It’s around 2:00 a.m. on August 26, 2016 and I’m restless, unable to really sleep. Again. It’s been like this for weeks. My nightstand starts to hum, my phone is vibrating and lighting up to wake me from my half-slumber, half-haze state.
Under normal circumstances, I’d wonder who the hell is calling at this ungodly hour. These are not normal circumstances, though. I know what this is before I even pick up my phone to see that it is my mom who is calling me.
My father has died.
I answer the phone, resolved to hear the confirmation I did not need, nor want. My wife, ever the light sleeper, is already sitting up next to me when I tell my mom I’ll make plans to be home as soon as I can be, and that I’ll call my brother to tell him so she does not have to do it. My wife’s eyes are already welling up. She too knows. I turn to her, looking past her face so I don’t have to see more pain and say, “he’s gone.” She hugs me. We cry.
It’s around 6:00 a.m. on October 17, 2018. I’m sleeping better than I should be, all things considered. After all, I’m not in my own bed — at least not really. I’m laying in my childhood bedroom where even the familiarity of my original home doesn’t break the struggles I have sleeping in new places.
This night was better, though. Restful, even. My alarm is set for 7:30 a.m., when I plan to go for the two-mile run that has become a part of my normal routine. I have a new alarm this morning, however. My mother burst into the room. “Son, we have to go,” she says with a tone that is both urgent and calm. I know what this is. My brother’s wife has called.
The cancer has finally taken him. My brother has died.
We rush out the door and arrive at my sister in-law’s house. We hurry inside, through the foyer and to the master bedroom. We hug my sister in-law and stand by the bed. My mom collapses onto my shoulder and into my arms. We cry.
There are some things I’d rather not have experience in. Having people you love die before they should is one such thing. I mean, I couldn’t be a multiple-time lottery winner instead? Come on, Powerball, come through for your boy.
You learn things when grieving. You learn that the first day is full of shock and sadness, numbness and hurt. And you also learn the second day is harder. You learn that, no, this wasn’t a bad dream. That you really did lose this person. A reality sets in. This person is no longer with us and you’re left to pick up the pieces of a life gone and of all the lives that must move forward in the aftermath. This new reality is unkind and it’s not one you’re ready to face.
What I also learned is that talking helps. Talking about all sorts of things — even the bad things, helps. The pain you feel, the wrongs you’ve felt, the times things were not as good. Remembering those times serves as a reminder of the perseverance, a reminder that the commitment you had to each other was real. You were there for each other through all that, and came out the other side, together.
There’s a beauty in understanding that even the best things are not always good. That, in fact, it’s that sometimes things being bad makes the good so much more meaningful.
I also learned that the hurt you feel is really just the embodiment of all the good there was. So we talk about that, too. A lot, actually. Those memories, they’re what will always survive and sharing those stories of what was so great keeps that part of you alive; that part you thought died when that person so close to you left. So, we talk fondly of those times, and relive them in our heads. And we smile and we laugh, and we hurt and we cry again, and then we smile again when the next story is told, because the reason we’re so sad in the first place is that it all mattered so much.
So, to you, my fellow person in grief that Kobe Bryant, a hero to so many is now gone, I remember with you. I remember when a rookie, shaved-headed Kobe flexed after throwing down an “Eastbay Funk” dunk in the dunk contest. I remember when he made the All-Star team as a starter, even when he was coming off the bench for the Lakers. I remember the lob he caught from KG and the duel he had with MJ in that same game. And I remember thinking, “man, this young dude has arrived.”
I remember him stepping up in game 4 of the 2000 Finals after Shaq had fouled out to close out the game to put the Lakers up 3-1, and him telling his team to calm down because he had this. I remember him ripping out the hearts of the Kings and Spurs in a four-game stretch, all on the road, in the mythical 2001 playoff run. I remember him hitting improbable 3’s over Ruben Patterson in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime in Portland to clinch the Pacific Division title on the last day of the regular season.
I remember him instantly forming a connection with Pau Gasol. I remember them, together, losing to the Celtics in 2008, only to come back and beat Orlando in the Finals in 2009 and then extracting revenge vs. the C’s in 2010. I remember his hanging, double-clutch shot over Dwight. His over the shoulder pass to Pau in transition. His pass out of a double team to D-Fish for that huge three-pointer and Fish’s sly grin while backpedaling, knowing that they’d just taken the Magic’s heart.
I remember when he passed Ron the ball, how the 6-24 shooting night was supplemented by 15 rebounds in a game where every board mattered, and the joy on his face when he chased down that final loose ball as a dejected Paul Pierce watched on in the background. I remember him standing on the scorers table, arms extended with the game ball in his hands as confetti swirled around him, counting off his rings.
I remember the flair he played with. The charisma he carried himself with. I remember the scoring binges, his sucking the gravity out of the arena, him slapping Alvin Gentry’s backside after hitting an impossible jumper, him hitting a turnaround lefty jumper because he’d wrecked his right shoulder but refused to come out of the game, the reverse pivot jumper in New York after putting his defender in the popcorn machine. I remember 81. I remember Kobe 62, Mavericks 61. I remember the corner 3 over Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the dunk over Jaren Jackson, the dunk over Yao Ming, the dunk over Nash, the dunk over Dwight, the pre-season dunk on Ben Wallace, that George Karl didn’t have a defender to stop him in 2009, the game winner vs. the Suns in the ‘06 playoffs, his streak of game-winners.
I remember him making two free-throws on a ruptured achilles tendon because no one was going to take those FT’s but him. I remember him putting up 60 points on 50 shots in his final NBA game, because there was only one way Kobe Bean Bryant was going to call it a career.
I remember all those things and so much more. I remember them and I smile. Because that’s what we do when we lose someone we love.
It’s around 11:45 a.m. on January 26, 2020. My phone buzzes. It’s one of my best friends from college who I have in a group text chat with my college roommate — who was also the best man in my wedding. His text message doesn’t make sense to me. It reads, “Fuck is this shit about Kobe true???” I don’t know what this means, but as with most things Kobe or basketball related, Twitter will have my answer. I open the app on my phone and go to my NBA news-breakers list. Nothing. I scroll my timeline for a few swipes. Nothing. And then, it’s there. From TMZ of all places.
Kobe Bryant has died in a helicopter crash.
My hand begins to shake. I drop my phone. I stand there, mouth agape not knowing exactly what to think or do. A few minutes later my wife arrives home. Right when she walks in, she knows something is wrong. My two daughters are in the dining room only 15 feet away removing nail polish on their precious little fingers, but I look like I’ve seen a ghost. I tell her “come outside with me.” and she doesn’t know what’s going on. We stand on our porch. “Kobe just died. He was in a helicopter crash. There’s more victims. I don’t know who they are. Kobe...” My voice tails off. She mutters a “what???!!!” and is confused. I take her into my arms and squeeze her tight. We cry.