Sunday, March 17, 2013

Two Powerful Words that Speak to Us in Light of the Death of the Seton Hill Lacrosse Coach: I Understand

When I read the tragic results of a bus crash off the Pennsylvania Turnpike resulting in the death of Seton Hill women's lacrosse coach Kristina Quigley, I immediately thought of the words of Haley Scott DeMaria, who gave the commencement address at University of Notre Dame's 2012 graduation ceremony.   She said

As I stand before you today, we have many things in common. The list of those who have stood at this podium at past commencements is certainly impressive, and I am honored to be added to that list. However, there are two words I am able share with you that few before me can:  I understand. 
I understand what it is like to sit where you sit as graduates of the University of Notre Dame. 
I understand that while football weekends are awesome, it can be annoying to have the quads and the bookstore crowded with alumni - people like me, and soon you. 
I understand the fun and challenges of parietals, Du Lac and Pig Tostal. 
I understand what it is like to lose a classmate in a very tragic way. (Declan Sullivan was tragically killed when a film tower fell over during football practice).
As graduates, all Notre Dame alumni celebrate today with you. But the class of 2012 and my undergraduate class of 1995 share sadness as well. 
The loss of life at a young age is an emotional experience that will stay with you long after you leave Notre Dame. I understand. 
You will find, as you navigate through life, the words, "I understand," are very powerful when they are sincere and honest.   
Haley a varsity swimmer at Notre Dame survived the 1991 bus crash that killed two of her teammates.  She understands what Quigley's team is going through yesterday, today and in the weeks to come....and yet her understanding ...everyone's understanding is both similar and different.
Having coached the last 11 years at St. Ignatius I understand exactly where she was sitting, just behind the bus driver, who also died.  We coaches always sit in the front perch.  We are in dialogue with the driver (hoping they get the directions right!), completing paper work, overseeing our athletes from near and from afar.  I have always made a point to be first on the bus to greet the girls and the last off to say farewell.  I assess their individual temperatures--are they excited? nervous? energetic? exhausted? hungover? (never a fun one) wearing flip flops? (our nemesis), smiling? A "hi coach" and "thanks coach" is met by "Good job today" or "Great run, so proud of you." When I saw the photo of the crash, I immediately understood why she died.  

But I don't understand so many other dimensions of this tragedy.   I don't understand what it's like to be on a team that loses a coach in such a tragic way.  I can't comprehend how scared every athlete on board must have felt or what it might be like to live with survivor's guilt.  Truly, I hope God's grace reigns supreme.

Haley Scott DeMaria added "These words, 'I understand' carry the strongest meaning when someone has lived through a similar experience."  Many people know what it is like to lose a spouse; too many others know the tragedy of losing an unborn child.  Her husband will raise their six year old son, Gavin without her. This cross confounds me; thanks be to God that other people can say "I understand."  

Haley's own story is remarkable. Chronicled in "What Though the Odds," Haley recalls the accident that occurred by 30 miles from campus and left her paralyzed from the waist down.  Not only did she regain the use of her legs, she competed again.  She has worked though the pain and grief of her own injury, the loss of her two fellow teammates and how the tragedy has shaped who she is to offer a story of inspiration.  Nothing about her road to recovery physically or emotionally was easy.  To say those words "I understand" is often at a cost--one that no one would ever wish for.  

In my junior ethics course, I ask my students to respond to three prompts at the beginning of our Life Issues unit.
1.  Life is a gift.
2.  My life does not totally belong to just me.
3.  Out of great suffering can come great good.

Invariably, they speak to the truth in each statement.   
What this story reminds us of is a life lesson that never gets old--life is a gift.  Second, our lives have an impact on everyone--perhaps more than we will ever know.  In that way, it is so much larger than "just me." This was a known fact with Coach Quigley.  "She was a very happy person, very passionate about life, about her players, about her job and most importantly about her family," Lastly, I live in the hope that although no one can and should see it now, some good will come from this tragedy.  If anything, it may just be the reminder of those powerful words, "I understand."  When you can--use them. And when you can't, say a prayer for those who can.

Photo Credits
Bus Crash 
Haley Book 

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