Dealing With Alzheimer’s: Pat Summitt Battens Down the Hatches
You want to say something insightful in moments like this, but it’s hard. The right words don’t come. The words that can heal don’t come. Then you wonder if maybe you should just draw a picture of how you feel, maybe trace a heart in crayon on a piece of construction paper like you used to do for your mom in an effort to apologize for saying something really mean and nasty, but whether you respond with words or a picture, it all feels futile, because words and pictures–what makes up our memories–are exactly what’s being attacked by this opponent, this enemy, this disease.
What do you say when Pat Summitt, at age 59, announces that she’s battling dementia, Alzheimer’s, what is basically an erosion of the self? What do you say?
The story has been out now for a couple days–I’ve been slow to respond–but most of the responses have been the same: Pat Summitt is a beloved and revered college coach, forever underrated because of the gender of her teams, and then their are people’s personal accounts of dealing with this illness, delivered in a tone that’s still not only trying to deal with the public sadness involved with Pat Summitt’s announcement but with the personal sadness most of us have dealt with when it comes to the deterioration of our own blood and kin. And there is also the hidden confession that we are all afraid this will one day happen to us.
Most of us must believe that we are more than our physical selves, that these vehicles of skin and bone are mere conveniences. I truly believe that. Despite the fact that more people get plastic surgery every year to fight the inevitable and that our forms of entertainment often worship the brimming physicality of youth, I believe that most of us do not define ourselves, in our entirety, by our head of hair, smooth complexions, and active limbs, that while I may curse my receding hairline, I do not damn myself at its retreat, and that in more serious situations of physical decline, such as cancer and AIDS, humor and personality are at one’s sides like a gun or a sword, and that even someone who has grown stick thin and frail as a praying mantis can still recall warm days and crack a smile. The body can be sick, but the mind can go on, propelling an identity until its last breath is drawn. But that is not the case with what Pat Summitt now faces.
We do not know how quickly or slowly the advance of Alzheimer’s on Pat Summitt’s brain, personality, and livelihood will be, which is why her decision to keep coaching is such a courageous one. My personal experiences with the disease have been that it crept so slowly and quietly through the marshes of the mind that by the time we knew it was there it had already snatched my Memaw, my Granddad, and my Grandma from out the beds in which they slept, and we rode up on the burning homestead like John Wayne in The Searchers, wanting revenge but without a real chance in the world of ever getting it. Dementia and Alzheimer’s do not play fair, and while Pat Summitt can lay out a plan to read and do puzzles before bed, most of us find it easy to despair, because we know that these illnesses are as patient as they are cruel–and there is no cure. It is easy to despair at the very mentioning of them, and the fact that Pat Summitt is not throwing in the towel is exactly why she’s been perhaps the greatest college coach in the history of college athletics.
It would be easy to define Pat Summitt’s career by the numbers, to laude her 1071-199 career coaching record, which is good enough for an 84.33% winning percentage, to list off her eight NCAA championships, her sixteen SEC championships, or her fifteen conference titles. That would be easy. It makes the success of her career easily quantifiable, but it would ignore all of the half time speeches, all of the drilling in practice, and all of the off court mentoring that made those numbers more than just a proud tradition but a personal, living experience for all the players who have not only played for her at Tennessee but have graduated from the school as well. Coaches are not just coaches; they are teachers, too. And a teacher’s aim is to set a student on a path to success, and that success can be many things; but it must, in some way, be a discovery of self. A teacher must help a student uncover, in the shadows of inexperience, what kernel of their being is to be their guiding light, their true self, the essence of what it means to be unquestionably themselves. And I can think of no other more pressing, more dramatic, or more inspiring way to do that than to take the voyage on which Pat Summitt is about to embark.
The rest of the east coast may be bracing for Hurricane Irene, but there are far worse storms out there, waiting in the seas of our DNA; and as Coach Summitt battens down the hatches and sails forth into the dark tides from which she usually lifts her students–age washing back out in the direction from which it came–we all have something to learn from a woman who has lived the essence of the word Volunteer.
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