When Carol Hood saw the ball, she knew she wanted it. Bad.
The ball was marbled pink with prominent breast cancer awareness ribbons and unmarked by finger holes. It was a bowling ball—a very special bowling ball—on display at the United States Bowling Congress 2006 Women’s Championships in Reno, Nev. Hood was with her teammates from Marshall and Washington Counties, and they had already bowled together and done fairly well. And here was this ball, this incredible ball, and Hood wanted it.
Problem was, it wasn’t for sale.
It was, however, up for grabs. Raffle ticket, buck apiece, luck of the draw, with proceeds going to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. One measly dollar and it could be hers.
Of course, it could be anybody’s, too. There were hundreds of other bowlers and each of them had exactly the same chance of walking away with the ball.
Hood had ten. Ten dollars she had set aside for gambling that were now burning a hole in her pocket. Ten chances.
Any bookie in Reno would’ve said the odds weren’t good. Definitely not in her favor.
But Carol Hood wasn’t one to let odds bother her. Like the bowling pins she routinely sent flying, she knew what it was to get knocked down, and she knew what it was to get back up. In bowling it’s called “resetting the pins.” She’d had her pins reset a time or two.
She looked at the ball and breathed a silent prayer. “God,” she whispered, “I could sure use a pick-me-upper. I really could.”
Hood slapped her money on the counter. All of it, ten dollars, ten chances. Her odds had just improved.
There are two things you need to know about Hood: she’s been bowling since she was a kid, and she’s a survivor.
A cancer survivor, to be exact, though she usually leaves off the cancer part. Cancer was not gentle with her. In early 2004 it took her right breast and enough lymph nodes that she has to wear an elastic sleeve that embraces her entire right arm whenever she bowls. For the rest of her life she’ll have to guard against stressing that side to prevent lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arm due to fluid accumulation. “I have,” she said, “a gap in my system.”
As the music teacher and choir director for Valley Heights High School, she tells her students to “find their passion.” Surprisingly, bowling is not her passion. She does it for fun, she said. In fact, she admits to being a sporadic bowler, and not a very good one at that.
The league she joined reflects that indifference. It’s called the Travel League and it meets one Sunday each month. “For me it works because I only have to give up one afternoon rather than if I was bowling on a Thursday evening league I’d have to bowl every Thursday night,” she said. The league alternates between Marysville, Belleville, Washington, Seneca, and Beatrice and Fairbury, Neb., which gives them different teams to play against.
After the surgery and the chemo came the pills, which she still takes. Anti-cancer drugs, painkillers, they interact and produce interesting side effects. Her strength dropped in the aftermath of the surgery and her bowling average went with it. A lighter ball was needed so she swapped with her mother. When the league headed to Reno, it was her mother’s ball she took.
The USBC Women’s Championship is the largest privately-owned nonprofessional bowling tournament in the world. Entries are open to anyone who pays the fee and possesses a bowling average equal to the class of division entered. Averages are gained through the required minimum of 21 games in a sanctioned league during the prior year. For Hood, this was a bonus, because her average was tallied in the year following her surgery. By then, her 155 average had dropped to 129.
Three events can be entered—as a team, as doubles (with a partner), and singles. The travel league entered all of them. Since the team average was greater than the individual or doubles average, it bowled in Division III. In the other categories Hood bowled in Division IV.
Division IV was for bowlers with the lowest scores. This is not to say the classification is for losers. There were hundreds of very good bowlers competing against each other and each of them was there to win. And to have fun.
The first night the team bowled together. “We just had a good time and we all bowled very well that night,” Hood said. “Sometimes the energy from one bowler feeds off to another, and it’s kind of cool.”
They bowled well enough to finish in ninth place. Never before had they placed that high and it felt good.
Then there was the ball.
It was a 12-pound USBC Bowl for the Cure ball, a beautiful ball, a ball that anyone could love but only a cancer survivor could truly appreciate. Hood placed her bet, ten chances, ten dollars, a figure analogous to the ten pins, the ten frames and the ten-degree tilt from which no tottering pin can recover, the inviolate numeral of the sport of bowling.
It was very late; she was tired and in pain. “It was obvious she was feeling quite ill,” said Gloria Moore, her teammate from Barnes.
“It was 10:30 at night in Reno, which means it’s 12:30 in Kansas and I’m thinking, oh dear. It was way past my bedtime,” Hood said. “I was enduring some physical pain at the time, and had been for a couple of weeks, and was going to have to come back and face a CAT scan. My fear was that cancer had returned.”
