Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jane Eloise

On the morning of April 25, I rolled over in bed to grab my phone as I usually do and found my six-hour-old niece on the screen. She was wearing a winter hat and an enormous, adult-looking diaper. The accompanying text message: Jane Eloise. She looked beautiful and smart, a lot like my sister.

I had not had enough time to contemplate how I would feel about being an uncle because my second semester of business school was too busy for comfort. I wasn't worried. Mentally preparing to be an uncle takes only a few minutes. So I mentally prepared, albeit for a bit longer than a few minutes because my sister had led me to expect a nephew instead of a niece. Then my wife, visiting mother-in-law and I drove through three hours of ill-suited rain from South Bend to Evanston Hospital.

We worked our way through several layers of security before arriving outside my sister's room. My sister's husband, Tim, explained that we would have to wait while Jaylyn nursed Jane, so we patiently sat outside an empty nursery with Tim's parents. Nobody else was around. We appeared to be the maternity ward's only customers.

My dad appeared a moment later after mistakenly searching for us in the downstairs atrium.

"Jane blah blah blah blah," he said, "and Jane blah blah blah blah blah blah."

I was not uninterested in what he had to say about this new person, but I couldn't focus on anything he said other than her name. My brain immediately defaulted to Jaylyn's bridesmaid Jane, the namesake of the baby.

Apparently my niece was more than a nameless model in a diaper commercial or a perpetual balancing exercise for my pregnant sister. She had a name, and we were expected to use it. My original family had grown again to Mom, Dad, Jaylyn, Tim, Melissa, Winnie, Jane and I. Jane was a permanent +1, a brand new Christmas stocking coming to a fireplace near me, and I had not met her.

Minutes later Tim said our turn had come, so Melissa and her mom, my dad and I walked into the room. Jane was in my sister's lap, alternately staring at the ceiling and at her mom. She wasn't crying or uncomfortable with her new world in any way. Jane looked like she knew she was exactly where she was supposed to be. My sister smiled.

My dad and sister retold their stories from the past 12 hours, but I couldn't focus on them. I positioned myself by the head of the hospital bed so I could look at my beautiful niece and let her look at me. I hadn't shaved for a week and silently scolded myself for looking needlessly scary to an infant--if infants dislike facial hair as much as some dogs. Jane didn't seem to mind.

"Do you want to hold her?" Jaylyn asked.

"I don't know how," I said. "I know I'm supp-"

"Babies are resilient," she said. "Just hold her. You'll do fine."

So I put one hand behind her head and my other arm under her body. Then we looked at each other for what seemed like an hour. Jane was a person all her own, not quite her dad and not quite her mom. She had a lot of hair. She moved her mouth as if she was stretching her jaw. Sometimes she sneezed. Her eyes had a unique shape that reminded me of nobody I had ever met. She was gorgeous. I passed her to Melissa and took a few photographs.


In the late spring of 2010, my mom called me at work. She told me she was at the hospital to have her blood drawn. She felt lethargic and somehow believed that her blood test results would come back with bad news. My mom had always been optimistic and healthy, but she sounded different that day on the phone. I was worried.

Hours later we were together at the hospital when an emergency room doctor told my mom she had acute myeloid leukemia. Another doctor was quick to tell us that the five-year survival rate was 50 percent, a rosy forecast compared to today's WebMD. My mom needed to start chemotherapy as quickly as possible.

With my dad and sister in Chicago, my mom and I hung together in North Carolina to take the early punches. We hoped for good news, but it was all bad. My mom asked me to call our family and her best friend. They all had a lot of questions, some of the same unanswered ones I had. I told everyone we were getting treatment as quickly as possible and learning new things every day. We couldn't know the exact, ultimate course of treatment until later.

Several doctors unloaded a lot of medical information on us in the following days. We learned about chemotherapy, AML, stem-cell transplants and the salient metrics from her past and future blood tests. One doctor said something that broke the mold of everything else we heard.

"Our goal is to get you through this in one way or another," he said, "because we want you to be around for a grandchild someday." He nodded in my direction.

Some readers must think I smooth the rough edges of blurry memories, and maybe I do. But I remember that moment well. My mom's moistened eyes darted in my direction, and one corner of her mouth mustered a sad smile. We said nothing. The moment passed.

My mom and I never talked about the things we wanted her to live for. I focused on her survival because the bounties of life, the big moments and the little pleasures we take for granted, would have overwhelmed me. My mathematics education had taught me to simplify, simplify. Or maybe I got that from her.


