A single sentence captures the anguish and despair: 'I just wish I could speak to mom one more time'

Sport is the escape room of the broken heart, writes Dave Hannigan

In the early evening sun, a pair of 22-year-olds are playing soccer in the court in front of our house. An unruly two-on-two match involving my sons, Charlie and Finn. There is shouting about contested decisions, oohing and aahing at stepovers, and laughter at the impudence of the younger competitors these men have known since they were toddlers.

A decade ago, Alessandro and Jared played alongside my oldest boy Abe in a ramshackle schoolboy outfit that I coached for several years. Callow lads then are somehow thoughtful grown-ups now. On this day, they have driven over after work to kick a ball around because they know my lads are in great pain and want to help in the only way they know how.

On April 7th, my ex-wife Cathy, mother of my three children, died suddenly. My kids’ lives were immediately divided into the time before and the time after. That’s where we are today. A grim place, hallmarked by unimaginable pain, pockmarked by unspeakable sadness.

A single sentence that captures all the anguish, the frustration, the despair. A dagger every time

All the hoary old cliches about loss ring true and none of them offer any consolation. Each morning we try to outrun the dark shadows of this netherworld. Some days we succeed for hours at a time. Others we don’t.

There is no handbook for this sort of thing. The navigational app for picking your way through the morass of mourning has not yet been invented. But, if grief truly is the thing with feathers, sport might just be a comfort blanket, a fleeting diversion. The escape room of the broken heart. In a world spinning off its axis, we reach for old reliables. When so much else seems alien, there is solace in the familiar. Like the certain bounce of a ball.

I realised as much the day Abe texted from New York city requesting his vintage Manchester United shirt and his soccer boots be delivered post-haste. He has been searching out pick-up games in the public parks ever since and swapping videos of skilful juggling feats with his younger siblings. Every man with a ball at his feet becomes a child again. And there’s something beautiful and reassuring in that.

Finn has immersed himself in the NBA play-offs, the 11-year-old commandeering a box seat in his grieving grandfather’s living room down the street, the Celtics’ progress to the Eastern Finals a balm on both their wounds. Not a cure. There is no known cure. More of an ointment that relieves the swelling.

For a couple of hours, he gets swept up in the heroics of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Typically, those are not the nights he puts his head on the pillow, looks up at me, heartsick, and says, “I just wish I could speak to mom one more time.”

A single sentence that captures all the anguish, the frustration, the despair. A dagger every time. Yet, as anybody who has dealt with seismic loss will testify, traumatic times reveal the goodness in people too. My niece, Kadie, flew over from Cork with her 16-month-old son, Trent (his father is a Liverpool fan), figuring the boys would wring laughs out of a marauding baby laying waste to the house. And they did, relishing him wreaking havoc and never once calling him anything but the full Trent Alexander-Arnold.

For a sweaty hour, we shot baskets and performed flicks and tricks, getting lost in attempted rabonas, elasticos, and around the worlds

Then there’s Elizabeth, a five-year-old sparkplug who lives two doors down and is known colloquially as “Boss Lady” for her domineering manner when playing with the older neighbourhood kids. At some of the darkest moments of the past few weeks, she has rocked up to the door with her skateboard under her oxter, oblivious to the melancholic circumstance, demanding Charlie immediately join her doing lengths of the street. No matter how bleak his form, the 15-year-old has never once refused. How could he?

Watching him glide gracefully along on his longboard, a grin breaking across his face, this elfin Avril Lavigne trailing behind in his wake shouting the odds at him, is like glimpsing grainy 1970s home movie footage from one of those documentaries about the birth of skateboarding. There must be something truly Zen and restorative about riding with the breeze in your hair because Charlie always alights that board in a happier state.

The quest for those kinds of therapeutics is ongoing. Last Sunday morning, we found ourselves in a playground off Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. A father, three sons and two balls. A portrait in trying to cope. We left our troubles outside the fence and put the phones down.

The Cork hurlers rediscovering their mojo against Waterford and the drama between Manchester City and West Ham could wait. For a sweaty hour, we shot baskets and performed flicks and tricks, getting lost in attempted rabonas, elasticos, and around the worlds.

All relief is welcome. All relief is temporary.

At school the other day, Finn was playing basketball at recess. As he went to take a jumper, a classmate tried to block the shot and accidentally tore a beaded bracelet from his wrist. A keepsake he’d taken from his mother’s bedroom and worn every day since her death. The precious relic scattered around the ground, and he broke with it. Into tears. Floods of tears.

An attentive lunch monitor gathered the bits and bobs and carefully placed them in a Ziplock bag. The plan now is to piece it back together slowly, meticulously. A metaphor. For where we are. For what we must do.