My daddy received the most unusual call of encouragement as he lay dying.
To say that my father was a rabid University of Kentucky basketball fan would be putting his love for UK basketball mildly.
I think UK basketball was his fourth love. Daddy reminded everyone during his last days in the hospital: God, first. Family, second. Work, third. Sometimes I wonder if maybe UK basketball was #3.
Daddy lived, God first. We lost count of how many people told us in person or wrote to us following his death to tell us how his walk with God positively impacted their walk with God. Everyone who knew him knew about his walk with Christ. They also knew of his enthusiasm for all things UK basketball.
As long as I can remember, Daddy never missed a UK basketball game if he could find it on television or on the radio unless a game occurred during church. Church is more important.
We were taught to respect the game. We were not allowed to walk in front of the TV during the game. If we needed to walk past the television, we had to wait for a commercial. We were not to chit-chat during the game.
We enjoyed the televised games the way all "real" UK basketball fans did: sound on TV turned off, radio tuned to a UK Basketball Network channel with the legendary Cawood Ledford calling the game.
We kids accepted Dad's rules to not walk in front of the television during game time. We understood the reverence of it. And we joined him. We followed the teams over the years. During basketball season, we all ate, breathed, slept UK basketball.
Dad was forced to retire when his health began to fail. He began having trouble with simple things, lifting (part of his job), opening jars in the kitchen, even walking. One day he tripped at work and landed on his face. One of his coworkers told me there was so. much. blood. After seeing lots of doctors in several cities, Daddy was diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis, a degenerative muscle disease. His muscles were wasting away.
So, in his retirement years when he should have been following his beloved UK Wildcats around in person to see games in real life and not on television, he was battling a disease that would slowly steal his independence and eventually take his life.
He was forced to rely completely on my mother. She had tracks installed on her ceilings for lifts to get him out of the bed, put him into a chair, put him onto the toilet. He could not even move his own little finger if it landed bent the wrong way beneath his hand. He had to ask for help for almost everything.
Daddy was brave and he fought very hard. In August, a medical emergency sent him to CCU. (We learned later it was during this trip to the hospital that a friend began working connections to see if Coach Cal would make a get well call.) Daddy reached a point where medical intervention would do nothing but prolong his suffering and he refused a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. He could not lift his own arm and hand to cover a trach opening to talk, so a trach would render him speechless.
He asked to go home to die. An ambulance chauffeured him home on a Sunday afternoon. We knew that he was days or even hours from leaving this world.
He wasn't talking much, except to ask us to reposition him when he was hurting from being in one place too long. He was asking to be repositioned quite often. The pain meds hospice provided were not working.The memory of his pain is not pleasant.
One of the precious aspects of having him at home in his own bed that he and Mom slept in was that we could be in the bed, too. We couldn't do that at the hospital. Once we got him home, one of us was next to him almost the entire time.
So, picture this: Dad was on his back, head elevated, eyes closed, not saying much. I was beside him on the bed, my sister was on the bed at my feet, our mom was in a chair beside the bed. Dad was trying to relax but the new meds weren't working and we were trying hard to get Dad into a comfortable position because he could not move himself.
We heard Mom's cell phone ring in the front of the house. That wasn't unusual. People had been calling since we'd gotten home, and we'd gotten several calls from out-of-town cousins.
My brother-in-law entered Mom and Dad's bedroom with the cell phone in his hand. My brother was right behind him. My brother-in-law's eyes were big as saucers.
My brother-in-law had answered the phone, and the voice on the other end was a man who asked for my dad. That was odd. Who would call my father at a time like this? Everyone who knew us knew that my dad was discharged from the hospital to go home to die.
My brother-in-law gently explained that my dad was very sick and not able to talk on the phone, so the voice explained that he was Coach John Calpari and he asked to speak to my mother, and he called her by name.
The two of them entered the bedroom with the phone and my brother in law pointed to the phone and said, "It's Coach Cal calling for Don!" We girls looked at him like he'd lost his mind. He insisted, "It's Coach Cal! It's Coach Cal!" We've seen John Calipari being interviewed hundreds of times (maybe a slight exaggeration) and my brother-in-law recognized his voice. He told my brother, "It's Coach Cal!" My brother thought someone was playing a cruel prank on us as our dad lay dying. He was disgusted with that idea. My brother-in-law insisted, "It really IS Coach Cal!"
Finally, someone said, "Put it on speaker phone." And my mother held the phone near my dad's ear and she talked to UK head basketball coach John Calpari. The two of them talked as if they were old friends.
Coach Cal told my mother how sorry he was to hear about my dad's illness. He'd been told that Daddy was a man of good character and one of the biggest UK basketball fans ever, and he appreciated Dad's enthusiasm and support over the years. He told Mom he hoped Dad would recover and get to watch them this fall. Mom told Coach Cal that wasn't going to happen. And Coach Cal said something to the effect that Daddy could pull for UK from heaven. Mom told Coach Cal that Dad could hear him but wasn't talking and Coach Cal said, "Don, I hope we didn't disappoint you too much last season." I wish all of you could see what we saw. My dad grinned the biggest grin you've ever seen. Coach Cal and my mother talked and talked and talked. The two of them had the sweetest conversation. And Coach Cal promised to remember my dad in Mass the next day. Two men who lived out, "God first... ".
And something very special happened. The calm voice and kind, gentle words of Coach Cal were a balm to the frustration and the pain in the room. The mood in the room changed. Dad had grinned twice during that phone call and now we saw him begin to relax.
Who calls a stranger who is on his deathbed and talks to a man who can't speak back? And how is that call not awkward? I know the answer to both questions.
I do not have enough descriptive words to tell you what a sweet, perfect phone call it was. A very precious man, that Coach Cal. He gave my dad an unusual sendoff and gave us an incredible memory. Daddy died the next evening.
I'm not sure I would have believed it had I not been there.
It happened. (Coach Cal tweeted about it the next day. We have a framed copy of the tweet that Mom will hang beside the chair in the corner of the den where Daddy watched all those basketball games.)
This 2014 NCAA tournament has been bittersweet.With every astounding Wildcat win toward the championship game, I wanted to call my Daddy.When I see Coach Cal on TV or hear his voice in an interview on the radio I think of that phone call, my mom holding the phone near my dad's face, my brother, my sister, my brother-in-law, listening to Coach Cal offer kind words of encouragement to my dad and to my mom as my dad lay dying. The moment was so sweet and precious. I'd guess Coach Cal gets hundreds of requests to phone a fan - and when he learned this fan was about to leave this world, Coach Cal could have said, "no", and we wouldn't have known the difference. I'm so glad he said, "yes".
Coach Cal, if a soul can cheer a team on from heaven, I am sure that Daddy did and I am positive that the 'Cats did not disappoint him this year!Congratulations to the UK Wildcats, 2014 NCAA Runner-up! We are PROUD of you! #BBN
PS: In July, 2014, I was able to attend a book signing and offer a quick "thank you" to Coach Cal. Photo here, if you're interested.