Ashley Chen

The one with her and her mom. Both in the hospital getting treatment. That’s the one that got me. A picture of a mother near death in the same ward as her daughter. Both receiving treatment for cancer that would in the end take both their lives within three months of each other.

That stops you exhaling for a few seconds and brings the weight of what the Chen family had to endure into very, very clear focus.

I have two stories I’d like to relate about Ashley. Which is two more than the priest who oversaw her ‘Celebration of Life’ related. Rather than relating the kind of person Ashley was, we got a long, impersonal sermon with scant mention of Ashley. We got how cancer had touched his life personally. As one of the many teenage girls there said to me afterwards, “Even I know that when you’re helping people grieve the last thing you do is start talking about your own sad experiences.”

So here are two things I would like to share about Ashley.

My first story is when I was coaching the USL Y League Coastal FC girls team that Ashley played on. In an already compressed schedule we had worked in a game against the BC Provincial team. As Y League is an American league, our team was based on the August to July calendar rather than the January to December our leagues in Canada use. Ashley was one of our 1995 born players. Two thirds of the team were 1996 born. The 1996 born players on our team had essentially all been passed over for selection to the Provincial team. Several were unhappy about it and were very glad for the opportunity to play them. Some were quite tense. They had something to prove. The 1995 born girls had no dog in this fight. They were being dragged out midday on a rare weekend day off in the summer to a horrid turf field (Mercer in New Westminster) to play an exhibition game.

We won 1-0. I’ll get that out of the way because it’s not relevant to the story. What’s relevant is that after we went up a goal, the Provincial team (technically better, decidedly bigger and stronger, and now pissed off) really started going for it. That meant Ashley, as a centreback, now had a lot more to do.

Early in the second half, Ashley finds herself being put in a compromised position where she can either bottle a clearance or accept that she will be very exposed to an opponent racing to pressure her who will either ease up or lay into her as she swings through the ball unable to protect herself.

The girl, much bigger, charges her. It was about 15 yards from me and I winced when I saw what was going to happen. Ball cleared, shoulder dropped into Ashley, Ashley rag-dolled, airborne. Lands on what can charitably be called smooth concrete with a light coat of artificial turf flavoured spray paint. It hurt. A lot. Hurt as in very few girls her age would not have cried and almost all would have come off for at least a breather.

Ashley is not built that way. Ashley knocks people over not the other way around even though she generally gave up 20 lbs on average to those she played against. She takes it personally if someone puts her on her ass. Kid just hoists herself back up. Clearly hurt. Completely unwilling to acknowledge this.

“Ashley, are you okay?”

“Yep.” Wouldn’t even look at me when she said it. Right back into the game.

So, one, there would be no acknowledgement that she was in pain and, two, zero consideration to coming out of the game. Ashley comes out of that game and quite simply we do not hang on to win and Ashley’s teammates don’t get to savour a formative moment. Ashley knew that game meant something to a lot of those girls and given a clear opportunity to mail it in and sit out the tough minutes of that game chose not to. It was pointed out to the girls in the dressing room and was one of the handful of moments that defined that team.

The second story is not a story. It is an observation. Teenage girls have it tough. It’s a time of uncertainty. Uncertainty about who they are, about their bodies, about where they fit in, and for some of these girls uncertainty about their abilities as a soccer player. There’s a lot of cautious smiles, nervous laughter, darting eyes and careful talking.

I do not exaggerate when I say this. I watched Ashely Chen, early doors once that team was formed, walk into rooms or onto fields with those girls, with confidence that would make Kanye West blush, and help dismantle so much of that cumbersome teenage uncertainty. It wasn’t bravado and it wasn’t in any way ‘mean girl’ false confidence. It was I’m a beautiful, goofy girl who plays soccer and wants to have fun and be friends with all of you. I have no hidden agenda, I have no ‘other side to me’. I am pretty sure of who I am and don’t give it too much thought. Game on.

I am thinking of two girls on that team right now and the memory I have of their faces when exposed to all that was Ashley Chen entering a room. How their expression changed from guarded to relieved. How they quickly warmed to the idea that girls can be like this. That you don’t need to apologize for liking something like soccer or being good at it. That they too could be a bit like this. That you could be good at something and be a bit of a goofball. That Ashley always seemed happy and comfortable with herself and those around her and that it was okay to lower your guard a bit.

