Talking sports with Wilt

The past month has been unlike any other. A six-day trip across the country; a new apartment; no job.

The worst part of it all has been my father-in-law’s impending death. That’s been the best part as well.

Not that watching a family member slowly die is a picnic, but that was our goal in making this cross-country move: to be closer to family. I’m glad that we can be there for him.

Wilton Avery, my wife’s father, is 85. He’s a simple man, he keeps to himself and loves to talk sports. He was born in the same southern New Hampshire house that he’ll die in.

In October, Wilton was found to have cancer in several parts of his body. He was given one to two months to live. As of this writing (Monday, Jan. 9) he is still breathing. He hasn’t eaten or moved from the couch since Friday. Yet somehow, his chest still goes up and down.

Since his diagnosis, he’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that he “wants to be in the grave.” When his home health care provider came by the house on Sunday morning and asked, “is there anything I can do for you?” Wilt replied, “I want to leave this world; is that possible?”

In time, Wilt.

Before he stopped eating, my wife and I shared duties in taking care of him. He was still weak and simple movements left him out of breath, but we could occasionally get him off the couch and into a wheelchair in order to eat and use the bathroom.

For much of the day, he didn’t say much. We’d sit with him just so he could have some company. In silence. We wanted him to rest and he’d had trouble sleeping because was constantly thirsty because of the oxygen tube near his nose. That led to frequent trips to the bathroom, which took an hour or more because of the routine of: sit up, rest for 10 minutes; get in wheelchair, rest for 10 minutes; wheel into the bathroom, rest for10 minutes; take his pants off, rest … you get the picture.

But once back on the couch, the silence would be halted when Wilton would suddenly blurt out a sports question. Totally out of the blue. The conversation was limited, but welcome.

“Who was the greatest goaltender of all time?”

His first query caught me off guard. Quickly, I had to think.

I thought about guys like Patrick Roy, who won three Stanley Cups, but he was one of those modern goalies who are outfitted like the Michelin Man: big pads, oversized sweater.

I always thought Ken Dryden was the best, so that was my answer. Wilt seemed to agree. Dryden played for the hated Habs. When I first became a Bruins fan at age 8 while living in Natick, Mass., the Montreal Canadiens were by far the best team during the 1970s. They won 60 games one year. 60! And none of them were shootout wins. None came in overtime.

And the Bruins could never beat them. At tie was considered a victory. They were loaded with Hall of Famers, Dryden included. He was a big guy, but his pads were tiny in comparison to what is worn today. He was the best I’d ever seen. Rogie Vachon was tough to beat as well, but not like Dryden was.

More silence.

Then …

“Who was the best boxer of all time?”

I loved watching Marvin Hagler when I was a kid, but I knew he wasn’t the best. The undefeated Rocky Marciano was, and that was my answer.

Wilton mentioned Jack Johnson, who was well before my time. Wilt, as many people called him, was still sharp, despite his failing health. He couldn’t remember recent events, like when he last took his medicine, but his long-term memory was still there. Johnson sounded like a good choice; someone I never would have come up with.

As time went on, Wilt narrowed his categories. He last one – before morphine took over his system – was classic; one I’ll never forget.

“Who was the best pitcher to come out of Cuba?”

Naturally, I thought about recent times. With the many defections from national teams, several Cubans have made their name in major league baseball.

My first thought was Orlando Hernandez, another rival of a Boston team. He pitched for the Yankees and his nickname was “El Duque.” When I mentioned that, Wilt mistook this for “El Tiante,” Luis Tiant, who pitched for the Red Sox in the ’70s.

Even if he didn’t get who I was talking about, the memory of Tiant’s unorthodox pitching motion made Wilt’s face light up. “I’d watch that guy pitch any time,” he said.

El Tiante was a joy to watch, indeed. But watching Wilt slowly die is not. He’s so weak that his voice is barely audible. I already miss our “conversations” about sports.

Wilt does little else but sleep and ask for water. But before this incapacitated state, he was always polite whenever I helped him. He had every right to be cranky or embarrassed (during toilet time), but when each duty was done, he was always there with a “thanks, Tim.”

I’ll always admire him for that graciousness. And when things get quiet, I’ll long for more sports talk.

Who was the greatest ….



2 Responses to “Talking sports with Wilt”

  1. 1 Joe Dumas
    January 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Yes, the quiet times between men are the most important. When you were born, I did the 2am feedings to give Mom a break. When you stirred, I warmed up the bottle. We sat in the recliner in the semi-darkness of quiet Buffalo nights. As you took in the nurishment, you stared at me with your big blue eyes and I looked back. We needent say anything. We had a wordless bond. There was no one else in our world but two guys with blue eyes and a lifetime to be together.


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