'It's all a gift'

On Saturday, it will be three years since my mother died. I am forever grateful for a conversation with a family friend just days earlier that changed the way I saw her passing.

Four days before my mother died, a single conversation in a quiet house changed the way I saw my life.

It was 2019, the off day between the first and second-round of the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City. There were at least a dozen people staying in the house that had been rented for this trip yet that morning Rob Morrell and I were alone in the living room.

Rob had gone to high school with my father. They graduated from Loyola High School in Los Angeles in 1968. On that Friday morning, as I sipped coffee, we talked about illness and death, and in little more than an hour Rob triggered a fundamental change in the way I viewed not only my mother’s pending death but much of what has happened since. This is the third chapter of what was supposed to be a two-part story of the landmark the NCAA Tournament has been in my life. Turns out hoops is only a (small) part of the story.

“We aren’t owed anything,” Rob said that morning. “It’s all a gift.”

I had spent more than 30 years looking at my life and seeing what I didn’t have. At age 13, I lost my father. At age 15, we left my hometown. In high school, I didn’t have the same freedoms as my friends. I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was 17. I didn’t have a car until I was graduating from college. My stepfather didn’t know how to be a Dad nor was he capable of being an honest partner for my Mom. My sister’s husband died at 38 — same age as my father — with two children under 4.

While I was self-aware enough to realize that a ton of people had it significantly worse, I was self-indulgent enough to also to believe that my family was dealing with more than its fair share. Now, at age 44, I was preparing to lose my Mom four years after she had been diagnosed with cancer.

This was the backdrop for that conversation with Rob. We talked for more than an hour that morning, much of it about life and the suffering that is inevitably, unavoidably, a part of that human existence. Rob broached the idea of reincarnation, the possibility that this life might be an opportunity to work on a specific flaw or develop a certain virtue. He talked about the temptation to shake our fist at sky, excoriating whatever higher power exists for the pain we feel, but what he said that resonated with me most was the idea of looking at everything we have been given — the good and the bad — as an inescapable part of our own existence.

His life had been incredibly full. He was a doctor with three adult sons, four grandchildren. His life had also included some challenges he couldn’t solve, but instead had to accept.

“It has humbled me,” Rob said. “It has brought me to my knees, shaking my fist up at the heavens, cursing the Fates.”

Acceptance had offered him some peace.

I’m sure I’d heard similar messages before. I was raised Catholic after all, and there’s no shortage of stories about the importance of gratitude and being thankful for what you have. But as I talked with Rob, it was like the angle of my gaze had shifted just slightly and suddenly I saw everything that had happened to me and my family much differently. Instead of thinking about my mother’s death as one more loss dealt to me from the bottom of this stacked deck, I considered all that she had given to me, all that she had given to my family.

Here was a woman who lost her first husband to an illness and had her second marriage upended by deceit and hubris. Her own father had cut her off for more than 10 years, and yet she never got bitter, never closed herself off. She loved her three children more intensely than ever if that’s at all possible.

She was unwaveringly supportive of everything I ever attempted. She did not second guess where I went to college, and when I called homesick from Seattle that first year, she assured me it would turn out fine. She loved my writing, and told me it wasn’t fair when I discounted her praise on account of her being my Mom. She did not once doubt my ability. The one time I heard her be truly critical was after I had my wisdom teeth removed, and my Mom told my aunt she was surprised at how resilient I’d been.

“He’s not my toughest one,” she said. She was right. My sister is tougher.

My Mom was one of the nicest, most generous people you could ever meet, which is part of the reason that I was so angry about her illness. After everything she had gone through, it felt unfair that she would die before she turned 70, but that conversation with Rob on Friday allowed me to be present for my Mom in her finals days in a way I wouldn’t have been otherwise.

I flew from Utah to California on Sunday, and I was able to thank my Mom for everything she had done for us. To tell her that she had done everything she needed to. She had done a great job, keeping us together as a family, and we would stay together. I was sad, certainly, but I was also deeply grateful for everything she had given and knew that my life was richer because of it. There was a peace I felt not just when my mother passed shortly before dawn on Tuesday, March 26, but one that has carried forward.

My life has provided some gifts that I did not ask for nor did I deserve. I was born to parents who truly loved me in a home where we were safe. I have a brother and a sister that I not only love but admire. I have a wife who has been a better, more inspiring, partner than I could have ever hoped for with a moral center that is unwavering. Also, she hasn’t once made me feel bad about the fact she’s currently covering our rent.

I grew up loving sports, and was hired first to write about them and then to talk about them. I not only got to report on games others were paying to attend, but I flew around the country on someone else’s dime to do so. And even now, as I figure out what do do next, I have the luxury of exploring other opportunities and outlets while working on longer-term projects.

I have been given so very much because of nothing more than the kindness and generosity of others.

When I was 12, two of my father’s high-school friends flew me to Seattle to watch an NCAA Tournament game. When I was 14 and a freshman in high school, Brad Chaney — one of my parent’s college friends from Santa Barbara — flew me from Oregon to San Francisco to attend Game 3 of the 1989 World Series only to have an earthquake interrupt our plans. And three years ago, when my mother was in her final week, I had a conversation at a critical moment that was nothing short of transformative.

As I said earlier, I was raised Catholic, but would not describe myself as religious. I would not even describe myself as spiritual before that conversation with Rob, but I believe that he was nothing short of a gift in my life. I saw him maybe half a dozen times, but our intersections came at pivotal times in my own life, and his presence played an outsized role. In high school, I listed my middle name as Xavier, which was the name I chose for my confirmation, but that’s only because it was Rob’s actual middle name. 

Rob was sick, too, when we spoke back in 2019. He had been diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer in 2010, undergone a year of treatment and then found out in May 2012 the cancer had metastasized. The perspective he not only showed, but shared in the years following that diagnosis was nothing short of inspiring. If you’re interested in hearing from him, he recorded a podcast called “Beyond the Obituary” along with his wife, Maureen, and Michael, the middle one of their three sons.

Rob died in May 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.  Sharon and I went to his memorial, which was held in October 2021. I was reminded of a quotation Rob had cited: We’re all just walking each other home.

It’s the title of a book by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, and it is described as a conversation about loving and dying, and it really is a beautiful image. We’re each on our own journey, keeping each other company as our paths intersect, merge and sometimes veer apart. Sharing what we can, providing what we will and hopefully doing our best to be there for one another. It’s all a gift, even the painful parts, and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve walked with and those who’ve walked with me and looking forward to what comes next.

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