Those are my dad’s tickets for the Rice v. SMU game last Friday night. Unused. My dad loves Rice football. He lives for it, this season almost literally so. See, my dad has pancreatic cancer. Don’t know if you know much about it, but if you had to pick a cancer to have, you’d pick pancreatic last. It’s a death sentence. The average lifespan from diagnosis is six months.

About six weeks ago my dad developed an esophageal problem on top of that. His surgery to correct it had complications and he ended up doing nine days in ICU and about five weeks total in a hospital bed. Last week he was moved to a skilled nursing facility, but he’s fucked. There’s not much left of him and, even if puts in the work to rehab successfully, he’ll be functional just in time for the cancer to ravage what’s left of him. But throughout this entire summer, my dad has been focused on one thing. I heard him say it explicitly many times: “I just want to be able to make it to the Rice season opener.”

The detailed story of how my dad couldn’t attend the game in person is pretty Hellerian. Basically it was either release my father into my care against medical advice and forfeit any future insurance coverage, or have a physician give medical clearance. Seeing how I’m not independently wealthy and lack basic equipment like the device to operate a feeding tube—my dad is currently on one—my taking him was a non-starter. As for the doctor giving him a medical release, nobody seemed to fully grasp the importance of this game to my father.

If the aim of the medical industrial complex is the care of the sick and the dying then agents at every stop here failed. Some were greater failures than others. Evelyn Huey at Memorial Hermann, fail. Freddie Green at HCR ManorCare, fail. And more than anyone else Dr. Anitha Gowda, complete and utter failure. Dr. Gowda might be the most shit sorry excuse of a professional I’ve ever come across. Most decent human beings in a situation like this would at least have the courtesy to return (or take) a phone call and speak in person with the concerned parties.

Throughout the entire process I couldn’t help but think that if this were a 13-year-old child, people would be bending over backwards to make this happen. But they weren’t. This was just another decaying 70-year-old man, one on whom they all passed the bureaucratic buck.

About 5 pm on Friday afternoon, when it was clear there was no eleventh hour stay of execution phone call coming from the governor, my dad turned to me and said, “They certainly don’t seem to care about your mental health.” I had no choice but to say maybe the saddest six words I ever said to my father: “No, it doesn’t seem they do.”

I cleared out the hospitality room at the nursing facility and at 7 pm rolled my dad in front of the flat screen to watch the game along with my brother. It was a poor substitute, and, as much as my father enjoyed the time with his family, you could read on his face the disappointment that he wasn’t at the stadium. In some ways it was worse than missing the game entirely. It forced him to realize he wasn’t well and might not be getting better.

Rice won. In fact they dismantled SMU 56-27. The Owls are usually on the butt-end of 30-point pastings, but after spotting SMU 13 points, Rice went on an improbable 56 to 7 run. It was nice to watch, but it’s not the same on TV. It just isn’t. And by not being there in person, I will forever feel like I was deprived of the last best memory to share with my father.

Sports are unimportant. Any time something truly monumental happens that interrupts the sports calendar, we get reminded of this. And I agree. Relative to things like war and disasters, sports are a total diversion. But for unimportant shit, man sports provoke the most visceral emotional reactions. For example, I hate Barry Bonds with the white hot intensity of the surface of Sirius and I’ve never even met the fucking guy. And there are only two things in this world that make me cry. One is the ending to <i>Cinema Paradiso</i>. I like to think I’m a tough guy, but that reduces me to a fucking fountain. The other: The Miracle on Ice. A bunch of college kids who had no business being on the ice with that Soviet Red Army team. They had even less business beating them.

In fact my favorite image from all of sports comes from the on-ice postgame celebration. You can see it <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRALJyv86eY”>here</a&gt; at about the 2:41 mark. It’s the Soviet player, he’s kneeling on the ice and, with his arm draped over his stick, staring at the Americans with slackjawed jealousy. He’s not envious because the Americans won. It’s because they are celebrating with such unbridled and awkward joy. He knows that, had the Soviets won, they wouldn’t have celebrated like that. They would have merely shaken hands and skated off the ice after another methodical dismantling of an inferior opponent. You can tell in that two-and-a-half second shot that he long ago forgot what it was to play a game for the simple fucking joy in it.

There are so few moments in life like that, moments of pure, distilled joy. And so many of them for me revolve around sports. It might be kind of sad to admit that, but I’ve never been married and never had kids. So I have sports.

Yeah, it was just a football game my dad wanted to see. It wasn’t even a very good one. From a competitive standpoint it was a blowout. But it was one my dad cared deeply about. One that might have reminded him that life is worth living, that the daily struggle to rehab is worth it, that there are brief emotional respites from all the physical misery that seems to be awaiting him.

So if our healthcare system is going to tell me that sports isn’t therapy, sports isn’t rehab, sports isn’t reason to let someone out of their deathbed to go see a football game, then I’ll tell you our healthcare system is more fucked than I could ever imagine.

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