The put upon cheeriness, elementary school-level decorations, and skeleton crew of orderlies and nurses wearing antlers and Santa hats just made it worse. I appreciated the effort, of course, but if there is a day where nursing homes are less appealing than usual, it’s Christmas Eve. When I was little, my mom worked in places a lot like this. It isn’t that they’re inherently sad, or bad places to be. It's just that the circumstances for being there on that day were.
"Dad, we'll come by tomorrow to watch the Celtics game,” I said. “I just saw that Pierce isn't going to play, though. He has some sort of heel injury."
“Oh yeah,” he replied, from his bed. “I think I heard that.”
He hasn't heard that. My dad has been bouncing between emergency rooms, critical care facilities, and a nursing home since December 5, when my uncle found him passed out in the garage. He moved from the ER to critical care, spending most of his time there physically restrained and/or heavily sedated to deal with a prolonged bout with the DT's. It was later discovered that his hemoglobin count had fallen to three — not only had he had lost a lot of blood, but the blood that he had wasn't carrying oxygen to his brain. Between the sedation and the withdrawal, nobody in the hospital could notice that his brain was being asphyxiated, like a stroke in slow-motion. By the time he was moved to a nursing home, he'd lost the ability to operate a remote, let alone catch up on the Pierce injury update on SportsCenter. Christmas Eve was the first time I saw or spoke to him since Thanksgiving.
It is a strange time to be a Celtics fan. Rajon Rondo is one of the most uniquely talented and uniquely limited players in the NBA. Ray Allen's jump shot remains staggeringly beautiful, and the work he does running off screens remains astounding. Paul Pierce still has an array of stepbacks, upfakes and pull-up shots from the elbow. And Garnett remains the quarterback of the team’s strong defense, calling out switches, stepping out on pick and rolls and grabbing seven or eight rebounds a game. In short, the Celtics still look like the Celtics. But in this young season, it's abundantly clear that they are not the same Celtics that they were before. By the time my brothers and I wheeled my dad into the “family visiting room” and opened his Christmas presents for him, the Celtics were down 30-18 in the season opener.
When I was a little kid, I was pretty sure that my favorite teams would always be the best. While I remember, just barely, the Patriots losing to the Bears and the Red Sox losing to the Mets, those losses didn't seem catastrophic. I was disappointed, sure, but I also thought good teams stayed good – they'd just get 'em again next year, for sure. Besides, the Celtics would still have Larry Bird, the greatest basketball player alive. I remember going to see the Celtics play the Hawks at the Garden in 1986, and feeling like there was nothing better in the world than seeing that one team play basketball. A few years later, after we had moved from Boston to Pittsburgh, my dad and I watched Larry Bird smack his head off the parquet floor, and then come back to vanquish Chuck Person and the Pacers. Slowed by chronic back injuries, the guy could hardly walk, but nobody could beat him. He just stayed good until he was gone.
It was difficult to stay focused on the Christmas Day game. For one thing, the nursing home's television, a rear-projection behemoth that someone had certainly donated to the home years ago, was barely functional. For another matter, the Celtics' offense was barely functional, making the Knicks actually look like a competent basketball team. And since Dad doesn't see so well, and didn't really understand what was going on anyway, he spent most of the time yelling at my mother, tearfully pleading with us to take him home, or insisting he needed to go to the bathroom and yes, he can do it himself (no he didn't, no he can't). The Celtics lost on a last second shot, I think. Dad didn't know and I didn't care.
It's not as if this were some unexpected tragedy. A year ago, Dad was admitted to the hospital with blood pressure at 240/108. A few years before that he had his license revoked because of his vision loss. And there were promises of doctors and medications and stories of canceled appointments and new exercise regimens. Very few of them were true. I don't blame him for where he is today, not exactly. But I can't say this is a path he didn't have a part in choosing, either. I desperately want him to get better. But I know he probably will not.
