Right before I witnessed my grandmother collapse, Roger Federer had beaten Andy Murray 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 in their Wimbledon 2015 semifinal. I'm incredibly anxious when it comes to watching my favorite athletes and teams compete. It's impossible for me to sit, and my calves, at least, welcome my nervous, tip-toed bouncing. As they played, I was twitching just a few feet away from the television, mounted centrally and high on the right side of the living room. My mother was preparing things for a children's dance party on the long couch on the left of me. I was convinced that Federer was doomed. With every Murray point, I was lashing out at some poor battered piece of furniture, screaming at Federer. "RELAX!"
Between each interval in play, the commentators would remind the audience that Federer is old as hell. He's an antique at nearly 34. His hairline is receding. His legs are more like stringy stilts than muscular struts. Time has stripped away his defense, power and athleticism, all of which were in short supply to begin with. Once a swan in the midst of bulls, he's now a hummingbird in a lion's den. Roger Federer is a relic. It's just so incredible, they assert, that he continues to dominate at this time and age.
The narrative is as goes. Murray's cross-court forehand wrong-foots Federer; age is catching up to him! Federer serves ace after ace that demoralizes his English opponent; it's damn near an affront to Father Time!
Federer goes on to beat Murray relatively easily and the post-match interview is predictably littered with questions about his performances at such a pronounced age. How is he doing it? How does it feel? What are the differences in emotion between winning as a dinosaur and as a starry-eyed young buck? He runs his fingers through his wet and fragile hair, smirks and answers all the questions cordially, as always. And contrary to popular belief, the man does sweat. I saw it!
I watched the interview with the relief of a nearly drowned man. At this point, I'm savoring every delicious breath like the melting latter half of a strawberry shortcake. It was Homer Simpson-esque salivating and mmmming.
After I recovered, I celebrated. A loud "YES!" and "Fuck that Andrew Garfield look-alike!" were delivered with a close-eyed, half-spin fist pump that would have made Michaels Jordan and Jackson jealous.
Then, the world practically screeched to a halt. It's hard to describe the moment beyond the phenomenon of being "in the zone" as an athlete, when things are almost dead-still. It's like the much-heralded scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which Quicksilver debuts his powers. Except there was a weight within everything, an intense increase in gravity at that moment alone.
The celebration spin meant that I was staring perpendicularly at the doorway to the kitchen, which was on the right side of the much larger dining room. As I open my eyes, I see my grandmother drop a plate into the sink, then grab the near-side of the doorless entryway. But instead of taking her childishly waddling steps towards the living room, she staggers forward and falls face-first onto the carpeted floor of the dining room.
She just lies there. I have to do something – my brain is practically screaming for me to. She's dying. But my legs are cinder blocks. The worst type of fatigue and shock engulfs me, like a roaming cat caught in headlights before becoming roadkill. There's no surge of emotion uniting what I'm seeing to what I'm doing, but rather a disconnect, an out-of-body experience.
So I react as any child in trouble does. I yell for my mother. Not mom, but mommy! Within the blink of an eye, my mother jerks her head up, and following my gaze, sprints and slides like Brian Westbrook at the one-yard line to scoop the body into her arms. She begins furiously running her hands over the expressionless face while begging the dying and God to not put her through this.
"Don't do this to your child. Please God, no."
She screams for my father. I bolt through the small hallway that forms a trident with a bathroom on the left, my younger brother's room at the tip and the master bedroom on the right to pound on his door. My dad, who had been sleeping for over three hours now, jumps out clutching a shirt. He studies my face and without a word grabs a bottle of aspirin and runs to the two mothers lying on the floor with his t-shirt halfway on.
I rush behind him to snatch the landline receiver in the dining room, dialing 9-1-1 before darting into my brother's room. Pacing back and forth, I bombard the receptionist with a retelling of the events. She responds in a calm and controlled tone. She asks question after question for the next few minutes and I respond to them all through gritted teeth. One inquiry in particular flustered me so much that I threatened to end the call by hovering my thumb over the END button. Reconsidering, I instead yelled for her to just send a damn ambulance. She asks for my grandmother's full name.
After the ambulance is dispatched, the call-handler tells me what signs to watch out for in my grandmother and how to react depending on the results of those observations, directives that I relay to my parents from across the room. Is she breathing? Yes. What color is she? She's turning pale. Is she vomiting? Yes, she's throwing up blood. Lay her on her side. Mommy, put her on her side. PUT HER ON HER SIDE! Don't put anything in her mouth. Daddy, don't give her any aspirin. Is she still breathing? Yes. Ok, tell me if she stops breathing, I'll stay on the phone with you till the ambulance arrives. Alright. Miss are you still there? I'm a bo-- yeah I'm still here.
