Football has always been a family favorite. My husband, Brian, played football in High School and grew up with 4 brothers, each rooting for different NFC teams. For me, Sundays meant hanging with my Dad watching the games. (Full disclosure, he was a Giants fan. What can I say? He grew up in New York.) Brian and I met at Penn State, and as they say, we bleed blue and white. Our three kids – Kyra, Connor, and Sean, would wake Saturday morning to the soundtrack of the Penn State Blue Band and gear up in their PSU attire. We’d watch the game, throw the ball around at half time. And of course, there was tailgating.
One August, Sean had a particularly long hospitalization that creeped into late September. Kyra was 14, Connor 12 and Sean 10. It was really hard to navigate back to school season and all it entails with Sean at CHOP. I know how fortunate we are that we live so close, but creating structure and routine for Kyra and Connor to help them transition to their new school year was challenging.
I sought to normalize experiences any way we could. So yes, this leads to the story of tailgating…at CHOP.
Sean wasn’t well enough to come home, but he was cleared to move from the Intensive Care Unit to the Complex Care Floor. This floor was designed for children who have significant and complex needs that lead to frequent hospitalizations. The medical team seeks to create an environment that feels more like home. We were happy to oblige.
As luck would have it, Sean’s transition day was set for a Saturday. Perfect! The Penn State game was on at 3:30, which meant we had time to get him settled in his new room, rally the troops and watch the game together.
I made trip after trip between rooms, moving all the things we had accumulated in the ICU room. When you’re living at the hospital, you accumulate a lot of stuff! Brian was home, shuttling Kyra and Connor to soccer games, then deputized them to gather up all their PSU stuff to bring it to CHOP.
Our dear friends, finally allowed to visit without the ICU restrictions, rallied.
Sean’s room was soon filled with laughter, hugs, and a ton of PSU stuff. It was as if a giant Penn State Bookstore pinata exploded in Sean’s room. Blue and white pom-poms, PSU blankets, Nittany Lion stuffed animals. And the crown jewel – the stand-up JoePa. Not familiar with this? It’s a life size replica of Coach Joe Paterno, resplendent in shades and floods. JoePa had traveled with us to other tailgates, once spotted sticking out of the sunroof of our car as we drove down Broad Street to the PSU vs. Temple game.
We had games – Penn State Checkers, PSU mini basketball, and of course, a football.
There was food – The medical supply shelf was cleared of sterile gauze, needles and catheters; replaced with guacamole, hoagies and brownies. (Don’t worry, we sterilized the shelf when we were done.)
And yes, there was beer. It was a tailgate after all. When our friend asked, “Hey, can I chill down the beer in the bathtub?” it may have been the first time those words were uttered in that hospital room.
The Nurse thought this was all great. Sean’s spirits were high, and for a child who had been through the ringer medically, seeing a smile was everything.
And then the jig was up. We broke the #1 rule of tailgating – no one had a bottle opener.
Kyra and her friend decided to solve the problem the easiest way possible. They went to the Family Support Desk where you’d typically ask for things you needed. “Can I check out a DVD?” “Do you have paper and pen I can borrow?” “Do you have a bottle opener?”
The Nurse came into the room with a “Can I talk with you for a minute?” It was almost tailgate off. I assured her of a few things. No, we were not letting our 14-year old girls drink the beer. No, no one would have more than 2 beers. Yes, we would be respectful of other patients.
Sean loved every bit of watching the game with his siblings and friends. We high fived at every first down, booed when the ref ruled against us and sang “Fight on State” when PSU scored. At half time, the Tailgate crew went outside to throw the ball around while Sean got his medicines and a little nap. After the game, we packed up the PSU gear, said our goodbyes to friends, and started settling in for an evening at CHOP.
Stand up JoePa stayed in Sean’s room, a reminder of the tailgate and that good friends and laughter are great medicine. I will say in the middle of the night, waking up and seeing JoePa scared the beejeezus out of me every time, but well worth it.
Who did Penn State play that day? I don’t remember. Did they win? Couldn’t tell you. What do I remember? It was my favorite tailgate ever. And remember, I’m a Penn Stater.
Fight on State. Fight on Sean. Game on.
By Kerri Hanlon, a mother, writer and co-founder of Yoga Home, a “Best of Philly” community based studio in Conshohocken.