Pat Summit died today, after a 5-year battle with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, four years after stepping down as head coach at the University of Tennessee. There are many great stories about the career and personality of Pat Summitt. You can read Gary Smith’s SI feature on Summitt from 1998, accounts from Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, who co-authored two books with Summitt, and the Sports Illustrated obituary for some of them.
I can’t add to those and the folks with first-hand accounts of her impact. I can, though, speak to something personal to me: the struggle with Alzheimer’s. We’ve now lost two of the most iconic college basketball figures of all-time to the disease, with both Dean Smith and Pat Summitt. It shows that this disease has no bias in who it can affect.
My grandfather was diagnosed when I was in high school. He lived for a decade with the disease. My uncle was diagnosed with early-onset, and is still living. I have written some of the things on this site while sitting with him.
Today is a day for broader remembrance. For those involved in the personal care of someone with Alzheimer’s, it’s also a day of conflicting emotions, that include sadness, numbness, relief, and yes, possibly even joy of knowing that the spiral has come to an end. It is a progressive, insidious disease. You just hope that this isn’t the day or the week that the landslide picks up.
It’s not easy to watch someone go from forgetting names, to becoming more confused, to losing the ability to recall life tasks like knowing how to pick up a fork, to losing control over basic functions. I once had to drive over and get my grandfather out of a shower, when he got confused and collapsed crying. That’s not something you ever think about doing, but just as with children, for the ones you love, you do what you have to do.
The hardest part, though, is that those spiraling events are the final memories when the end comes. I had the privilege of speaking at my grandfather’s funeral, as part of a life well-lived, with five children and twelve grandchildren, service in World War 2, escaping the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. The theme was “Long Live the King of the Family.” The focus was the memories before Alzheimer’s–the fishing trips, the times in his sign painting shop, the bologna sandwiches–and not letting the end define our memories.
So long live the Queen of Tennessee and women’s college basketball. Pat Summitt is rightfully being feted today, and for those that believe in such things, it’s also a celebration of her soul emerging from the encroaching walls of the disease.
I’m not an expert on the disease, only an observer, but one of the things that I have found true from being around my relatives is that music is a powerful force. Even when things are dark, an old familiar song can trigger memories and bring some hint of the person back. Nine years into his disease, when he had long forgotten who we were and how to do basic tasks, my grandfather could still sing every word of “In the Garden” if I started the tune, with tears filling his eyes.
Pat Summitt was in Knoxville for 1,098 wins at Tennessee, untold number of practices and other events as an ambassador for the University. I’d like to think that no matter what happened at the end, Rocky Top was deep within her and stirred her, and will always be home sweet home to her. RIP.
If you’d like to contribute to the Pat Summitt Foundation and help find a cure for Alzheimer’s, here’s a link.