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Why I’m Struggling to Grieve for Lamar Odom

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When I heard the news that Lamar Odom was found on the floor of a brothel and rushed to the hospital, my mind flashed on the same thing it always does when I hear such news.

I was 11 years old at the time, and my dad was an Air Force Captain and Squadron Commander. And, as happens in the military, squadron picnics were a common part of summer life. So it was, that along with my two brothers, the five of us and those under his command were out there celebrating. Whether it was Independence Day, or just an excuse on a sunny day to have a good time, I don’t recall.

My mom asked me to bring her the wine, and my heart dropped — my soul drained of all the joy it was experiencing in the moment. I remember picking the bottle up out of the cooler and bringing it to her, and it felt like it was a burden heavier than the earth itself.

I wanted to smash the bottle into a million pieces and watch its poison spread out on the grass instead of into my mother. I hated it. I detested it. But I gave her it. And then I hated myself.

It was marked forever in my memory as the day I realized my mother was an alcoholic. She never got better. I remember the morning when I was 16 and woke to find  she had tried to kill herself. She survived, went to the Betty Ford clinic, and then started drinking again.

She checked in and out of rehab multiple times, but she kept getting worse. The alcohol took away her health. She was using a walker by the time she was 50; her constantly inebriated body on an expedited death spiral.

When I was around 40, I talked to her at length for the last time. It had become almost impossible to have a cogent conversation with her. Every discourse drifted into drunken meanderings and historical revisionism of how life had treated her unfairly, all justifications for her present state of intoxication.

I told her I couldn’t do it anymore, that this inebriated demon who had possessed her was not my mother. My mom was someone who had died years ago, before I ever had to carry the burden of that impossibly heavy bottle to her at the picnic.

My mom was the one who was my Cub Scout den mother. My mom made me Spider-Man birthday cakes. My mom laughed and enjoyed life. This…corruption…of her was just taunting me of the memories of her.

My mom was someone I hadn’t seen in 30 years.

So, while they might not have been the exact last words I ever spoke to her, it was the last message: “Talk to me when you’re sober.”

Don’t blame me. I tried for three decades. It’s the sad reality and experience of loving someone who is a substance abuser.

Three years ago, she drank herself unconscious. And while it was never determined what started the fire, she was too comatose to get from her bed and leave the home as it burned around her. The lone mercy the alcohol ever showed her was that her death was painless. The smoke inhalation took her before the flames did.

So, when I hear stories like Odom’s, it’s hard for me. They’re incredibly personal. I want to sympathize, but the ability has been worn away.

My mom was a successful journalist. She wrote for the Grand Forks Herald and was considered an expert on North Dakota politics. She was interviewed, when necessary, on CNN. She even was among the recipients of the Pulitzer Prize when the Herald won for its coverage of the flooding and corresponding fire in 1997.

And that’s another reason stories like Odom’s stick with me. Substance abusers don’t always begin as failures. In fact, they can often be overachievers. And Odom achieved great things in his NBA career. Among them were his vastly understated contributions to the Los Angeles Lakers championship teams and era of dominance from the 2007-08 season to 2010-11 when he won Sixth Man of the Year.

Over that span, the Lakers outscored their opponents by 1,859 points while he was on the court, the seventh-most of any player in the league. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that in the same span, the Lakers were just +2,111 overall.

Factoring for minutes, the Lakers were just +0.67 points per 48 minutes without Odom and +8.3 points per 48 minutes with him over that span. So yeah, he was pretty crucial.

He may not have dominated the stat sheet, but he did stuff it, and his value goes well beyond the box scores. That’s because he was always what the Lakers needed him to be…until he didn’t feel needed anymore.

After he was included in the vetoed Chris Paul trade, Odom lost his heart. Something happened to him. His entire life fell apart. Whether that was when his substance abuse started, if it was before that or after it, I don’t know.

All I know is that it was only four years ago, and now the man who was once of the most elite athletes in the world is on his death bed because of what substance abuse did to him. It robbed him of his life long before it threatened to take it.

Mind altering drugs — legal or otherwise — are a soul-eating cancer. They eat at sorrow and sadness, but the more they eat away, the more it grows. And they tell the lie that if you do more, you’ll be happy again. So the users do it; and it becomes a long, slow suicide.

I want to write about how special Odom was as a player at his peak. I want to write about how sad it is that he’s hanging on for life and will likely never have his mental faculties again if he recovers. I want to write about how sad it all is.

Instead, I feel angry. I’m angry at drugs and alcohol. I’m angry at our society for glamorizing their use. I’m angry at drug dealers who facilitate them. I’m angry at everyone who ever abused them. I’m just angry.

Mostly I’m angry that whenever something like this happens, we, as a nation, view it as a “tragedy.” Whether it was Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Janice Joplin or any of the other countless stars who have lost their lives in some way connected to drug abuse — as though these are merely things that happen to a person and not because of their own actions.

These things aren’t tragedies; they’re the last of a long line of choices that culminate in death. And the way we react to such things robs those who abuse substances of a chance at experiencing the cold splash of reality.

So, my point here isn’t that we should grieve the possible loss of Odom; it’s that we should save our sorrow for those who lost Odom long before last night. We should lament for those who loved him and cared for him and urged him to get help and stuck with him until they couldn’t anymore.

I don’t mean to be calloused. I just had to become so because I’ve been through that kind of situation.

My call is to anyone who is in Odom’s situation. Whether it’s your wife, husband, parents, children, brother, sister, coach, teammate, friends or whomever — if someone’s told you to get help, there’s a good chance you need it. Do it.

And my message is simple: Don’t make those who love you grieve your loss while you’re still alive.

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