Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: Good Riddance...But.....

When you've had a life altering experience and try to cherish each day given to you since that point, it's hard, very hard, to adopt an attitude about wanting a particular chunk of time to quickly pass.

But one year ago tonight, I suddenly realized that the quicker 2016 passed, the better.

You know me as a Christian, and as a second generation ordained minister. You also know, if you've known me for any length of time, not to be one of those "believers" that talk constantly about how God spoke to them about which shoes to put on this morning or whether to get five or seven pumps off coffee in their morning Starbucks. When I use the term, "God spoke to me", I mean it. It's rare, but it happens.

And it happened sometime around 9:30 or 10pm last New Year's Eve, 2015, while enjoying the evening with Bonnie, Rachel, Aunt Tammy, Cora Jane and Tamera (yes, the only other males around with me were Harry J. and Cody). I'll never forget sitting in the great room with everyone when, all of a sudden, a pall of sorts came over me and the words God placed in my heart were, "get ready, it's going to be a tough year."

I didn't share this information with anyone, since the mood was light and the hour was late.

The next morning, I awoke to a phone call from my daughter at the hotel where my sister-in-law and grand-niece were staying. Rachel's words when I answered were:

"Dad, Aunt Tammy fell in the pool room, please hurry. They've called for the ambulance."

My immediate thought was, "Here we go, and (sarcastically) Happy New Year."

Tammy ended up with surgery, immobilization and tons of physical therapy, all while looking for employment. And that was just the beginning.

Bonnie and I trudged through the January 22/23 blizzard, trying to keep a small area open for the dogs to go outside and do their duty. Neither wanted to, nor could I blame them.

Rachel got deathly ill at Longwood in early February, went to the on campus "medical facility", was told she "had a cold" and "we couldn't see you until tomorrow", all while the doctor on call sat in his or her office. I kid you not.

Two hours later, I'm in Farmville picking her up, taking her home and to Patient First where they filled her up with medications to stop what was happening (you don't want details) and she stayed home for four days. As I prepared to return her to Longwood, you guessed it, Bonnie got the illness. Worse than Rachel did. So much so, Harry and I retreated to live in Rachel's room to stay away from my wife who moaned in the fetal position. That's how bad she felt.

Then Robbie lost his full-time job of three years in March and began a long odyssey of unemployment filings, job searching, job finding, only to find a serious lack of hours, or support, before he finally got back on his feet a couple of months ago. A first year of marriage shouldn't be that tough.

Rachel made it through freshman year, returned for her sophomore year, thankful for the best roommate in the world, but dealing with her own set of real issues regarding life on campus all while trying, and succeeding, in making Dean's List in Fall Semester. I'm so proud.  :)

Don't get me wrong, 2016 has had its ups. Rachel's academic success, Robbie and Tamera surviving, traditionally, the toughest year of marriage, the first, and Bonnie, late in the year, receiving a promotion to work in the Mortgage Department at her workplace, and she's very excited about it, though there are hundreds of customers at her branch that are literally in mourning that she is leaving. A longer drive, but more opportunity as she looks ahead to, hopefully, the final years of her career.

As for me? I, too, have had my ups and downs. When you're a heart attack survivor, every chest pain incident brings on the inevitable worries. A stress test in May showed good news, but my A1C is up, so I launch a plan of attack on that New Year's Day.

And then there are those unspoken events of your year, things good, but in 2016 more so bad, that happen that I don't list here simply because it is incredibly unwise to air all of your issues on social media. It may provide five minutes of relief from your anxiety, but will likely be followed by months and months of negative ramifications.

So, I won't bore you with the other crosses that were carried here at the Casa de Witham this year. Suffice it to say it's been enough that when we start counting down 10, 9, 8, 7 later tonight, it will be with an extra zest and zeal, and with a prayer that 2017 will be not an "easier" year, but maybe a "better" year in that the stresses are a bit fewer, and maybe not so complicated.

I think back to all the famous people we lost in 2016, and it has been an unusual year for that, but I think part of it is my generation, as we all hit "The Big 5-0", started to see more and more of our childhood idols say goodbye. When you are younger, and Presidents pass that served 20 years before your birth, you are not connected to it, though it's a major event.

But when the soundtrack of high school starts to die off (Prince, Glenn Frey, David Bowie and now George Michael), then it seems that 2016 was unusually cruel. Mrs. Brady left us, Princess Leia, then her mother the very next day, Mr. Seaver from Growing Pains, even Willy Wonka. Add in the instant era of social media and its good, and bad, interactions, and things mushroom.

