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The Final Four and the Terminal Nature of Life

If things were normal, this would be the weekend of the Final Four. Four different, excited groups of students flooding the streets of Atlanta. Legends of the game of basketball everywhere you look. It would be bedlam, in the best possible way. 

There is nothing like March Madness.

But things are not normal. Currently, I'm sitting on my couch thinking about last year's tournament and why it is burned into my brain.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a sunny day in Washington, DC and I had just finished a mid-morning workout before we were set to head down to Capital One Arena to cover the Sweet 16. Duke was playing and all eyes would be on Zion. I was incredibly pumped. 

On my way back to the car, I walked with some of my friends. We were buzzing; chatting about how intense the class was, what we were planning on doing for the rest of the day; you know just normal life stuff. Life was good. 

And then I got a call from my mom. Decline. I'll call her later. Another call from mom. And another. Oh oh. I finally picked up. 

"Trysta, listen. Um, I don't know how to tell you this but Grams is at the hospital. Things are going downhill quickly. If you want to say your goodbyes, you need to get on the next flight out to Phoenix." 

Stunned silence.

As I walked with this collection of happy people, all I could think about was how quickly life can shatter you. I tried to stay composed as the tears flowed, underneath my sunglasses, to my cheeks, and down my neck. 

I sat inside my car, letting the waves of grief come and go. One moment, I was numb and silent, and then next, I was sobbing loudly, and uncontrollably. 

My grandma (Grams) and I share a special bond. From the time I was little, it was clear we were cut from the same cloth. Our demeanor, our outlook on life, our sense of humor. I was her golden grandchild and she was my ace. And now she was hours from being gone. I was broken. Just utterly broken. 

Later that night, when I arrived, I was told that when Grams found out I was coming, she perked up. She even asked my aunt to "do her hair" and "put her makeup on".

While she had already been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, it was supposed to be manageable, treatable even. But at this point, the doctors were convinced it had moved into her stomach and that there wasn't much more to be done. 

I slept in the hospital that night and watched Zion with my Grams on TV. Only she could hear the audio because it came out of the speaker from her bedside remote. I held her hand and read her the crosswords. 

Thankfully, she survived the night.

But given how critical things were, I ended up staying there with my aunt to help out through the end of April. It was 12-16 hours a day at the hospital; fighting with doctors for more testing, her treatment plan, communicating with family back home, advocating for more care, setting up hospice services... fucking everything. 

I had no idea what I was doing. No one knew what to do. Every day felt like a week. 

Because of her pain medication, she was in and out of cogency the entire time. At one point, during an alert moment, she asked me for a favor. She wanted me to cover the Final Four. One of my Grams' favorite things in life was to call me and talk about my travels. She was so proud. She glowingly told all of the nurses "her granddaughter worked for ESPN (I've never worked for ESPN). 

So for her, I briefly left her bedside, like a zombie, and covered the Final Four. It was surreal being in Minneapolis that weekend. I felt guilty I wasn't in Arizona, while simultaneously relieved I had a respite from the pain and was able to enjoy some sense of normalcy. Which of course, made me feel guilty all over again. 

When I returned, I came back with a pocket filled with stories. I told her about the atmosphere inside the arena, some of the crazy plays, and how my interviews went. I told her about the palpable joy in the student sections. As a woman who was living on jello and crackers, her favorite thing was for me to describe in detail some of the best meals I had in the city. 

I was grateful that she held on while I was there that month. In fact, she's still holding on now. Somehow, someway she continues to fight in hospice. No doctor predicted she'd last this long. I always marvel at her resiliency and ability to maintain her playful, smart-ass comments despite the abject pain of the cancer eating its way through her body. 

I remember when she first got cancer, I asked her if it was terminal. Her response was classic Grams.

"We're all terminal, honey." 

So on the eve of the National Title Game, as I sit and ruminate on the loss of sports and the loss of some of life's greatest pleasures, I think about my grandma and she brings things back into focus. She inspires me to concentrate on the positive, to remain playful and lighthearted no matter how dark things get, and most importantly, to live in the moment.

The Final Four is an incredible sporting event and is different than the other Big 4 finals (Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series, NBA Finals). Sure, it's saturated from start to finish with advertisements, and if it keeps expanding, half the teams in Division I will get an invite to the dance. But when you think about the fact that the vast majority of 18-22 year olds playing in the tournament will never go pro, you realize that, at least on the court, it just means something different. And if you're lucky enough to have a team progress to the Final Four, those same feelings will stick with you the rest of your life, too. If you've ever attended one with a rooting interest, you know what I mean. March Madness is the best.

So is Grams. "We're all terminal, honey."

No one is gifted tomorrow. All we have is the here and now, and we might as well make the best of it. Even if we have to sit in quarantine until March 2021 waiting for the next Final Four. 

Trust me, it's worth the wait.