She stepped off the elevator looking the happiest and healthiest I have ever seen her. Her hunched shoulders, hushed voice and wide eyes gave away her excited anticipation.

While I was unknowing and asleep, my mom had packed her bags in Chapel Hill for a 13-hour drive and indefinite stay in Chicago with her daughter, son-in-law and newborn granddaughter. She had left at 4 a.m. We would have called her with reports from the hospital to keep her awake, but my mom doesn't touch her phone when she drives. She had survived cancer with a stem-cell transplant from her sister. She doesn't take chances.

When we all walked in together, Jane wasn't on Jaylyn's lap. My mom's attention went straight to her daughter, and I think she momentarily forgot who else was in the room. Jaylyn pointed to the nearby bassinet, and my mom walked to it.

She looked and smiled at her granddaughter, Jane Eloise Stenta, for a long time. A week later she wrote:
When I looked at Jane, she was so tiny and real. I loved her so much, as much as I love you and Jaylyn. I never thought it was possible to love anyone else like that. I also thought what a perfect little miracle she was. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.
I do not know what my family did to deserve any of this. The last five years taught me that so much of life is out of our hands. Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad things happen. All we can do is let each other know that we love each other.

After all, Jane is only beginning to understand how much we love her. I'd better call my sister to tell her again.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Stuart Scott won

The last few days have been hard for Tar Heels. Longtime ESPN journalist Stuart Scott passed away Sunday morning after a seven-year battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 49. He is survived by his parents, siblings, girlfriend and two loving daughters.

The loss of Stu is not unique to those who share his alma mater. Stu belonged to sports fans of all colors, even the ugly, darker blue, because of what he did. He brought life to the joy and anguish of our fanatical existence, which is an enormous part of some of our lives.

I didn't grow up on SportsCenter like many of my peers. In fact, I didn't start to watch entire episodes until I went to Carolina in 2003. But well before I became a regular viewer, I knew who Stuart Scott was. I couldn't attribute it to him at the time, but my high school basketball teammates used to relive each other's highlights in the post-game locker room back in 1999.

"Boo-yah!" point guard Jason Epner would say while stroking the air with his eyes closed. "Just call him butter because he's on a roll!"

Playing sports was cool long before Stu arrived at ESPN in 1993, but talking about sports was no different from talking about the daily news. In 1992, you might have heard someone say "Did you see Jordan's dunk? That was fun to watch." Now you're more likely to hear "Did you see Jordan's dunk? He was breakin' off somethin' proper!" Stu made talking about sports cool.

And he did so in the face of criticism from people who could sense his charisma taking the sportscasting world away from the old guard. Even as a rookie reporter at ESPN, Stu held his ground while complimenting his forward-thinking peers in his columns. Stu worked for everyone, even middle-aged white guys, but he opened the door for sports fans who were young and creative.

Stu was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and began to disappear from his regular ESPN gigs. We heard that his cancer was tough, but we also heard he was tougher. He beat it, but it came back. Then he beat it again. Then it came back again. As sports fans, we felt his battle morph into a war, and the sports metaphors worked their way into our unwilling subconscious. Stu was fighting, and we wanted Stu to win. We hoped for a day when he would return to the desk as a permanent fixture in our daily lives. That day never came.

I knew we had lost Stu, but I also couldn't shake the thought that Stu lost an unfair fight with cancer. Cancer had the brass knuckles all along, but we didn't know it for sure until this week. To give you some perspective, my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and I am thankful that she has now been cancer free for years. I know the "beat cancer" story better than I ever thought I would. 

This past fall I enrolled in Notre Dame's full-time MBA program. As unsettling as it occasionally was to be a part of a rival institution of my alma mater, I also giddily awaited Carolina football's Oct. 11 appointment in South Bend. I hoped that Notre Dame would be 5-0 atop the rankings so we could spoil their season. I got my wish.

A couple days before the game, I went to the Grotto to light a candle and pray for a few things including the Heels. To my surprise, I didn't pray for a win. I prayed that Carolina would fight hard and make me proud in front of my new friends and classmates. I knew I could plan to have a great time with the many Carolina friends and family who were on their way, but I also knew that I couldn't control what seemed to be the most important thing to everyone: the outcome of the game. I didn't want to ask for too much.