For us, we saw our cat Cody, move away to live with Robbie's long-time best friend, and he's having a ball. His sister, Zoe, has come out of her shell being the only cat in town here, and we've seen parts of her personality hidden for eleven years.

Bonnie lost her best friend after she was missing for a few days after a hospital visit, and then found. We buried her on a cloudy day in April, returned to our car after the graveside service only to learn of Prince's death on Twitter.

Not many days later, I returned to the same cemetery with what seemed like half of Mechanicsville after the senseless tragedy that took Lee-Davis senior Dylan Ballard and his friend, a Lee-Davis grad away from us after an automobile accident. The scene at Lee-Davis a week later when Atlee came to play three sports, and the support shown by rivals who share the same community was heartwarming and the first step to healing.

A dear long-time friend and former employee suddenly watched her husband go to be with God before Christmas, while another dear long-time friend and former colleague walked a similar heart path as I did, and I'm happy to say he's going to be okay.

But it's gotten to the point where I'm scared to open social media for fear of bad news. Let's hope it's all just temporary and 2017 will seem more normal.

I have hope that 2017 will rectify the messes that were cascaded upon us by 2016, that we can get a fresh start, a good, but realistic, perspective, which includes a reminder that the same God who, for reasons only known to Him, gave me that warning a year ago tonight, is the God who still has everything in control.

I don't care who occupies the White House. I know who is on the Great White Throne. :)

In a last word, 2016 could not be discussed without all the opportunities I have had to meet even more incredible people, from student-athletes in high school and colleges to their families and teammates. As of this morning, I've heard the National Anthem played at live sporting events 200 times in 2016 (down from 210 in 2015). I've watched a son mourn his mom while scoring the touchdown that won his team a state championship, watched neighbors play for a spot in a state championship, with one team on fire and the other bitterly disappointed, saw a great lacrosse team have their championship hopes literally trickle away in overtime, saw an overlooked college football team prove everyone wrong and produce their best season in 32 years.

I met a young lady who won the Deaf World Cup of Women's Soccer for Team USA this summer in Italy, and a young man who didn't let cerebral palsy keep him from playing for Atlee football, all the while challenging his mind as, daily, his body challenges him.

I've seen ways to improve how our company, The RVA Sports Network, uses social media and our coverage tools in a more positive way, how to better focus on the really important issues, how to be fair to every student-athlete who works their tail off daily to get better while staying up with their studies, and how students who aren't athletes should be celebrated as well. I've seen how competitors (and yes, there is fierce competition in covering high school sports in this area, if you can believe it) have opted to cover things, looked at my plans, and altered them so that, hopefully, we do the best job in the area of spotlighting what really matters.

And what really matters is that all student-athletes are treated equally, whether they get 50 scholarship offers or never plan to play a sport in college, that a math whiz who gets a scholarship to UVA should be just as applauded as having the top women's basketball recruit hail from our area. That there's more to life than sports, to let teenagers know that they need to, in the back of their minds, have a plan for life after sports, and that, in this year where so many groups claimed things about how "lives matter", mostly to hide behind the slogan for their own political or ideological gain, the truth, I believe, that outshines it all is this.

Every life matters.

I'll leave 2016 with this thought. When the Monacan girls basketball team won their second straight state championship in March behind the top recruit in the nation, Megan Walker, who has now signed with Connecticut, the biggest cheer from the Monacan Maniacs student section didn't go to her. Instead, late in the game, it went to a reserve, Brittany Gordon, who rarely played, got into the game, and scored a basket late in the contest. It would be Gordon's last moments on a court like that. She wouldn't go on to play in college. But she can now cherish those cheers, and that moment, every time she opens her jewelry drawer or case, and sees her championship ring.

She busted her butt in practice, too. No one made a video of her. Throngs of TV cameras never approached her. She didn't see her name on Twitter often. But she sacrificed just as much for the success of that team in its championship run.

In 2017, I want to bring a focus to more of the Brittany Gordons, the people who complete teams. They may not fill box scores, but they bring intangibles that, without them, would leave teams different, and probably not as successful.

Everyone has a story. My aim is to find more of them. And, as we do that, maybe we'll also bring a better understanding of each other to one another, and 2017 won't be quite as divisive as 2016.

For you, from all of the Withams, prayers for you to survive your unspoken challenges, prayers for good health, for necessities provided, and, most importantly, for the peace that passes all understanding to guard your hearts and minds.

Happy New Year!  :)

--Rob Witham

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