"Up and in," Mom whispers, arcing her hands with the best shape and form she can muster to send an imaginary basketball spinning through an imaginary hoop to close out the back end of a one and one. "Up and in," Mom quietly cheers from her seat during any West Liberty University basketball game, whether that seat be in the gym or in front of the television. This is a cheer from a grandmother to her granddaughter, a cheer whose sound does not travel from a faraway seat to a free throw line as much as the love that floats from one heart to another, uninhibited by the distance it must travel.
To loosely paraphrase William Shakespeare, "all of the world's a stage" and we are "merely players," who at some time make our free throws, miss our lay-ups, celebrate our victories, and bemoan our losses. These elements of the game are all one and the same, experiences we willingly or unwillingly accept as part of some grand scheme of life. This "stage" is what draws people to the arena of sports so that we can witness how others deal with life's unpredictability and imperfections in an effort to give us some explanation for the meaning of life; however, when a person close to us takes the stage, we become more than just an audience member who simply witnesses the spectacle from a comfortable distance.
Emily has been on her stage for so long now that I can barely remember when this journey all started for her. I know that now, as the public address announcer gives her the signal for her final curtain call, my niece, Chris's sister, Jim and Lisa's daughter, and Mom's granddaughter, still possesses that heartfelt passion despite the obvious wear on her body. When Emily enters a game she has the appearance of Éowyn, the Rohan woman warrior from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, with her personal magical black armor plating protecting her limbs, uniform pressed for battle, swagger in her stare, power in her smile, and confidence in her stride. Once upon a time there was a spark in her eye, a determination for what the future would hold for her; now the spark has become a flame, an ongoing desire to be at her best for each and every game whether her body has the strength to be there or not.
Emily's entourage is on the hilltop Saturday afternoon as friends and family from all over gather to watch Emily play her final game as a senior at West Liberty University. The entire bleacher section across from the home team bench is prepared to be part of this story as we normally are, people who have always been there, game after game, those who traveled the mountains and lowlands to bear witness to this moment, those spirits who are no longer with us as well as those loved ones who could not make the journey. This will be a tribute to Emily as much as it shall be a testimony to those who have loved and nurtured her to this point in life. We unite and support those whose values and vision mirror or serve as an extension of our own.
The game itself is a microcosm for all of us, representative not of wins or losses but about how to live life. Emily, like all of us, goes through her pregame warm-ups, readying her mind, heart, and body for the rugged pace of each awaiting opportunity. An uncertain preparedness settles in, one which acknowledges the fact that we can never really know the ebb and flow of the game ahead yet must find comfort in our preparation: we have the skills, we have the knowledge, we have the desire to meet challenges moving forward. Once the game begins, we all battle our opponents, both literal and figurative, their presence in front of us and their voices in our heads. Emily does it better than most, shaking off the errant pass or missed shot, driving down the court as she exhausts any gas she has left in the tank, expecting the next pass to hit its mark or three point shot to swish through the net. We celebrate how Emily shines on the hilltop.
On this Saturday, while Emily’s game ends sooner than she or any of us would have wished, she remains on the stage, leg wrapped in a thick towel of ice, wrapped for the game, wrapped for the season, but not wrapped for life. Emily painfully situates herself on the trainer’s table behind the team bench where only she knows what scenarios and emotions race between her heart and mind concerning the knee injury that has separated her once again, one final time, from the game she loves. Her entourage is there with her, understanding the significance of it all.
I always fall back on my favorite author Brené Brown for guidance and wisdom, hearing Brown's encouragement to be vulnerable, to allow people to see us, to wholeheartedly embrace life while creating our own narratives that can exist despite the chaos of this world. Brown writes, “Courage is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”
That is what Emily does for all of us; she courageously reaffirms our own thoughts on how to live our lives. We feel both her triumphs and failures, not experiencing her pain but wishing we could take a little from her so she can continue in the game. Emily is going to be fine though; Emily Bucon is tough. This game has been but a moment in her life, a life that has been filled with happiness as well as tragedy, a life that we all can have, a life that we all share. It is a world that is filled with hope and promise which has no guarantees for any of us. No guarantees but one: the opportunity to revel in the joy of courageously being on the stage, telling the story with our whole heart. Emily reminds us all of that, and for this and more, we love her.
Grandma says, “Up and in! Up and in!”