Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Transcendent Moment

This is one of my favorite posts from my MySpace blog, and I hope I can draw on the emotions I felt that day in my future writing. Footnote: Tiger Woods just became a parent for the first time this week. May the Circle Be Unbroken!

Originally Posted on 8/4/06

On the surface, this is a story about golf and a courageous victory against great odds. It's a story about love, friendship, loss and the ways that grief can surface to make you realize that humanity isn't defined by how much you've made or how many victories one has. I could have categorized this under sports, but I think it's a little more important than that. I've been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks, but things kept keeping in the way (things = poker/movies/an obsession with owls).

A little background on this post: I used to be a regular golfer, but I decided to back off when I broke my 2-iron against my golf bag after another failed tee shot. However, I still love the sport and watch all the major tournaments. Anybody who hasn't been trapped on a remote Pacific atoll for the past ten years knows that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer who has ever lived and that one of his greatest assets in life is an almost robotic approach to the game and everything else as well. Tiger was raised by a very strict father, who forced him to take the game seriously from an early age, but it was always obvious that Earl Woods wasn't the usual "sports parent" trying to live vicariously through his child. There was an enormous amount of love and respect between them, and whenever Tiger won a major event, he practically ran to hug Earl before anyone else. Until the last year or so, that is. Earl, a cancer survivor, began another struggle after exiting remission, and it became evident that he was going to lose this final bout. He couldn't make it to the tournaments anymore, and when Tiger won the Master's last year, he almost broke down during his victor's speech when he mentioned his Dad waiting back at the hotel, too ill to come to the course. He came close to winning the Master's again this year, but he admitted he had put undue pressure on himself, because he knew this was going to be his Dad's last chance to see him win. A few weeks later, Earl died. There were the usual postmortems in the sports press, discussing Earl's role in Tiger's development and early career, how this would affect Tiger's game, but not nearly enough articles discussing their relationship as father and son, and most importantly, best friends. A few weeks after Earl's passing, Tiger came back to play the US Open, way too quickly, and missed the cut at a major for the first time in his career. Again, the articles and interviews by the "golf brain trust" speculated that it might be years before Tiger regained his form and ability and whether his father's death meant a decline in his career. Of course, Tiger proved them wrong at the British Open two weeks ago.

From the start, it was evident that Tiger was going to win. He had an intensity I've never seen, and the listless man trying to figure out what to do and failing miserably had disappeared, replaced by a confident ballstriker who knew exactly what to do. There was another tragic subplot, as the golfer pushing Tiger for the title, Chris DiMarco, had just lost his mother a few weeks before the tournament. So, two virtual orphans strode quickly across the course, each driven by a need to honor a fallen parent who had shaped them into great golfers and even greater men. I awoke on Sunday at 5AM to watch the tournament, something I NEVER do (hell, that's usually my bedtime), for some reason sensing that I should watch every moment of the final round. Every time DiMarco tried to wrest control of the lead, Tiger took the momentum right back. As the last two holes began, anybody who had ever watched Tiger Woods knew the tournament was over and his name would be etched on the championship cup. Finally, Tiger had a birdie putt left with a 2 stroke lead on the 18th hole, and even though he missed it (and a chance to tie his British Open low score record of 19 under par), the short tap in gave him the victory by a stroke. Tiger pumped his fist, looked for his longtime caddy and friend Steve Williams, and hugged him. And then, something indescribably beautiful happened. He kept on hugging him, much longer than ever before, and his body was shaking, almost convulsing with grief. Anyone who has lost someone has seen and felt it, first a wave of emotion hits the flimsy wall of fortitude you've constructed to avoid losing your mind, and then the dam completely bursts and you lose control. Completely. It first happened to me at my favorite Uncle's funeral, when I saw my sister begin to weep. And it really happened as I walked away from my brother's open casket, a complete collapse as my legs just gave way and an outpouring of grief exploded out of me for what seemed an eternity. That's what happened to Tiger that day - a man who had built his life and career around a carefully modulated approach to every single aspect saw how worthless all that calculation is when confronted with the realization of what death truly means. Tiger would not let go, for over a minute, weeping uncontrollably while the world watched. Even his caddy didn't know what to do - hell, even his wife seemed ill-prepared to handle her husband's emotional outpouring. Tiger was forced to latch on to whoever would hold him, and for a few minutes, he just didn't care about how it looked, what his image was, that his carefully crafted veneer of strength had been completely wiped away. And, I realized that Tiger hadn't lost it over his Dad until that moment, not when he heard of his death, not when he went to the funeral or lay awake at night thinking about what his father meant to him. I'm sure he cried, but I am almost positive that it was in short bursts and then his inner strength probably took over and said, "Stop it. Don't succumb to this weakness that others call grief. Use your Dad's death as a positive, the way he would have wanted you to." This worked for a while, until the moment came for the ritual that Tiger had performed almost every time he'd won a major, except now the ritual had changed in a way he hadn't perceived. Suddenly, he realized that rituals aren't just for the cameras, or for the crowd, or for your own ego. They're a powerful force that roots us to the primal energy of spirtituality, whatever that may mean to you - be it God, the Force, yin & yang, etc. Tiger finally realized that the old ritual was finished, never to return, and the fear and sadness over this sea change in his existence turned him into a quivering emotional mess.