As this went on, so began a turmoil within my spirit. First of all, my mother is a fucking superhero. Watching her sit in a pool of her own mother's blood, unfazed, undeterred, while doing everything physically possible – rubbing the face, chest and stomach, speaking and forcing a response from her mother to keep her active and engaged – to hold on to the diminishing light of life, made me feel astonishingly small. A few minutes ago, I'd been a stone statue at the sight of death. And here she was, now hell-bent on saving a life. My mother was Orpheus and I was Paris at the mercy of Menelaus.
Also, this image of the parent in the arms of the child. The role reversal. Jesus cradling a lifeless Virgin Mary.
My mother was speaking to the woman who birthed her the same way she speaks to me when I have a serious illness. Addressing her with pet-names. Telling her that it would be ungrateful if she didn't recover before her daughters, sons and grandchildren arrived. Urging the regurgitation, rocking back and forth slowly, blowing on, wiping and kissing her face, all while the highlights of Roger Federer's victory played on what felt like an endless loop.
As far as death, I've dealt with it countless times. As a troublemaker in Detroit, it's impossible not to be on cordial terms with the villain. Many of my childhood friends are dead: victims of gun crimes, drug overdoses, physical brutality, and either committing or being at the mercy of drunk driving. Few make it out of here unscathed. I've had enough near-misses myself that it's become not only a joke within my inner circle of friends; my stories are now met with eye rolls and "when are you not dying?"
A particularly scary situation happened around three years ago. I had gone with some of my college friends to a private lake, a scene where $20 per car guaranteed you the freedom to bring any amount of alcohol and do pretty much anything imaginable. And yes, people took that "anything" to mean "everything." Regardless, it was always a fun place to hang out. As a ritual, my friends and I would always go there as soon as the summer started. (My first serious girlfriend even broke up with me because I had observed this ritual instead of spending the day with her.)
That day, three of us – myself, and two guys both named Chris – decided to race towards a wooden platform that floated at the center of the lake and acted as a private place for couples to do romantic shit on. We were all able swimmers and this was not the first time that we had raced or swam to the center. It was routine, harmless and competitive fun.
Halfway into this "fun," I dove underwater for less resistance. Speeding towards the goal like a hungry shark, the fates had deemed me victor. Nothing could stop me. All the bragging rights would be mine. That is, until I opened my eyes while still submerged. Next thing you know, my right contact slips out and the dirty water meets the unprotected eye causing a burning like I had squeezed a bottle peroxide into it – which to be fair, I had done before by mistake.
I stopped completely and rubbed my eye like a madman. Still underwater. It took a few seconds after the pain had calmed down for me to realize that I had been sinking the entire time. That, holy shit, I'm going to drown. While my mind grasped this concept, my body went into panic. I lost all control. It was turning, twirling, grasping, struggling and frantically fighting to get back to the surface to no avail. Eventually, everything went blank.
Then hope came. I opened my eyes and my face was above water. I took the deepest breath while flailing like an inflatable tube-man, which caused my exhausted body to sink once more. Tired and with no fight left in me, I descended towards the bottom of the lake. Down there, the glimmering sun was like one of those twinkling stars that I whispered my childhood wishes to. I accepted that I would die.
A last thought: "It wasn't such a bad life really."
There's a hypnagogic sense of calm, serenity and, I'm ashamed to admit now, a sense of relief.
I woke up to a pair of cerulean eyes and then an orotund voice asking if I was alright. A lifeguard had rescued me. My friends were remorseful that they hadn't noticed that I was drowning, and assumed that I was traveling underwater. They weren't the most observant bunch. I spent the rest of the day in the backseat of my car eating hamburgers and drinking cheap beer. I almost cried once or twice.
So death is no stranger to me. I've been seconds away from it, and had at one point accepted my own. Yet, I've never truly witnessed it. I had never seen someone in the process of dying. For all of the imagery in media where death is an expected consequence, a downright non-event, you rarely ever actually see it. Characters are killed all the time but there's hardly any truth involved. Protagonists go out with a tearful monologue for the heroes and a scene of regret and forced forgiveness for the villains. If they're an extra, they're gunned down and forgotten by the next scene.
Those aren't deaths at all. No one tells you about the convulsions. Bowel and urinary incontinence. The blood, there's so much blood. The cruel, deafening silence of acceptance that this person is gone. And the overbearing inadequacy of personal failure, of being human and having no power at that moment. Being useless when someone needs you the most. Just utter, crushing powerlessness. Tearfully pleading and cursing the Higher Power in the same breath, all to no avail.
And in that moment, the realization that you too will one day die.
