Whenever Bryce Deniz bounds across the mat, she sees him.
Whenever the 11-year-old gymnast works the high bar, still rings, parallel bars, pommel horse or speeds down the runway to vault, he hears her words of encouragement.
Heaven is the ultimate skybox. And while Bryce might not see it that way at such a young age, he knows his mother is with him in love and spirit, if not in person, every moment of every day.
Debbie Deniz died at age 43 on Feb. 10, 2009, after an eight-year battle with ovarian cancer. Her twins, Bryce and daughter Brianna, were only 2 when she learned she had the disease.
"That's all they knew, was their mom being sick," dad Frank Deniz said.
Certainly they enjoyed some happy times, particularly when she was in remission. But family members said the threat of the cancer returning always loomed.
Bryce and Brianna now are sixth-graders at Dan Savage Middle School in Modesto. He began in gymnastics when he was 7 and quit after one year when the gym where they trained closed. But after attending a meet in late 2008, and because of his mother's encouragement, "I felt like I needed to go back," he said.
The children's gymnastics offered some of those better moments, even though Bryce — who is 50 percent deaf in one ear, 45 percent in the other and wears hearing aides in both ears — didn't begin competing until after Debbie's death. Brianna is taking a break from the sport. Bryce, meanwhile, competes because he loves it, and to honor his mother's memory. He's able to do so only because he has an extensive support system.
Dad Frank, who has remarried, is a farmer who works long days growing corn and oats on his 150 acres, and helps to pay the bills by chopping hay and turning ground for other growers in the valley. When he attended the state gymnastics championships in Oroville last month, it was the first time he'd seen his son compete.
"I told him, 'Because I can't make it to all of your meets, it's more fun when I do because I saw how much you've improved,' " Frank Deniz said. "Because he went through losing him mom, it's been tough on him."
Dad also believes Bryce's hearing deficiencies help him concentrate and block out distractions, making him a better gymnast and student. After a recent trip to Disneyland, Bryce — a straight-A student — returned to his class and headed straight for the makeup-work folder.
"He got right in and did it," Frank said. "He really focuses and pays attention."
Grandmothers Betty Hill and Lucille Deniz, and Debbie's sister, Christine Chase, make sure Bryce gets to his three-hour workouts three days each week in Modesto or Turlock, and they attend his meets.
Aunt Christine, in fact, recently underwent a radical mastectomy, not because she, too, has cancer, but to prevent it. A history of cancer in her family, including Debbie's death, convinced Chase to be proactive.
"I've had six aunts who got breast cancer in their 40s (all have died), and my dad died of pancreatic cancer," Chase said. "(Doctors said) my chances of getting it were 96 percent if I didn't have the surgery and 2 percent if I did."
She had the surgery three weeks ago, but will fly to San Diego this weekend, where Bryce and his teammates from Turlock's Gymnastics Unlimited club will compete in the regionals. She said she promised her sister she'd be there for the twins.
"I can see he's hurting, but he's coming around," Chase said. "He's going to be OK."
"He sets his sights on something, and that's it," grandma Lucille Deniz said.
Indeed, Bryce has many people — family, friends, teachers, teammates and coaches — supporting him.
And none more so than mom, always in his heart from that great skybox above.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.