I didn’t go to my first funeral until I was in my mid-20s. This is not to say that I didn’t lose people in my family: both my grandmothers died within a couple years of each other and my dad’s brother died while I was in college. But for myriad reasons — timing, travel and, truly, fear of death as a real thing — kept me from attending their funerals. I think my understanding of funerals at the time could best be described as “death is unequivocally bad and scary and funerals must therefore be the same.” I didn’t understand them as part of the long, uneven grieving process.
Timberwolves power forward Thaddeus Young lost his mother this year, at the age of 26. I lost mine at the age of 30. Britt Robson’s column this week for MinnPost is an excellent and thorough look at Young’s struggles this season on the court with due deference given to the way his mother’s death has bifurcated his season into a before and after, but I wanted to talk a little about how a human loss seeps into every aspect of our lives for longer than we usually anticipate.
I have already written about my mother’s death and how it gave my daughter her name, but there are two specific moments from the months just after her death that were brought back to me in thinking about Young. Let me preface them by saying that everyone deals with every death differently — this was mine. When it happened, I felt I dealt with my mother’s fairly well, all things considered. I had a strong family, a fiancée and wonderful future in-laws who were all in it with me and we all supported each other. There was also the fact that children losing parents is — for lack of a more sympathetic way to put it — the way it’s supposed to happen. It might have been too soon (my mother was 59), but the idea that this was the order things were supposed to happen in was something that helped it make sense.
About two and a half weeks after she died, I was at South by Southwest, covering it for alt-weekly Pulse of the Twin Cities. I wasn’t foolish enough to believe I was over her death, but we’d had three different, beautiful ceremonies to celebrate her memory in Chicago, Massachusetts and Minnesota — the three places she’d spent most of her life living in. Stories had been shared, old friends had met new friends. I guess they weren’t so much ceremonies as get-togethers, and my mom would have loved them, having been an expert schmoozer and at ease in just about any kind of social situation.
I’d put a lot of miles into grieving already, had spent a lot of time turning it around and around, seeing it from different angles. I was ready to start moving on and, during the long van ride to Austin and through arriving at a cat-piss smelling apartment where I would crash on a loveseat for a week-plus, I felt like I was doing that.
And then in the middle of a set by Swedish band Loney Dear I lost it. It was, oddly, during of one of their sunnier songs, “I Am John,” but there I was, overwhelmed and crying. It was something about the part when the song surges up into falsetto just after the two-minute mark and whatever it was opened up a gap in my armor and let a blade slip right in. It wasn’t just sadness but a wash of emotions both good and terrible and it knocked me over.
Then a few months later, I got a dog. Although my mom loved dogs, I didn’t really think about getting the dog as having anything to do with her — I’d wanted one for a while and now I lived in a place where I could have one, plus my fiancée and I were planning our wedding. We were, basically, stable and getting settled in, so it seemed like a good time.
At first, I was too busy worrying about feeding him and trying to minimize indoor accidents and get him to walk on a leash to really enjoy it, but then, after about a week of dog ownership, I came home from work one day and took him out on our apartment’s deck and got him snuggled into the crook of my arm. It was a warm spring day and he fell asleep there, curled up on my chest. Again, I found myself quietly overwhelmed by my mom’s death. As it was with Loney Dear, it wasn’t any one thing — it was just the outpouring of a gradual accumulation, a cup filled to the lip and then spilling over.
None of this is meant to excuse Young’s often uneven play since returning to the Wolves’ starting lineup. He is in a business where results are black and white. The bottom line is that so far he has not played up to expectations, no matter the reason.
But I do think it’s important to understand — just as a human being — that the death of a loved one is its own kind of injury. It’s a wound that requires care and rehabilitation. It stays with us, changes us. It takes time to recover from and even when we think we’re ready to move ahead, there are setbacks. They catch us unaware and at odd times, and it’s often the littlest things that can trigger them.
As a fan of basketball, I can be frustrated with Young’s play, even as he flashes tantalizing glimpses of the form I grew to love when he was with Philadelphia — that assured sense of how to take advantage of a matchup with a pump fake and a quick first step, capped off with a spin move and layup. As someone who writes about the Wolves, I understand how the underwhelming start to his season is complicating the calculus — both for him and for the organization — about his player option for next season.
But as a guy who lost his mom, I just want to say: It gets better, but also never goes away.