20 days ago, Karl-Anthony Towns let the public in on his unraveling. He gave an accounting in a grisly tale about his parents and their coronavirus struggle. He begged us to take it seriously. He appeared sad, bewildered, tired and desperate. His mother Jackie had taken a terrible turn. She was in a coma. He personalized his tragedy for public benefit and it was extremely sad.
18 days went by and then Towns college coach John Calipari gave an update on Jackie Cruz. He said, “she’s fighting, she’s there, we get updates. Every single day we get an update from Karl Sr. about how she’s doing from the nurses at the ICU. Keep praying for her. Send her unbelievable positive thoughts. I just can’t wait until she gets out of that hospital. But it’s been a tough road.”
During this time of year I remember what the poet T.S. Eliot wrote as if it was a projection. April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. The dull roots and spring rain envisioned by a British poet (Eliot renounced his American citizenship) have a different interpretation during a pandemic. I read Eliot’s words and yearn for all of this to disappear. For the old way of life to return. For games and debate and memes and shady tweets. For competition and the playoffs. For death to not be everywhere, in everything. For bodies not to be dumped into graves. For funerals that are funerals, not social distancing surrealism.
It’s the great theological question of human existence. Why do prayers work for some and not for others? Jackie Cruz didn’t make it out the hospital alive, succumbing to the virus after a valiant fight. 20 days ago when describing his mother Towns said “My mother is the strongest woman I know and I know she’ll beat this. And we’re going to rejoice when she does.”
Before this, Towns was considered to have a perfect life. He was wealthy, famous, impressively skilled, with an incredible future. He had the capital to pay it forward. Things were good. But life changes in an instant.
13,000 people have died in the NY/NJ area. It’s a gruesome number that’s easy to dismiss until you factor in its actual freight. If every active NBA player contracted coronavirus, and both of their parents contracted coronavirus, it would not even equal 2,000, much less the enormous death toll of 13,000. The troubling part is that New York and New Jersey are just two states out of 50.
So far 25,000 have died. Some of the dead are without family and after death are dumped into mass graves like the murdered Auschwitz victims. Many are like Jackie Cruz. They leave behind a consortium of devastated children and spouses and friends, and more importantly, a life that wasn’t supposed to end this way. As if the pain of a death wasn’t enough, social distancing requires a funeral to be drive-up only.
A woman I know was buried like that. Her loved ones in cars. One by one they walked alone to the casket and touched it, then retreated to their cars. The service was on Zoom. It was ridiculous in its dystopian flavor.
Seemingly every day a new tragedy has fallen to earth. Jackie Cruz yesterday. Someone else tomorrow. But every day also is a moment for a new miracle. A nurse with 26 ICU patients but not enough beds makes sure her patients don’t see her fear or frown. The nurses are often the last face an ill patient sees. They take that responsibility seriously.
The irony of the ICU ward is that in the same hospital where people are dying on ventilators, babies are being born. New to the world and unaware of the chaos around them. It’s the paradox of these horrible moments. A flower is always blooming somewhere.
Sheltering in place and social distancing has been in effect for a month in urban centers. How we do things is radically different than before. Here in Los Angeles it is against the law to enter a business without a mask on. If the data is indeed our guide, infections are slowing down because of mitigation efforts. Social distancing is working. President Trump wants to open the government up in May and in effect turn the page on this disaster.
Well and good for some. But Karl-Anthony Towns has a shattered family. His mother was the center. He called her the boss. She was everything. And now she is gone. Like so many others before her and those after her, she leaves a lot of brokenness behind. How do you cope after something so tragic?
Towns will have the option, if the NBA season returns, to take bereavement leave. The Wolves weren’t making the playoffs anyway. Another year in turmoil where they sent max player Andrew Wiggins to the Warriors and KG said some unflattering things about Wolves owner Glen Taylor.
Karl-Anthony Towns is only 24 but now has lived a lot of lives. Trauma and tragedy will change you. Towns tragedy is repeated all over the country, the only difference is Towns has fame. He is known. In a Kardashianized culture, that puts him to the front of the line. He will be the recipient of public condolences and support. Nevertheless, losing your mother, despite how it is done, is a private matter. It is a family wound.
Jazz great Wynton Marsalis lost his father Ellis to coronavirus late last month, three years after losing his mother. What would his father’s advice for this moment be? Marsalis was wistful as he remembered his father’s wisdom. “Where you at? What are you going do? You talking about doing it? You doin’? Do something. Let’s go.”
Wynton the son said “We’re in a bad position. We’re not going to get out of this overnight. But everybody is in my position. So, let’s embrace this space. Let’s work on the trust we’ve built up for all these years. We have to move very fast but we have to be even more process-oriented and more deliberate. And that’s how you master a moment of chaos.
Let’s see if we are who we said we were before we had to deal with this. When everything is normal, it’s easy for us to be full of arrogance and commentary. Now we have to be for real.”