Maryland’s Brenda Frese stays positive as son battles leukemia

February 23, 2012

There’s a problem with little Tyler tonight, and Mommy is just about beside herself. Tyler just turned 4. He has leukemia — but this has nothing to do with that. Tyler is extroverted and lovey-dovey, a world-class hugger, a chatterbox. And until this very day, he loved the Maryland Terrapins, especially the women’s basketball team, unconditionally. He was red, black and yellow, through and through. Attended every game his illness allowed. Wouldn’t even think of wearing blue — because blue is Duke. And Duke, as everyone knows, is bad.

But Tyler met a new playmate the other day, and the other boy was a few years older — which meant he knew everything — and the older boy loved Duke. And so now, here is Tyler, standing in the middle of his family’s basement rec room in Laurel, wearing a Maryland T-shirt, surrounded by Terrapins memorabilia, declaring to all present that Duke is not only cool — but is also about to beat Maryland in this game of two-on-two basketball on the five-foot toy hoop set up in a corner of the room.

“Maryland is losing this game right now!” he calls out, taunting his opponents — his mommy and his twin brother, Markus.

Mommy is Brenda Frese, Maryland’s head women’s basketball coach, and such talk — in her own house! — is an outrage, especially with a potentially season-defining game against Duke just a few days away.

“Who’s been putting these things in your head?” she says with a tone of motherly concern. When Tyler doesn’t answer, she decides she has to tickle it out of him, and suddenly they’re on the floor, giggling and rolling.

Moments later, when Tyler has taken the worst of an inadvertent head-bump with his brother – “Ouchie! It hurts so bad!” — he collapses into her arms on the couch, those arms being the most comforting place he has known during his fight against cancer, and she smothers him with kisses.

“Remember, Tyler,” she whispers to him, “part of sports is being tough.”

In these moments, nothing else matters to Frese, 41. Neither her day job nor her son’s dire diagnosis – acute lymphoblastic leukemia, discovered 17 months ago – can intrude. And if they invade her mind even for a moment, they are whisked away in the dust storm of chaos kicked up by twin 4-year-old tornadoes.

Here, at the end of another day in the life of Brenda Frese and her family — husband Mark Thomas, and their twin boys Markus and Tyler Thomas — everything, even Tyler’s sudden defection to the blue-clad enemy, feels perfect, really.

‘I need you to pull over’

She was in Indiana, on a recruiting trip. He was back home with the boys.

This was the arrangement they had agreed to from the start — Brenda keeping her high-profile, high-salaried job, with all its inherent pressures and travel commitments, and Mark ditching his career as a TV sports producer and reporter (they had met when he interviewed her as part of a season-long documentary called “Under the Shell”) to be a stay-at-home dad. Despite his creeping feelings of emasculation and her maternal guilt over being gone so much, by this point, two and a half years into their parenthood, they had settled into a nice rhythm.

It was Sept. 28, 2010 – they can both recite the date by heart – and Brenda was riding a coach’s high, in the midst of what was shaping up as a great day of recruiting. And truth be told, as much as she missed her 2-year-olds, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to have gotten a full, uninterrupted night of sleep in that quiet hotel room the night before.

She was in her rental car, heading back to the hotel.

“I need you to pull over,” Mark was saying through her cellphone.

Pacing around the ER at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he had thought hard about how to say what he was about to say, understanding the need to be both direct and upbeat. But all he could picture was her all alone by the side of a road, with no one to comfort her.

And all she could hear was: “Leukemia.”

“You hear that word,” she said recently, “and it’s only natural that your first thought is: How much longer does my son have to live?”

“As soon as I told her, I knew she was crying,” he recalled. “I could hear it in her voice. You could feel it through the phone. The best I could do was to try to say the right words. But at some point I had to hang up – because I had to go back to Tyler.”

Unable to get a flight out that night, Brenda called every member of her tight-knit family back in Iowa – her parents and five siblings – with the news. She flipped open her laptop and read everything she could find about childhood leukemia. She remembers laying down at some point. She doesn’t remember sleeping.

Her flight was at 7 a.m. She had a window seat, and turned her face into the window to hide her crying.

“In hindsight,” she said, “I probably needed that night [alone], because if I had been in my husband’s shoes, I’m not sure I could have been the rock for my son that night. And on the flip side, it allowed me to have that pity party all the way through the night and on that flight.

“And then I told myself, as soon as my husband picked me up and we were at Hopkins, this was going to be [all about] positive energy for my son.”

The new reality that had been thrust upon the family arrived like an avalanche. There were revelations too big to get their minds around, such as the fact that Tyler’s leukemia — which was discovered after their pediatrician, during a fairly routine visit, became concerned about his pale color and ordered a blood test — might have killed him had it gone undiagnosed another few weeks.

