I was proud to watch my alma mater continue to live up to name Lady Vol this weekend (after the past couple of years,some good news was needed). It was great to watch them get to their 21st SEC Championship game in 31 years. It was better to see them take their 16th SEC Tournament Championship. I would love to see them take their coming #2 seed and make it a 9th National Championship. Yet this accomplishment had (an would have) a bitter aftertaste. Why? Because the coach that brought us this prominence, this success, this dominance sat mute as a mummy on the sidelines. At times she did not look comfortable and perhaps unsure of where she was. The coach we love (the first time I met her I went absolutely speechless, that does not happen often) has been laid low with dementia, and this is not near as fun as sitting in the crowd when she became the winningest coach in NCAA history.
I can still remember the tastes, the smells, the sounds of that victory in the court since renamed ‘The Summitt.’ You wonder if she can. That is why as I reveled in the victory, I was struck with this thought: “who does coach have in her life to celebrate with.” And that though led to this: “who does coach have in her life to hold her hand as the darkness encroaches and her memories fade.” This divorcee with a grown son who has outlived her parents may or may not have a support network for what will come next: the end of the victories followed by a steady string of trials and failures. Sure, she has the “Tennessee Family.” But will we be there at midnight when she wakes in a panic and forgets who and where she is. I will be in Birmingham with my memories. Her mentorees will be coaching teams like UK and USC in the NCAA Tournament (or on the road recruiting, or at practice, or in a radio interview). Her friend Holly will be (hopefully) continuing the UT tradition and beating Gino A until he cries for mercy. As Eric Clapton has crooned (popularizing Bessie Smith’s lyrics) :
“Nobody Knows you.
When you’re down and out.
In your pocket, not one penny,And as for friends, you don’t have any”
At a funeral recently I mentioned to friend that you really learn who your true friends are in a crisis. In any crisis there are the many that flee, and the few that stay. The few that stay are the true friends (the rest just Facebook). And so I worry who will be there to hold her hand when the world has gone cruel and heartless. To be so successful and find so cruel an end seems unfair, but it is life. The mighty become the conquered. The giants crash down to earth felled by a smooth stone fired by a pipsqueak considered good for nothing. Icarus falls back to earth after a few precious moments hung tantalizingly close to the sun.
The question is this: Who’s gonna be there when it happens? Who’s gonna stick around to wipe the snot off your nose, and the ooze off your mouth? Who’s gonna devote themselves to tying your shoes, keeping you in line, and answering the same questions again and again? Who’s gonna be calm and patient with you when you try these nerves and question their sanity? When you find those people make sure you keep them around. Choose them. You may not be as successful. You may not win as many awards. You may not be known the world round. But choose them over success, over victory, over popularity. Choose them because one day the world will not care or remember how many championships you won. They will only know that you are the lonely old geezer sitting in the corner of the nursing home lobby with drool on their lips.
I love my coach. I pray for health and that her fight against this agonizing disease might stay successful for a long time. I pray that she will not go down the road that I have seen many other loved ones tread. I pray that could go out in a blaze of glory holding another championship trophy. But more than anything I pray that she has the people in her life who will visit the smelly lobby of the nursing home, and take time to visit, drool or not. I pray that all her success will not have been in vain. I pray that she will not be just another person who has gained the world, but lost her soul in the effort.
Last I pray that each of us will make wise choices in our lives. That we choose life and not death. That we choose to place the highest value on the relationships and communities in our lives. That we choose people over press, over success, and over death. I pray that we become the type people who will sit with out loved ones in lobbies of nursing homes, and that in turn we engender the love and loyalty that will bring others in sit that lobby when its our turn to sit there.