Shortly after my Monday post (“Aston Villa at West Brom: Derby Day”) went live, I got a phone call from my dad in Montana, telling me that my sweet, 99-year-old grandmother Laura had died. I was at work, so I shut down my computer and went home, needing some time with my thoughts, not wanting to put on a false front for my coworkers when I was feeling so glum.

My grandmother, Laura Graff, circa 1932 or 1933
My grandmother, Laura Graff, circa 1932 or 1933.

The death of someone nearly a century old can’t really be called unexpected, and yet it can take you by surprise. Just the day before I had spoken at length with my dad, both of us agreeing that, as much as neither of us wanted to hasten it, death might be a mercy. She had lost her husband, Dave, more than a year earlier. And though she soldiered on physically despite many health setbacks of her own, in recent weeks and months she had lost first her memory, then her words, and, finally, her ever-present smile. As she became less and less the woman we knew and remembered, it felt as though her spirit was taking a long, slow leave from her body.

Just a few days earlier, my dad had called me and held up the phone to her ear so I could tell her I loved her. I said some other things besides, telling her how much I missed her, how I hoped I would see her again soon. She seemed to perk up a bit, he said, but if she wanted to tell me something in return, I never heard it.

Laura was, simply, one of the sweetest, kindest, most patient people I have ever known. Though her minister husband struggled to reconcile his rigid beliefs with her grandsons’ teenage rebellion, she took it all in stride, overlooking earrings, long hair, and a band named Damning Flaw—she even came to several shows. She loved unconditionally and, because of that, we loved her back unconditionally.

Unexpectedly finding myself at home on a Monday afternoon, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I am a highly scheduled person, always busy, becoming too unaccustomed to free time. I needed something to do. So, with my wife’s parents coming the next day, I cleaned the bathroom. Not much of a tribute (Laura was, for all her wonders, a poor cook and an even worse housekeeper), but I needed something to keep me occupied. I was still processing the news, starting to grieve but unable to give in.

Then it occurred to me, instead of watching the derby that evening, or that night, I could watch the derby live—a thought I shook off at first. Watching a game at a time like this? Someone I loved very much had died, and I was already thinking about soccer?

But, I countered, if sports don’t exist to distract us, to let us defer our cares and worries—to even, at times, postpone thoughts of mortality—why do they exist?

Maybe it was a cheap rationalization, but I turned on the game. I watched as, in the third and eleventh minutes, Shane Long gave the Baggies a two-goal lead. The first goal, despite the abrupt injury it dealt us, was so magnificent it was hard to even hate it. Then again, I was numb. And I think I would have been equally numb had Benteke done the scoring for us.

I think that, in my mind, once I committed to watching the game, despite a feeling of embarrassment at doing so, I was already writing this post in my head, basing my narrative on a Villa win, with a conclusion about how something as meaningless as a soccer game can have meaning, can be a balm to a chafed soul, or some other cliched excuse for insight.

And, down two-nil at halftime, when I was darkly convinced that we would lose, I thought about how misplaced such grandiosity was, how the fan’s attempt to bargain with or draw meaning from results makes a mockery of our hopes. In the end, a team of highly paid professionals will perform as well as they can, or as poorly as they are wont to, and our psychic investment pays a dividend or a loss with the same hard illogic of the real-life stock market. I felt worse than I had before I turned on the game: disappointed in myself for watching, foolish for hoping, and the garden-variety fan’s misery at watching his team lose.

Of course, I didn’t turn off the TV. I stayed on the couch as the early-winter Chicago sky grew darker outside my windows.

The team didn’t look much better after the half. They’d had chances early on, with the free-shooting Tonev even putting one on target, but Bacuna’s careless ball to gift the second goal seemed to have shell-shocked the team. It seemed possible Villa might sneak a goal, but even more likely that West Brom would add a third. But then, with a half hour left to play, Lambert readied his substitutions—Gabby, Andi, and Delph—and I felt it. Hope.

And El Ahmadi, frequent subject of my frustration, scored a goal. And Westwood chose the perfect moment to score his first ever for Villa. And I thought we might win, and I was urging them on, these highly paid athletes who don’t know I exist, with every molecule of my being.

And the game ended a draw, which, after the way the game started, felt like a victory. I can’t imagine any Baggies fans were happy with a point.

And the game was over, and my euphoria faded, and I realized that I had spent forty-five minutes without missing Laura. That didn’t worry me—I’ll never forget her, and I’ll always miss her. It was darker still outside, and my gloom returned. But the game was a consolation, a welcome distraction. Watching it didn’t offer any deep life lessons, but it was enough.

I turned off the set and went back to cleaning.

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