I have always loved sports, especially baseball. I'm not afraid to admit that I've cried at sporting events before - I bawled when Bucky Dent hit the fateful home run in the 1978 playoff against the Red Sox (a day my parents allowed my 9 year old version to stay home and watch the game), I wept when my Dad and I drove up to Oakland to see the Reds sweep the A's in the 1990 World Series during the same week that my brother died, and I even teared up recently when baseball honored one of my personal heroes, Roberto Clemente, at the All-Star game. But I wasn't prepared for my reaction to Tiger's grief - I totally lost it, and for ten minutes or so, I just wept and wept. I can't relate to the money that Tiger has, the nearly inhuman ability at a game that cruelly shows me just how human I reall am, or the fame that follows him everywhere he goes. But finally, for one moment at least, I felt a kinship with him, and I realized just how important my relationship with my father is.

Anybody who knows me is aware that my father is my best friend in the world. I'm named after his Dad, who he never had the relationship with that he craved and lost to a cruel twist of fate just as they began to build it again after a long separation. Everybody tells me how much I am like my Grandfather, both Scorpios, both full of seemingly worthless trivia, both eccentric in ways that have endeared us to some and made us dreadful to others; and finally, both encumbered by an extremely locquacious nature, especially after imbibing a few too many (I'm sure this essay, or some of my others, didn't tip anyone off to that one). So, I've always felt that my Dad got two for the price of one with me, a son and a reminder of the father he always wanted. Regardless of the reasons, we're just close to each other. When I grew up, he and I ran together, and then played golf, went to concerts, movies (well, he's not the film buff that I am but nobody I know is), and talked to each other every nearly every day. When I went about to leave for the Army, my mother pulled me aside and made me realize how badly it was affecting him; we sat together in the car, waiting for my recruiter to take me away for a long time, not knowing when, and if, we'd see each other again. It was the first time I realized what he meant to me and what I meant to him. When I was at the worst point in my disintegrating marriage, I called my Dad and asked him to drive up and meet me, on a work night, because I was hurting and had nowhere else to turn; he came right up, listened to my painful stories, and assured me that no matter what, he was there for me. A few years ago, I did something that hurt my parents' deeply; it wasn't intentional or malicious, and I still believe it was necessary, but I honestly thought I'd irreparably harmed our relationship. But after talking with him, my Dad realized why I'd done it, my reasoning and logic may differing from his. And he forgave me for it. That's why I love him - he accepts that I'm an individual who may not follow the same path as him but still values his advice and never dismisses what he has to say.

One of the reasons I love poker so much is that we play together and tell each other about every win or agonizing beat. We talk almost every day, and I expect that this will continue no matter where life takes us, until we can't do it anymore. My dad is almost 65 and while I know this isn't "old" anymore, I know that in 20-30 years, he will most likely be gone. I don't dwell on such things, but when I saw Tiger Woods weeping for that same relationship, I wept with him, knowledgeable that someday, hopefully much later than sooner, I'd be latching on hopelessly, to someone I loved with the same lost despair, wondering what ritual will be replacing the one that no longer works anymore.

So, why did I write this lengthy diatribe? I hope it's a reminder to appreciate every day you have with the people you love the most in the world. Maybe it's not your father, or your mother, or your significant other, or a sibling; it could possibly be your dog, cat or hedgehog, a co-worker, or some random person you talk to online every day (hopefully not, but I'm not judging). Find a way to say you love them - from using those very words, or doing something nice for them, or even something mundane like fixing their computer. I know it's a cliche - live every day like it's your very last; but it's an accurate cliche, and I hope that if you get anything from reading this, besides eye strain and a headache, it's the appreciation that things do change, some slowly and some far too quickly and that we should never forget it, ever.

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