I am a Tar Heel. Class of 1998.
In the fall of my senior year, iconic basketball coach, Dean Smith, retired. He was a man I much admired. Not only was he beyond compare when it came to coaching basketball in a state where basketball is close to religion, but 96.6% of his players graduated and he fought for integration in a time and place when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.
Recent days have revealed that Coach Smith, 80 years old now, is battling a memory disorder. As a family of Tar Heels, we are, of course, following the story, reading a variety of articles and watching the comments and posts coming in through Facebook.
And it’s beginning to bother me. A lot.
Let me point out that Coach Smith has not passed on. He is still alive. He is still living his life. That was quite clear in the statement put out by his family. Yes, his life is amended. Yes, he isn’t doing all that he was doing a year ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. But, yes, he is doing. Yes, he is LIVING.
The tone of so many of these articles has been one of loss, almost obituary-like. Like somehow he is somewhat less than as a result of a medical diagnosis. Perhaps it’s the fascination of watching a great one fall, not wanting to see a hero weakened. But I think some of it has to do with being uncomfortable. And memory disorders do that to those not suffering. Make them uncomfortable.
I watched my grandmother suffer from a form of dementia. There is nothing more painful than not being recognized by a woman you love dearly and who has loved you. The blank stare. The empty smile. The subtle twitch of an eyebrow as perhaps somewhere she recognizes that she should know this young woman before her, but honestly and truly does not. Perhaps more painful was the struggle her husband and children encountered as they bore the brunt of the paranoia, the anger, the yelling and screaming, all born from a terrifying frustration, I’m sure, as you realize your own mind has failed you and you can do nothing to stop it.
I watched her at my grandfather’s funeral. The funeral mass that was said in the chapel of her nursing home so that she could attend. Even though no one had told her yet that her husband had died. Because she hadn’t noticed yet. And would she remember if told? She sat in a wheelchair in the back. She listened. She smiled politely. This person they spoke of seemed like a very nice man. He had a lovely family gathered around him to say goodbye. Perhaps she even thought we looked like the kind of family she’d like to have. I hope so. Because it was the family she did have. And our tears flowed that day, not only for the man we had lost but for the woman we seemed to have already lost to this horrible, humiliating disease.
When she did pass, not even a year after my grandfather, we all sighed and said it was for the best. We comforted ourselves by saying we’d said goodbye years ago since she was certainly not the tour-de-force woman we remembered. But she was still gone. And it still hurt. I can’t help but wonder what those dementia years were like inside her mind. How hard that must have been for her. How she must have said goodbye to a piece of herself each and every day while fighting so damn hard to hold on to it.
Just this past weekend, on our wedding anniversary, a cousin of mine wished us well and pointed out a hilarious moment from our reception where he somehow ended up dancing with my grandmother to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.” What a memory that is. A memory that I’m sure my grandmother would not have been able to call up in those last years, but would certainly have laughed at and appreciated the woman who danced so ridiculously with her grown grandson.
So I am bothered. I am bothered because Coach Smith has good days ahead of him. I am bothered because he has a family who will refuse to say goodbye until the time of parting. I am bothered because it is not a weakness, it is a disease. I am bothered because those who say goodbye to this man and his legacy now only serve to isolate him, and isolated is a scary way to live, regardless of whether you remember it or not.
Tar Heel nation and beyond, if you are bothered, uncomfortable, saddened or otherwise affected by this announcement, do something. Be Coach’s memory. Take the lessons he imparted on the court to his players, take the model he was in the community and become a memory for someone else. Fight for research into these disorders. Visit that family member and share stories of the past.
Memories don’t need to live inside your own mind to be alive.