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.
"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 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 emergency room 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?"