A refresher course on the pain of losses, big and small

Just about every single player on our team was crying. Even our most stoic players and coaches were sullen as hell with our eyes wandering around our home field, the site of a return-to-the-Bol d’Or clincher that never happened. It was as if 40 teenagers had been informed of their mother’s death all at once. It dawned upon me that, of all the things I had ever experienced in my many years of football, I hadn’t gone through this. I had never experienced a playoff loss at home against a team I knew we should have beaten. Part of me feels proud that it took me so long to find myself in this situation, and that every playoff loss I had ever endured at that point was against an admittedly better team. However, I could have done without the first time for that.

The silver lining of this lacrymose postgame is that I had very little time to dwell on my own disappointment, for I was too busy being heartbroken for our Sec. 5 players. It is a remarkable group, one that is largely responsible for the bulk of the high school football community being aware of our program’s existence; a group that took us from no playoffs to the championship game in a single year, and who were, for the most overwhelming part, a joy to coach. I know how badly most of them wanted to close their high school career with a ring, and just like that, this game is now a giant turd in the punch bowl of their legacy at the school, or at least that’s how most of them will see it.

This pains me to no end. As is the case with every game, countless factors went into determining its outcome. It was a valuable lesson to learn, and it’s a good things every player on our team learned it. I really wish, however, that it didn’t have to be like this. Perhaps some of our guys will have found that they left something on the table, and it’s important for them to learn that they shouldn’t. But, man, it remains one hell of a cruel way to teach that lesson to kids, because that’s still what they are, talented though they may be. This must be what parents feel like when their kids go through their first breakup. Sure, the kids are at least in part responsible for their own predicament. Sure, it’s a valuable lesson for them to learn. Still, however, you feel like complete and utter shit, because you hate seeing them like this and you wish you could protect them from the pain, but you can’t. You just can’t. And you only remember that this is a good thing AFTER everyone has recovered from the ordeal to some degree.

Football is a powerful emotional amplifier. You can do well for yourself in other walks of life. You can get some high out of being accepted in the CEGEP and/or university program of your dreams. You might also get thrills from doing well on exams, from graduating, etc. If you’re lucky, you might even get a job that allows you to get a strong sense of fulfillment out of the everyday accomplishment of your work.

Do any of these emotions even compare to those you experience as part of football, though? No fuckin’ way. Not a chance. I’m not exactly sure why, but I know this to be true. Maybe it’s because, of all sports, football almost certainly has the most lobsided practice-to-game, pain-to-gain ratio. Maybe it’s because the mental and physical investments are so great. Maybe it’s because so many coaches convince you that practice is shit (I try my very best not to), but when you think about it, you still found ways to enjoy some of it. Maybe it’s because you forge a bond with teammates that you couldn’t possibly have with co-workers in another context. Maybe it’s all those things; I don’t know. But I do know this: five years after my last snap as a player, I remember mere snapshots from the games themselves, and that’s more than most other former players I talk to. But the relationships, and the emotions that came with the most powerful moments, and the intensity of the whole thing, I remember it all as if it happened a minute ago. This shit brands you in ways that transcend description; you have to experience it to fully understand the power of it.

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A few days later, on Remembrance Day, I found myself alone at work, contemplating the fact that this was the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death. 10 years ago on that day, I was woken at roughly 6:30 AM by my mother, who told me she was going to the hospital to see him. I also remember her adding that it might be my last chance to chat with him, because all signs pointed toward the end being rather near. Groggy AS HELL, I went, but there would be no conversation. When we arrived at the hospital, he was already gone, looking as peaceful as he ever would in that damp, depressing place. Although losing a relative is never a million laughs, we had an easier time remaining serene about it, because he had a good life, and we all stood there, united as a family, as evidence of that.

For the life of me, I can’t really remember why I decided to go about the rest of my day normally, but I did. I had tutorship training and a walkthrough practice at Vieux Montréal. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the class or the practice, except that I found myself thinking, at some point during the class, “Am I actually here right now? Really?” I didn’t so much regret it as I had trouble wrapping my head around it. The next day, I had to join the Vieux Montréal colleagues as we faced off against F-X Garneau – as they were called back then – in the playoff semi-finals. I was dreading the predictable bad game, but everything seemed to break right for me. I’m not saying it was a “Brett Favre losing his father then casually dissolving the Raiders into atoms” kind of performance, but it seemed as though I could do very little wrong. Just to give you an idea, we lined up in a 5-man front, and F-X had the bright idea of running a toss play with their backs to their end zone on Joash Gesse’s side (not only was the guy a future pro, but ask anyone who was there: that year, he was on a fucking MISSION). He tackled the running back in the end zone, and I saw that the ball was out. So even though I figured he would be ruled down by contact, I picked up the ball just to be able to say that I played to the whistle, and jogged about two steps to the end zone. Turns out there was no whistle, and I had scored a touchdown. That’s the kind of day it was. A religious person, which I am not, might have said my grandfather blessed me from above.