Sue Peckham, Frankfort, Hood’s bowling partner, didn’t hear the announcer read the winning name, but she saw Hood put her head in her lap and burst out crying. Alarmed, she rushed over but before reaching her Hood leaped to her feet shrieking and flapping a ticket stub like it was on fire. After that, things got a little chaotic.
Hood: “I just screamed and ran up the aisles.”
She had faith going into the surgery. Faith that God was up to something, though He certainly hadn’t informed her of what that might be. It was enough, simply, that there was a covenant between them. But for all that, she hadn’t intended on going rafting.
During the 18-week chemo fever, when her body was a war zone between powerful medications and cancerous cells, she imagined herself adrift in a little yellow rubber raft. On all sides rose towering spires and multi-layered rock formations of the Grand Canyon, and above them all a blue slit that could have been the sky or the eye of God. There were no oars.
On good days the scenery was beautiful. Other days it seemed she was trapped in a whirlpool going round in circles. And some days she could hear the roar of rapids approaching, and her courage shivered. “God, you have to help me through this,” she prayed. “I don’t have a paddle.”
Her raft never capsized. And when she sailed out the far side of the canyon she was intact, more or less.
“I survived this, and if you talked to my daughter she would tell you there were a couple of times when I shouldn’t have,” Hood said. “Our philosophy and my feeling is that God had a plan for me and He was not done with me here on this earth. I try to take every day and every moment to be the best reflection of God working through me. Of His plan. Whatever that plan is.”
Which is another way of saying you need to keep knocking down the pins and resetting them. You’ve got to keep swinging that ball.
And what a ball it is.
Though her friends thought she should hang it on the wall as a trophy, Hood wasted no time the next morning having the pro shop drill holes for her fingers. Now it wasn’t just a special ball, it was a custom ball, and it would be used in the singles and doubles events.
“The point is, I am a survivor,” she said, “and this is such a special ball that I just wanted to do the best I possibly could. I was ready to take whatever path God had out there for me, and it was going to be okay.”
She did better than okay.
“She could do no wrong,” Moore said. “Her eyes sparkled, her face glowed. She was fun to watch.”
“I had no clue,” Hood said. “I didn’t even know how well I was bowling.”
Her partner, Peckham, knew, as did the rest of the team. The scorekeeper knew, too, and told the team that Hood was getting close to the top in her division. Though they could barely contain themselves, they decided to keep it a secret until the last pin fell.
When it did, Hood stood in second place in the all-events. “We started screaming and getting hysterical when she came off the alley,” Peckham said.
“When I was told, I just kind of got teary eyed—that’s what I typically do,” Hood said. “And Sue got teary eyed the way we usually do together. I was thrilled.”
So was it the magic ball that enabled Hood to escape the bounds of her post-cancer doldrums? The drugs? When asked, she laughed heartily.
“I was on pain meds, and yeah, they do affect me,” she said. “But because I was aware of the effect I was more focused and more relaxed about the whole thing. Was that the cause of why I bowled really well? I don’t think so. It just was another one of those coincidences. But it did affect my frame of mind.”
But maybe it was something else, something less tangible. There was never any pressure to perform—the pain medication took care of that, she said. Possessing the ball increased her confidence not simply for its newness but for what it represented. She wanted above all to set an example for other survivors, to create an awareness of breast cancer and what it can do and, alternately, what it cannot do. For she’s a survivor, and survivors have been to the edge and stared across that limitless divide and have returned to tell their tale, and it does something to you, to your frame of mind, to your perceptions of what’s important and what isn’t. Above all, the one thing survivors never ever do is forget.
Hood remembers the raft, the whirlpools, the placid stretches where she enjoyed the scenery and the fear that jolted her when she heard rapids approaching, but now it’s different. As everything is different. She has her friends, whom she dearly loves, her daughter, Tonja Metcalf and her husband Ted, her grandkids Wade and Megan, she has the trophy, and, of course, she has the very special ball. But she has something else, less defined but as real.
“I have a paddle now,” she said. “Only one—if I mess up He can put me back in that sinkhole.”
After her return to Waterville, where she lives, Hood returned to the clinic and came out with a clean bill of health. She learned that her score was bumped down a notch due to another bowler doing a pin better. She’s still very proud, and knows that wherever she goes she carries a message of hope for women with breast cancer. And, of course, a very special ball.