It's been almost a year since "Five Questions" debut. Tori Dixon was kind enough to answer, and it went so well that most of her teammates have joined her along with some of my favorite volleyball players and coaches, one baseball manager, one former place kicker, one "anchorman" and a professional poker player. What a year it has been. That brings me to why this curiosity is so important to me.
These are difficult times. As many of you know, Ellen's battle with gastric cancer rages on. As I write this, Ellen is having her fourth port installed. We wait for answers and a chance at a clinical trial that has shown promise. We are so thankful to have sport as a most welcome distraction. I wonder how many athletes are aware of this service they provide to people like us?
"Five Questions" has been so uplifting during this time. The idea that I can quiz some of the top athletes in volleyball and some really interesting people outside of the game and have them answer me is truly uplifting. I cannot thank you all enough, and I hope that this can be something we can continue to build on, and I hope fans of volleyball around the world enjoy whatever this provides. For me, well it is the ultimate medicine for me, a welcome distraction from the craziness we are living.
I recently emailed all of the original "Five Question" participants for updates on where they are headed and what has them excited for the coming months. Here are their responses!
Tori Dixon-I will be in Shiga, Japan playing for Torray Arrows! Looking forward to exploring Japan more and good ramen noodles!
Cassidy Lichtman-I'm going to the Sichuan team in Chengdu, China. And I'm excited because I took Mandarin for a couple years in college so hopefully I'll get better at it. I don't have any friends who speak Chinese so I'm probably pretty rusty!
Deja McClendon-I’m currently playing for MKS Tauron Dawbrowa Gornicza in Poland, I’m excited to see the wonders of Krakow this season. It was something I missed out on last season and it is one of the places in Poland with the richest history and oldest treasures. I’m really excited to keep learning polish. I started teaching myself last year with the help of a polish teammate. At first I got a discouraged by how difficult the language was but I persevered and continued learning over the summer. This season I’ve really challenged myself to learn a new word everyday. It’s a great way to keep my brain active and helps a lot with getting to know my new teammates.
Christa Harmotto-Deitzen-I am headed to Fenerbace this fall which resides in Istanbul, Turkey. I am most excited to play with some of the top players in the world and compete against them in practice in hopes of competing for a Champions League Title.
Kristin Carpenter- I am currently the volunteer assistant for the University of Virginia (we play Pitt on Black Friday!!) and I'm loving it! We almost have an all Penn State staff which is crazy. It's really exciting (and quite stressful) being on the other side of things! It's weird not being the sweaty butt but instead the one who wipes up the sweatiness so I don't get my dress pants wet. I do not sit still well but I am having a blast. For the first time in 7 years I am only an hour away from my family. I finally got to be at a birthday party for my nephew....it's been awesome. It is weird going to a grocery store and no matter if it's seasonal or not, every fruit and vegetable is available. It's weird being able to speak the language here in Charlottesville. I miss the overseas life, but I'm trying this out for now :) Who knows where it'll take me!
Kayla Banwarth-As of now I don't have a contract. So i'm planning on staying in California and training here.
Kim Hill-This fall I will be heading to Istanbul, Turkey to play for Vakifbank. I'm looking forward to trying a lot of new fun restaurants!
Nicole Davis-(recently retired! Congrats on a great career!) Been grinding through interviews, and hope to have something locked in by the end of the month on the job front, but don't want to jinx anything before it's signed, sealed and delivered!
Courtney Thompson- I will be headed to a team in Rio De Janeiro Brazil named Rexona. It's always been a dream of mine to get to play in Brazil for a season. I love the style of play down there and also how passionate the fans are... and I am really looking forward to playing for Bernadhino. He was a great setter, and has trained some of the best setters in the world- and to get to train with him for a full season is something I'm incredibly excited and thankful for. It will certainly be a fun environment to compete in, and as an athlete there isn't much better than that!
Tama Miyashiro-I should've been heading back to my German team but I got injured right before World Cup so won't be leaving any time soon.