His funeral was by far the most beautiful I can remember being a part of. It truly was, in every sense of the term, a celebration, although I really struggled to hold it together when one of my mother’s Atelier lyrique singers performed the Dido and Aeneas aria, “When I am laid in earth.” (Fuck you, Henry Purcell! What were you trying to pull off, composing this thing? Gets me every time. I have a reputation to maintain!!) But still, for a funeral, it was remarkably happy and upbeat. And when I wondered how I could be so upbeat myself, I started thinking back to that handful of Thursday afternoons when I would visit my grandfather at the hospital between class and football. Not only did I know he appreciated it, but I was glad I did it, knowing he was gone. It felt good to know I had actually taken advantage of the time he was still with us as much as I could have. Had I not done so, it would have been one nasty morality tale for me.

The last time I had lost a close relative, I was just a few months under the age of five, too young to fully understand what it meant. Given that it had been so long, I had no earthly idea how I would cope with such an event given my full awareness of what was going on. I figured I would not allow myself to be my usual emotionally-handicapped self and stay away from my grandfather in his last days out of fear of not knowing what to say, or whatever other shit. It remains to this day one of the best decisions I have ever made, because I can honestly say that I have no regrets over how I handled his last few weeks.

There are some lessons you learn by taking them on the proverbial chin, and others you don’t. Sometimes, you actually have a choice, provided you’re aware enough to realize that you have it. I’m lucky I understood what was at stake, and made sure I avoided having to live with that regret. Because the shitty thing about regret, and the reason it’s so important to leave no room for it, is that it’s the unpleasant lesson you never stop learning, that you never stop taking on the chin.

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And that’s what, thinking back to both our premature elimination and the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death, really struck me: similar kind of sadness, different reason. Don’t get offended by my daring to make such a parallel. As I’ve told you, football is an emotional amplifier. Only a person who’s never allowed themselves to truly care about the sports they practice would fail to understand how, on the spot, the two might be similarly painful. It’s not “important” in the “grand scheme of things”… but it kind of is. Football, like all sport, is a metaphor for life. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you fight, you reconcile, you scratch and bite and crawl, but most importantly, you care.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then, you have the good stuff underneath, which in other words is everything you share with teammates: the superstitions; the preparation; the shared down time in the locker room spent talking about who knows what (probably women); the moment when you allow yourselves to believe your school, of all the ones in contention, might take home the title; and yes, the suffering when it doesn’t work out. When that last one happens, to call it a figurative stomach punch doesn’t quite begin to cover it, especially when there’s regret involved. That’s why I dare compare the feeling of losing a relative to what happened to us on the football field last week. Of course, the pain of a season-ending loss will subside quicker than the pain of losing a loved one, as it should but, in the immediate aftermath of that kind of defeat, the way in which emotion overwhelms you is eerily similar.

For parents who might not have played sports, or just played them “for fun,” and therefore might not have the reflex of drawing a comparison with some of the very worst shocks of their lives, I can only imagine how unsettling it must have been for them to see their sons so devastated. That’s why the overwhelming postgame downpour of emotion forced me to stop mourning the loss and start just being there for these kids. Their parents might not fully grasp how it’s possible for their sons to react to a loss much like they would if their wives died in childbirth. However willing they are to be there for them, they may not completely understand what their sons are going through. And that’s the thing about being a former player and a coach. I do.

 

 

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Of pain and poetry: A (very personal) review of Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality”

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’ latest book (and obviously his last), is a haunting little gem of courage, dignity and wit. The book illustrates with terrifying clarity the pain its author suffered during his final 19 months of life. And yet, in spite of the dread I felt while taking in every gruesome detail of Hitchens’ fight for survival, an impossibly selfish part of me is thankful that Hitch (as his fans affectionately called him) was struck with anything other than dementia, for while this cancer may have been insidious and unbearably painful, Mortality shows it at least had the decency not to rob him of himself before it robbed him of his life.

I hate the title to this review. As adept a writer as I deem myself to be, I cannot ever recall a title I composed that made me pause and say “You know what? That’s rather clever!” Sentences, yes, but titles? Never. Given my enormous admiration for Christopher Hitchens, I certainly wish I could have conjured up a good one for him. But given the amount of both pain and poetry Mortality contains, my title does have the merit of being appropriate.

The pain which stems from the necessary but destructive treatment undergone by Hitchens predictably represents the heart of the subject at hand, and the man, I guess though I can’t even say I’m sure, handled it admirably. For much of this little book, Hitch remains the writer his readers came to know and appreciate, manipulating the English language with surgical precision and touch to deliver thoughts of near-disconcerting rationality and calm given his predicament. Most of the book’s first seven chapters are from material he sent Vanity Fair from “Tumortown.” Approximately three quarters of the way through, I can remember pausing to ask myself, “is this man human?”, so challenging to my imagination was Hitchens’ stoicism. Stoic and intelligent reflections are many in Mortality, the most poignant ones coming when the author discusses the selfish ideas that storm into the ill person’s mind. Reading this, I was reminded of Hitch’s response when he was asked at a conference the simple question “how are you?” To which he coolly answered “Very kind of you to ask. Well, I’m dying… then again, so are you.” The room burst into laughter.

