Pat Summitt has been the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach forever. Well, for 37 seasons anyway, which is basically forever in this here today, gone tomorrow world. She’s one of the most respected coaches in collegiate sports, in spite of being a women’s coach – a group relegated to the back page of sports sections because women’s sports just don’t garner the same attention men’s sports do. I have always admired her for being a strong woman, for her success, her work ethic, and her care and concern for her players. If young women are looking for a role model, she’s one.
Anyway, this week she announced that at 59 years old, she’s suffering from early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She intends to continue coaching, leaning more heavily on her long-time assistants than she usually does. Hopefully medication will slow the progress of the disease and give her more time coaching. But when you know what the inevitable outcome will be, it’s so very sad.
I have an aunt who lives in a nursing home where she’s being cared for by folks familiar with the unique challenges of dementia. She has no clue who or where she is, or who anyone else is. She flirts with her children when they come to visit. She’s still the happy person she always was (she was the nicest person in the universe), but doesn’t have a clue about much. We laugh at her antics because it’s better than crying. We watched her memory fade as the disease took hold, watched as she mixed up words, forgot how to do simple things, and forgot who we were. She would say, “Darn it, I can’t remember beans,” and we would nod and smile.
I wonder how it feels to hear that diagnosis, to know the inevitable path that your life is going to take. I have a bad memory anyway, but how would I react, knowing that it was just going to get worse and worse, until someone else had to care for me? Pollyanna plans to live to be 100, taking care of myself, not relying on anyone else, since I’m so bad about letting anyone do anything for me as it is. How would I handle that? It’s very scary to think of losing the one thing I have going for me, my mind.
Anyway, I hope I don’t have to deal with that, because I’m not sure how I would. I don’t know how you deal with news like that, or of any kind of terminal disease. I’d hope that I would face it with the same grace and determination that Coach Summitt is exhibiting, but I don’t know that I’m that strong.
In the meantime, I will pay special attention to the Lady Vols this year, and enjoy their final season with their coach. A lot of tears will be shed, but hopefully there will be good memories made and good times had. If it were me, I wouldn’t want folks mourning what was lost, but instead celebrating what was.