One Last Celtics Game With William

Each game, the conversation was always the same.

“How’s Boston doing this year?”

“Oh, not so great,” I’d always respond.

“That’s a shame” he’d always say.

By this point, he never actually remembered. I could have told him anything, but I didn’t. As I sat there in his den, dressed head to toe in my Kelly Green, William was at least four years, probably more, into a losing battle with dementia. Only in his early 70s, it was particularly cruel watching this once-bright man cut down when he still had so much left to give. It’s harder watching guys like him fight, because when your peak is a mountain top, the fall is so much farther.

William was a brilliant guy. My Stepfather-In-Law, he’d had an illustrious career in law, both inside the courts and out. Humble by nature, he’d be telling a story about “his buddy Ruth” and it wasn’t until halfway through that you realized “his buddy Ruth” was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. His stories were legendary in that way. So normal, and unassuming.

Whenever he found me in his den, he’d join me in watching the game, at least for a bit, but it was clear that the fast-paced nature of basketball made it hard for him to keep up. Still, his was a welcome presence. By this point he wouldn’t talk much, unlike even a year earlier when the clear signs of the nefarious disease that is dementia took his stories, always a bit rambling, routinely into the thicket, never to return. Now, those stories simply never began in the first place. Which was painfully obvious in social settings but made him a perfect companion to watch sports with. Occasionally he’d ask who a player was, or where they played college ball, but largely he simply sat, maybe enjoying the game, maybe unsure himself if he was enjoying it at all. Although he always made sure to ask the same question.

“How’s Boston doing this year?”

“Oh, not so good,” I’d always respond, this being the 2020- 2021 season.

“That’s a shame” he’d always say.

The last time I saw William, over Christmas of 2021, the William I knew was gone. He once again sat with me as I watched the Celtics lose to the Bucks. But his presence was only marginally there. Still, he had enough in him to ask the question one more time.

“How’s Boston doing this year?”

“Oh, not so good,” I said, which was true at the time.

“That’s a shame” he said.

It wasn’t our last conversation; my wife and I left town a few days later. But I’ll remember it as if it was. Because a few months later William finally reached the point where he needed around the clock care. Then came the nursing home and, as is too often the case, a swift, final decline. On Friday night, just before the Celtics hosted the Warriors at the Garden for Game 4 of the Finals, William passed away with his loving wife, my mother-in-law, and his loving stepdaughter, my wife, at his side.

When I heard the news it was heartbreaking, of course, but I didn’t mourn. If you’ve never lost a loved one to dementia, as I have before, trust me when I say it’s a different sort of death. You say goodbye in advance. Not in so many words; how do you say goodbye to a person who is still standing in front of you? But you say goodbye when you realize that they’ve reached a point in their mental decline that they are no longer truly that person you love, but more of a shell or a poorly produced clone. Like the maker tried their best but a lever was pulled at the wrong moment or a button mashed when it shouldn’t have been. So you say goodbye and every time you see them after it’s strange and a tad unsettling, not unlike seeing a ghost, one unaware of its haunting.

Yet, as I sat down to watch Game 4, dressed head to toe in my Kelly Green, I broke down in a way that surprised me. It snuck up on me and before I knew it I was a complete mess. I sobbed, sad I couldn’t give William the news he always wanted. Never for himself, of course, but for me. He wanted, more than anything, for the Celtics to be doing well simply for my pleasure. Just to see me smile.

So, as I watched the game, alone on the couch, tears in my eyes and staining the front of my Jayson Tatum City Edition jersey, I had our conversation one last time. Just for me. Just to give William the news he always wanted.

“How’s Boston doing this year?” he asked.

“Amazing! They’re in the finals William!” I said.

“Well isn’t that nice” he said.

And maybe, somewhere, he was watching.

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Jay Shifman

Jay Shifman

Vulnerable Storyteller ∞ Choose Your Struggle Podcast Host ∞ Stigma-Destroying Public Speaker https://jay.campsite.bio/