Those were formative moments for those girls. I hope someday they realize that and that even if they never ended up being pals with Ashley long term she gave them something. And there’s no way that was specific to this team. Ashley Chen perfumed every environment she was in with her casual yet obvious confidence. Her silliness and self-deprecating manner let people in through that confidence to enjoy her company.

And now no one else gets to bask in her glow. Now we’re left with a tepid ‘celebration of life’ in a church followed by a much, much better effort in the adjacent gym. Hundreds upon hundreds were there. You could talk to others about your memories of Ashley, try to laugh while guarding against tears.


Ashley, February 24th at Canuck Place, being visited by David Booth of the Canucks

And then the slide show came on. Hundreds of great photos of Ashley. All smiles. Even down to her last days. Smiles. A smile next to her mom in the photo I described at the start. Even with tubes coming out of her. Even through chemotherapy. Ever seen someone who’s gone through harsh chemo? It’s fucking awful. It’s a brutality laced with waves of nausea. And Ashley had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 17 rounds of it. It kept her alive just long enough to see her mother die of the same disease and let her feel the additional pain of grief. Let that sink in.

And going back to the priest and his sermon.  What of that? What of the explanation given by his religion? Omniscience and omnipotence? Ah, but non-interventionist, so best lower your expectations. I remain unsubscribed to any notion that would allow a young girl like Ashley to go through that when a wave of the hand, in theory, could have prevented all that but chose not to, despite the prayers of many. Omniscience ignored, omnipotence wasted. I’m happy that others can draw comfort from whatever they believe in these situations. I really am. I’m unable to. I see a child cheated of the life she deserved by a vile disease and made to a suffer an end that is incomprehensible, one that confounds my sensibilities when I hear ‘mysterious ways’ ascribed to it.

The last part of the slideshow was Ashley’s friends and family holding up pieces of paper with the word that reminded them most of Ashley or what Ashley meant to them. Brave. Funny. Beautiful. There were many words used. And then it finished with Philip, her dad, holding his sign up. It said “The World”.

I don’t need to describe how he looked in the photo. If you have a child, you know how he looked. I don’t need to describe the state of the room when the lights came on. A father lost his wife and his daughter three months apart. He lost his world. And that photo, shown for just a few seconds, will stay with me just as long as my memories of Ashley will.

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6 Responses to Ashley Chen

  1. Very well written, Gregor.
    I lost my Dad to Lymphoma in December so I can commiserate with your perspective. I am not half the Man/Father/Husband that my Dad was. He could captivate a room with a story or a quiet word just like you describe Ashley could. Both will be missed.

    BTW – Your talents go beyond the pitch !! I’d love to see you write regularly for some $$ somewhere. You’ve got the chops.

  2. scott moye says:

    Gregor, thank you for sharing this. As heartbreaking as it was to read, it is good to share. Beautifully written. I work with hundreds (if not thousands) of kids out here in LUSA, and I can’t even begin imagine what you are all feeling. Take care.

  3. Red Hot Coach says:

    I knew Ashley well.

    I was blessed with the pleasure of coaching her, encouraging her, going on trips with her and her team, sharing many moments with her family, and witnessing her character and wittiness on and off the field. I watched her and my daughter become very good friends over 12 years. We (my family) are sad that she is gone and we certainly do miss her.

    We also watched her go through that brutal and life robbing disease that has afflicted many people in BC., in Canada and all over the world. A disease that has afflicted and ravaged in the past, that is affecting people now, and will do so tomorrow. Ashley, her mother, family and many of their friends suffered through this heart wrenching tragedy together and did so in their Christian faith with the very full knowledge that in this fallen world people that are good, young, old, male and female suffer situations like these even with a strong relationship with God and dealing with trying to understand why. Her family and friends (and certainly Ashley and her mother) questioned GOD, they get angry at God, wondered why, but they still loved GOD even though they know he could healed them and every other person in the BC, Canada and all over the world from dying of this disease and any other accidents, misfortunes, etc.

    Her and her family respected their priest and his messages when they were alive, when they were sick and her family still respect their priest and his poignant message he gave at Ashley’s service. and the one that offered at her mother’s service. The celebration of their lives was later in the gym. That was always the plan Gregor. That is the way it is done at their church whether you know the person or not.