Carolina's maligned defense earned an early 14-0 lead in what I describe as the third-most exciting five minutes of my life (I'm married, and I was at the 2004 Miami game). That and the rest of the game were an unforgettable experience shared with the people I love. We lost by the narrow margin of one possession. Carolina had fought hard. I walked out of Notre Dame Stadium disappointed but proud. I got exactly what I prayed for.

After Stu's passing, I watched a bunch of tribute videos and old broadcasts of his. For some reason I scrolled past his Jimmy V Perseverance Award acceptance speech. I think I wanted to see him at his professional best aside from his illness. But because his speech was at the top of any search results list, I eventually clicked on it and watched.

I discovered that in his last year, Stu came to understand that beating cancer wasn't about the length of his life as he had stated. Beating cancer was about how and why he lived. For him, that meant being with his daughters and training through mixed martial arts, the latter to prove to himself his own physical mettle. For each moment he did what he wanted to do with his life without regard to cancer, he won.

The final score didn't matter.

I heard that message hours before last night's tip off between Carolina and Notre Dame. I didn't go to the Grotto this time because it is butt-cold in South Bend, but I'd be lying to you if I said the end result didn't hurt. I wanted the Heels to extend their pregame tribute to Stu for 40 minutes of determined basketball. I went to bed feeling like we lost a game we should have won not because our team deserved it but because Stu deserved it.

This morning I thought of what Stu would have said over last night's SportsCenter highlight reel if he was behind the desk. Despite his rooting heart, he would have been as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Tar Heel.

You are in our hearts, Stu.

Monday, May 12, 2014

I say 'college;' they say 'potato'

Sometimes I write something that adds little-to-no value to a story that already exists. Oops. This is one of those somethings, but you might laugh if you keep reading, have at least a small sense of humor regarding the Carolina scandal, and have not read The Daily Tar Heel in the past month.

The DTH published an article titled "Student-athletes weigh in on balancing academics, big-time college sports." Hearing the voices of student-athletes instead of administrators or journalists on this hot issue sounds refreshing, but sometimes you only get to hear from rehearsed guys like Marcus Paige who can successfully balance rigorous coursework and a sport.

I clicked on the link anyway, hoping that I might find something fresh and encouraging. Former Carolina football players Devon Ramsay and Mike Ingersoll gave me something so fresh that I laughed for the first time since the scandal broke eons ago.
In terms of academic-athletic balance, Ramsay said a football major might be helpful for student-athletes who are sure they want to go to the NFL.
“I think it would be OK for guys who know from the get-go that that’s what they want to do,” he said. “But I’m also nervous that some guys would feel pressured to do that major and really kind of lose the opportunity of a college education.”
Ingersoll also said he thinks there should be a program in college that prepares student-athletes for life in professional leagues.
“Careers in the NBA and NFL are some of the most unique and sought after careers in the world,” he said. “Why don’t you put (athletes) in classes about money earned, invested and owed?”
Ingersoll compared student athletes to students who go to college for other specialties, such as fine arts.
“Drama is a major for students who want to go on Broadway — why can’t I take classes for the NFL as far as managing money, dealing with the lifestyle and dealing with women,” he said.
Technically, I was a guy who knew from the get-go that he wanted to go to the NFL. The only thing I wanted more was to play football for the Tar Heels. Unfortunately, my physician told me that I was moderately underweight for my 73-inch frame at 165 pounds; he recommended milkshakes. Also, I had played football for a season when I was 13, and I sucked at it. Barring putting on a startling freshman hundred in pure muscle and suddenly being willing to get my pants dirty, playing football was something that evidently waited for me in heaven. In this life, I hope to one day earn an advanced Carolina degree just so I can come out of the tunnel at commencement. I would be the one running with a helmet and an American flag.

So I can't honestly say that I wish Carolina had a football major when I was there. I can understand that Carolina football players have always been many steps closer to the League than I was, but even the best of them have to temper their expectations of going pro because of injuries and developmental uncertainty. Besides, I have to state the obvious--do college football players really need more hours of football? They must really like football. One of my majors was mathematics; I could not have imagined putting in 40 extra hours per week for the UNC math team if it even existed. I guess I didn't really like math.

To their credit, these guys did give me an idea for a different new major at UNC: Teach For America Training. I joined TFA after my graduation and could have used a couple years of preparation--perhaps in the School of Education--instead of the five-week TFA summer institute. The TFA-Charlotte corps had five women for every man, so Mike Ingersoll, your lady issues speak to me. At least they did in the beginning. I am married to one of them, so maybe I built that plane while I flew it.

