“That was what one person could do for another, fix him up — sew up the problem, make him all right again. …”— Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, explaining why she wants to be a physician.
My mother died on the 12th of December, 1977: early onset dementia. She was 53. Bit by bit, she lost herself. Toward the end, she didn’t know who I was. She called me “that man.” And I didn’t know who I was either. All my life, I’d been Ruth Rivers’ son, a card-carrying mama’s boy. But to my mother, I was just some strange man who wouldn’t let her run out of the house and into the street to who knows where.
Tuesday, I’ll reflect upon her proud and resilient life. Tuesday, I’ll look back at Mom’s death and the misery that led up to it. Tuesday, I’ll remember the time that, in a soft and beseeching voice, I told my mother that even if she didn’t know who I was, I loved her just the same. And Mom reached out and kissed my hand, giving me the strength to face another day.
But Tuesday, I’ll also think of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 1976-78 seasons. Led by future Hall of Fame forwards Julius (Dr. J) Erving and George McGinnis, the 76ers presented a dazzling group of players but a flawed team plagued by spotty outside shooting and defense. Consequently, the constellation of Philly stars was dimmed by playoff losses both years, including in the 1977 NBA Finals to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Still, I was riveted by every moment.
At home, I watched or listened to all their games. I read all the 76er stories in all the Philly newspapers. And sometimes, when I could steal away, I went to the games in person, a crucial respite from going through life holding my breath.
Rooting for that team in those two NBA seasons helped me get through the months that led up to my mother’s death and the months that followed it.
Tuesday, I’ll think of Patti LaBelle, and how, for a few hours in 1977, I placed my mother’s troubles and my anguish on the stage at Philly’s Academy of Music, when Patti sang “You are My Friend” and I swooped and soared with her majestic vocal.
Many people are bolstered by friends, family and faith in bad times. But for others, it’s the entertainers and athletes who help us survive challenging times.
Forty years ago, Patti and the 76ers helped pull me through. Today, everyone from Beyoncé to the Houston Rockets help salve the wounds of countless others.
The nation’s great athletes and entertainers earn a lot of money, at least for a time. But they enrich our society in ways that can go far beyond wins and losses, hit recordings and sold-out arenas.
Sometimes, the right play in the big game or the right note in the big concert stops people living besieged lives from slipping into darkness.
Sometimes, the athletes and entertainers, Dr. J to Patti LaBelle, fix us up, make things right again, if only for a thrilling moment.
If only we could find the words to tell our stars how much they can mean to us. If only they knew.