Karch Kiraly-What are we up to? We finished 3rd in World Cup earlier this month, one position short of earning a berth for Rio. This means our work for this season continues, and we plan to use the extra time together - both in training, and in competition - to make us better over the next 11 months. We depart for our Zone Championships later this week, after having wrapped up our pre-tournament training block today. Our zone is called NORCECA, which stands for North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and the NORCECA Championships will be in Mexico next week. Since the top 4 finishers from next week earn their way on to the NORCECA Olympic Qualifier in January, you could call it a qualifier to a qualifier. The work continues, as always - to improve, to fall short, to grow.
Finally, we're super fired up for our Men's Team, winning World Cup for the first time in 30 years, and earning their berth to Rio in the process - what a phenomenal win, portent of things to come.
If you remember Matt's responses to our original "Five Questions" interview, I'm sure like me you noticed our favorite poker pro has a penchant for the written word. Where Matt was at this time was no secret to me. Matt is a Leechburg graduate who spent his formative years in the gym on Sunday afternoons playing in the wildly popular LHS intramural volleyball league run by, you guessed it, Ellen Toy.
I knew Matt had a tender, albeit difficult story to tell. I wanted him to tell it here, so you could come to know what a great guy "Berkey" is, and maybe shatter whatever notions you might have about the character of the people in his line of work. In his words...
What are you up to, where are you heading? Tell me what’s next…
Such a simple request; a short follow up to a previous interview I did with Jam The Gym blogger, and friend, Tim Toy. Headphones blasting, I began the process hoping for a seamless transition from thoughts to paper. Within minutes I came to a screeching halt. I’ve been on autopilot for going on 9 weeks, my ability to articulate reflective thoughts in a coherent manner has escaped me.
Upon revisiting what’s being asked of me, I recognize I can dance around the proverbial elephant in the room and assume that the political answer of, “I’m taking a sabbatical, handling some family affairs from the comfort of my childhood home ” will suffice. Cowering behind vague commentary may prove to be a shiny distraction to the outside world, but no matter how pretty I paint the portrait, the image remains the same. Strip away false hope and the faint whispering tone used when speaking of those character defining moments in life, and what I’m left with is the task at hand. My Grandmother needs me; I’m home to ensure she passes peacefully and comfortably in her own home.
Unfortunately peace and comfort are wishes not guarantees. The only certainty in death is that it is certain, which shockingly absorbs a bit of the blow. Dying, however, elicits fear from the most hidden depths of my soul. I thought I understood the unforgiving nature of dying when my Pap faded into a morphine induced coma to ensure a “peaceful” passing just before I could make it home from college to say my goodbyes. But looking back, he protected me; keeping me away, at school ignorantly believing he was going to be fine; sheltered from the day to day struggle that comes with dying. We as a society romanticize dying, using words like quick, painless, peacefully, comfortably...I guess as a crutch, or means to avoid confronting our own mortality. My Grandmother, though, wasn’t one to mince words. She’s a tough, beautiful woman who made it her life’s work to mold me into the man I am today. I don’t doubt for a second that this is her final lesson for me: Absolute, unconditional love.
There’s very little that can elicit an emotional response from me. It’s literally my job to remain stoic in times of high stress, a far cry from the small town kid who wore his heart on his sleeve.
My defaults have reconfigured. Happiness translates into gratitude, kindness and generosity. Sadness and anger morph into empathy and understanding. This is the process of the logical mind: taking basic emotions and transforming them into more sophisticated versions that will be useful when problem solving. Still, we all have unguarded moments. Those experiences where life quietly creeps up and sucker punches you in the heart. We search for rhyme and reason to satiate our rational side but, in the absence of answers, we instead defer to those child-like feelings of elation, rage and sorrow.
Throughout this whole process there have been those moments of helplessness, times where I nearly broke down over how little I could do to ease her agony. I’m certain there will be many more. I wouldn’t dare be so selfish as to show my frustrations. She deserves nothing less than a gentle hand and warm smile. In turn she rewards me by making poop jokes when I’m elbow deep and mistakenly calling me by my Pap’s name from time to time; the highest praise and utmost acknowledgment that I’m doing a good job. He was a special man who gave new meaning to selflessness.
