We’re talking about her, too. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, terminal illness. Unless a cure comes along, the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach was recently handed a fatal diagnosis. Her legendary steely resolve notwithstanding, this is a heart-breaking situation for her, her family, and everyone who cares about her – and millions do.
But when we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re also talking about ourselves. All of us who admire brilliant female leaders are reeling from yesterday’s news. One reason some of us are reeling, I believe, is because we identify with Pat.
This is often true of sports fans. When we celebrate a Women’s World Cup soccer victory by saying, “We won,” we’re identifying with the team. “We” won because we feel empowered by their victory.
In Pat’s case, we identify with her because she’s incredibly strong and successful. We don’t share her career victory total (no one does) nor her determination or drive (“You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” she told one doctor) but like her, we care about success. We care about young women. We love basketball. We’re athletes.
I have only met Pat a few times, have interviewed her briefly, edited a book (The Summitt Season) about her back in 1988, and last saw her at the 2011 Final Four, where we chatted about the agony of defeat. Yet I feel like I’m taking this news personally – and surmise that others (especially athletic Baby Boomers?) might be as well.
She’s vulnerable; therefore we’re all vulnerable. An unsettling reminder.
My father has Alzheimer’s, and lives nearby. For the past seven years I’ve been visiting him, overseeing his care, and watching as he loses the ability not only to remember, but to read, write, tell time, shave, bathe, dress, speak clearly, understand what I’m saying, and manage the telephone, the remote control, and silverware.
It can be a strangely blessed thing, shepherding someone through the mystifying haze of Alzheimer’s. But for caregivers, it’s also just plain upsetting.
And I identify with Dad and Pat. So I have to wonder: Will Alzheimer’s be my fate?
I’m not alone. Baby Boomers are notoriously nervous about memory lapses that physicians try to assure us are “normal at your age.” A recent international AARP poll showed that Alzheimer’s is the second-most feared disease after cancer – despite the fact that many people polled do not even realize Alzheimer’s is fatal.
Exercise, healthy food, mental stimulation, quality sleep, stress management, and active social engagement are the six “pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle,” according to researchers. Sally Jenkins tells us in a heart-breaking article in today’s Washington Post that Pat is determined to improve her cognitive abilities through reading, puzzles, and math problems.
But Ponce de Leon was wrong. Ballroom dancing and sudoku will not save us. Yoga will not save us. Nor all the Body Flow classes at the new gym. With each step, we’re descending toward death, just like every other living being.
My friend Kate Cudlipp died last month after a bicycle accident in Rock Creek Park. Kate was an avid cyclist with an inner strength reminiscent of Pat’s.
Kate knew how to ride a bike. But accidents happen, and Alzheimer’s happens. The strongest women in the world are also vulnerable. They (and we!) live in bodies that will decay, or break, and die.
Last week I had lunch with a colleague in her thirties, a committed weightlifter. “After menopause, it’s harder to build muscle,” I told her. “Fortunately you don’t have to worry about that for a while.”
“I don’t think it will affect me, because you’re thin, whereas I’m bulkier,” she responded.
“She doesn’t get it,” an older friend commented later, laughing. I don’t blame my young colleague for not getting it; I didn’t get it either, in my thirties. But each news flash about a friend, relative, or basketball icon who succumbs to death or disease deepens our growing sense of “getting it.”
Like Pat, we are mortal. When Pat gets sick, we all feel sickened – and reminded that we, too, will die.
I hope you don’t think I “should” be focusing only on Pat, and not on myself. I do grieve for Pat. “It’s not going to be a pity party,” she insists. I hope it will be a “compassion party” instead. My heart goes out to her, and I’m sure yours does too. I admire her courage, and feel sure her candor will help raise money for Alzheimer’s research and treatment.
But our feelings about other people are never just about them.
It’s always about us too.
Mariah Burton Nelson played basketball at Stanford and now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.