"Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I left for Egypt in late January, my grandma (who has Alzheimer's) was definitely struggling, but seemed to be in good shape. During my last tournament there, I got a text from my mom saying that she wasn't doing as well. I read the message, wrote a quick response, and continued to focus on my matches. The following week, I flew to Denmark to surprise my sister, who had lost her baby while I was in Egypt. I wasn't able to be there for her in the moment, but I was afterwards, which helped me (and - more importantly - hopefully her).
Having 5,000 miles separating you from things matters. When I read the text about my grandma, I still thought of her as walking around, making jokes, maybe asking if I had graduated high school or what my job was, but still very much the person I had grown up around. Smart, witty, and strong. Going home and seeing the reality was a lot harder than I thought - probably because I didn't expect it.
My mom said that Alzheimer's was the one thing that my grandma was afraid of getting. It's a progressive disease that begins with mild memory loss and ends with the inability to have a conversation or respond to one's environment. A few days after coming home, I went to visit. My grandparent's living room had turned into a hospital room, with an aide helping my grandma bathe, move, stay clean, etc. My grandpa was sleeping on the couch every night to be with her (they've been together for 64 years). She smiled throughout our conversation, but couldn't verbally respond too much; I told her I loved her when I left, and she said "love you" back. A few days later, she had a stroke (not her first one); when I saw her that day, she was almost entirely non-responsive.
For the week and a half that I was home, I saw my grandpa so upset that he forgot the words to the Hail Mary while we were praying with my grandma before giving her the Eucharist. I saw my mom sitting on the corner of my grandparents couch, crying silently. I talked to my aunt, who mentioned that these things really tested her faith and patience. I watched my grandpa cry as he told us that he prays for a miracle everyday, but doesn't think that she has long left in this world. I talked to my cousin about how much stress this was putting on the whole family, but especially my grandpa, and how this would affect him.
During all of this, I was training full days and continuing to make my travel schedule. We decided that I'd head to Asia for a potentially long slew of tournaments. On the court, I'm usually hard to deal with (sorry Parsa), but I guess that I was being exceptionally difficult. After 45 minutes of a two hour drill group one day, I threw my racquet down and refused to continue playing. I was there physically, but not mentally. I'd make dumb decisions, get annoyed, and make more dumb decisions. I was tuning out everyone trying to help.
This transferred off of the court, too. I was especially testy with my family and friends, snapping irrationally or being insane over things that really didn't matter. My coach texted my mom to see if she knew what was up. My mom texted me, and I told her that I was jet lagged (true). Parsa then texted me with a picture of a comment I had wrote to him while in Denmark saying I was ready to train, and asked me what was up.
In addition to naming jet lag and the stress of not having finalized Japan, I wrote to him, "My grandma has been really sick and I'm worried that whatever trip I go on next she's not going to make it until the next time I get back."
This is part of being a professional tennis player (or having any job, really). Despite everything going on at home, I boarded a plane for Asia earlier this week. I know more than a few players who have had parents, grandparents, pets - you name it - pass away while they were halfway around the world. It's the hardest thing to deal with, especially when you know that someone may not be there when you get back, or that you're not going to be there to help your family. It's especially hard after seeing the reality of a situation, and having to leave anyway.
Trying to focus on tennis when this is happening back home has been really difficult, and acknowledging that this was what was bothering me was just the first step in helping me to deal with it. My grandma wouldn't want me moping around at home, missing opportunities to pursue my dream. Knowing that doesn't make it easier to be here, though.
It helped for me to tell my coach what was going on. I've been a big fan of bottling up things that bother me, which is great until the bottle fills up and I explode. Telling my coach was kind of a stress reliever. It was like, okay, this is what is going on. Now it's on the table, and I can deal with it.
Telling my friends has also helped. Even though I have been neurotic to more than a few of them recently, when I told them what was going on, almost all of them were immediately there for me. When something that serious is going on with a friend, it doesn't really matter what has happened in the past; you're there for each other, because being there for someone in their toughest time regardless of anything else that has happened is really the true mark of friendship.
As my coach told me, with things like this - or really anything that is bothering you to the point of it affecting other parts of your life - you have to accept that it's a reality. Then, you have to deal with it enough so that you can focus on doing what's going to make you great in what you're pursuing. It's a reality that my grandma may not be there when I get back, and it's a reality that my family is dealing with it day in and day out without me. But, it's also a reality that regardless of what happens, my grandma is an amazing woman who has raised nine awesome children. She has taught me the importance of having faith, being strong, and doing the very best in even the toughest situations.
Finding the positives, talking about what's going on, and accepting the reality has helped me to focus more on my tennis. Even though it's one of the toughest things I've done, it's just another lesson that will only help as I keep trying to reach my goals.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.