I’m finding myself looking for air, the kind of desperate search for oxygen that happens at 14000 feet when you’re trying to climb the mountain trail just a bit higher but wonder if your lungs will keep up. I gasp some in but it feels empty, there’s no relief.
The flashes between smiles and remembering funny moments immediately followed by this hollow pressing hole that fills immediately with a tightening of the stomach and shooting pain through your heart come and go like tidal waves, spaced in between by only numbness.
One foot in front of the other but not really moving anywhere, buried inside a consciousness that tries to protect you from grasping a reality that is far too painful to square up to and face head on.
Your players challenge you, they make you work and they make you a better person. We don’t always agree with their decisions or their choices and they don’t always agree with ours. Out of wanting the best for them, we sometimes struggle to help them firmly plant their feet on the right path with incredible frustration along the way. But the love, the appreciation for the person inside of it all is always there. Each unique personality leaves a footprint on our hearts that we carry forever. They become your family, your kids, you worry about them and pray for them and try to be there for them the best you can. There are some who are so present and so connected to those around them that you immediately know when they aren’t present, these are the players you remember forever. The players that step forward every time and say, “I’ll do it, I got you coach, she can stay with me, I’ll take care of it, I’ll pick you up, I’ll make sure they eat,” Milly relentlessly cared for others as an unspoken but consistently demonstrated mission in life.
I don’t know if there is a coach on this earth that doesn’t, somewhere in their mind, live with a fear of losing a player, the way a parent fears something happening to their child. A team is not family by blood, but we purposefully use the experience of team to form incredibly tight bonds to drive the experience and performance in a positive direction. When someone quits, moves away, or transfers, it can really throw the team into a spiral. But when a team member passes away, it leaves a gaping hole and very little comfort to fill it with.
Some people bring energy into a room and some take energy away. Milly filled the room, every room, every time. I think that’s why it feels like the air is gone. I think everyone feels it; the stifling silence that used to be filled with the most giddy laugh that seemed to be strung together from one goofy event to the next, never really taking a break. The “Milly Sneak-Up” is missing. Out of nowhere she would appear right next to you, her head by your shoulder, and in her usual voice. “HIiiiii.”
She had exotically beautiful and delightfully nerdy at her fingertips depending on what she wanted to bring out that day. I got both in my office, never knowing which one would pop in to see me, but one thing was for certain, she’d always show up sooner or later, and no matter what we talked about, she kept her positive and smiling disposition even when it was a hard conversation. “Milly, are you upset right now?” “Yea.” “Do you know you’re smiling” She laughs out loud until you have to laugh with her, “yea.” Big Smile. She never came into my office without bouncing in and plopping dramatically in the chair and grinning at me, sometimes with nothing to say but just to visit. And she never left without giving me a huge, heartfelt hug. The kind where she would nestle her head onto my shoulder, “I love you, Coach”
My last text to her asking if she was ok, she never received, she was already gone. It’s sitting in my phone still near the top of my recent texts, this reminder that only days ago she was bouncing around campus entertaining all of us.
Only 2 weeks ago she was helping me dig out my car at the airport with no gloves and no boots on. I was using a lacrosse stick to get the snow off the car, per usual, and she runs over to her car and gives me her ice scraper – Coach, I have two, clearly you need this more than I do. Then she proceeded to dig me out so I wouldn’t get cold. Giant smile, big hug. And that’s how I remember her. Waving, giggling, making fun of me, and driving off having rescued another person from themselves.
I know that she left something behind for all of us. A piece of her heart and her spirit that embodies love and positivity. We can honor her by carrying that forward, we can bring that piece of her with us throughout the rest of our lives and like she did, we can give it away freely to light up the room and give air to those who like me right now, are struggling to breathe it in knowing she’s not here with us anymore.
It is only when the heart is broken that we see the true picture of how full it really was. Milanyela filled many hearts, and left us knowing how being truly loved by someone should feel so that we can pass what she gave us onto others.
Hug your players a little tighter. Tell them you’re proud of them. My only comfort, if that even exists right now, in any of this awfulness is that I told her every time I saw her that I loved her, and that I believed in her. As coaches, that is the best we can do.
Miss you, girl. With all my heart and soul.