Tuesday, June 6, 2017

'He's my hero': Son plays tennis with father in mind, as elder Gardner battles cancer

By Trevor Hass, Sports Editor/Reporter
Twitter: @TrevorHass

In this precious moment, a father and son are just that.

No one’s frantically driving to the hospital, lying in bed for hours on end or sobbing incessantly. The pain and suffering that the Gardner family has experienced has momentarily disappeared, like a rainbow after a torrential downpour or a feast after a fast.

The feeding tube protruding from the father’s stomach isn’t causing problems, and that’s enough for him and his son to rejoice. Dave Gardner and Dave Gardner – they’re not senior and junior, but they might as well be – are just happy, and for now that’s all that matters.

As the elder Gardner battles esophageal cancer and the younger Gardner wraps up his senior tennis season with the Dragons, sometimes they pause to remind themselves to cherish these moments. On this Thursday in early June, all is right in the world, and they feed off each other’s energy as they share what they mean to one another.

Even in their darkest moments, the Gardners are optimists. They know their situation is bleak, but they prefer to focus on the silver linings – reveling in the small victories and soaking in the precious moments. That’s the kind of people they are, and it’s the only way they know how to live.

As long as they have each other, they can battle the sickness together.

“He means the world to me,” the father said.

“He’s my hero,” the son squeaked out. “He’s the greatest person I’ve ever met.”

Family man

To this day, Dave Gardner is forever indebted to his in-laws. If his wife Liz’s parents hadn’t retired and moved from Minneapolis to their summer home on the Cape full time, he and his soul mate likely never would have crossed paths.

Dave, who grew up in St. Louis, moved to the Boston area and signed up for a tennis class in Cambridge. One day, Liz – who almost never worked on Saturdays – thought about going into work. She decided to play tennis instead, and it’s a good thing she did.

“I looked over and I said, ‘She’s pretty nice looking,’” Dave said. “I went over and said, ‘Would you like to play some tennis?’ We played, and then we went out to dinner. Next thing you know, we had three kids.”

Dave and his younger siblings, twins Annie and Peter, are Liz and elder Dave’s life. That life, albeit a complex one right now, has always revolved around sports.

When younger Dave – who is a captain and steady doubles player for Duxbury – was a kid, he tried just about everything. He dipped his toes in hockey, football and baseball, but he was always drawn to tennis. 

As Dave continued to improve his skills, he ultimately earned a varsity spot, and his overjoyed father marveled at his growth every step of the way. Dave never forced his son to play tennis, but he was thrilled when that was the path he chose by himself.

That meant a lifetime of hitting together and a never-ending source of satisfaction as Dave continued to succeed.

“He just breathes through the success, enjoyment and hard work of his kids,” Duxbury boys tennis coach John Bunar said. “His greatest accomplishment is his family, and his family does him proud.”

His escape

If you approach the tennis courts at Duxbury High during any given home match, there’s often a car parked in a precarious spot right next to the fence.

If you peer inside the car, you’ll see Dave, beaming with pride as his son dazzles 50 yards away. Dave, who was diagnosed in December, gets chemo about once a week. When he comes home from the hospital, he’s exhausted and typically trudges right to bed. Sometimes he stays there for three, four days, but he plans in advance so he can get out of bed and mosey down to those courts with Liz whenever possible.

“It’s a big deal,” the father said. “Absolutely. I get away for two hours while I’m watching him play tennis. I don’t have to think about this dumb thing.”

Sometimes Dave will peak over toward the curb to smile at his father or give a thumbs up. Even when he doesn’t, just knowing he’s there can make all the difference. Or even if his father can’t make it that day, having his support can sometimes get Dave through a difficult match.

“It’s tough,” the son said. “It’s heartbreaking, but there’s two really positive things that have come from it. One, he’s fighting really hard, and that’s inspiring. If he’s doing this, which is life or death, I should do well in the small things like tennis and grades. I have no excuse. The other positive is that he’s going to come out the other end of this stronger than ever before. I’m sure of it.”

“I’ve got to get through this, and I will”

Watching your oldest graduate and shipping them off to college can be a daunting experience as is, but Liz and Dave have to deal with that while also driving to and from the hospital at least once a week.

Just this past Friday, Liz had to whisk Dave to the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s. He had an infection, so he needed his feeding tube removed immediately.

Even at his weakest, though, Dave is always there for his kids. Seeing them reach new milestones helps him keep going. When his energy is gone, his desire to help them never wavers. As the tennis team continues to move forward, so too does Dave.

He may not be their loudest supporter, but he’s one of their most passionate. In tennis, sometimes keeping the point going for one more shot can be the difference between a win or a loss, and the Gardners extend that metaphor to life.

Dave and Dave are in the fight together, and their bond is stronger than ever.

“It’s a battle,” the father said. “I know, because I’m going through it, it’s a long battle. I’ve got to get through this, and I will.”

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