This ping pong table has develop into the positioning of a showdown. It’s the O.K. Corral of table tennis.
However, as a substitute of a number of gunslingers on both facet, there are solely two outdated males holding paddles.
And one is my father.
My dad, Jay Arenschield, is crouched like a shortstop, swinging his arms to maintain his muscle mass unfastened, stopping as soon as to brush his white hair out of his eyes. His opponent, a 74-year-old Californian named David, appears to be like powerful, if barely stoop-shouldered — lean body, tanned pores and skin, what seems to be a tailor-made polo shirt. The person’s eyes are locked on my dad. His mouth is about in a fierce line.
They volley. David wins the primary level.
From the sidelines, Dad’s youngest brother — my 65-year-old uncle Ricky — claps his palms. “C’mon, Jay. Don’t let up,” Uncle Ricky says. “You get an offensive shot, you’re taking it.”
“C’mon, Jay. C’mon, c’mon,” provides their pal Kerry. “C’mon, man. You bought this.”
We’re in Albuquerque, NM, for the 2019 Nationwide Senior Video games, a once-every-two-years Olympic-style occasion that invitations athletes ages 50 to over 100 to flex their athletic prowess in every part from archery to pickleball.
The entire thing feels surreal: Dad is competing on a nationwide degree in a sport he solely began taking critically a pair years in the past, in his 70s.
David is kicking my dad’s butt, blasting each shot off corners and sending my dad lunging in wild instructions. Dad is sweating, respiratory laborious. However he’s additionally grinning and laughing and making jokes. He’s flashing smiles at my mother, principally flirting.
And I feel: When I’m 73, please let me have this type of life.
‘Strict “No-Ping-Pong-At-Least-For-Now” Orders’
My dad’s ping pong group is one thing particular, a various group of largely older males at a time when “variety” and “older males” are usually not phrases I typically join.
The group began 5 or 6 years in the past when one in all my dad’s buddies, Dhia Aldoori, a doctor who fled Iraq throughout Saddam Hussein’s reign, realized he wanted one thing to maintain his physique shifting as he obtained older.
After some analysis, Dhia — everybody calls him “Doc” — settled on ping pong.
It didn’t take lengthy for the group to begin taking part in in small competitions. By the summer season of 2018, Dad had certified for the Nationwide Senior Video games and, after that, he and his buddies began coaching in earnest. They traveled to different ping pong golf equipment, testing themselves towards totally different gamers. Doc employed a coach, a child in his 20s who’s attempting to make the precise U.S. table tennis workforce. My dad began watching what he ate — fewer late-night potato chips, extra greens.
Final spring, Dad’s coaching was on tempo, and his recreation was getting stronger. He and my mother booked a mattress and breakfast in Outdated City Albuquerque for every week across the Senior Video games, and he or she began planning to go to Santa Fe and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, to pattern New Mexico’s well-known chile rellenos.
After which, my dad lower off his finger.
It was April 17, 9 weeks earlier than the Nationwide Senior Video games, when my mother’s quantity flashed on my telephone. It was simply earlier than lunchtime on a workday — a wierd time for her to name.
“I don’t need you to fret,” my mother began — and if the phrases had had bodily type, they’d have quivered — “However we’re within the emergency room.”
Dad had been in the midst of a woodworking mission, sawing a bit of wooden into smaller, thinner items, when the blade sucked within the shim he’d been utilizing as a information, dragging Dad’s finger together with it. The blade sliced his index finger neatly on the first knuckle.
He was fortunate in a number of regards. One: The medical doctors thought that his finger might be reattached, so he may not lose it totally. Two: He hadn’t misplaced a lot blood. And three: The finger occurred to be on his left hand. His proper hand — his paddle hand — was unhurt.
Doc was the primary individual to indicate up at my mother and father’ home after the desk noticed accident. Dad was below strict “No-Ping-Pong-At-Least-For-Now” orders from his physician.
Doc wished to verify my dad wasn’t lonely.
A pair days later, Rob, my dad’s doubles accomplice, known as to see if Dad wished to go to lunch. Uncle Ricky came visiting and lower the grass.
When Dad went again to apply — after all, he went again to apply — the physician mentioned he wanted to maintain his injured finger secure. That meant no lunging in ways in which would possibly trigger him to fall, no swinging his arm as he served and by chance knocking it right into a desk or wall.
Dad’s buddies policed this the identical method they performed ping pong: mercilessly.
‘If He Loses Once more, He’s Out’
On the Nationwide Senior Video games in June, the air contained in the Albuquerque Conference Middle is stuffed with the rhythmic sounds of ping pong balls bouncing off tables and sneakers squeaking on a linoleum flooring.
Dad’s finger is usually healed, however not fairly. Per his physician’s orders, it’s nonetheless set in a splint and wrapped tightly in an elastic bandage. He can’t transfer it in any respect.
On the court docket, issues are usually not going effectively. When David wins recreation three, a shutout match, my dad locations the ball on the desk, shakes David’s hand and walks over to the sidelines the place his buddies and my mother are ready.
“Don’t hand over, Jay,” Kerry says.
Dad takes a swig of water, pulls a towel throughout his neck and heads again out to the court docket to face the subsequent competitor.
If he loses once more, he’s out.
The First Nationwide Win
Dad’s second match is towards a tall, lanky, pleasant man — a semiretired pastor at a Lutheran church in Minnesota. The primary recreation begins out OK: Dad scores a pair, the pastor scores a pair, after which the pastor pulls forward, up by two, up by 5. Possibly the next energy was pulling for the pastor, possibly Dad was simply too nervous, or possibly the pastor was simply higher at ping pong, however it’s a deflating begin for my dad.
Kerry leans over to me. “He’s gotta get some confidence going ahead, just a bit spark,” he says in a low voice.
Sport two has already began and, virtually instantly, my dad picks up a terrific level and goes on a roll. Sport two: Dad. The match is tied.
“The pendulum simply swung,” Uncle Ricky tells my dad. “Now you bought the momentum.”
Dad wins recreation three and goes up two video games to 1. Another will give him his first win in a nationwide event match.
Dad scores repeatedly, and shortly, it’s 7–four, Dad, and now, Kerry and my uncle are on their toes.
However then the pastor begins scoring.
7–5. 7–6. 7–7.
“Jay, I would like you to get an perspective, man,” Kerry shouts, and possibly that clicks, as a result of Dad begins scoring once more. Earlier than lengthy, it’s 10–eight, after which Dad is sending the ball over the web and the pastor can’t get there in time.
11–eight. Sport and match.
Dad’s first nationwide win.
We have now selections about how we age that begin as quickly as we’re sufficiently old to create our personal destinies. We will smoke — or not. We will put on sunscreen — or not. We will drink an excessive amount of — or not. We will eat extra produce and fewer potato chips, transfer our our bodies a little bit bit every single day, study new issues, get sufficient sleep, maintain our connections to buddies and households robust — or not. None of these items assure a protracted, pleased life. However they certain don’t damage.
From my dad and his ping pong buddies I’ve discovered: We will method life prefer it’s one thing to be survived and endured, one thing to be fought, one thing to be overwhelmed. We may give up when one thing powerful occurs, sink again into our simple chairs and by no means stand up once more. Or we will wrap life in our greatest embrace and permit ourselves new experiences with new individuals in new locations. We will problem ourselves. We could be type and loving and supportive to the individuals round us. We will bask within the love that shines our method consequently.
And we will get on a court docket, even in our 60s and 70s and 80s, even with a partially sawed-off finger, and we will compete.