Canzano: It's not the wind... those are tears in that mother's eyes
Ava Frison has a gift for us all.
MCMINNVILLE, Ore. — They planned to wake up and eat breakfast. After that, who really knows? Amie Loop-Frison’s two daughters didn’t let her in on their entire Mother’s Day plan.
A bouquet of flowers?
“The silly little things we get caught up and worried about, even now,” Amie said. “Thank God, my family is healthy.”
Sunday is a day to honor and celebrate mothers. Amie and her husband, Matt, will drive to Salem and Portland as they always do and visit their own moms. Sofie, their oldest daughter, is home from college, too. But it’s their youngest daughter, Ava, I want to tell you about today. Because her story is a gift for us all.
“She had the best laugh as a baby,” her mother said.
Ava is 18 now. She attends McMinnville High School and plays on the varsity golf team. The regional tournament is Monday at Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City. Ava has never played the course, or even laid eyes on it, but she’s particularly excited about the event.
“Our team hasn’t qualified for regionals in a while,” she said on Saturday evening. “I’m excited to have that final time as a team.”
Ava was just six months old when her parents noticed something peculiar. She didn’t crawl like other kids. Her mother said, “She sort of scooted on her butt and used one arm to pull herself along.”
Her dad added: “She also clenched her fist all the time.”
There was a visit to the pediatrician. Then, the family was sent to Doernbecher Children's Hospital. A brain scan revealed a mass in Ava’s brain. Doctors couldn’t tell if it was scar tissue from a brain bleed or — worse yet — an inoperable tumor.
“We were told we’d have to wait six months for the answer,” her mother said.
I don’t know if you have children. I do. Three daughters. They’re busy kids with sports, school and friends. Life tumbles along, one morning at a time, full of surprises. But for Ava’s family, the unknowns in that first year of life must have felt as heavy as a bag of rocks.
“I did a lot of reading,” her mother said. “I’m naturally a pessimist. It was challenging for me to try and think positive but I decided to focus on spending as much time with her because I didn’t know how much time we had with her.”
That little girl’s laugh kept them going.
“Hemiplegia,” doctors eventually said.
It’s a form of cerebral palsy that causes paralysis on one side of the body. Ava suffered stroke-like damage to her brain, maybe before birth or during. Nobody can be sure.
No tumor, they reported.
Just a mass of scar tissue, paralysis on one side of her body, and a life of unknown challenges.
“I don’t know if any parent has ever been as happy as I was to hear their kid has cerebral palsy,” her mom said. “I was bracing for much worse.”
I received a text message from Norm Maves on a Monday afternoon, a few weeks ago. The 74-year old retired sports writer is a long-time friend and colleague. He’s been officially off the clock at The Oregonian for 15 years, but anyone who has worked in this business for a stretch of time knows you never really shut it down.
“JC,” he texted, “got one for you.”
Maves is a trove of state sports knowledge and has the heart of a lion. He served in the Air Force, then worked for years covering sports and other topics. He also became a mentor to so many young journalists in our region, including my wife when she was still in high school.
Maves is a terrific storyteller. I suspect because he immerses himself in the world, pays attention and understands humanity better than most.
He noticed Ava Frison weeks earlier. She was on the golf course, playing a varsity match. Maves volunteers to help kids on the yearbook staff at another high school. I’m told he shows up with Krispy Kreme donuts, his camera, and a smile. Maves was on the golf course that afternoon, taking photographs.
He noticed Ava and marveled as she gripped the clubs cross-handed — left hand below her right — and hit the ball down the middle of the fairway.
“She doesn’t put much weight on her right side on her backswing, which limits the power she can generate,” Maves reported to me. “Essentially, she plays with one hand while the other one basically stabilizes the club handle.
“Still, when everything comes together right on the downswing, she gets a surprising amount of distance. Her first tee shot went about 150 yards. I think she’s engineered a swing that maximizes what she can do and minimizes that she can’t.”
This won’t surprise anyone who knows her well. Ava has always found a way to get things done and she’s always been ambitious. Four years ago, as a high school freshman, she came home from school and announced, “I’ve joined the golf team.”
She’d never played golf. Never picked up a golf club, even. Her mother and father must have looked at each other, nodded, and known she would crush it regardless. Because it’s what Ava did all her adolescent life.
“She likes to prove us wrong,” her mom said. “All the fears we had as parents of what she wouldn’t be able to do or couldn’t do went away over time. We always just told her to never limit herself and if she wanted to try something — do it.”
Ava Frison loves to read. She wants to be an English and History major in college and plans to enroll at Lewis & Clark College in the fall. But first, she has that regional golf tournament to play in on Monday.
“When you’re having a good day, it’s really good out there,” Ava said. “I love focusing on the ball. It takes away all the worries of the day.”
Ava’s golf skill has dramatically improved. Her short game is solid. She hits more fairways than she misses and she appears locked in on the course.
“I’m making much better contact than I did as a freshman,” she said.
But as Norm Maves explained to me when he tipped me off in April, “This is bigger than a story about a girl with cerebral palsy who made the golf team. This is about a graceful, intelligent, articulate kid who has fought her way through life without ever knowing she was fighting.”
Think about the power in that.
Dwell on it.
I know her parents have.
Ava’s father, Matt, goes to the driving range with her sometimes to hit a bucket of balls. He’ll take swings and she gives him tips. Also, he said when they brought in an occupational therapist a couple of years ago to help modify a vehicle so Ava could learn to drive, she refused the modifications.
“I don’t want to be held back,” she said.
Ava got her license and drives a Ford Escape to school.
“She doesn’t like being told she can’t do something,” Dad said. “It makes her want to do it more.”
It’s Mother’s Day. There were plans for breakfast, then who knows? But Amie Loop-Frison sounded excited on Saturday night about having her daughters together and celebrating with them.
Monday the focus will turn to the regional golf tournament. Ava will play the final round of her high school career and have some fun alongside her teammates. Her parents will go to the course. They’ll watch the little girl who once scooted herself on the floor hit the ball off the tee beside the best prep golfers in the state.
There’s some growth here nobody expected, too.
Mom admitted on Saturday night that she’s never really been a risk taker herself. She always worried about what people would think if she tried something and failed. Because of that, Mom sometimes hung back over the years, out of the spotlight.
Mom said Ava has inspired her to worry less and try new things.
“I’m so proud of her,” Mom said. “I get teary eyed out there watching her. I say it’s the wind in my eyes. All those fears I had for all those years.
“You want everything for your kid.”
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John, stop writing such wonderful columns. You're making me cry too much!!! And it's not the wind...
I'm not crying, you're crying.