’m at brunch with my mom and my auntie in Chicago, sitting in a large booth in one of my favorite breakfast spots in the city. It’s the morning after my team —the Sky — had just gotten swept in the 2014 WNBA finals by the Phoenix Mercury. Diana Taurasi had gone off in Game 3 for 24 points because that’s what GOATs do when a ring is on the line.
They kill you.
We’re laughing about it, and I’m telling my mom about my upcoming season overseas. I talk to my mom every day, but when I’m playing I don’t get to see her that often. I’m leaving for Brazil in a couple of weeks, and she’s going back home to North Carolina.
We finish eating and we’re waiting for the check. There’s always that quiet moment in conversation that happens right after you say, “Check please.” It’s happening now. My auntie leans in a little toward me.
“There’s something we need to tell you,” she says. “It’s your father.”
You know those long dirt roads in the South? The kind you read about. Or sometimes see in a movie where someone’s looking to leave a town that has only one stoplight? And maybe a couple of convenience stores and a dive bar?
That’s the kind of place I’m from. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. We lived on a long dirt road where everyone was related. Literally. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins lived on the same road.
It was country. We had more stop signs than we did stoplights. It was one of those places where the word fixin’ could be used in almost any context:
You about to do something? Fixin’ to. You repairing something that’s broke? Fixin’ it. You making supper? With all the fixin’s.
My cousins and I always spent time outside riding four-wheelers, dirt bikes, go-karts. The entire neighborhood (aka my family) would come over to my house and we’d play hours of basketball on the hoop in our driveway. It would be me, my brother, my sister and all my cousins.
Sometimes, I was the tagalong. My brother was six years older than me, and my sister was three years older. If they didn’t want to have to keep track of me, they’d close the screen door to our house and lock me in. One of my earliest memories is crying in front of that sliding screen door.
A cousin of mine owned this place in town we all called “The Shop.” It was basically a pool hall where locals would go to hang, maybe play some cards — always a little smoky, with one fluorescent lamp, with some beer logo like Budweiser or Bud Light on the shade, hanging super low over the pool table. My dad — Greg Young — went there with his friends all the time when he wasn’t with us. Man, he was the life of the party. He’d be at the Shop at all hours — on his free days, late at night. He was a gambler and a charmer, and everyone loved being around him.
He was so fresh. My dad wore jeans with creases every single day, unless he was chillin’. He’d set up the ironing board and get out the spray starch. He’d pull his jeans over the board and, pchit-pchit — spray and crease. Pchit, spray and crease again. He wanted to be well-put-together, you know? Creased jeans, collared shirts, belts. Maybe some hard bottoms.
He was always fly — even if he was balling. I remember watching him play pickup at the MLK Center in Wilmington. My dad was the only one out there in cream-colored Chuck Taylor hightops.
I was such a daddy’s girl.
On Saturdays, he’d take me to a place called the Race Track to watch race cars. I was maybe seven or eight, and he’d always stop by a convenience store on the way to buy me some juice and candy. While we were driving, we’d listen to old-school music like Marvin Gaye, one of his favorites. Imagine it: Speeding along an open road, windows down, and then “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” comes on.
Go ahead. Hit play. I’ll wait:
We’d spend the whole day at the track — just me and him and a few of his buddies. He’d throw some money down on a handful of bets. It was money we couldn’t afford to lose but I was too young to know that. I just wanted to be with him.
Since before I was born, my family had struggled with money. When my mom found out she was pregnant with me, she and my dad weren’t sure they could afford another child. My dad’s gambling had already cost them a lot. He had other problems I didn’t know about: drinking, drugs. They tried to hide their issues from us kids. But finally, after 13 years of marriage, my mom decided that she’d had enough and they separated.
I didn’t understand that. I just thought we were all moving into a new home. It was smaller — we went from a house to an apartment. I didn’t realize that my dad wasn’t coming with us.
“Where’s Daddy?” I’d ask my mom. “Why isn’t Daddy coming home?”
She tried to explain as best as she could, but I was only in elementary school. I didn’t understand. I only knew when he was there and when he wasn’t. There were a lot of times over the years where he would promise to come see me and then wouldn’t show up.
When I got older, I’d confront him. I started to resent him, you know? “You said you was coming to get me. Why don’t you come when you say you will?”
“Things happen.” he’d say. “I’ll get you next time.”
