Tag Archives: Losing a parent

When Fiction Reminds Us Of What’s Real

***SPOILER ALERT*** This post discusses a plot line of the television show THIS IS US up through last night’s episode, Memphis.

This is humiliating!

I’ve had television shows and movies make me cry before. Many times. That experience is not even remotely new. But I’ve never had this happen before.

Multiple times now, I have recalled last night’s episode of THIS IS US entitled Memphis and teared up at the mere memory of it. I can’t stop. It’s ridiculous.

I have long stated that I believe the best episode of television I’ve ever seen was the season 5 finale of Lost. Today, I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m almost positive it has been relegated to second place. And why? Because I have never had a television show speak so directly to me and my life experience as last night’s THIS IS US did.

To give a little background in case you blew past the Spoiler Alert because you never plan on watching this show or you are already a fan, the audience is introduced in the first episode of the series to a character who is fighting Stage 4 stomach cancer. He’s introduced into the story when his biological son, who he left on the doorstep of a fire station, tracks him down and berates him for abandoning him. From that first moment you meet him, the character of William Hill becomes a part of you. At least he did for me. (And judging from the on-line reaction to last night’s episode, a good portion of those who watch this show agree with me.) His reaction to being chastised by his son is not defensive. Nor is it dismissive. It is world-weary acceptance that everything his son is saying about him is true. He’s a man with many regrets, but he owns them, and you love him all the more for it, as does his son, who by the end of their first meeting invites him into his home to live with him through his final days.

Well, those final days came to an end last night and it was…exactly what it should have been. If this post were strictly a review of This Is Us, that would be a phrase I would apply to much of this show. It gives a portrayal of life that is exactly what it should be. Good people who aren’t perfect but who are trying. Not for perfection. Just trying. And I love that the show’s creators have taken on so many issues that aren’t necessarily “sexy” per se, but are very real.

And when it comes to this particular story line, it couldn’t be more real. And I think that is why I’m blinking back tears even as I write this sentence. See, there are different types of death. The one you hope for for yourself and for everyone close to you is that of a full life that ends at a time and place that is…acceptable. Yes, death will always be hard, but there are times when it is, for lack of a better word, expected. My grandmother’s passing was one of those experiences and her funeral was a celebration of a good long life well-lived.

But then there are the deaths that feel so incredibly unfair. In my family, we’ve been sucker punched by these kind, not once, but twice. My father-in-law died of a massive heart attack at age 49. And eight years later, my mother lost her battle with cancer at age 59.

And it sucked! Both times! Hard Core!

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My kids, who come from a rich ranching heritage were supposed to be able to experience working on the ranch with the grandfather. They were supposed to look out and see the unmistakable glint of pride in the eye of a gruff old cowboy every time they experienced one of life’s successes. They were supposed to learn pearls of wisdom from a man who at times appeared rough around the edges, but underneath had truly invaluable pearls of wisdom to impart.

They were supposed to feel the love of a woman who would move heaven and earth to spend time with them. They were supposed to spend weekends away from their parents with a grandma who would play cards with them all night and feed them like royalty all day. They were supposed to learn from the example of a truly driven woman that no challenge is too great.

Instead…they got none of that. Not that I am trying to disparage their two remaining grandparents in any way. They get many wonderful gifts from them. But my heart aches every time I think about what they have missed from the two grandparents who are gone.

And as I watched this heartbreaking episode of television, I was reminded of those things once again. Along with that, I was reminded of something else. All the things I have missed as well.

I am convinced when someone loses a parent too soon, whether that be as a child, as a young adult, or whenever, it breaks a person at least a little bit. I think it broke me.

Yes, I know I am 43 years old, but I don’t care. There are just times when I need my mom. And I just don’t seem quite able to emotionally handle it when she’s not there. Everything made sense and I questioned very little when she was alive. Quite a few things have stopped making sense and I question all kinds of things now that she’s gone. Maybe that makes me a better person, maybe not. I suppose that’s for God to decide. But what I do know is that her absence in my life hurts. It’s been almost 8 years and it still hurts to the point of tears I can’t control.

