Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Art Fields is playing to win

'Tennis is my life," Art Fields says. And I don't believe him for a minute, even though his Fairfield house is filled with trophies and tennis knickknacks and photographs. Even though he says he has played "despite everything" since the ninth grade at George Washington Junior High School in Hamilton, where he was later city champion. Art, who's 54, competed last month in the National Senior Tennis Olympics in Hampton Roads, Va., and made it to the semifinals in mixed doubles. He played four matches in four days.

"I was gassed," he says. By that, he means exhausted. He was wheezing by the second set of the last match. Still, he played one more set, losing in a tiebreaker. Art thinks he and his partner would have won if the tournament had been two weeks later when he'd have been finished with this round of chemotherapy.

It is his sixth.

A 'miracle baby'

Diagnosed with lymphoma 10 years ago, Art learned that besides the big tumor on his neck, pushing into his throat, the cancer had invaded his abdomen and bones. The first cycle of drugs kept his tumors at bay for more than two years - long enough to fall in love and marry. Between the first and second chemo battle, he won the Queen City Racquet Club tournament in mixed doubles.

He and his wife, Karen, knew that their chances to have kids were slim. But they tried various state-of-the-art medical measures. Frozen sperm. In vitro fertilization. No dice.

"Then Carly just came along naturally 2 1/2 years ago," he says. His first child. "There was no rhyme or reason. She is a miracle baby."

She really is, in every sense of the word. She has miraculously wide, blue eyes and the amazing shade of white-gold hair so admired and unsuccessfully copied by adults. She shows me her tennis racquet, and then plays quietly on the floor.

Art publishes event programs from his home, caring for Carly while Karen, an environmental consultant, is at work. Oh, and Karen is pregnant again. Another girl. Another miracle.

Art grins and shakes his head.

"Boy, if I could tell people anything, I'd say, 'Don't give up on life,'" he says. "You just never know what's around the corner."

The treatments, he says, will "keep me alive until they find a cure. I treat cancer like a tennis match, and I would never quit a match. And I hate to lose." So, when the tumors return, when he has to climb on a table again for painful bone marrow biopsies and gear up for another round of punishing and exhausting drugs, he will put on his game face and do it.

He plays better, he says, when there's something at stake.

Like now. "I've gotta see the babies grow up." A straightforward guy, he says his tennis match is pretty much the same way. "The only time I go to the net is to shake hands," he says.

Nothing fancy. Steady, well placed groundstrokes.

Tennis is his sport. It's his metaphor. Art's life, the real "something at stake," is sitting on the floor building a tower of LEGO blocks.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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