You’re your father’s daughter,” my mom would sigh when I mouthed off.

My dad and I didn’t discuss “feelings.” We talked about the Whalers, the Bears, the Mets. Especially as I grew older, sports remained the common language between us, an ongoing conversation that was mostly unintelligible to my mom. I moved across the country during college, but that connection remained. I was such a big sports fan that I decided to pursue it as a career, becoming a sports journalist. Then I could impress my dad with the names of the hockey players I’d interviewed, the coaches I was ghostwriting columns for.

I left journalism behind but remained a sports fan. I was constantly athletic, running 5Ks and taking up ice hockey. In 2006, I discovered roller derby—the intensity of a full-contact sport instantly appealed to me. I lived in Utah and would send pictures, newspaper clippings and recaps to my parents in Connecticut. My dad kept a bout picture of me on his toolbox and talked up roller derby to his coworkers. “She’s little,” he would say about me. “But she’s not afraid of anything.”

After 16 years away, I moved back to New England in 2009. I joined the closest derby league, a recent start-up in Manchester, New Hampshire, as a skater/coach. My family visited and came to watch a practice. “You’re so good,” my mom said. “We can’t wait to see you play.”

But it was the beginning of a dark time for my dad. He fixed planes for a flight school, and the recession severely cut into their business. He was laid off. In the months that followed, my mom noticed he had difficulty following directions. His hearing was bad, so he got a hearing aid—and it didn’t make a difference. He was forgetting things, couldn’t follow a conversation. Watching television confused him. Even sports didn’t hold his attention.

Meanwhile, I had started traveling 90 miles to Boston to watch derby. I sat in the stands as the Boston Massacre hosted teams I had played out west—Rocky Mountain, Pikes Peak—and I watched online as they played at Eastern Regionals, and then Nationals. I envied them, and all the women who were lucky enough to live in cities that could field top-level teams. My husband saw my sadness and said something truly crazy: “Boston isn’t THAT far.”

I transferred in 2010. I was chosen for Massacre halfway through the season but never saw playing time, so I vowed to work as hard as possible on my skating and gameplay, to make 2011 my do-or-die year.

Now here I am: a skater/coach with the Massacre, the best team I’ve had the opportunity to play with. We are headed into Regionals—my first in six seasons of derby. I’m retiring after this season. This is both the proudest and scariest time in all of my years as an athlete.

And I can’t share it with my dad. He has been diagnosed, loosely, with early-onset dementia. He’s 60. I listen as he mutters to himself, wondering where I am and when I’ll come to visit. I try to laugh it off when he says, “I need to find Jennifer,” as he sits right next to me. “Shouldn’t be too tough,” I reply, smart-ass. My family did finally get to see me bout, but it was too late for him to follow what was happening.

My dad always ruled our household. He had a quick temper and was difficult to please. Maybe that’s why I tried so hard. My mom was his opposite, sweet and constantly supportive—I guess I saw her as a bit of a pushover who would be proud of me no matter what. I never saw her iron will.

It’s different now. Over the past two years, my mom has dealt with more challenges than a person should have to face in a lifetime. She left her job to stay home with my father. She handles all the decisions, all the day-to-day upkeep, all the caregiving—and there is a lot to handle. She is often discouraged but eternally hopeful. She’s the strongest person I know, and I never knew it.

Now, she’s the one who looks for me on DNN, delivering play-by-play commentary to my dad. When I visit, she stays up until 2 AM with me watching bout video. She offers critiques on how my team performed and what we should have done differently (in her opinion, I should always play more). For the first time in her life, she’s a sports fan. And that fact that it’s roller derby—the sport that I have dedicated more hours and sweat and tears to than any other in my life, the sport that’s given me so much in return—makes that new connection with her even more special.

I know she will be proud of me no matter what I do at Regionals. Even though that’s guaranteed, I will play the hardest I have ever played to make sure I’ve earned it. It will be a huge challenge, but I know I’m strong enough.

Because I’m my mother’s daughter, too.

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