Which I suppose explains my ridiculous reaction to last night’s episode of a television show. Seeing a man lose his biological father so soon after finding him was unbelievably unfair. And yet, it felt real. Because we all have those experiences that remind us life isn’t fair.

But the other thing that last night’s episode, and basically the show in general, has done for me lately is remind me of a basic truth. It has reminded me of the triviality of so many things we can mistake for important. Donald Trump is not important. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, are not important. Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, moderate…not important. And stewing about those things incessantly seems today for some reason to be time wasted.

On the other hand, choir concerts are important. Piano recitals are important. Family vacations are beyond important. Monday night dinners with my children are priceless. Each and every kiss willingly placed upon my bald head by a precious three-year-old is a gift from God.

And each and every memory of my mother is a treasure more valuable than gold.

“You need a television show to remind you of that?” I can hear some people ask. Yeah, apparently sometimes I do.

And with that, I’ll bring this meandering post to a close. I don’t know what my point was exactly. Maybe I didn’t particularly have one. But I wanna say this. The Memphis episode of THIS IS US deserves an Emmy. Ron Cephas Jones deserves an Emmy and Sterling K. Brown deserves an Emmy. I don’t want to hear about GAME OF THRONES or STRANGER THINGS or any other show that is supposedly changing television. Maybe they are, but THIS IS US is on another level. It isn’t necessarily changing anything, but it is allowing people to be touched by the emotions that matter most. And if art can do that, then I believe it has transcended the very concept of art itself.

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Life Lessons From A Middle-Aged Cinderella

In 1983 I was ten years old. That year, my only real interest in sports was meeting up with my friends at the Friday night high school football game (which we had no intention of actually watching) and giving my Granny grief during the Dallas Cowboys/Pittsburgh Steelers game each year. (Danny White was a distant cousin and she had a deep love for America’s Team. Me? Not so much.)

It would be another three years before I discovered my die-hard devotion to the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird, and another five years before I would begin watching Sean Elliott and the Arizona Wildcats as they made their way to the Final Four, making me a UofA fan for life (or until I learned that in order to attend UofA, you actually had to live in Tucson. Once I realized that, the hated Sun Devils didn’t look so bad after all.)

But in 1983, I wasn’t paying attention to NCAA basketball. So later in life when I would hear about the great run of the North Carolina State basketball team to win the national championship, I didn’t get too worked up. I mean, I’m sure it was great and all, but it fell into the same arena as The Beatles and the signing of the Magna Carta. All were a part of history and all were things that I didn’t care that much about. I certainly didn’t know or care who Jim Valvano was. Even into my twenties and thirties, I vaguely knew he had been a coach and was known for running around the court looking for someone to hug after his team won it all in 19…something. I also knew he died of cancer and had started the V Foundation to raise money for cancer research. But again, I didn’t pay that much attention. He was a figure from another era who, sadly, probably died before his time.

I should also mention that at that point in my life, I also hadn’t lost my own mother to cancer.

But today, in 2013, I have lost my mom. And so maybe that had something to do with the split second decision I made as I was flipping through the channels last night and came across Coach Jimmy Valvano speaking in front of some group, giving a motivational speech. Normally, I would have kept right on surfing the channels…but I didn’t. I stopped and listened to what he was saying, and low and behold, the guy was quite funny and extremely motivational. I put the remote down and kept watching. And what I watched was a documentary of the magical run of North Carolina State in that 1983 season, told through the rememberances of Coach Valvano’s players.

What prompted the making of this documentary was the death of one of the team’s stars. In fact it was the guy who scored the winning basket at the last second. When he passed, the other players commented that if they didn’t get together regularly, the only time they would see each other was at each other’s funerals. So they planned a reunion. And ESPN got wind of it and sent a film crew to capture the event on tape. And it was fascinating.

