Time and time again, Carolyn has proven—thirty years beyond the death of her spouse, through a stroke, day in and day out after the onset of dementia, right up to last evening—that now no matter how many times the disease shaves off another thin slice of her mind, all it succeeds in doing is to expose another vein of precious ore that it might shimmer in the light.
I have followed the Chicago Bulls since Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, Bob Love, Tom Boerwinkle, and Norm “Stormin’ Norman” Van Lier were starters in the early seventies. I have seen the Bulls put together many entertaining teams, yet the team has never been more charming than in this 2021-2022 NBA season. We’ve had characters and “greats” but never a team so inspired by love.
With this team, the shop-worn metaphor of chemistry catalyzes into magic. The players do not always succeed in hiding the joy and delight that wells up inside them from the chance to exercise and display their God-given talents, believing in the brotherhood of their team, and seizing on the potential for love in what—as former Bull player and current Bull announcer, Stacey King, routinely asserts on air—is “a simple game”. It seems like when they’re out on the floor they’re always smiling.
Carolyn played ball in high school and college. She coached ball in her first years of teaching in Scales Mound, Illinois, after graduating across the Big River in Dubuque.
At ninety-two, Carolyn enjoys watching the sport not a little but a lot, almost too much. Her eyesight is preternaturally acute. To this day, I believe, she could count the veins on a dragonfly’s wing. I imagine it makes it extra tiresome to see things that keenly. And people who know my mother, knows she does not get half-way involved in anything.
Earlier this year, DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls’ leading scorer, treated Carolyn, me, and other fans to two back-to-back buzzer beaters where he won both games in dramatic fashion in the closing seconds. Two of them! Each behind the three-point arc! Fully engaging in the drama from tipoff to dramatic or disappointing finale, as Carolyn does, no matter how old you are, is going to wear you down. That she has the stamina and is even eager to watch—after four high scoring quarters, half-time, and 1,400 Geico commercials—the post-game show amazes me. Sure, the analysts, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue, have stepped up their game but, they could walk on balls while juggling bowling pins, it’s still a post-game show. I don’t get it. Maybe Carolyn needs it as a diver needs a hyperbaric chamber to decompress and stave off the bends.
And this happens regularly even after her sons and her caregivers cruelly, surreptitiously like cowardly thieves switched the grounds used to brew her late-night cup from regular to decaffeinated.
Last night I dialed to ask her permission to visit and watch the game. Usually, I don’t dial. I just drop in, often bringing soup from Panera or rice and fish from home. I take my laundry with me and then I attempt to inveigle Carolyn into watching a game.
“Inveigle” is mom’s word, not mine. The word amuses or charms her in some way that I don’t completely understand though I have observed its effect on her many times. It is perfectly apt for my purpose. To say, “Mom, can I inveigle you into watching a Bulls game with me?” is the quickest way to “yes” or “sure that would be fine”.
Most doting mothers, I imagine, don’t need inducement or any inveigling. Whatever the reason when I called, I didn’t resort to using the mantra word, inveigle. Maybe I thought unleashing it between mother and son was dirty pool, in violation of the Geneva Convention, or merely a sad example of unsportsmanlike conduct.
I asked her meekly instead “if it would be alright to come over and watch the game”.
“Oh, son, it cheers my heart to hear your voice and receive your call. Nothing in the world makes me happier to be with you and my other son, Jim. And I’ll look forward to hearing from you again tomorrow when you call,” she said.
“Yes, mom. I love you too,” I said.
“Oh, how I love you!” she said.
“Good night, mom,” I said.
“Bye,” she said cheerfully on a rising Southern note.
That’s how Carolyn Poplett blows off her son. She’s been doing it for decades.