There was the realization they had gotten lucky, relatively speaking, in that Tyler’s specific form of leukemia was the most common in children and carried a survival rate of up to 90 percent.

For the next four nights, Brenda never left the hospital, sleeping with Tyler as his little body filled with chemotherapy drugs. Meantime, Mark and his parents, Joe and Lorie Thomas, tag-teamed Markus — who was older by half an hour and had scarcely spent more time than that in his young life away from his brother.

Less than a week after he was admitted, Tyler was released, and the whole family headed home, entering through the front door and into a time warp, everything in the house just as they had left it — the very picture of domestic tranquility. Could things ever be so peaceful, so centered again?

“There are times your mind wants to go back to that place before the diagnosis, where everything is happy and everything is safe,” Mark said. “But reality just brings it right back.”

‘I can absolutely lock in’

One afternoon this month, the Terrapins, ranked No. 6 in the most recent Associated Press poll, practiced for the first time since a frustrating, mistake-prone home loss two days earlier to then-No. 6 Miami. The loss was largely self-inflicted, full of missed free throws and blown layups, and two days later, the faces of the players showed the frustration.

In the silence of an empty gym, Frese, in her 10th year as Maryland’s coach, gathered her players at mid-court. Over her right shoulder, up in the rafters, was the white banner recognizing the program’s 2006 NCAA championship.

“I’m excited,” she told the players, her eyes locking in one face after another. “I didn’t know this defense could be as good as it is.” Then, she pointed at the banner: “Your defense is better than that team right there.”

“Before,” senior guard Kim Rodgers said later, “after a loss like [the one to Miami] she might’ve been a little tougher on us. But she’s incredibly positive. She’s one of those coaches who moves on [from a loss]. She knows there’s no reason to kill us over it.”

The positive-reinforcement approach worked. Over the next five days, the Terrapins (23-4, 10-4) would score a decisive win at Virginia – Frese’s 300th career victory, which she acknowledged by giving $300 bonuses to every member of her staff – then, in front of a raucous crowd of 15,150 at Comcast Center, overcame a horrible start to hand Duke its first ACC loss of the year.

“There’s nothing better,” Frese said that evening, “than beating Duke.”

Even Tyler was swayed enough by the performance to go back to disavowing the Devils.

For Frese, there is solace to be found in the sounds of bouncing basketballs and squeaking sneakers, in the rhythm of practices and games, road trips and recruiting visits. Having already developed the ability to leave the sport behind once she walked in the door of her house, she eventually got to where she could push Tyler’s cancer into a dark corner of her mind when she got on the court.

“I can absolutely lock in,” she said. “When it’s game time and we’re in a two-hour battle, it’s about competing and winning, and my focus is completely on the game.”

“Part of what I try to do,” Mark said, “is to never make her feel as if she has to choose between family and her job. I never want her to feel guilty. Even when she’s working, it’s ultimately for them.”

Tyler and Markus haven’t been around the team as much as usual this winter. With his immune system weakened by the chemotherapy drugs, Tyler caught viruses that necessitated an 11-day stay in the hospital in January and another three-day stay this month. The night before the Duke game, Tyler had an ear infection, and Frese was up half the night with him. The day after the game, Tyler was admitted yet again to Johns Hopkins.

“He’s good, though,” Mark said in a text message from the hospital. “Tough like mom.”

Tyler still faces another two years of treatment, which includes a five-day cycle of steroids each month and a monthly visit to Johns Hopkins for a spinal injection of methotrexate. That’s in addition to the daily regimen of up to seven pills, which Mark administers with spoonfuls of applesauce. Everything is pointing toward the fall of 2015, when, hopefully, Tyler’s remission reaches the five-year mark, at which point he will be considered cured.

But on this particular night, as Frese’s players return one-by-one to Comcast Center for dinner at the training table, they can hear Markus and Tyler a mile away. Have two boys ever had it so good? Rooms filled with basketballs and giant medicine balls and jump ropes. Lots of space to run around. Tons of excellent hiding places. And 12 young ladies willing to chase them around until it’s time to go home.

As the players walk in, bookbags slung over their shoulders, Tyler and Markus rush over to dispense a chocolate heart and a hug – Tyler’s hugs being longer and more intense.

“He’s a very lovable kid,” Frese says of Tyler. “Every time he comes and gives me a hug, which is about 25 times a day, I mean, it stops me in my tracks.”

It’s Valentine’s Day. Mommy watches from her seat at the table, and other than the occasional yawn, the smile never leaves her face.

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