Tapestries of my Grief

April 22, 2019, passed without note until I was walking out of Carmichael after dinner with my friend Cate. I looked down at my phone to see a call coming in from “Mothership.” I picked up, expecting an ordinary “How are you?” from her, followed by a “Can I call you back? I’m with friends,” from me. The first thing I heard, though, was the sound of crying, then, “Angie is gone.” It took me a long time to understand what she meant, even after I kept asking, “What?” over and over. After a couple of minutes, it began to seep in. I left the fluorescent lights of the dining hall to stand in shock under the cover of darkness. My beloved high school lacrosse coach Angie Kensinger, Coach K to me, and her husband, passed away earlier that day when the plane they were on went down just south of the airport in Kerville, Texas. 

Coach K was the patron saint of women’s lacrosse in Houston. The statistics speak for themselves, telling the story of a legendary coach, but her players’ memories of her tell the story of a woman who personified magic, imbuing every moment with an energy I have never seen matched. My mind is stuck on an image of her wide smile, her glasses pulled down over her eyes as she focused on a small sheet of paper, asking us for a beat for one of her epic raps before a championship game. With her on the sideline, I felt invincible, armed with the highest confidence that existed this one person in the world who wholeheartedly believed in me, accepted my flaws, and expected my best. There was nothing better than receiving Coach K’s pride, seeing that look in her eyes after a good play that always seemed to say, “I knew you would do it.” To be loved by her as she loved so many was the blessing of a lifetime.

I picked up a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion when COVID lost all possible novelty, the words opening the door for me to look back on my grief at Coach K’s passing. Didion recounts the experience of losing her husband to a heart attack at the dinner table after an ordinary day. On the second page, she notes that “confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred.” I realized I had focused all my attention on a text I sent her on April 19, when I was home for Easter weekend, and had asked her if I could stop by practice. She responded: “Darn! We don’t have school or practice today! Hope you have a GREAT Easter weekend! Enjoy this spring weather!!” I rested in the knowledge that I would see her over the summer, the possibility that she would be gone three days later never came close to crossing my mind. 

For the first few days, my fixation on how ordinary that interaction was inhibited me from processing and absorbing her death. We talk about the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event to plead our case to nobody in particular that this should not have happened. There’s nothing anyone can do, but can’t someone do something? I spoke very little, removing myself from conversations in the evening to cry in the Hill Hall back stairwell, my body overloaded with shock. I started talking to a flickering light as I sat on the top step, telling her, “I will make you proud, I promise. I will do your legacy justice, I promise. I will not disappoint you, I promise.” 

The service was held in the time between the end of classes and finals, so I flew back home to Houston for a few days. The night before the service, all 23 years worth of her players gathered around the middle of our home field. The captains from each year took turns lighting a candle and sharing memories of Coach K. The way I felt about her was not unique in any way; to all of us, the world felt a little bit less bright that night. It was wonderful, reminiscing and being with people whom she loved and who loved her. A welcome change from the loneliness I felt in my grief at school. But it was also horrible. I had the same conversations over and over, constantly verbalizing and acknowledging the fact that she was gone. It started to feel normal, normal that someone so dear to me died in a plane crash, normal that I use the past tense when I talk about her. This should not be normal. This should not have happened. I raged against my acceptance. Time wore on, though, and gut-wrenching pangs of disbelief every couple of days became unsustainable. Again, I accepted. 

Something unexpected happens, but then it begins to feel normal. This is how it goes. As long as I kept my grief to myself I could hold out hope that Coach K’s death was only an imaginative fiction, but externalization ruined that hope. Talking about her smoothed the ragged edges of my grief, sanding it down until the boiled-down story I told everyone else became the story I told myself, too. I packaged what I learned from her into a ready-made worldview that I rattle off quickly to explain my emotional reaction to seeing a ladybug. But every so often, this story that keeps the grief at bay disappears, and I’m left with no defense against the pain. Nothing makes any sense and I feel, as Didion describes it, “the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” Some time passes, though, and I piece my story back together so I can go on with my life, carrying her with me in everything I do.

A little less than a year later, as I sat at a corner table in Harleston Hall, we got an email from Tufts telling us to pack up and move out of our dorms for good. The weeks after that moment all blurred together, my move out and drive back to Texas punctuated by the same, specific form of denial that characterized my shock at Coach K’s passing. I thought solely about the ordinariness of the last pre-COVID party I went to—the warmth of strangers’ bodies searching for release in the crowd, the walk home in a jacket too thin for the cold, the open box of pizza getting cold in the dorm hallway—and nothing of what the next few months of my life would look like. 

I felt the familiar pattern of shock inhibiting my processing, followed by externalization cementing reality. I wove myself a narrative of how to cope, largely informed by what I learned from Coach K: do the best I can for myself so I can do my best for others, make the best of any situation, care deeply for the people around me. These stories seeped into my being, their existence manifested through “let’s catch up!” conversations mediated by screens and separated by thousands of miles. There are moments when the narrative unravels, and I release my grip on reality, confronting meaninglessness, floating above the insanity. I get it together because I must.

These unexpected sorrows drown me, but unexpected joy dives headfirst into the water and swims me out, allowing me a breath of fresh air before I get pulled back under again. Coach K’s death and COVID both took me under water so murky I couldn’t see the surface, but joy is the beam of light shining through, showing me the way out. There are the little things. When I get so caught up in my work that I don’t realize I’m going to wake up to snowfall. A last-minute dinner invitation with lovely people I don’t see often. There are the big things. Falling in love with friends I had no idea I was going to have. An unnecessarily kind email from a professor that defined my future. The stories that I tell myself, woven into the fabric of my mind by conversation with friends, keep the grief at arm’s length and give me the space to experience this joy. 

As long as I am alive, Coach K will be, too. She is part of me, I am who I am because of her. And in the future, I will be who I am because of COVID, my identity defined by months of living within unrelenting uncertainty. I can’t hope for Coach K to return as I can hope for life after COVID, but I still have my life and capacity for joy. The unknown and unexpected carries much beauty, hopefully enough to hold my hand through the sorrow. 

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