I saw my mother holding her parent as life slipped away and saw myself in both of them. One day I may have to hold my mom as she goes, and in the future, hopefully, someone will hold me as I exit the stage as well.
Sports are escapist, though many times they hardly feel like it. They're inherently silly: you spend hours watching, debating, studying and making a living off people shooting a ball into a hoop, running around in circles, or knocking a tiny alien green ball across a net.
Yet they're microcosms of the human experience, and I guess for humanity itself, with the absurdity of grasping for meaning and reason when all signs point to random chaos.
We watch people live and die on regulation courts and fields all the time. These athletes are born, and within the next 7-10 years following their professional debuts, they sprint through the same awkward, harrowing, infrequently fulfilling, depressive experiences that stretch out for the rest of us. At 30, most of us are relatively young. At 30, an athlete is dealing with the physical and mental issues of a person twice their age. At 45, they're Brett Favre.
Federer is 33 years old, in his twilight years, and so has been talked of in the same manner that my family talks about my grandmother. Though not explicit, the implication is that they're old and decrepit, just a few more sunrises from the end. We wonder at them executing youthful acts and resign ourselves to the truth of old age when they fail. Where we wondered if she could still walk up the stairs on her own, the commentators feared that if Murray moved him around the court, Federer would eventually crumble.
Everything that we do is a race away from the ultimate enemy, but death becomes more present the further we age. What we enjoy the most are usually activities that ease us of its weight, things that make us forget that every second lost cannot be gained again. Carpe Diem and all that.
As you become more aware of the finality of the day, though, you realize that you're creeping up to the edge of the abyss alone. During these times we come face to face with time's progress towards what Henry Scott Holland dubbed "the ultimate disaster."
Holland preached a sermon in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, on May 15, 1910, a Sunday. In it he supposed that we all approach death from one of two angles: one as the supreme and irrevocable disaster. A cruel, untoward, blundering, irrational, incredible thing that befalls any and everyone. Man's natural recoil.
The second aspect: that death is nothing at all. It does not count. It's a negligible accident, an interval, it would be too ludicrous to suppose that the dead are indeed dead since such a thing is in conflict with reason.
"And, as we stand there, death seems a very little thing. What really matters is the life with its moral quality, its personal characteristics, its intense and vivid charm, its individual experiences, its personal story; the tone of its voice, the pressure of its presence felt as surely now as once through eye and hand; the tenderness, the beauty, the force of the living will — its faults, and its struggles, and its victories, and its maturity, and its quivering affection. What has death to do with these? They are our undying possession."
I sat at the top of the staircase of our two-story home and stared blankly out the window. My grandmother was being strapped to a stretcher just a short distance beneath me. In that moment, I disagreed with Holland. Or rather, I thought that the second part of his sermon existed only because the fear of the first was too enormous.
Because we have these things that matter – these precious moments in life with each other, these large failures and small victories that make us who we are – because we have life, we can't have death. It has to be nothing, there's no other way. That belief means we have to actively avoid everything that says otherwise. It's then no wonder why beauty products rely on the notion of eternal youth. Anything else and we'll be devoured by grief.
I had dinner with a friend later that day, after my grandmother had been transported to the hospital. I needed to get away, yet our conversation inevitably turned back to the subject. He believed that death should be looked at as the last chapter of a book. The ending of a story, some of them long, others short. That there's nothing wrong with closure.
I disagreed on the basis that it only held that characteristic for a lucky few. Like the end of an athletic career, death hardly ever comes with closure. Federer can walk away from the game on his own terms, but he's an exception to the rule. The vast majority aren't granted that opportunity; careers often end because of a surprise injury, the unable body, an over-burdened mind and so on – the end is sudden even if expected.
Death is the same. It doesn't allow the romantic ride off into the sunset, it instead catches us half-naked and unprepared like an unexpected guest. It arrives even more hurriedly, painful and disheartening to those not lucky enough to live in developed countries where the life expectancy reaches the eighties, or is close to it. It shows no courtesy.
So how do you make peace with it, this sword of Damocles? Even in the act of watching one of the greatest tennis players of all time, death's presence looms over every point. How do you acknowledge the value of all that we have while living with the crushing knowledge that it's like a dust speck in the eternal darkness of space? My grandmother laughed at it. As she entered the ambulance and was readied to be taken to the hospital, she asked if the paramedics were really going to take her away in that spoiled dress. The most serious of the health workers even laughed.
A few hours later and things were back to their normal ways. My mother went back to organizing her party, my father resumed his slumber after returning from the hospital. The whole event seemed surreal. It couldn't have happened. It was as if we all had suffered a collective nightmare, a unified torment, and then shoved its inevitable return into a closet.