At some point over the previous 14 months, during the darkest and most hopeless days of the pandemic, we’ve all looked inwards and asked ourselves: “What would it be, what would be that one thing that, for me, would signify that the pandemic is largely behind us, and things are back to normal?”
For some, it would be a return to their favourite bar or restaurant. For others, it may be taking that trip that’s been postponed for a year. Maybe it’s going to see a live concert or a film in an actual movie theatre. Whatever the individual case, we all have our personal totems that we could look to and say, “Yeah, we survived this...things are starting to feel normal again.”
It was about late last summer, sometime after the Disney tournament (ed - “MLSisBACK”), that I noticed I wasn't spending as much time with my son as his buddy (as well as his father), and rather, I was spending an increasingly uncomfortable time being an enforcer of online learning, or a stricter disciplinarian on mask rules and social distancing or whatever new roles this pandemic had asked of us. What was missing, however, was the couple hours a week where I got to just be his pal. He and I hanging out less as father and son with a 33-year age discrepancy, but just being “boys” sharing laughs and giggles, and bonding. Of all the things that this wonderful life has given me to do, and allowed me to do, being a Dad to my son remains my most favourite thing in the world, but there was a disruption in the balance. There was a static and a new inertia.
The issue was clear. You don't forge bonds without an appropriate crucible, and as this pandemic raged on, that crucible on the Lakeshore would remain closed to us. For me to feel “normal” again, it would take Toronto FC returning home to BMO Field, allowing me to once again be able to take my son back to the stadium, and add a new chapter to an ongoing story that has gone for eight years, one that began before he was even out of his diapers.
The return to BMO Field wasn't just a mark of celebration for us, it had become a necessity.
In the past month or so, one by one, the signs that we were returning back to normalcy were all there. There were patios, get-togethers in backyards, haircuts (him, not me sadly), drum lessons, and little by little there was that feeling of fun in our relationship again. Surely a sign that we had been past the worst.
But then the email from Toronto FC came that there would be a game this Saturday and I might be able to go!
My immediate thought was “Winning this might be as big as Lotto 6/49!” (truly, I am a prisoner of the moment, and didn't really think it fully through!) Once the confirmation arrived that I had two tickets, my dilemma dawned on me. While I am double vaccinated, my 8-year old doesn't qualify for a vaccine, so would I be risking him by attending this match?
So began this internal debate: Do Ontario’s numbers look safe enough for him to attend? Is the open air enviroment safe? What actually are the safety protocols? The calculus of normalcy and positivity versus safety and negativity is not an easy one, that I can assure you.
I contemplated taking someone else, but do you really go visit the Pope and take along your atheist friend? Can’t do it right? So the decision was made, we were going to double mask, wear glasses, and arrive later to avoid the queues in an attempt to do this as safely as possible...but we were going to return to the crucible.
I’m not one for superstition, but yesterday I may have taken things a bit far to feel that familiarity and comfort that had been taken away from us on Friday, March 13, 2020–the day the world fell at our feet.
I got gas from the same station I always do, even though I had enough room for four dollars of gas in my car. We drove the exact same way we always do, even if it takes five extra minutes. We parked in the exact same slot that we always do in Lot 2, even if that meant leaving dozens of closer spaces behind. We marched towards the same gate we always do, even though that wasn't the most convenient for my relocated tickets. This wasn’t about superstition, so much as it was an attempt to take back everything that had been taken from us for the last year. There was an underlying therapeutic defiance against the year long prison sentence this pandemic had forced upon all of us.
Once we got into our seats, it was so joyous to take it all in. The sights, the sounds, and the smells. It was all catharsis. Yes, we missed our regular seats, and you can’t replace Colin and his kids, and Taylor, Michelle, David and Justin, but this was damn close.
Yesterday, we made new memories. Turns out after watching a season of Man United, being enthralled with the Euro Championship, and kicking my butt in FIFA ‘21, I now had a seatmate who can appreciate some of the finer details of the beautiful game. We discussed at a level we hadn't even spoken at before. He was impressed with some of the strategy and technique of the players and had technical questions about the way Toronto FC were set up. The talks about the game, the hot dogs, the cold beverages, the breeze off of the lake, all of it amounted to a near-perfect evening. I say near-perfect because a win and the ensuing exit while listening to Depeche Mode on the loudspeakers just hits different, you know?
So yesterday, after far more days than I care to keep track of anymore, we did all the things we love to do at BMO Field. The car ride home was talking and laughing. There were giggles. Inside jokes that only he and I could understand. There was a late night snack of chips and sports chatter while we caught the end of the NBA Finals game, all of which hadn't been there for those 14 months now.
I don’t know when we will go back, as my comfort with 15,000 is a lot different than it is with 7,000, but those are semantics, details that we can iron out later. The option being there presents a freedom that we haven't had for a long while now. But for now, we have the pictures and the selfies to look back at, and a game this coming week that we will be intently tuning into together, as those bonds are not only forged but hardened.
Neither team lost yesterday, but a whole lot of people walked out feeling like they had won. That’s the beauty of all of this. Years from now we won't remember wins and losses, and how many goals were scored, and who did what. This year, more than any in my lifetime, the sport is a backdrop to the larger narratives guiding and shaping all of us. Therapy, normalcy, whatever it was yesterday, it was all made possible by a simple homecoming.