Viewpoint: "Why tennis is far more than a game"
A love of tennis runs in Lisa Millard's family - and through a whole lifetime of memories
My relationship with tennis runs deep. First memory: arriving home from school as a young teenager. My key slides into the lock, opening the door with a familiar click and there it is: the thwack of a ball, the gasp of a crowd and the commanding voice of an umpire calling scores and asking for quiet, please. Without seeing it I know the scene that awaits – French doors in the lounge open to a small garden, flowers in bloom, my mother unusually sitting down, feet upon the sofa, mesmerised by the pictures on the television. Tuned in. Entirely occupied. Happy.
Another memory: summer holidays with a bunch of family friends. Us kids come together in a mosh pit of play, squabbles and noise while the adults, dressed in gleaming whites, take to the sun-scorched courts in between boozy lunches and afternoon naps. Relaxed. Competitive. Happy.
Fast forward. It’s the summer of 2016 and I have two tickets to day four at Wimbledon. Despite a lifetime of watching and playing tennis my mother has never been. I would love to take her, but she lives in Scotland, is in her eighties, was recently widowed and her health is ailing – she needs a stick to walk and has lost peripheral vision. Logistics are against us and we both concede defeat.
Or so I thought. Come the day, I receive a call from a mobile with a bad line. “Darling, could you meet me at Peterborough station with the Wimbledon tickets? I’m on a train and making my way there with Alistair.” Let me fill the gaps. Alistair was my parents’ long-serving gardener and handyman – my father was a chocolate teapot when it came to DIY tasks of any size or complexity. I believe Alistair even came to their house once to change a light bulb. Alistair was also very fond of my elderly parents (and they of him), so when he turned up one day to mow the lawn to be met with my mother’s chaotic attempts to ready herself for a 400-mile train journey on her own, what was he to do?
Five hours later Alistair came to the train window at Peterborough station where I handed him the Wimbledon tickets while my mother waved from her seat. He was mute. I managed two words: thank you.
They made it to Wimbledon and caught a few games before traipsing back to the station to head home. Long story short, the last train left without them and my mother decided to board another train to Cambridge, overlooking the fact that I don’t live there (I’m 10 miles north, near St Ives) and reside in a house the size of a postage stamp without a spare bedroom. Puzzled by my mother’s muddled behaviour, I booked them into a Travelodge and hope for the best. Unfazed by the situation my mother said it was “such a lovely day, darling”. Sharing her story of getting to Wimbledon gave her much pleasure and quiet pride.
Fast forward to autumn 2016. I’m in Scotland for a short stay to take mother to hospital to investigate her diminishing vision and headaches. I am waiting for her to return from an MRI scan. We are asked to wait to speak with a consultant. Nursing staff settle us in a room away from the hospital hustle and bustle, smiling, gentle and kind. I hold my mum’s hand. When the consultant arrives, she slightly squints her eyes before asking: “Have you been feeling well lately, Mrs Millard?” Visibly puzzled by my mother’s breezy description of her aches and pains, the consultant explains the results of the scan showing cancer spread throughout her body. It’s terminal. We are sorry.
I don’t return home for some time. My mother dies on 3 December in the splendid care of the Strathcarron Hospice where she was blessed with a good death with me and my daughter by her side. Alistair visited her there, as did many of her tennis friends – she had played well into her seventies. She’d made it to Wimbledon just three months before she departed this world. We didn’t know then that she was riddled with cancer and had a tumour on the brain. Nor did she. She only knew that she wanted to go, and she did. Determined. Dogged. Happy.
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