Surprise endings

Life is full of reminders that none of us makes it out of this world alive. As depressing as that thought might be, it’s balanced by the love and inspiration of the people around us as we travel along our separate paths to that inevitable end. This past week I experienced two unexpected losses, both of whom inspired me in different ways.

The first sudden passing was the mother of a childhood friend. Our paths rarely crossed except for the odd carpool to swim practice or occasional sleepover, where she’d spend most of the night baking brownies to sate our voracious appetites. I never saw Mrs. Lynch after middle school, yet as so often happens in our memories of youth, she assumed an outsized role as a model of motherhood. Her obvious love for her kids and doting attentiveness to their friends was always on display. To this day, my love of traditional Irish music can be traced to her singing along with the Clancy Brothers records she’d play upstairs whenever we’d play games in the basement.

The second was the shocking news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash last Sunday. I’d just turned on the NFL Pro Bowl coverage so I’d have a little white noise in the background while settling down to work. Kobe had been in the news for the last few days as a result of LeBron James passing him for number three on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, so it took a while for the news to finally interrupt my thoughts. I was surprised at how saddened I was.

The deaths seemed to come at either end of a spectrum. Mrs. Lynch’s passing was the natural culmination of a beautiful life well lived, an exit orchestrated only after many fruitful years as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Kobe’s was a candle snuffed out all too soon, just as it was burning brightest in the next stage of his journey. He was traveling to coach in a basketball game for his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also perished in the crash.

In life, I couldn’t have viewed these two people more differently. Mrs. Lynch was the wonderful mom, a woman my siblings and I would constantly reference when we discussed our earliest memories. Kobe was the bane of my basketball existence, part of the dreaded duo who, along with Shaquille O’Neal, dominated the NBA for years. Both were larger-than-life figures who featured prominently in my formative years.

In the same way my fond memories of Mrs. Lynch became burnished with time, I came to respect Kobe’s work ethic once he could no longer terrorize my beloved Knicks. I began to appreciate the way he handled himself, the way he looked for more efficient ways to accomplish even the simplest tasks. I admired his ability to articulate his ambitions with such clarity, especially as his post-basketball work centered more around philanthropy. These were lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn until I stumbled across them in interviews.

I didn’t truly know much about either of them, of course. They were planets in my orbit for a short time, and where I didn’t know their story, I filled in as best I could. I don’t know much about Mrs. Lynch beyond what I’d seen through a child’s eyes, but I felt pretty comfortable in the parts of her story I’ve had to fill in. Kobe, on the other hand, is more complicated.

The accusation of sexual assault in 2003 muddied his reputation and made him guarded when talking of his personal life. His otherworldly athletic gifts, along with his work ethic and unrelenting will to win, serve as his legacy. It did make me smile as an adult to see him bringing Gianna across the country to all those UConn women’s basketball games. It showed he’d turned a corner in his life and transitioned into a doting dad and family man. It was the ultimate rebound.

It’s funny how two people who had seemingly so little to do with me ended up helping form me as a person. We’re surrounded by these accidental role models, and their passing doesn’t rob of us all we’ve learned along the way. Instead, it’s an opportunity to thank them, however distant, for making our journey a little easier. Godspeed, Mrs. Lynch and Kobe Bryant. And thank you.

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