He was always trying to make up for something. I remember he’d show up to the apartment, pick me up and take me sneaker shopping. My mom wasn’t really into paying hundreds for some Jordans — she was working two jobs just to support our family. But my dad would make some cash (I never asked how) and buy me some kicks. I remember my first basketball shoes: the black-and-white Taxi Jordans. I got the black shoelaces with the white set. You know the pair:
He’d always show up to my basketball games. I can still hear him now — screaming at the refs, screaming at the coach … screaming at me.
“Ty, shoot the ball! You gotta be more aggressive!”
“Daddy, calm down!”
Still, all of his problems eventually got in the way of our relationship. He made and lost money. He’d disappear for a while and come back around. He’d lie about where he’d been in order to hide certain things from me. That was the cycle. I understand now that he loved me enough to lie to me — he didn’t want me to be disappointed by the truth — but in the end, I was disappointed anyway, you know? Until eventually, I was the one who started to disappear.
He’d reach out to my brother.
“You know Daddy’s trying to reach you,” my brother would tell me. “Call Daddy back.”
I was so stubborn sometimes, especially in college. I was resentful. He’d try to reach me and I’d ignore him. But I was doing my own thing and going through changes myself. I’d dip in and out of his life the way he had mine. I wish I could say there was one thing or one moment that made me decide to reenter his life, but that’s not really how things work. It just sort of happened. I’d been drafted into the WNBA, and I’d figured my own self out. The resentment kind of fell away with time. When he’d hit me up, I’d respond. And I started to reach out to him, too.
I was still a daddy’s girl.
“Your father is sick,” my auntie says. “He’s not doing well.”
I look at my mom, who’s sitting next to me in the booth. She’s crying. My auntie says something about cancer. Stage IV. Pancreatic, I think. What is that? My aunt is a cancer survivor herself. Breast cancer.
“We didn’t want to tell you during the playoffs. He doesn’t have long to live.” My mom hugs me and I can feel her crying into my shoulder. I cry, too.
I called my dad in the car after we left the restaurant. I don’t know why people try to “be strong” in moments like this, but that’s what I was doing. I waited until after I stopped crying before I called him. He answered, and I think maybe he was doing the same thing — being strong.
“Daddy, are you okay?” I asked him. “Are you sick?”
He was so … nonchalant about it. “Oh, baby, I’ll be fine. I’mma be O.K. Don’t you worry about me.”
And I was thinking to myself, You’re dying.
I didn’t know anything about pancreatic cancer. I’d actually never heard of it before. When you hear “cancer,” the first thing you do is Google things like, What is pancreatic cancer? Causes of pancreatic cancer. How long does someone live with pancreatic cancer?
I typed everything into that little white box, searching for any information I could find. In a way, we do that to reconcile ourselves with reality, right? To say, This is what happened, this is why it happened, this is what’s going to happen and when it will happen. Cancer is so … big. I was looking to make it smaller — to find some sort of a roadmap for what was to come.
I was hit with endless results — facts, numbers, percentages.
“Stage IV pancreatic cancer has a 5-year survival rate of 1%.”
“No cure but treatment options.”
“Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer death.”
Man, I read a lot about death. It’s one thing to think about death generally, but to know specifically that it’s coming … to think about my dad in that context … to think about how he must feel….
Google can’t teach you how to grieve that.
I only saw my dad twice before he died. Right after that breakfast in Chicago that September I flew home to North Carolina. He was so skinny. Before cancer he wasn’t exactly a small man, mind you. He had muscles, but overall he was thick. That’s what I expected to see. But it was like half of his body had disappeared. He still had his hair — he’d just started treatment, so it was early — but he was a shell of himself.
I went to Brazil to play for a couple of months and I talked to him almost every day while I was gone. He never once complained or let on that he was ill. I’d call and ask him how he was, first thing.
“I’m good,” he’d say. “I’m happy to hear from you. How are you?”
I remember a moment or two when he would mention the pain that he was feeling, but he’d brush it off like a weather report. “Oh, I got some medicine I’mma take, so I’ll be fine.”Cancer is so … big. I was looking to make it smaller — to find some sort of a roadmap for what was to come.
It was so casual he could’ve just as easily been saying, “Looks like it’s gonna rain today but you know it always clears up at night.”
