Hey, I never said this blog was just about stuttering did I?
My coach passed away on Wednesday night.
Wait, let me back up.
I got an email from an old teammate last month saying that Rocky wasn’t doing so well. Hounded by the kinds of ailments that are common in those who put 150% into everything they do and embrace (but would never say) the idea that You Only Live Once, he’d been on oxygen for a few years and was dealing with ongoing pain from the injuries he’d sustained as a gymnast, dancer, coach, and god knows what else. Ruth’s email prompted me to write a card, updating him on my life and wishing him well. A week later a letter arrived, written on a small piece of lined paper in handwriting I hadn’t seen in years. I won’t bore you with the details of the letter, but suffice it to say that it was exactly the kind of letter you’d want to receive from a person you’d been wanting to make proud since you were 7 years old. At the end, he left his phone number and asked me to give him a call sometime. I put the note in my wallet, alongside a note my parents had left me a few years back when we were all in New York City, and promised myself I would call as soon as I got the chance.
I read an article the other day about the rise in snatch-and-run thefts around the city and that reminded me that while credit cards are replaceable, my two notes are not. So they’re currently living in my desk drawer, where I look at them nearly once a day. They are two of my most prized possessions. But I wasn’t sure what to say when I called, so I put it off.
At my grandfather’s memorial service (ca 2004), an old student athlete of his approached my mother to tell her that he had been thinking of his old coach and had always meant to visit him in the nursing home. But life got in the way, and he wasn’t sure if Grandad would even want to be seen in such a deteriorated state. I’m paraphrasing here, but my mother’s response was basically “you should have gotten over yourself and done it, jerkface.” she put it more kindly, of course, as she is an exceedingly kind person. But the lesson stuck with me. It’s important to get over our own discomfort and do something meaningful to those who have impacted our lives, when they are in their lowest moments. With that in mind, I called the number on his letter in late July.
Wait, let me back up.
Why am I so hung up about the death of a coach? I was a gymnast for about 15 years. That’s 15 years of four hour workouts during the week and traveling to competitions on the weekends. Your teammates become your second family, as you spend more waking hours at the gym than you do at home, and more time with them than with anyone else. School friends know not to ask you to hang out after school because between homework, dinner, and workout, your evenings have a full lid. You’ve seen each other through injuries and frustrating seasons and family chaos. You fight and form cliques, and you would do anything for every one of them- people with whom you differ in personality, religion, and as adults, political affiliation, but who you consider family. You’ve banded together against lesser coaches who didn’t have your best interest at heart. The other coaches– the good ones- Rocky– remain as mentors and have shaped the people we have become more than any adult in our lives outside our parents.
Calling Rocky was the best thing I’ve done in a long while. He sounded awful- stopping every few minutes to catch his breath, and his voice slightly slurring. But he asked about my life and told me about his. He shared more of his “Rockyisms” and told me he knew I would be successful- that I was always the little kid in the gym not saying much, but taking it all in and thinking. When his lungs couldn’t take any more, he signed off, telling me he shouldn’t keep me from “taking over and fixing Washington” anymore. So we said our goodbyes.
“I love you, Erin”
“I love you, Rocky”
I hope he knew that what I meant by that was that I’m so thankful for everything he did for us- his “babies”. That knowing he believed in me helped me believe in myself, and that knowing he was proud of me meant more to me then I could say.
I should note that I’ve written this entire post listening to Taylor Swift, which I feel sort of dilutes the gravity of it. Sorry/not sorry. Rocky would have danced along, anyway. Probably wearing leg warmers.