The book contains its share of poetry. Rather than quote it, I would rather have you discover it, as I did most of it. However, Hitch threw me back to poetry as I read of the time when numbness in his hands had him afraid he would lose his ability to write. As the inevitable sadness filled me, the English poet A.E. Housman’s verses came to mind:

Into my heart an air that kills

from yon far country blows 

What are those blue remembered hills?

What spires, what farms are those?

It is the land of lost content

I see it shining plain

The happy highways where I went

and cannot come again

This is just about the only time we sense that Hitchens might be tempted to give up his fight, as he nostalgically looks back at the days when he could go about doing what he was born to do, unimpeded by illness. If you want fear from Hitch, this is the only place you’ll find it. And though the book moves along in a way that shows Hitchens’ progressive physical decline, the man takes it all in great philosophical stride, as evidenced by Mortality‘s appropriate and immensely touching last few lines, plucked out of Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams.

Having learned of his illness during a promotional tour for his memoir, Hitch-22, it’s only natural that Mortality is devoid of any recapping mechanisms. Everything about Hitchens’ behaviour and frame of mind suggests the great man remained wholly unapologetic for his contributions to whatever debate into which he inserted himself. The absence of any mentions of conflicts such as Vietnam or Bosnia (which was the basis of one Hitchens’ best Letters To A Young Contrarian) is bound to shock no one. Moreover, it will have come as a relief, I’m sure, to many of the Hitch’s readers to discover that he did not feel the need to revisit his puzzling support of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq (though no one defended it as aptly as Hitchens did, unsurprisingly).

In spite of this, however, it is equally unsurprising to find Hitchens eager to take yet a few more shots at the entity that wound up becoming his greatest rival, God. Having achieved worldwide fame (or infamy, depending on the person you ask) with his 2007 book God is not Great, the fight with God figured to become tougher than ever given Hitchens’ impending death. And he remains as determined as ever to channel his resentment of what he calls the “celestial dictator” through his writing. Near the end of Mortality, in one of his angriest anti-religious thoughts, Hitch writes that “if I convert, it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist does.” We also smile when he flashes his clever humour, stopping for a moment to answer the religious critics who opined with disturbing glee that it’s only appropriate Hitch would get cancer in his throat given that this was the organ he used to blaspheme. “Actually, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme,” remains Hitchens’ response.

Anyone who has followed Hitchens’ work in any way cannot be caught off guard by this blend of wit and irony. Hitchens had, after all, devoted a full chapter, in Letters To A Young Contrarian, to the topic of humour, irony in particular. In it, he outlined how a person’s humour is revealing with regard to that individual’s intelligence and even overall worth. I had this in mind while I laughed as Hitch pastes Randy Pausch, the creator of The Last Lecture series, describing it as “so sugary you’d need an insulin shot to withstand it.” This is the kind of rhetoric that would fall under the label of what Hitchens’ considerable Youtube fanbase came to describe as the “Hitchslap.”

Clearly, Hitchens favoured a more level-headed approach, and so the underlying theme of Hitchens’ body of work remains in Mortality. Indeed, Hitch’s take on his decaying health shows resolve that seems as though it stems as much from principle as it does from courage. But we know Hitch to be a man of principle: it was the same care for principle that led him to defend his support of the Iraq war than that which compelled him to castigate the Ayatollah Khomeni for putting a fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head for writing The Satanic Verses. Needless to say anyone who emphasized the gravity of the blasphemy over that of the potential violation of freedom of speech and thought got the same treatment. To a slightly lesser degree, one could also think of his insistence that people call him “Christopher” instead of the shortened “Chris.” When asked why, he would answer, “well, among other reasons, because that’s my name.”

Principles always drove Hitchens, which we remember from Why Orwell Matters:

“what [Orwell] illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.”

Christopher Hitchens said he took to writing not because he wanted to but because he had to. This is the test he laid out for people who think of doing it for a living, and he would state it as a form of advice for his graduate journalism students at the University of California. In this way, and in so many more, Hitchens was an inspiration to me as he was to countless more. On the day of his death, I posted as part of my Facebook status that “the world is not smart enough to lose someone like Christopher Hitchens.” However, as overcome with sadness as I was on that day of December 2011, it was only after putting down Mortality that I grasped the full significance of this man’s life, as well as that of his death. It was never clearer to me than when I read Hitch’s written words. Call it a hunch, but I get the impression he’d be pleased about that. 

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