From behind the goal, the two women shouted support for their teams and their favorite players. It was, after all, overtime in their first ever National Hockey League game. They held up signs that said “Penguins Are My Bag” and “Hey Sydney, Facebook Me!” — both references to the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins and their all-star captain Sidney Crosby. They were typical animated, enthusiastic fans helping the league celebrate its 100th year in existence, with one remarkable exception: their combined ages totaled nearly twice the age of the league.
The fun-loving, diehard sports fans were 93-year-old Evelyn and her younger sister, 83-year-old JoAnn. I’d known them all my life. After all, Evelyn is my aunt and JoAnn is my mother. I guess you could say the love of sports is in my blood — literally.
Care to discuss the merits of the designated hitter in Major League Baseball? Or the impact of the three-point line in The NBA? These sisters can hold their own, and then some. They live on opposite sides of the country (my mom in Arizona, and my aunt in Pennsylvania) but on this night, they sat side-by-side inside an NHL ice arena for the first time ever. The media picked up on the story (okay, with a little help from emails to the league press office) and their photo and story was featured on the NHL website. Their 15 minutes of fame grew wings as tweets about the sisters by the league and both hockey teams garnered over 1,000 likes and retweets during the evening, eclipsing the totals of their much more social media-savvy children and grandchildren. Even the governor of Pennsylvania retweeted the story to his followers.
In the end, Aunt Ev’s beloved Penguins fell short, losing to the home team Arizona Coyotes 4-3. But their spirits and their excitement never waned. It was a night to remember for two young-at-heart sisters who crossed off an entry on their bucket lists.
Reflecting later on the experience, my own slight apprehensions about nearing the latter part of my 50-Something Else journey seemed just a bit unwarranted. A pair of 80- and 90-Something Else trailblazers were perched in my very own family tree to change my perspective.
Unfortunately, our joy in the experience was destined to be short-lived. Out of the blue, my newly-turned 20-Something niece was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and our family’s exuberance quickly turned to shock and sadness. Bright, healthy and always able to light up a room, Nikki bravely battled the disease and its difficult treatments for a short few months. Amazingly, she even aced her university studies in anticipation of entering a nursing program the following semester while enduring radiation and chemotherapy sessions and their dreadful side effects.
Tragically, she succumbed to the unrelenting illness in mid-summer, leaving our family devastated and searching for answers to why this young, vibrant young woman left us so soon.
A death in the family is always a sad event, even when the person dying has lived a long and happy life. But the death of a young person always brings us to our knees in pain, anger and bewilderment. Even a century ago, the loss of a child was a fairly common occurrence due to primitive medical treatments, contagious diseases and marginal sanitary conditions. The rarity of child mortality in our time makes it even harder to bear when it strikes our younger loved ones.
For us 50-Somethings, mortality creeps into our thoughts a little more than it used to, whether we like it or not. If my aunt and mother are good barometers, maybe I’m just halfway through the second period, with a full third period still to be played (yes, I have been an avid hockey fan most of my life too). And the less said about my time so far in the penalty box the better.
But why am I still lacing up my skates as a 50-Something when my 20-Something niece will never have that chance again? That’s a $64,000 question we won’t know the answer to during our tenure on terra firma.
I know comparing life and death to sports might seem like trite and shallow theology. But there is something about it that holds true. Athletes that make it to the top competitive levels usually understand that their time to enjoy that privilege is limited. No elite athlete knows if they will be forced off the ice just as they are learning the game, or if their career will be a long and productive one. All they can do is take it one game, one period and one shift at a time and give their best efforts every minute they play.
Until our own playing time is over, our faith in God’s love and guidance is our best game plan. Trust in his guidance is a tough thing to accept, but to me, it seems to get easier the older I get. Without that faith and trust, trying to understand why Nikki’s playing time was so short, while others like my aunt and mother are still playing well into their 80s and 90s, is an impossible and frustrating endeavor.
So goodbye sweet Nikki, we hardly knew ye. And cheers to our 80- and 90-Something trailblazers. We’ll keep the faith until our own buzzer sounds.