I was reading a Rick Reilly story today about George Karl’s fight to stay with his team while battling cancer. To some people, continuing to coach might seem insane: Why would he ever want to coach, when it could potentially keep him fatigued and hurt his chances of recovery?
But me, I understand. It’s hard to imagine my life without sports. My relationships would all be different, and there have been times when sports have revealed a medicinal quality to heal. Even during the few times sports have broken my heart, the heartbreak came after years of strengthening friendships and improving the quality of my life.
Here’s one story to demonstrate how sports can help the healing process.
I was in my dorm room at prep school, playing Madden with my roommate Alberto. We weren’t allowed to be playing video games during study time, so we were worried about the normal things: Would our dorm head come into our room and catch us skipping out on homework? Could our teacher, who lived next door to us in an apartment, hear us?
As we continued our game, my cell phone rang. I let it go. I was playing Madden, damn it, the call could wait. Seconds later, it rang again, so I finally picked it up, reluctantly putting the PlayStation controller down.
It was my mom. My cousin Taryn, only a junior in college, was dead.
I didn’t know what to think. I wasn’t even that close to Taryn, but she was my cousin. We didn’t hang out much, her family lives on the other side of the state, but she was the first person I really knew who had ever passed away. And she was only a junior in college.
The last time we’d been together, Taryn had been perfectly healthy. She went away to Galway, Ireland for a semester abroad, and still showed no signs of illness. While she was away, she contracted an infection. Within days, she was dead, spending her last seconds in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, thousands of miles away from everyone who loved her.
I talked to my father, who was inconsolable. His brother’s daughter, so sweet and fun to be with, was gone. We’d never talk to her again.
I’m sure my dad wondered how he could have been a better brother, a better uncle. I know I wondered how I could have been a better cousin. We hadn’t seen her in ages, it felt like. And now we’d never get another chance.
For Taryn to be dead was impossible. Already, as a junior in college, she was a First Team All-American in field hockey. She had fiery red hair, and always had a smile on her face. She was indomitable on the field, and a bundle of fun off it. She couldn’t be gone.
I called my basketball coach, and told him I’d have to miss practice the next couple days. He was normally a stickler about missing practice. He didn’t mind this time.
Two days later, I was a pallbearer in the funeral. The day before the funeral, though, was the wake, and my heart bottomed out when I met Taryn’s boyfriend. A semester away from his girlfriend was bad enough, but now? I didn’t know how long they’d been going out, or if they’d ever spoken about living a life together. I’d never even met him before. But I did know he loved her. That was evident in every tear streaming down his face, and in the way his hands trembled as he offered his condolences to my aunt and uncle.
The next day, the scene at the funeral was a combination of incredible love and intense grief. I’ll never forget walking into the funeral, carrying Taryn’s body into the church. I didn’t know what to expect. Looking around at hundreds of people standing in respect for Taryn, I cried every tear I had in my body, at the same time feeling a surge of pride for my deceased cousin.
In articles about her written after her death, Taryn was described as “an inspirational leader,” “the type of student who would often find themselves on the cover of brochures crowing about everything a college has to offer,” and “one of those people who probably had more friends on campus than anyone.”
I probably didn’t know as much about Taryn as the people saying those comments, even though I was her cousin. I never got the opportunity to become close to her. But, seeing how her hundreds of friends, bused from Bowdoin College to see her one last time, reacted to her passing, I knew everything I needed to.
I met her field hockey coach, who handled the situation as well as anyone possibly could have. She was strong, compassionate, and caring. She clearly cared for Taryn like a family member, and dealt with my aunt and uncle with the utmost dignity and delicacy. Meeting her and seeing her teammates, I knew the Bowdoin field hockey team would play the following season for Taryn.
I drove back to school, arriving in time for my basketball game. Everything was a blur, but I played one of the best games of my life. I threw 13 assists that day, compared to zero turnovers. Somehow, after all the crying and grieving I’d gone through, basketball was just what I needed. The game was put into perspective by Taryn’s death, but it was just what I needed to keep my mind off the pain and heartache.
My parents came to my game that day, as they always did. Watching me play always brought them happiness, but that day was different. My dad seemed composed the entire game, with a calm exterior. But I walked over to him after the game, and he threw his arms around my neck, breaking down. He wept that day like I’d never seen him. They were tears of loss, joy, and pride. Being held by my inconsolable father, I cried too.
My basketball game didn’t bring Taryn back, and nothing could. But it helped heal a small part of the hole in our hearts, and to express our emotions in a productive way. Somehow, and I’m still not quite sure how, basketball brought us hope.
And Taryn’s field hockey team?
They didn’t end up playing the following season for Taryn.
No, with her initials etched into their jerseys and her memories forever marked in their hearts, they played with her instead.
(My thoughts go out to George Karl, his family, and everybody close to him. I hope that he can continue to have the strength to persevere, and that basketball remains a light of joy during these bleak times.)