To a sports fan like me, the memories of each game was interesting, but what really made the show special was seeing the love these players had for their coach. And learning what kind of things had done to earn that love and devotion.

Coach Valvano wasn’t the tough love kind of coach. He genuinely was a motivational speaker who knew a thing or two about basketball. At the beginning of each season, and several times during, he would hold a practice where the players never touched a ball or ran the length of the court. What they would do was practice cutting down the nets-the ritual that all champions engage in once they have won their coveted prize. He told them that in order to achieve their goal of winning a championship, they needed to know what it felt like to see it happen. The players said it was weird and awkward at first, but after doing it a few times, they got into it…and more importantly, believed it could happen for real.

He trusted his players. Even if they made stupid mistakes, he trusted them with the opportunity to make it right.

At several points during the documentary, they showed him speaking. In one clip he quoted one of his idols whose name I did not catch, but the quote went, “God must love ordinary people, because he sure made a lot of them. But each and every day, ordinary people do the most extrordinary things.” I don’t know why, but that touched me. It touched me deeply.

Another clip showed him years later, after he had been diagnosed with cancer and could hardly walk on his own. He attended that year’s ESPY Awards and was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. During his speech, he said something I believe is nothing earth shattering, but at the same time, profound. He said there are three things we ought to do every day. The first is laugh. The second is think. Give ourselves some time to think with no outside influences pushing us. The third was to have our emotions move us to tears. He said if a person does each of those things in one day, what an amazing day. A little later in the same speech, he encouraged everyone to enjoy their life. That’s a total cliche thing to say unless it is coming from a man who has no idea how many days he has left. When he says it, there is nothing cliche about it.

At the end of the documentary, it was well past the time I should have been in bed, but I didn’t care. I thought I knew how the story ended. NC State won the tourney in 1983. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The story has no end. In 1993, NC State invited the team back for a 10-year celebration during a half-time of one of their games. What was impressive was that Jimmy Valvano came. He was beyond not well. But he came. And he showed once again that he loved those players. And they in turn loved him back. They loved him because he cared and he believed in them and never let them doubt that he believed in them. That impact will be with each of those men forever. It will be with their families because that belief changed the course of each life it touched. Belief in each other is powerful.

As I turned off the TV, I couldn’t help but think of my mom. I don’t want to cheapen what I’m trying to say by making this a pitch for my book, so I will not do the big, THIS IS WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT thing at the end. But to me, this story of a coach, my mom and the book that I wrote are all interconnected.

I’m an ordinary guy. I’m beyond ordinary, in fact. I was bald before I was thirty. I live fifty miles from the house I grew up in. And whether or not I show up for work on a given day has very little impact on socity at large.

But my mom loved me. And my mom believed I was great-that I could do great things. I miss her terribly. As I sit here writing this, I’m getting my daily dose of being moved to tears. And because of her, and her belief in me that she emphasized from the time I was little, I achieved something extraordinary.

I can honestly say, only one thing in my life has been harder than writing my book, and that was going on a mission. I’m a homebody and those two years, while unbelievably rewarding, were difficult for me. But writing this novel was easily the second hardest thing I have ever done. There were several times I was ready to give up. There were times when I was convinced the whole thing was no good and not worth finishing. But my mother (and my father as well) raised me not to quit. I haven’t always lived up to that teaching, but I try. And I told my mom a long time ago that I was going to write a book. Because of her belief in me, I knew I had to finish. And I did. And if it never experiences success in the wordly sense, it doesn’t matter, because I know I accomplished something extraordinary. And for my ordinary little life, that’s what does matter.

So thank you, Mr. Valvano. Thank you for the opportunity to learn your story. Thank you for the opportunity your story gave me to reflect upon my mom and my experiences with her. Thank you, Mom, for being the type of parent who instilled the confidence to help me achieve my dream. I only wish you were here to share this whole experience with me.

The Reluctant Blogger is lovingly dedicated to Alberta Lee Rapier.

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