Alex and I met when he was a 6th grader in the all-boys’ college preparatory school in Alexandria, VA where I taught and coached. Our meeting happened during the late 1970’s, and if you were a student there, in that time, a few avenues existed in which to show excellence- academics, athletics, or both. The school required participation in athletics each season, and in the winter I coached wrestling, Since Alex was too small and too short for basketball, he “chose” wrestling.
Even in the 6th grade Alex showed his mettle. He was one of those athletes that every coach loves to have on the team because he had a desire to be the best possible wrestler he could, and his drive made him a role model, but not a role model who was a great wrestler or even one who was on the varsity squad; Alex modeled dedication in working to achieve the most that he could. While he did win some varsity matches when a teammate was injured or could not otherwise compete in a match, his career was one on the junior varsity squad. He was too good for that role, but not good enough for the varsity. But he was always present, and his presence demanded attention because if a teammate or opponent relaxed, Alex would attack with and either score points or win. Although he never won a varsity tournament, he won or placed high in every junior varsity tournament he entered. Too good for the one, not quite good enough for the other, but as coaches say, “a force to be reckoned with.”
Alex, now a past fifty-year-old attorney living in suburban VA, and I still communicate, and when I recently learned that his mother had died, I called him. He shared with me his mother’s final bout with kidney and heart issues and how his siblings and he were able to share precious time with her during her final days. While it is true that she was 83 when she died, her siblings had lived well into their 90’s, so her fatal illness was one for which she and her children were not fully prepared. But as she did in her life, she managed all things well and she shared time with her children. One time, when she and Alex were sharing precious minutes, she told him how pleased she was with his achievements in college, his life well lived, and the other successes he had had. He told me how she talked about his career as an attorney and “all your wrestling medals.” With that, Alex struggled before saying, “Coach, all I ever won was a few J.V. medals, but she told me how proud she was of them.” Then our talk paused until he could softly say, “I never knew that she was even aware of them that much.”
Our conversation continued as we talked about how he and his older brother were coping. We discussed the advantages of his returning to his work and office, but that the process of grieving was also important. Sharing his grief, I offered him encouragement that seemed banal in the shadow of his pain. Out of words, all I could offer at the end of our conversation was that he could call me anytime he felt the need to talk.
But I keep remember something Alex’s mother had said to him during one of their last talks. Facing her death, Alex’s mother looked back across the years for some comfort to give her now-grown baby child. She found what she needed: Words of praise for his accomplishments, even those as a junior varsity wrestler.