The last time Brenda Edwards saw her father's hands, they were no longer the rough hands that gripped a drill press in the basement as her mother brought down pitchers of lemonade, the hands that worked a garden hoe as skillfully as they operated a ball spinner, the hands in which she, an 11-year-old girl who already knew so much about ball work that she could have turned a profit as a pro shop assistant, found the safest place she knew.
"I looked at his hands, the hands of a man who worked his entire life," the former Team USA member recalls of her father's losing battle against pulmonary fibrosis. "He gardened, he bowled, he did pro shop work, and growing up I remember his hands being so strong and rough. They were safe, they were strong and safe. But now his hands were so frail. He had long, skinny fingers now and the skin on them was so smooth. And I was just thinking about how they had changed from the hands of this man who protected me his whole life to being kind of child-like."
By now many people know the Brenda Edwards who shot 300 in the Singles event of the 2009 USBC Open after posting the highest doubles score in the tournament's 108-year history with boyfriend and USBC Silver coach Stephen Padilla. They know the Brenda Edwards who made the USBC Queens telecast just eight weeks before those glowing scores in Vegas. Maybe they remember the Brenda Edwards who joined Team USA in 2007-the team for which her sister, Jeri Edwards, serves as Head Coach.
But what many may not know is that the origin of these triumphs is found in a loss far more brutal than any she could have experienced on the lanes-the loss of a father who, as Edwards freely admits, was her only reason for bowling.
"When I bowled on tour it wasn't because I wanted to, it was because my Dad wanted me to," Edwards explains of her decision to join the PWBA Tour after winning two national championships with the University of Nebraska. "But looking back on it now, I have come to realize that my Dad and Mom wanted us just to be happy in any pursuit we followed, but as a kid you get it into your brain that this is what is expected of you, and it's hard to see past that-especially in my family where my brother designs bowling balls for Brunswick, my sister coaches Team USA, and my other sister was Rookie of the Year on the PWBA Tour."
While her father may indeed have been just as happy to see her pursue something other than the family passion as long as it fulfilled her, there is one phone call that Brenda Edwards would not be able to count among her most cherished memories now had she done so-the moment when, having recently returned to the sport after a two-year hiatus in which she "did not bowl at all-not even league-nothing," Brenda phoned her father to tell that him she had made Team USA.
"It was the first time I ever heard him cry," Edwards recalls of a man whose tough exterior she inherited so thoroughly as to prompt revered bowling psychologist Dr. Dean Hinitz to commonly refer to her as "the warrior." "He had always been that first call I made after winning a tournament. He was too sick to watch Team Trials in 2007, so when I called him and told him I made the team, he just let out this noise and started crying. I called him the night before I left for camp, and anybody that would have seen me would have thought that I just lost my best friend-I was sobbing, it was so hard for me to tell him how much he meant to me."
Even with an exterior as tough as a "warrior's," Brenda Edwards learned in 2008 that life has a way of finding cracks in the most hardened armor. Her father no longer a phone call away to receive reports of his daughter's latest triumph on the lanes, Edwards struggled to value the sport in which she only participated because, in the Edwards family, bowling is just what you do. After a disappointing Team USA Trials performance last year, Edwards thought she was done with competitive bowling for good-until she sat across a table from boyfriend Stephen Padilla one day and discovered that all she needed to do to get on with the rest of her life was one simple thing-listen.
"I just asked her what her Dad would want her to do," Padilla recalls of the conversation that encouraged Edwards to bowl the 2009 USBC Queens, where she would finish fifth. "She realized he would want her to bowl rather than dwell on him being gone."
There is a lot that Brenda Edwards has come to realize since that day she saw her father's hands for the last time and was stunned to find a man too frail to resemble that gruff protector who showed her how to sand a bowling ball in the basement-and not all of it has to do with bowling. When Brenda Edwards saw her father's wiry hands that day, she also saw that nothing-not even the next moment-is guaranteed in life. She saw that each day she gets to spend with the people she loves is a gift, not a given. She saw that however tough her father's love may have been, it was teaching her something she only could have understood when the time came to learn it on her own.
"He was not great with kids," Brenda recalls of that more virile man she knew. "He started me bowling when I was five, and he never let me throw the ball between my legs. I had to walk up and throw the ball and I could not knock down any pins, and I would cry and not want to do it anymore. And he would say 'Can you count to four? Then you can do this!' Oh, that yellow 7-pound ball! I was seven before I shot my first 100 game."
If her father meant to banish the word "can't" from her vocabulary when she was that 5-year-old girl trying to maneuver a 7-pound ball with one arm, it was a lesson he taught her again in leaving this world-that there is nothing she cannot not do, even if that "something" is putting the pieces of her life back together when he was no longer around to help her summon the courage to believe in herself.
After finishing fifth at the USBC Queens in April and posting all-time record scores at the USBC Open just eight weeks later, no one, least of all Brenda, will have any trouble believing in her as she takes the lanes at the Women's U.S. Open this week. But for a tough-nosed kid who grew to earn the reputation of a "warrior" for her competitive tenacity on the lanes, it is possible that in death, Brenda's father instilled in her a courage she might not have known she had-the courage to cry.
"He was the one who made it OK for me to cry," Edwards says of boyfriend Stephen Padilla. "Even in the year since my Dad's passing I have had my moments when I break down and I will lose it, and Stephen is never judgmental with that. He is always very supportive even when I don't want to talk about it. I can put my head on his shoulder and I feel safe again."