The joy of pickleball helped me cope with grief

This time last year, as the winter temperatures dropped to freezing, my mom was in the final days of lung cancer. She chose to stop the nonsense of chemo that wasn’t working. She wanted to spend her final days in peace, at home, with family. I visited often at her home in Worcester. They were slow, beautiful visits. I also brought my pickleball paddle.

I found my way to the public courts in Westborough, Mass. where I met Lou, the unofficial commish of the town’s Nelson Ball Pickleball courts. Lou organizes games at the eight-court park every single day. Players shovel snow and towel the courts by hand after a rain. Nothing stops them.

That’s my mom, Cathleen, sitting under the umbrella watching a family pickleball tournament.

I folded in easily with the players, mostly retired folks playing at 9 a.m. on weekdays. They knew I was in town visiting family. They didn’t know the details.

My mom was also Cathleen, but everyone called her Cathie – she hated that. She named me Cathleen and required that everyone use my full name. Mom loved playing sports. She grew up in the 1940s and was told at age 10 that she couldn’t play anymore because she was a girl. She dressed up like a boy to join a baseball team, but got caught.

Mom raised her children – five boys and one girl – to be athletes. She cherished the sporting opportunities I had growing up in the era of Title IX. She coached my Little League softball team, leading us from last place to Worcester city champs. To this day, I can’t figure out how Mom ran after-school practices and put a meal on the table for a family of eight by 6 p.m.

Mom never got a chance to play pickleball, though she watched a family tournament. During my visits home, Mom smiled when I went off to play. When I arrived at the Westborough courts, players shouted “Cathleen!” I felt like Norm walking into the bar at Cheers.

Pickleball lets you forget your troubles. When your opponents are standing a few feet away on the kitchen line, it requires total focus to predict where they are hitting the ball. The pop, pop, pop of a fast volley, or the di-bop, di-bop of a dinking battle put me in a trance. Problems, grief, and achy knees disappear in those moments.

Pickleball brought me joy during a tough year. If you know someone who needs a lift, give them a pickleball paddle.