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WHY AREN’T WE SMILING?

 

I recently learned that an old friend has brain cancer. It hit me hard, in part because we’re the same age, but more so because it just seemed, well, so surreal. Now look, we’ve all been touched by cancer. We’ve all received bad news. We’ve all felt heartbreaks. After all, nobody gets out of this deal unscathed. So what makes this particular story so special? Let me try to explain.

 

I first met Adam when I was a sophomore in college. I was a 2-sport NCAA collegiate athlete, working very hard to study, to compete, to win, to succeed. In walks Adam, tall and sinewy, as handsome as Brad Pitt and athletic as Michael Jordan. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s really no exaggeration. Oh, and he could party like Gronkowski too. I mean, if ever there was someone born to be the ultimate alpha male, here he was. In the flesh. Only he wasn’t. Not really. He was so much more than that, so much less than that, so much better than that.

 

Adam was different. Women were in love with him. Guys worshipped him. Fraternities courted him. Only he didn’t care. In fact, he couldn’t have cared less, not about their adoration, their acceptance, that sense of belonging to the establishment that is so common to seek. Their validation meant nothing to him. It did nothing for him. I’d never seen anything like it.

 

Of course, he made friends. Only they didn’t look like Brad’s Pitt. And they weren’t great athletes either. But they were nice, I’ll tell you that. His friends were damn nice people. Every last one of them.  They enjoyed smoking pot, listening to music, philosophizing about life, and hanging out. They weren’t obsessed with summer internships or their grades or what graduate school they might attend. They were just kind and decent to the core. And, his otherworldly gifts notwithstanding, so was Adam. Right down to the very fabric of his being. One of those friends was his beautiful wife Erika, and I’ve only known the two of them to be together. Day after day. Year after year. Best friends then. Best friends now.

 

This was all new to me. I mean, here was this guy who was an all-world athlete, decorated in high school beyond measure, with matinee idol good looks—only he was here with us. With us. It reminded me of Ancient Greece, when the gods would come down from Mount Olympus to walk amongst the mortals. Even so, he was still the best tennis player our college had ever seen from the day he set foot on campus. He beat everyone in sight, all across the country. He was a perennial All-American. He won 75 matches and lost 4. Coasting. Putting friends first. Prioritizing relationships. Incredible.

 

I was his doubles partner, so I witnessed this relative invincibility firsthand, and I rode his coattails to be ranked in the top ten in the country. Only none of this mattered to Adam. Not really. Or, if it did matter, he never let it define him or give him a big ego. He never let his greatness change him. Not at the end of the day. And after matches, he’d be right back where he started, hanging out with his friends--laughing, loving, living.

 

Had he wanted, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Adam could have been a professional athlete and probably a great one. Perhaps in whatever sport he chose. He was that good. In fact, he was the best athlete (by a wide margin) that I ever played with or against in any sport. Now, I know there are some who might say that this was a waste of talent. And perhaps Adam himself might look back with some regrets. But for those of us who’ve had the good fortune to know Adam, to cross paths with him, to be friends with him, teammates, colleagues, students, his life’s work to put people ahead of posturing, to place life ahead of the limelight, friendship before deals, to understand the things that really matter, well, his presence in our lives has been a gift.

 

*****

 

Today, I live in Spain. It had been a long time since I’d spoken to Adam, despite some texts from time to time. Just after the start of his chemotherapy and radiation treatments and only weeks removed from brain surgery, I decided to call him to see how he was doing. I am not sure if I was being unselfish or selfish, but I wanted to hear his voice. No answer. Then, not less than a minute later, my phone rings. “Hello,” I say, and there is Adam singing Boots of Spanish Leather to me over the telephone, from, as Dylan wrote, “across the sea” after all these years.

 

In some ways, it was almost the same as that first moment I saw him. Larger than life, yet unaffected by it. Only now he was riddled with Stage 4 Glioblastoma, singing a Bob Dylan song to an old friend. Handsome as Brad Pitt. Athletic as MJ. Now brave as Lou Gehrig too.

 

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that out of all the superhuman qualities Adam possessed, being utterly human was still the most remarkable of them all. We talked for a long time. He sounded great. He sounded like Adam. Lively. Animated. Loud. Passionate about helping others. Ready for the fight. Although I understood his battle would take something special, I reminded him that few humans on earth were ll as superhuman as him. “Right now, I’ll take that,” he said.

 

Not long ago, I sent Adam a picture of us at the airport in the fall of 1994, getting set to leave for the Rolex National Tennis Championships in Oklahoma City. It’s one of only a few photos I have of us together.

 

“Oh my god! Are you serious?” he texted me back regarding this unearthed photo. “Why aren’t we smiling?”

 

That’s a good question. A damn good question. For every last one of us. Why aren’t we?

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