My 40s have pretty much sucked. I’ve lost some of my hearing and some of my hair; what’s left of my locks have grayed, over the past four years, at a pace on par with President Obama. My body aches in odd spots. I need glasses to read menus and texts. I’ve been working at an excruciating pace as a writer and a teacher, a second career endeavor started nearly a decade ago. And while I am proud of my accomplishments, both as an author and an instructor, the rewards have just not been anywhere near the effort, which only means more excruciating pace for the foreseeable future. Awesome.
But the most defining aspect of my 40s has been death. There’s been my beloved Uncle Nat and a dear friend Karen. A buddy from college died tragically late last year. And then the big two: my mother and my oldest friend, Mike O’Shea. My glamorous and loving mother died three years ago; Mike passed away in January. And it seemed like Mike’s death brought the weight of all the others crashing down, particularly that of my mother, whose illness I never accepted and whose death I failed to properly grieve.
I was hurting. Bad. I’ve never wrestled with depression or powerful negative emotions before. I figured I’d been blessed with enormous fortitude; turns out, I’d just been lucky. But that luck came to an abrupt end after some generally crappy developments and a string of deaths in the first half of the fourth decade of my life.
I didn’t know what to do. My wife was worried. My father was worried. My kids wondered why I was so grumpy all the time. Hell, I was worried! I knew I was in a funk, but I didn’t know how to shake it. Therapy was appropriate, but I didn’t have the guts to do it.
And then something happened. My six-year-old son had started playing basketball on Saturday mornings. In order for me to get him in the league, I had to volunteer to coach. Teaching basketball to six-year-olds is tough. Teaching basketball to a packed gymnasium of six-year-olds, only one of whom happens to be your kid, is, well, let’s go with “whole-lotta-Alleve-inducing,” to say the least. But still, it was fun. I like basketball, and I love my son. I also like little kids, so these afternoons brought some joy. But then the guy who runs the whole program mentioned THE GAME. What game? THE COACH’S GAME, the one where all the volunteer coaches play in a full court game orchestrated by the fifth grade players. Oh, shit. Un-uh. No way. I did not want to play, and I immediately thought of excuses while I was being informed of the event. But then my son walked up and got the gist of what was going on.
“Are you going to play, Daddy?” he asked with wide-eyes.
“Sure. Sure,” I said. “No problem.”
The problem was I didn’t want to play. I really, really, really, really, really, really didn’t. I hadn’t run a full-court game of basketball in 20 years. And I didn’t miss it: sweaty dudes, bumping into each other, talking smack, acting like dropping a ball in a bucket is some sort of indication of manliness. Not to mention the jammed fingers and twisted ankles. I didn’t miss it at all. And when the day of the coach’s game arrived, I didn’t want to go. I really didn’t want to go. I. So. Did. Not. Want. To. Go. But I went, and so did my son, my daughter, and my wife. They sat on the sidelines, along with a lot of other parents and siblings. My heart was beating hard before the game even began. There were a couple of older siblings of the fifth graders on the court who were young and athletic, a couple of middle-aged guys with troubling intensity and official-looking gear (sweat bands and goggles and knee braces, of my!). And then there was more than a few dudes like me, who had played some ball before but it had been a while. During warm-ups, we all shared looks of consternation and confessed our concerns through self-deprecation and limited expectations (my line was that my daughter had 9-1 already dialed on the cell phone, and she was instructed to hit the last 1 as soon as I keeled over).
Then the game began, and I was dragging my ass back and forth in a gym that seemed too hot, too crowded, too bright. But somehow, I managed to find my long-forgotten game. I made some shots and played some D and grabbed some boards. On the way back up court, I pointed at a guy who had fed me a bounce pass which turned into an easy bucket. Later, I got the same gesture from a guy I had fed. Fist bumps and hand slaps were exchanged. We had it going on, a little bit, for a little while. Truly, I didn’t want it to end.
Afterward, my son and daughter and wife all agreed that I had played great. So did some of the parents in attendance. I kind of agreed and I kind of didn’t, but it didn’t matter. I felt good. My body hadn’t betrayed me, and my head was clear for the first time in ages.
After my kids were in bed and I had showered, I sat on the couch and drank some cold beer. I began to reconcile all the things that had been bothering me: all the grief and consternation and pessimism. I could feel the veil of sadness lifting, and knew I still had some grieving to do but was confident I’d get through it. Better days were ahead.
I also thought a lot about the coaches game, and how the exertion of athletic competition just did something remarkable to my brain. Something significant and something badly needed. I haven’t ruled out therapy, but I have committed myself to regular exercise and some occasional competition to ensure a healthy perspective on all the enormous challenges the game of life presents (some of which are even bigger than coaching basketball to six-year-olds).
The next day I reached out to a neighbor about a weekly basketball game he had recently mentioned. I asked if they could use another player. I knew the competition would be better than the coach’s game, possibly much better. When the day arrived for my first game, I didn’t want to go. I really, really didn’t. But I went anyway. I had to.