She had one more soccer game to watch, and maybe then she would let herself die. But not before Saturday afternoon, no matter what the doctors were saying, because what the doctors were saying was unacceptable.
They were saying almost two weeks ago that Stephanie Turner had just a few days to live, that what had started five years ago as breast cancer and had come back with a vengeance a month ago was now rampaging through her body and shutting down her liver and, well. It was a matter of days. That’s what the doctors were saying.
No, Stephanie Turner had said. I need two weeks.
Because her daughter, Brebeuf goalkeeper Lauren Turner, had a state championship to win.
And Stephanie was going to be there.
Stephanie has always been there, for all three of her kids, starting years ago when her eldest played football at Cathedral. John Turner is a senior safety at Notre Dame now, and Stephanie goes to those games, too. She watches William, her youngest, a freshman running back on the Brebeuf varsity.
On Saturday, Lauren Turner and the Brebeuf girls soccer team played Penn for the Class 2A state title at Carroll Stadium. Lauren was in goal.
Stephanie Turner was in a Carroll Stadium suite, in a wheelchair, under a blanket.
The family let me inside Suite 7, offering hot dogs and soda and strength and grace, and Stephanie is beautiful under her blanket. She is so weak she can barely speak, her words coming softly in small mouthfuls, gentle words like, “I love my kids.”
She tells me, “I had to be here.”
She tells me, “I wouldn’t miss this.”
One by one the Brebeuf starters are introduced before the game. One by one they jog onto the field, wave to the crowd, then turn toward Suite 7 behind them and wave to Stephanie Turner.
The announcer introduces Lauren Turner.
“There’s your baby!” says Stephanie’s mom, Nettie Watkins. “Oh, and she waved to her mama. Did you see?”
Stephanie Turner responds in the affirmative.
“Mmm-hmm,” she coos.
She is wearing a maroon Brebeuf hat, with a Brebeuf windbreaker over her Brebeuf soccer shirt. Her eyes are yellowing behind her glasses, jaundiced from liver failure. She didn’t have to be here.
She had to be here.
“I think it’s keeping her going,” Stephanie’s husband, Troy, is telling me.
We’re sitting in the bleachers in front of the suite, just a few minutes before kickoff of the Class 2A title game, and I’m asking him how his daughter is holding it together on the soccer field. Lauren Turner has been blanking opponents for weeks, even as her mom has been growing weaker and weaker, and her brothers – John at Notre Dame, William at Brebeuf – likewise have been maintaining their academic and football commitments. I’m asking Troy: How can these children be so strong?
Troy smiles. He gestures at the suite behind us, at Stephanie in her wheelchair, under the blanket.
“She’s our strength,” he says. “If she can handle this, we can’t justify not being able to handle it, too.”
And she can handle this? That’s what I ask Troy Turner about his wife, dying of cancer. Even now? Today? Is she still handling it?
Troy nods and tells me what happened this morning.
Well, it was game day. And Stephanie Turner, home on hospice care for almost a week, unable to get out of bed, suddenly was able.
Her parents have been in town for a week, Nettie and John from Baltimore, and for almost a week they’ve seen their daughter in her bed. Now they see her up and wearing the Brebeuf shirt and windbreaker, and she’s ready to go, and it’s not time.
“She was ready two hours early!” Nettie was telling me. “We had to tell her she could get back into bed for a little while.”
They’ve come from all over for these final days – her parents and sister from Baltimore, Uncle Bill from Atlanta, a handsome nephew named Carter, more – and on Saturday morning 12 members of the family woke up under the same roof. That included John, the senior safety at Notre Dame. The Irish played at Temple on Saturday, but Troy Turner had told Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about the situation back home. He asked if John could come home to see his mom for perhaps the last time.
“And Coach Kelly was great about it,” Troy said.
Everyone has been great about it. U.S. World Cup keeper Hope Solo – Brebeuf coach Angela Berry-White is a U.S. national team alum – sent Lauren Turner a signed pair of soccer gloves. While Stephanie was in intensive care last week at IU Hospital downtown, seven members of the Brebeuf team visited her. And Stephanie being Stephanie, this is what she did: She had the soccer players stand over her bed, put their hands together and holler, “Braves!”
This game Saturday, it wasn’t going so great for the Braves. Penn scores two minutes into the game, just the eighth goal that has gotten past Lauren Turner this season – eight goals in more than 1,200 minutes – and the score stays 1-0 into the second half.
Stephanie watches the game quietly, barely moving, until Brebeuf scores midway through the second half to tie the game at 1. Suite 7 explodes in happy noise. Family members turn to Stephanie, who bumps fists with her sister, Crystal, and raises her hand to the glass window in front of her, pantomiming a high five with her sons outside. Troy comes inside to wrap an arm triumphantly around her shoulder, then goes back out.
With 6 minutes left Brebeuf scores the go-ahead goal and Suite 7 erupts again. Stephanie is smiling and holding up her right hand, and family members rush to pat it. Troy comes inside for a hug, then goes back out.
“Six minutes!” Uncle Bill says. “Run that clock down.”
Six minutes later, it’s over. Brebeuf wins 2-1. Lauren Turner and the Braves are state champions.
“That’s my La-La,” Stephanie Turner says, softly, as Suite 7 explodes for a third time.
And then the most amazing thing happens.
The clock shows zeroes and a horn sounds and the Brebeuf soccer team is celebrating, and Lauren Turner is sprinting off the field, onto the track around it, over the railing. The Brebeuf goalkeeper has scaled the wall and is running up the bleachers toward Suite 7, and now the Brebeuf soccer team is following her.
Lauren bursts into Suite 7, and Stephanie is crying, and Lauren is crying, and now the whole suite is crying. And here come the Braves, one after another, forwards and midfielders and defenders and they’re all crying and hugging their goalkeeper’s mom. They’re hugging Stephanie Turner, who is wiping tears from her eyes as her husband watches.
In a corner of Suite 7, Lauren Turner is almost inconsolable. Teammates are holding her up, and after about three minutes the team is heading back onto the field for the trophy presentation.
Troy asks Stephanie if she wants to leave the warmth of Suite 7. Does she want to go onto the field for the trophy ceremony?
Stephanie says something I’ve heard her say before.
“I have to be there,” she says, and in a few minutes she is in her wheelchair, under her blanket, next to the field. She watches her daughter receive a championship medal.
Brebeuf gets the team trophy, a giant plaque of wood and brass, and now Lauren has it. She walks to her mom, setting the trophy on her lap. Behind them, Troy is tucking the blanket around his wife’s neck, and draping a jacket over that. Warm now, she lowers her head and closes her eyes.
Stephanie Turner is tired, so tired, but she has seen what she came to see. Whatever happens next, whenever it happens, she saw the game. And she saw her daughter win that state championship.
Troy Turner was one of the best Marine Officers I have ever served with. He was one of my Lieutenants when I had the honor of commanding Romeo Battery 5/10 back in the mid-1990s. Troy was the kind of young Officer I could rely on for anything. I could assign him any task, and he was smart enough and professional enough to figure it out. And a finer man, one could not find. He and Stephanie were a delightful young couple. Now, as they face this tragedy, I am in awe of the indomitable strength and courage of Troy’s lovely Stephanie, and of Troy’s, and that of his daughter and other children. I haven’t words. God bless you all.