But to extend my extension of their suggestion lays bare the weakness of our arguments. Why not have a Google major at Carolina for students who want to work for Google? And you can't have a Google major without having an Apple major. If one employer like the NFL can influence a course of study at Carolina, maybe they all should. Then Carolina would be a corporate-driven training campus. Where would we put all the light and liberty?

If only Ingersoll knew that he could have enrolled in a number of money management courses at Carolina. Was he unaware that they existed? Did someone discourage him from enrolling in these courses? Were these sections closed to students who were not in the business school? These are hard questions for an unpaid blogger to answer.

Nevertheless, if the Ramsay-Ingersoll recommendations come to their fullest fruition, we would have to amend the football motto by addition: ANSWER THE BELL. LEARN NFL FOOTBALL. DEAL WITH WOMEN. Can you imagine the charm on the DEWW 110 professor?

OK, I'll stop with the sarcasm. I'm not siding with the NCAA cash cow, and I do think that college athletes are exploited. Specifically, I think it is a joke that many athletes gravitate to a couple atypical majors, and I recognize three causes: student-athletes who are unable to academically achieve in higher education regardless of their busy schedule, student-athletes who are willing to sacrifice their education for an easier-than-overtime path to graduation, and academic departments that are unwilling or unable to accommodate student-athletes' schedules. Carolina has put significant effort into fixing the first cause, but the others still need quite a bit of work.

College is college because it gives students the liberty to shed light on personally selected disciplines that will help them contribute to society later in life. Maybe football is one of those disciplines, but playing Division I football is more than enough preparation for whatever football might come after graduation. To his credit, Ramsay seemed to know this when he said those who would choose to major in football might "lose the opportunity of a college education." Ingersoll seemed a bit more lost.

But I have to admit I'm happy that they said what they said and that the DTH was right there to quote them so . . . warmly. It feels good to laugh while reading a story with a headline that includes the words student-athletes, academics and big-time college sports. I thought it might never happen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Was Duke scared?

Official word to postpone tonight's 9 p.m. Carolina-Duke tilt came at 5:40 p.m. amid miserable winter weather conditions. Several initial reports incorrectly credited the weather as the sole reason for the postponement. Fortunately, Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham showed us a sliver of another reason.

"Duke's bus is not able to get to their campus to pick up the team in time to be able to make the trip to Chapel Hill, so we can't play this evening," he said. "The safety of the teams and officials is the number one priority, and this was the best decision to make at this time. Coach Williams, Coach Krzyzewski, (Duke AD) Kevin White and I will be on the phone with the ACC and will make a decision as to when to play the game as soon as possible."

ACC rules dictate that a game must be played if the officials and teams can get to the game safely. Fans are not considered in the rules, but it is true that upwards of 20,000 people will be safer without a game to attend tonight.

However, I can't not mention a few facts that, when paired with some reasonable assumptions, could tell an additional story.

Because driving was predicted to be dangerous around 8 p.m., Carolina planned to admit students to fill the empty seats of the ticket holders who would stay home. This happened twice before in the history of the Dean Dome, and the result was a student section so large that it filled pretty much the entire lower level and then some. Typically, alumni fill the seats that are closest to the court while students are dispersed in random sections throughout the arena. You can imagine the difference when you stack this deck with 10,000 wild cards. If I was an opposing player, I'd prefer the alumni in the front rows. I wonder which seating plan Duke prefers?

The officials were ready to go. ESPN had put its equipment in place more than 24 hours ahead of tip-off. Clearly, nearly everyone who was necessary to the execution and broadcast of the game was well aware of the conditions and planned accordingly. Everyone except, perhaps, the Blue Devils.

Duke's players had to attend their afternoon classes, you might say.

You'd be wrong. At 9:31 a.m. Duke canceled all classes effective at 12:50 p.m. The Duke athletic department had all morning to figure out how to get its team on the eight-mile ride to Chapel Hill eight hours before tip-off to avoid the expected weather complications. Instead, they either stuck with a departure time that was set last summer or were the victims of a lousy bus company. If they knew the bus would be late, they could have used any of a few hundred beat-up yellow school buses.

Cunningham got it right. Postponing the game was the best and only decision to make at the time of the decision. I just wonder what was going on over at Duke after 9:30 this morning.

From my comfortable couch in Asheville, it appeared that Duke was just plain scared.