I was shocked when I saw him at Christmas. He had never let on how bad it was. I walked into his house, and there he was — so tiny. His hair and eyebrows had fallen out. I had to hold my breath to keep myself from crying. I’d only been gone two months and he was already so … sick. He’d had to live this every day, too, you know? See that reflected back in the mirror. Cancer is cruel for so many reasons, but for that one especially. It’s impossible not to see it — not to wear it — every single day.
It was at that moment that I knew just how sick he was.
That Christmas was the last time I saw my dad.
I went back to Brazil to finish my season, and I continued to talk to him every day. He’d find moments to let me know how serious his condition was without complaining. I got a call from him before one of my games in January. I answered the phone and he was crying. It was the first time I’d heard him cry since his mother’s funeral in 1995.
“Baby, I just want to let you know how much I love you. I just want to let you know how proud I am of you. You’re my superstar. I want you to continue to play ball — play as hard as you can, as best as you can. I’m so proud of you.”
I felt just how far away I was in that moment, and how helpless I was to change anything for him. He’d always told me he was proud of me, but this time it felt different. It felt more like a message for the future — one he wouldn’t be around for.
My dad always signed his texts with “Dad.” That’s the ultimate dad move, isn’t it? Like, It’s coming from your phone number and I just texted you. I know it’s you, Dad.
I still have all of his texts. They were usually short. The Wi-Fi in Brazil was spotty sometimes, so we’d text instead of call each other.
I’d send him a message: “Daddy, I love and miss you.”
“Miss you, too.”
I’d text back: “Do you love me too?”
“Love you more. Dad.”
I sent him one in March 2015. “Hi Daddy, how are you feeling?”
He texted back: “Still here today.”
Me: “You’re gonna be here, Daddy.”
Our messages were my direct line into how he was doing. I wasn’t there to experience his cancer — I don’t actually know what the treatments were like or what his days were like other than what he would say or write to me. I knew by that message — “still here today” — that he was dying. His tone had changed. He’d gone from I’mma be fine to acknowledging, in his own way, that maybe he wouldn’t “be here” anymore.
The last thing he texted me was on April 2. He wrote:
“OK, love you too. Dad.”
I reached out to him a couple of days later, but his girlfriend, Val, texted me back, saying he was asleep and that she’d have him text me back.
He never did. He wasn’t up to it.
I spoke with him briefly on the phone that same night. Val told me that he was trying his hardest to sit up to talk to me. He was in a lot of pain, and I knew he didn’t like talking on the phone when he felt bad, so I kept it short. I just kept telling him how much I loved him, how much I missed him. I don’t know why I kept repeating those things but I did.
He died the next morning.
As a kid, you never think about having to speak at your parents’ funerals. Even through my dad’s illness, I’d never thought about it. I had thought about him dying, but I had never thought about his death. There’s a difference.
I read a poem in front of everyone. I’m pretty shy, and speaking in front of people isn’t exactly something I’m comfortable doing, so my step-dad stood beside me for support. The rest of the funeral I listened to everyone talk about how good and charming my dad was.
Was. Past tense. You don’t get used to that.
You know when I feel his loss the most? When I look at my phone. He always hit me right when I needed to hear from him. Maybe it was a message just to say he loved me. Or a call to say he was checking on me. I have all those old messages so it’s almost like he’s still here. Like I could open that text chain right now and say hi. He’d see it and get back to me.
I have a video of him that I watch sometimes. It’s a FaceTime with him from when I was in Brazil. My sister was at his house when I called, and she recorded the video. You can see how sick he is. He tells me his legs are hurting real bad but that maybe he’ll go ride his bike. He’s acting like everything is okay. I watch that video just to hear his voice.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this story right now. Maybe it’s because September is coming — the WNBA playoffs are about to start — and I can’t help but think of him this time of year. It’s when he was diagnosed. Or maybe it’s because, even though his illness was only six months of my life, I still feel it every single day. Even literally — I have a tattoo in memory of him. It’s designed after my favorite photo of the two of us.
Tattoos are just really deep scars. His loss is a scar that will be with me the rest of my life.
I had a dream recently. I was riding with my dad in his car the way we used to when we were going to the Race Track. We got to his house, and all of our family was there — my uncles, aunts, cousins. All of his friends. My dad was cooking while everyone hung out in the yard and the street, on that long dirt road.
If this were a movie, you’d hear Marvin Gaye in the background.
Go ahead. Hit play. I’ll wait.