“Hero’’ is an overripe word in sports. Loose use has trampled its meaning, its precision, its special-ness. “The hero of the game’’ is an oxymoron. Lauren Hill was not a basketball-playing hero. She was a hero who happened to play basketball. The difference is enduring and profound.
“An angel taking flight is never cause for weeping.’’ I wrote that more than seven years ago, at the memorial service for a young woman who died when she was just 19 years old. I’d say Lauren Hill died too early, but I don’t know what that means.
What does “dying early’’ mean when the person who died inspired such life, and continues to do so? Lauren “left’’ here, in the physical sense. But if you believe in souls and eternity and the power of doing good, you must also believe Lauren Hill remains very much in our midst.
She’s there in her mother’s eyes, whenever Lisa Hill talks about the mission her daughter inspired. Lauren died of something horrible, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a type of incurable brain tumor that preys on children. She lived barely 17 months after doctors delivered the diagnosis. But oh, those months.
Lauren is there in the minds of all who hope, especially the parents of children who’ve just received the DIPG diagnosis. Those parents can be an example, too, a force of grace and possibility. They can experience all that was written and said about Lauren and the genuine emotion she inspired. They can talk to Lauren’s mother about Lauren. Lisa is available, she’s around. She’ll talk to you, even as it can make her unbearably sad. She has been where these families are going. “They have no fighting chance,’’ she said. And yet, Lauren’s story must be shared. No one turned death into life the way Lauren did.
“I knew there was an hourglass glued to the table,’’ Lisa Hill said last week. “I didn’t know when the sand would run out.’’
Seven years later, she is as I remembered her. Straightforward, candid, strong. A woman capable of holding together her family, even as her marriage ended and the house in which Lauren grew up was put up for sale.
Lisa has long-haul COVID-19. She needs oxygen at night. She held back grieving at first, filling her thoughts and days with the business of launching Lauren’s charity, Lauren’s Fight For Cure, and helping to publicize the national organization, The Cure Starts Now.
Eventually grief won, as grief must if we are to heal. Lisa meets her days now with a sadness that endures, but also with a healthy respect for life’s gifts. “(I) look at life differently from everybody else. People worry about trivial stuff. I used to. Not anymore.’’ People’s lives “are a blessing,’’ said Lisa, “and they don’t even realize it.’’
The notion of heroism came up. I told her I didn’t believe in sports heroes. I’ve never worshipped at that altar and very likely hadn’t applied the word to an athlete in 20 years. I asked Lisa what she thought. I asked her if Lauren were a hero.
“A hero for me is somebody who goes above and beyond with some sort of sacrifice, to save others,’’ she said. “You know what I mean? If you’re playing football, you’re playing football. You might be sacrificing your body for entertainment purposes, but is that heroic?’’
Lauren gave grace to the business of dying. She revived our collective compassion and elevated our communal goodwill. She made us consider our better natures. We thought about doing good.
On nights when she was too sick to leave her bed, she’d attend a fundraiser in her honor. On days when all she wanted was her home, her room, her dog and her family, she’d do media instead, often away from the house. She felt blessed by the opportunity she felt she’d been given.
Heroism is taking the unbearable burden and making it light.
“Her end of life was spent in the public eye. She sacrificed her time with friends and family to build awareness,’’ Lisa said. After the first story – a moving, eloquent TV feature done by former local sports and news anchor Brad Johansen – Lisa presented her daughter with two options.
“You can either go through the doorway and do that next interview,’’ Lisa told Lauren, “or you can say no. Either way is OK.’’
Lauren said yes, because that is what heroes do. Her story crescendo-ed in November 2014 when as a basketball player for Mount St. Joseph University she scored her team’s first basket, against Hiram College. Her life was honored five months later, in a memorial service on the hardwood at Cintas Center, where she’d scored that first, triumphal field goal.
“Lauren always said she wanted (DIPG) to have a face,’’ Lisa said. “Here in Cincinnati, it does.’’
Heightened awareness has led to higher sophistication in the science and more money with which to explore new treatment possibilities and potential cures. Life expectancy after diagnosis has inched upward, from 10 to 17 months to almost three years. Hope is the everlasting gift. Lauren embodied that. Still does. We’d expect nothing less from a hero.
Lisa Hill shoulders on, equally diminished and enriched. Lauren’s passing showed Lisa the love and kindness of which we are capable. “How compassionate Cincinnatians really are,’’ she said. But why did it take a child’s death to make that known?
“It breaks my heart every time another kiddo is diagnosed. In the future, maybe some family will have that extreme hopefulness that we did not have,’’ Lisa said.
April 13, 2015: At her memorial service, Lauren’s Mount St. Joe teammates passed her No. 22 jersey, hand to hand, until it rested atop her casket. I wrote this:
It’s not hard to Be Like Lauren. Just live with gratitude and humility, think first of others and be courageous in every waking moment. That’s part of her legacy, too. A huge part. Lauren stayed just long enough to show us what we’re capable of.
“Seven years,’’ Lisa said. Long, sad, lovely, beautiful. Life. “I think she’d be proud.’’
Amen and amen.