For the Celtics, they too knew that this was coming. Ainge and Celtics ownership went all-in on Allen, Pierce and Garnett knowing that their contracts would take them toward the tail end of their careers. They received a championship banner for their efforts. The shot at a mini-dynasty was eradicated with KG's knee injury in 2009, and a series of bad free agent signings (Jermaine O'Neal), lousy draft picks (Gabe Pruitt), and curious trades failed to reinvigorate the team. The Celtics were never going to be title contenders in 2012, even before Jeff Green's heart surgery. Even Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn, the team’s well-known local television commentators, seem different this season. During a stretch in early January where the C's lost six of seven, Tommy rarely mustered up the outrage to protest a HARRible call. “Tommy Points” were awarded sparingly. During an embarrassing loss to the Pacers, Heinsohn maligned ref Bennie Adams with a bizarre Weekend at Bernie's reference, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it. Shortly after, the Boston newspapers and sports radio shows were concocting “blow it up” strategies, even going so far as to list possible deals to trade the Captain, Paul Pierce. On Martin Luther King Day, Charles Barkley announced what we were all thinking: “The Celtics are cooked. I'm sorry, but they cooked.”
Aside from that 1986 team, this group of Celtics has been my favorite. I taped a quote from Kevin Garnett, “It's not hard to work hard,” on the wall of my library carrel while I wrote my dissertation. When I got rejections from job applications, I thought of Ray Allen, who responded to an interviewers question about a shooting slump by saying “I wasn't missing — the shots just didn't go in.” And I feel like I grew up with Paul Pierce — his transformation from moody, immature kid into a grown-ass man roughly mapped onto my own. Knowing that they wouldn't be together much longer, I went into this season thinking that I would just try to enjoy watching this group take one last go at it. But it has been hard to watch them struggle as much as they have. After an awful first half in Orlando that saw the Celtics go down by 30 points, forever the homer, Tommy announced that this was the most inept he'd seen the Celtics in a long time. He was right.
It has occurred to me, more than once, that Dad is already gone. The effects of cerebral hypoxia are generally irreversible. If he is able to walk again, or even operate a wheelchair, it will be because he re-trains his brain to function in a new way, not because he recovers his previous abilities. He can't talk to me on the phone. He has to be shifted in his bed so as not to develop bed sores. He is under-hydrated because he doesn't know to ask a nurse for water. According to the state of Pennsylvania, he no longer has the capacity to make his own decisions. Taking all this into account, it's hard not to feel as if it's all over but the shouting. But, I remind myself, he's definitively still here. He is in a bed in a nursing home in southwestern Pennsylvania. He still loves Oreos. He misses his dog. He cried when he saw me on Christmas. He's fighting clostridium difficile infections in his colon. He's trying to learn to walk again. Maybe he's changed, become angrier and more scared and more difficult to deal with... but he's not gone. My pretending he is might help me avoid dealing with how he is now, but it doesn't help him any.
Early in the second half against Orlando, Garnett sprinted across the baseline to swat a Dwight Howard fall away into the stands. Paul caught fire, Chris Wilcox got a dunk and rookie E'Twaun Moore drained a couple threes. Suddenly, the Celtics had it tied, Dwight Howard had begun crying to the refs, Pierce was Pierce, and the Celtics' defense was suffocating. After they won the game, there was Kevin Garnett talking to Craig Sager, all energy and intensity, it was a bar fight, a bar fight, a bar fight, and it was like anything was possible all over again. In the last 10 days, the Celtics lost Ray Allen to an ankle injury, Rajon Rondo to a sprained wrist, and Keyon Dooling and Jermaine O'Neal to... whatever. Improbably, though, the Celts won four in a row... then promptly choked in the fourth quarter to lose against the Cavs, at home. They're not going to be the same as they were. They're probably not going anywhere in the playoffs. But they're not gone. Not yet.
Photo by Keith Allison, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
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