For the most part I’ve kept my guard high and tight while on the lookout for life creeping up in my blind spot. True to its nature, life doesn't fight fair and I was coldcocked not once, but twice by Natalie Merchant, a poor man’s Alanis Morissette; the irony is nauseating.
The first blow, of this surprise 1-2 combo, came on an especially tough night. Gram had recently been bed ridden and we were in the process of changing home care companies so I was left to figure it out on the fly. After spending the better part of my day cleaning my Grandmother all while trying to keep both of our dignities in tact, I got a text from someone very near and dear to me saying, “This will always be your song (Kind & Generous)." It hit hard in that “getting choked up but you’re not entirely sure why” kinda way; similar to when Tom Hanks loses Wilson in Castaway. In the moment the full meaning may be hidden, but subconsciously it resonates.
The knockout blow came while making my first attempt to write this blog. In an attempt to reign my scattered thoughts into focus I switched to a ‘90’s playlist. By chance or intelligent design, Kind & Generous was set as the background track to narrate my reflective thought process. A flood of early childhood memories washed over me. Moment after moment flashing by like a slideshow, each defined by the love and generosity that embodied my grandparents. The lyrics etched out perfect silhouettes of what genuinely thoughtful, giving individuals should resemble. My mind drew in the details, painting a flawless portrait of this exuberant, once healthy couple who sacrificed any semblance of their golden years to ensure their family flourished. I know the pedestals I’ve placed my grandparents on are comprised of flaws and imperfections. But isn’t it so often, that the most human traits are what draw us to our leaders? To think someone saw any semblance of their reflection in how I carry myself humbled me to tears.
Overwhelmed with gratitude and respect for these incredible saints I’m blessed enough to call Pap and Gram, I dropped everything and went to my Grandma’s bedside. She was fast asleep, as she had been for most of the past month. Yet I couldn’t help but hold her hand and quietly thank her for being such a selfless, impactful part of my life.
What began as a simple Q&A has transformed a piece with a life all it’s own. I’ve added and omitted so many details that by the time I finally had a finished product I felt good about, everything had changed. Gram took a serious turn last night(Oct. 1st). The prognosis was bowel blockage. Between the morphine and inability to eat or drink she was looking a week or two of round the clock pain meds and comatose-like state. This is dying. This is the real life, no bullshit version of passing peacefully. This what I swore I would do everything in my power to prevent. My grandmother deserved the grace and dignity in which she carried herself when juggling being the caring mother of a struggling addict, the grandmother and great grandmother of the children she welcomed into her home to raise as her own. She deserved the elegance displayed by her impeccable taste in fashion, only sweetened by the 20% saved by shopping the sales. She deserved better. Better than I or any of us could provide. I just hope my pleas don’t fall on deaf ears...
I know we haven’t spoken in awhile, life sometimes gets in the way. Know that you do cross my mind in a multitude of ways. Relationships can be difficult; too often we fall victim to out of sight out of mind. But I’m here now…
My grandmother is an angel of yours which you’ve been gracious enough to bless us with for just a little too long. You see she seems to have lost her way and has worn out her welcome in the body provided. Please, take her back. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the extra time you’ve given us together, but I’ve made promises; promises I can’t keep on my own. I know I’m in no position to be asking for favors and this is suppose to be the part where I face my own mortality while offering up empty promises of halfhearted worship in the future. I have no desire to be disingenuous. I’m simply asking for you to take care of one of your own, as I am no longer capable. Thank you for hearing me out, I’m sorry we had to reconnect under these circumstances. Please give my love to my Grandfather. Talk again soon…
If you want to keep up with Matt you can find him on twitter @berkey11 or check out the rest of his blog at http://thevoicewithin.me .
Here is hoping this is the your best year ever Berkey. You surely have an angel looking out for you now, but you always did. RIP Gramma.
Special Thanks to everyone who participated in this anniversary edition of "Five Questions". Best of luck and safe travels to all of you. Play hard, we'll be watching!