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.