“Julie, tell me another ghost story.” “Julie, take us to the cemetery before the next game.”
She was feisty, hard-headed, determined, a fierce competitor, a sister, a daughter and a friend. She had a lot of sass with plenty attitude to back it up.
The memories I have of Nicole smell of red dirt, sweat and ballpark food. I can see her clutching the yellow softball in her right hand and cutting her eyes at me when she knew she was gettin’ a little too sassy on the field. Her begging me relentlessly to tell the team another ghost story. Or talking me into loading up my little blue Versa between games and heading to the cemetery down the road and across the tracks from the ballpark in Splendora. The ballpark where we spent many hours together becoming one big family.
Steven, Nicole’s dad and I coached together off and on for several years until the formation of a travel team. Oh, how Steven and Nicole butted heads on the softball field. It was comical at times.
Nicole and my daughter Casey, when on the same team, swapped out as pitchers.
Casey left-handed and Nicole right, they made a deadly combination. If you came up on them from behind, it was near impossible to tell them apart. The numbers on their jerseys being the only distinguishing characteristic.
The team that defined a group of young athletes was aptly named Chaos. Much more a family more than a team. But then again, a family is a team of sorts, is it not? They were a spirited, competitive group of young ladies. Watching them grow up and grow together over the years is unforgettable. The game was important but the friendships that have lingered after the last inning played together are invaluable.
Nicole was one of the most sassy and spirited on the team. A temper that worked against when she got to “that point.” A natural born athlete. A team player. A friend to all.
She and I got sideways a time or two when her temper flared. What I would give to get sideways with her one more time.
The Billnoske family are some of the coolest people you will ever meet. Steven, a Houston Firefighter and Donna a teacher. Sisters, Megan, Nicole and Ashley. Megan quiet and sweet like her momma. Nicole, a cut up like her daddy. And then there’s Ashley. She was the cutest little thing with cheeks that I wanted to squish all the time. She would sit in my lap between softball games. Both of us sweaty and neither one of us caring. These five people became our family along with the rest of the girls and Chaos families.
The girls of Chaos played travel ball together for many years under the tutelage of Coach Rusty and Ronnie. These men would be instrumental in the lives of the young ladies for years.
After the Chaos cleats came off for the last time and the girls moved on, it took much getting used to. All of the girls continued playing softball whether for a travel team, their high school or both.
Nicole pitched for New Waverly High School. She was a cheerleader and competed in various other sports as well. Over the years, life got busy and the moments spent with Nicole and the others became fewer and far between.
I always got so excited when I bumped into any of the Billnoske Clan when out and about. There are just some people that you can pick up right where you left off, and they are those kind of people.
Throughout the years, all of our girls stayed out of trouble and were integral parts of their respective teams and families. I am so proud of the legacy that they are leaving behind and I am looking forward to witnessing the successes that are iminent in their lives.
Nicole, although not physically here, cheering for her Chaos girls, is still a part of each and every one of their hearts and souls. In fact, I venture to say, anyone who ever met Nicole has a part of her in their soul. She was just that kind of girl.
When I got the news that Nicole had been in a car accident and did not survive, I thought the information was wrong. Surely, it was someone else. A sentiment shared by everyone, I’m sure. Once my doubt was confirmed, my first thoughts were like everyone else’s. How is Donna going to survive this? What is Steven going to do? Oh my God, the girls.
Of course, I immediately started going through photo album after photo album. My first instinct was to make a photo collage for her family. I did not, however. I wasn’t sure if that was an appropriate gesture at the time.
When we arrived at the funeral home to say our goodbyes to Nicole and support the Billnoske’s, I realized that they were going to make it through this. The number of friends and family that were there would be their saving grace. Everyone had to wait for a good while to get into the funeral home to see our friend one last time. The line was incredible. A true testament to how much that fiesty girl was loved.
Chaos girls, high school team members, lifelong friends and relatives, all there to bid farewell to a beautiful young lady, taken too soon.
Once Casey and I got inside the door, I was overwhelmed by the pictures and memorabilia. That evening, I “read” the chapters of Nicole’s story that I was unfamiliar with. The chapters that happened while she wasn’t on the field with her Chaos girls and the pages before and after Chaos.
Of course, it was the softball relics that caught my eye and took my breath away.
The New Waverly letterman, displayed in a glass case, only to wonder why it wasn’t adorning the shoulders of its recipient. The glove, just leather bound together, useless without her hand inside. The bat, yearning for her to throw it down after striking out, if only one more time.
I’ve often asked why, as anyone who knew her does. She had just graduated, she was so young. There is no good answer. Life doesn’t make sense at times.
The legacy that girl left behind is exceptional and I can only imagine what it would have been had she stayed with us a little longer.
As much as my heart hurts for “my” loss, the loss of a little friend that loved my company and my stories, my hurt pales in comparison to that of her family.
I am so thankful that God hand picked each members of the Billnoske family. Without each other, they couldn’t have made it this far. Each drawing strength from the others. Each assuming their respective roles.
Lord, thank you on behalf of the Chaos girls, coaches and the storyteller. Thank you for giving us that feisty, fiery, stubborn, incredibly talented buddy of ours, if only for a little while. We are all better people for the time we spent with her.
Steven, Donna, Megan and Ashley, thank you for sharing your little fireball with me all of those years. I will cherish those memories always. I love you guys and think of you often.
Nikki B., I love you and miss you, kiddo. What I would give to tell you one more story.