54 seconds

For 39 minutes last Tuesday night, Virginia played its worst basketball of the season. For 39 minutes, they played like the team that had lost four games to unranked opponents.

Those losses stung. Losses always do. But what I told my boys – and I’m fairly certain I meant it – is that losses are okay, good even, if you can learn something from them. If they show you what your weaknesses are so you can figure out how to correct them.

I’d like to say I was just talking about basketball but I wasn’t. We all lose. We lose friends, we lose business deals, we lose arguments.

We lose perspective.

And when that happens, it is all too tempting to throw up your hands and surrender to whatever karmic condemnation you feel besieged by. To let the loss define you.

As much as I thought I hadn’t let my father’s death define me, I realized last Tuesday – watching that game with weary resignation – that it had.

Two years ago, I would have watched that game with nary a doubt in my head that we would pull off a miracle. Two years ago, I would have believed. I have always been the girl who believed, no matter the odds, no matter how much it hurt.

An old friend once referred to it as innocence. There was no derision in his voice when he said it, just a slight trace of pity. As if I just didn’t know better. I worry that it will break your heart one day, he said.

And it did, though not in the way he expected. To be sure, my heart has gotten me into trouble. It has led me into questionable relationships. It has prompted questionable decisions. It has clouded my judgment.

But it wasn’t any of these things that broke my heart. It was a doctor who stood in a hospital corridor, looked in my eyes which were begging him to tell me the impossible, and said softly, There was nothing more we could do.

That does something to a person. It did something to me.

I am not talking about the obvious ways you would expect to be changed by the death of a parent or affected by witnessing a trauma instead of just hearing about it. No, I mean the way in which your psyche is fundamentally altered when you have spent the currency of every last hope, every prayer, and every last dream believing in a miracle that does not come. That is what it feels like to have your heart break.

It makes you feel like a fool.

And in the 18 months that followed, every subsequent loss, every disappointment, every failure, and every rebuff – no matter how small or insignificant – broke my heart over and over again.

Out of necessity, and perhaps self-preservation, my blind faith in the goodness of human nature became wary.  Hope became guarded.  Wild-eyed optimism was tempered by pragmatism and probabilities.

Those aren’t bad things. They just aren’t me.

For 39 minutes on Tuesday night, I watched my team continue to struggle. For 39 minutes I saw a team that didn’t remember who they were.

And as the clocked ticked down, I did not allow myself to believe. Believing, after all, is the ultimate vulnerability. With a minute to go, they were down by ten. With 20 seconds, they were down by 7. Statistically speaking, they had a zero percent chance of winning that game. Zero percent.

But a basketball game isn’t 39 minutes. It’s 40.

In the last 54 seconds, they scored 14 points – nine of which came in the last 18 seconds, including a three-pointer at the buzzer to win.

AP Photos/Chuck Burton
AP Photos/Chuck Burton

Call it talent, call it luck, call it destiny – it doesn’t matter.  Because something special happened in those 54 seconds. And not just on the court. They remembered who they were. And they reminded me that what I had become was not who I really am.

I am not a guarded pragmatist. I don’t care what the odds are.  I don’t care how much the fall hurts.  I am the silly fool who believes in the impossible.  I believe that love will always win.  I believe when it is hard and when it is painful.  I believe when common sense tells me not to. I believe because my heart knows nothing else.

When you love hard, you risk losing hard. But I would rather be the girl who believes in everything, even if it breaks my heart, than the girl who believes in nothing.

It took 54 seconds in a hospital corridor to make me afraid to believe in anything.

And 54 seconds last Tuesday to believe in everything again.


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  1. Love your honesty, good times and bad….I can picture exactly what you are talking about. Great Lucky Pants story!!!
    Maggie b…Katie’s mom.

  2. This is one of the best descriptions I can imagine for my own experience of losing my father suddenly and traumatically. He was the ultimate optimist in my life and always inspired me to be the same. Losing him and a series of subsequent heart breaking losses have left me a much more guarded person. While that self-defense-first mentality grew around me like scar tissue I still long for that feeling of innocence and optimism that directed my life before that first horrible loss. Not everyone will understand how you could balance a deep personal loss to a college sporting event, but I know exactly what you mean. My dad was always the Wahoo who said “all we need to do is xyz and we win it. During the Wake game I found myself thinking along those same lines that we just needed Malcolm to play like he did in the buzzer winner at Pitt 2 years ago. That voice of optimism always sees a way no matter how unlikely. Thank you for sharing your heartbreak and experiences. I’d almost forgot that used to be me too.

    1. Thank you Kyle. Every year at the beginning of football season, my dad would say “this is the year we’re going to run the tables!” He usually said it with a knowing smile, but still there was always the hope. I hope you still continue to connect to your father and the memories with him every time you watch a game. Thanks for reading!

  3. You haven’t had an Orange Pants post in awhile. So glad you’re back! I find myself going back to your essays again and again. Thank you for your very polished and highly readable posts. You have made me better appreciate the power of 54 seconds.