Not long ago I happened to mention that before the Patriots had this more recent string of good teams, they had gone to the Super Bowl a long time ago, but lost. Badly. This gave Ethan pause. "Who beat them?" he asked. "The Chicago Bears," I replied. "What was the score?" He always has to know the score. "It was 46-10," I said. Somehow, I still remember. "I was really sad."
This made Ethan stop. "Why?" he asked. "Well, because I really wanted them to win," I said matter-of-factly.
In my mind's eye as I spoke I could see that day, 27 years (No way! I'm old!) ago. You see, before the Red Sox broke my 11-year-old heart in 1986, the Patriots did. First had been the improbable run in the playoffs. My dad and uncles had been at the game in Foxboro where they clinched a Wild Card berth, and ran out onto the field with the masses, some of whom jumped up on the goal posts and carried them away. The next several games were raucous affairs at different relatives' house. I'll never forget driving up to my grandmothers' before the Patriots played the Miami Dolphins and seeing my uncle walk out of the house with a football helmut on his head yelling "Squish the Fish!" while sporting signs he'd created of various dolphin-like carcasses.
Yeah, we were die-hards. We were thrilled, although no one gave the Patriots a snowball's chance in hell of winning. The Bears were Goliath and we were decidedly David. The Bears had Jim McMahon with his sporty 80's sunglasses and the "Super Bowl shuffle" music video. The Patriots had tried to follow up with a music video of their own. "New England, the Patriots and we (we'll beat the Bears, just wait and see!)" went the chorus. All these years later, I'm still cringing in embarrassment.
Still, we had hope. And so the night before we all slept over my grandmother's, and all the next day we pondered the game and bought snacks and rigged up televisions in various rooms of the house (we had one in the bathroom, for Pete's sake). We looked at the clock in anticipation and gathered, excited, in the living room for the kick-off. And then, very quickly, things got ugly. Very ugly. And for whatever reason, the great big emotional group of us couldn't just shrug it all off as having been a disappointing end to a very good season. We had to take it personally. I thought my mom was going to start crying. Our usual pessimistic Yankee, sort of fatalistic gloom began to descend. This is how I had learned to handle disappointment, from an early age.
Two days later, we'd really have something to grieve -- the space shuttle Challenger would explode and end the lives of seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. But that night, we watched in silence, murmuring like Eeyore about things always somehow going wrong, in the end.
All of this flew through my mind as I talked to Ethan about that long-ago Super Bowl. He drank it all in, but I didn't realize he was troubled. Later, he asked, "Think about if the Patriots played the Bears, but they actually WON?"
"That'd be cool," I answered absentmindedly.
The next day I heard him playing and doing football "play by play" again. "And there's only one second left...and he throws a touchdown...and the Patriots win the game!" my narrator was whispering excitedly. "Mamma!?" he called to me. "The Patriots beat the Bears!"
"Did they?" I asked, and then I stopped short. There was a reason he'd picked the Bears. He was remembering my story. The ending didn't sit right with him, and so he'd decided to do something about it.
You often hear people talk about pretend play and how it gives your child the outlet to imagine they can be anything or do anything. I hadn't thought so much about the way fantasy can make right a perceived wrong. Life may have gone one way, but our daydreams can go another. If I flip through my trusty Floortime book, I can see that this is actually a specific aspect or stage of pretend play. There it is, p. 97, as part of an assessment you can perform on your child's progress: "Uses pretend play that has a logical sequence of ideas to recover from distress, often suggesting a way of coping with the distress."
And so it was with Ethan, the one with rather limited imaginative skills, my boy who doesn't always "play" in the typical sense of the word. In Ethan's world, the Patriots had beaten the Bears, and all was right again.
"Ethan," I said, giving him a hug that the moment deserved, now finally seeing. "They did it! They won! I'm so happy!" He ran off to attempt another touchdown in his alternate universe. I thought of January 1986, and for once, I smiled.