    Your description above of Ashley and the person she was is very well done. But, as a good friend of their family’s, you are way out of line (and I can bet her family would tell you that as well after reading) with your remarks regarding the message, the ‘sermon’, the priest gave in the service. I wonder if he shouldn’t have come to you first to edit his script before giving it. It appears this sermon of his many hundreds was not what you thought it should be.

    The religion is not his, it was Ashley’s, Roxanne’s and their families before they knew you. You are out of line with your words and comments – words and comments that I would give responses to from my ‘religious’ backgrounds as well. I know that their family would have some responses to your remarks as well.

    I can tell you this though, Ashley and Roxanne are now with that same ‘non-interventionist’, ‘wave of the hand’ person that is God and they are happy, with new cancer free bodies and are absolutely enjoying being in His presence, enjoying their new lives and with many other ‘religious’ Christian folks.

    Ashley’s (and Roxanne’s) families miss them dearly, but are comforted by the knowledge that they are in Heaven.

    We grieved when they were going through and succumbed to this terrible disease, We grieved some at the service, but we celebrated their lives in the gym, like you did, as it was planned. And now we we remember who they were and how they touched us.

    Until we meet again Ashley and Roxanne.

    • Gregor says:

      Clive, you have the comfort of certainty while I have the discomfort of doubt. Your certainty is fuelled by faith while my doubt is fuelled by rationalism. I envy the comfort you have. I have no such comfort when faced with events like this. But I’ll stick with having doubt. I like uncertainty. I’m a bit wary of the certain and their accompanying polemics. There is no grey with the certain so you are convinced I am wrong and out of order with some of my comments. You are welcome to post your opinion here and are not out of order for doing so. [I’ve only declined one or two comments ever here by the way as they were personal attacks on people; not me.]

      The focus of my post was to draw attention to great, rare things I saw in Ashley, ones that may not have been seen by others. I mentioned them because I want Ashley to be remembered. My opinion on faith was a small part of the article. You are of course free to focus on that part but my opinion there is the least important or consequential aspect of what I wrote and hopefully not the part that people that stays with readers.

      We both thought Ashley was a fantastic person so it’s nice we agree on something. I encourage you to post a great memory you have of her here as I know you were a big part of her soccer life.

  4. Red Hot Coach says:

    As I mentioned, I thought your post and description of Ashley was excellent. You definitely shared some neat moments of the person she was and the impact she had on all who ever came in contact with her.

    I do think it was not appropriate ON THIS OCCASION to include two paragraphs (at the introduction and in closing) publicly poking at the priest and the God he described, both of whom were lifelong and important parts of Ashley’s and Roxanne’s and their family’s lives, no matter your personal opinions on the priest’s message and their God/faith.

    I thought your focus should have stayed on Ashley and the awesome life celebration afterwards in the gym is all.

    Yes we do agree she was a fantastic person.

  5. Jim Jones says:

    Coach Clive is certainly right. The writer got the whole concept of the funeral mass wrong, and certainly owes the family an abject apology.
    A Catholic funeral mass is meant to be a ritual, where one’s circumstances of life, or death make no difference, being that we are all one under God’s eye. The writer certainly neglected to include that the church community was reminded, and offered prayers for both Ashley and Roxanne many, many times, months before these tragic events finally unfolded. In fact the school children made a thousand paper cranes to present to both Roxanne and Ashley as an offer of both spiritual and physical support.This to me does not smack of ” non interventionism ” nor “wave of the hand ” type of support. Surely always more to the story.
    The writer continues to think of the priest as a Master of Ceremonies, one who seems to of been expected to offer some type of levity to a very difficult situation.Rather I thought his role was to offer the communities prayers and thoughtful petitions to the family , and ultimately to Ashley so she could rest in peace.
    Bottom line is that Ashley was taken too soon, the same for her mother. She was and remains an incredible person, who touched many ( obviously ) , one who was a great daughter and sister and one whose legacy shall live on. The silver lining I see in her passing oh so early is that it might spur those who knew to lead more wholesome lives, to realize what is truly important, and see the comfort she took in her faith.

    My advice to the writer is to skip any future religious based events such as these , at least until a full understanding of the how and why.

    I’ll quote again – Until we meet again Ashley and Roxanne.

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