The Healing Gift of Play

by NIKKI MARK

On Monday, April 16, 2018, my 12-year-old son, Tommy, went to sleep and never woke up. We still don’t know why. I was so empty for so long that it felt like my soul had left my body and to go searching for him. I wasn’t sure it would ever return.

Three days prior, I drove my son from Los Angeles to San Diego for what—unbeknownst to me—would be his last soccer match. He wanted to become a professional soccer player, so for countless hours my husband and I drove him across the congested freeways and streets of our city so he could play with the most talented players he could find. For countless evenings, we watched him train with children coming from all corners of our city. And for countless weekends, we watched him dance with the ball in the middle of the field with a smile on his face as he searched for clever ways to reach his goal.

“My job is to play,” he told me during that drive down to San Diego, after I advised him to focus more on math class.

He seemed to know more about himself at 12 than I did at 48.

I also told Tommy during that long Friday afternoon drive to San Diego that I wanted to help build a full-size, well-lit athletic field within our neighborhood park, Westwood Recreation Center. The existing open space in the middle of the park had been dried up like a desert and sitting empty for decades. Given the extreme lack of field space in Los Angeles, and the overwhelming popularity of youth soccer in the city, I wanted to give back to our community. To support our public park. To give children and adults another safe and open place to play.

When I told Tommy about my idea, he said, “That’s so cool, Mom! Our neighborhood doesn’t have anything like that. Everyone is going to want to play on it. I can’t wait.”

Three days later he was gone.

The day he left, a friend sat next to me on my couch, held my hand and suggested, “Let’s help create Tommy’s legacy. You have been wanting to build a soccer field for this community. Let’s build that field. Let’s honor Tommy and his love for the game. Everyone wants to do something to help. No one knows what to do.” She offered to make the first donation.

I sat on my couch, watching my home fill up with a community that I didn’t even know I had, and tried to comprehend what she was saying. My ears were ringing. My head was pounding. For the first time in my life, I understood what it felt like to want to die.

But after repeating herself a couple of times, her words finally broke through the shock that had taken over my body, and deeply resonated with some part of me that had to live. My younger son needed me. I would not abandon my husband. And voices in my head kept telling me that Tommy’s departure was not a random mistake. This is all part of some carefully designed plan, I determined. I had to figure out my part in it. Then I went numb.

When our family announced at Tommy’s Memorial that we would be fundraising for “Tommy’s Field,” our community came together in ways I never could have imagined. Children sold lemonade. Colleagues held fundraisers. Friends made generous donations. Companies matched. Even our city’s two Major League Soccer clubs, LA Galaxy and Los Angeles Football Club, for whose youth academies Tommy had played, came together to co-sponsor Tommy’s Field and forge an unprecedented collaboration in T’s honor and for the benefit of youth in our city. Together, thousands of Angelenos across this city raised $1.2 million to gift Tommy’s Field to the City of Los Angeles, with no strings attached.

The entire journey from inception to completion has now taken nearly three and a half years. There were times when the process became messy. Days when the effort seemed far too difficult. Moments when the project stalled altogether for reasons I did not understand. But even when my grief spiraled out of control and I was brought to my knees for days at a time, I clung to Tommy’s Field. It filled me with purpose. Gave me hope. And taught me that honoring my son and serving something greater than myself fed my soul and eased my suffering.

One night I dreamt of a woman kneeling in front of me and gracefully moving the air between us with her hands. She wore a white fairytale dress that sparkled, and I viewed her through a black and white lens. Tommy sat next to her, facing me.

“Mom,” the almost thirteen-year-old Tommy I missed so much said. “Will you take me to play soccer?”

“Tommy,” I responded with concern. “Do you think that’s the best decision?”

“Why, because I’m dying and may leave you earlier?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, thankful he said the words I couldn’t.

“Mom, I have to play and live while I can. I can’t not play just because I’ll die!”

I looked back at the woman still moving the air with her hands. “Every day we are dying,” she told me without moving her lips. “Tommy is teaching you how to live.”

When Tommy’s Field opens at Westwood Recreation Center this Sunday, September 26, 2021, I will celebrate as my son did after scoring goals. I will hug and cheer with our community, forever grateful for the way they united in tragedy and manifested one small acre of change. I will point to the sky and give credit to Tommy, who inspires the way I live and continues to impact the community he loved.

And I will take a moment to share what I have learned: When the world gets too dark, when it seems overly divided or feels downright sad, it may benefit all of us to get out and play a little bit more… and Tommy’s Field is a place where everyone is welcome to do so.

NIKKI MARK

For over 25 years, Nikki Mark has developed and supervised strategic operations and special projects for Los Angeles-based start-up companies, including sbe Hospitality Group and The Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC). A Los Angeles native with a BA in Communications and Masters in Business Administration, Nikki is currently the Founder and President of the TM23 Foundation and self-published author of childrens’ picture book titles, Mommy Brings Home the Bacon, Mommy’s Got a Bun in the Oven and MightyMom. To learn more about the TM23 Foundation and Tommy’s Field, click here.

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