TL;DR: This is a story that’s a little about sports, and a lot about love and loss.
I grew up in the heart of college basketball country – Chapel Hill, North Carolina – and my first full-time journalism gig was in the heart of NASCAR country, at The Charlotte Observer.
I made the two-hour drive home to see my mom when I could, and we talked on the phone almost every day. In May 2014, I told her my group of friends was looking at cheap seats for the upcoming Coca-Cola 600 in nearby Concord.
I listed off the attendees – mostly my sports section coworkers, all under 28 and diehard fans.
“You can come if you want,” I threw out there as an afterthought.
“I’d love to!” Susan said, to my huge surprise.
She loved playing and watching tennis (the day I was born, she announced that I would be a tennis player, and reminded me of this frequently, even though I hung up my racket in elementary school) but was lukewarm on all other sports. She generally preferred to stay indoors. She tried to get into hockey with me, but was notorious for shouting “defense!” when our team was on the power play.
My mom had been to one NASCAR race, and the misfire had become part of the family lore. She and my dad had somehow scored incredible seats, the kind you have to know someone to get. She spent the entire time, according to him, reading People magazines. Never once looked at the track.
So I made sure she knew what she was committing to. This was the longest Cup series race of the season, I told her – four or five hours, at least. We plan on tailgating first. It will be hot and dusty, and you’ll wind up coated in some sort of black muck. Very loud, and just to be clear, it’s mostly men (and one woman!) driving around in circles with maybe a few wrecks to break up the monotony. But the last time we’d gone, there wasn’t a single crash.
She still wanted to come. I braced myself. Calculated how much a cab ride back to my apartment would cost, just in case. I expected the ultimate fish-out-of-water story.
Jimmie Johnson won the race, but Susan Kennedy was the star of that evening. She crafted a red, white and blue outfit. She packed our coolers and prepared delicious chicken salad sandwiches.
We taught her how to play cornhole and can jam (a yard game involving Frisbees and cut-up trash cans) and she and I won her first-ever game of each in long and dramatic fashion. We broke down our victories for years to come.
If she wanted to leave, she never said so. She asked intelligent questions. She laughed to tears when my inebriated 6-foot-5 friend had to carry my far-more-inebriated 5-4 friend like a baby back to the car. That night will go down as one of my favorite memories.
My funny, nurturing, big-hearted mother died unexpectedly two weeks ago at 63. Royal weddings, Sunday’s Coke 600, daily life – it all just goes on without her. There’s this giant hole in the world that most people don’t even know is there, but I can’t see anything else. We’ll never see Jimmie Johnson win another race. We’ll never defend our cornhole winning streak.
Everything feels so wrong. I keep picking up the phone to call her, which is brutal, but I’m more scared of a time when that doesn’t happen anymore.
She loved Colorado Springs, and was in the process of moving here. Her favorite places were Edelweiss, The Golden Bee, and Stratton Open Space, and she tried to convince me to “borrow” striped towels from Cheyenne Mountain Resort so we could try and use their very nice pool for free. That seemed very out of character for someone who usually played by the rules, but then again, I never would have pegged her for a NASCAR fan either. She always kept you guessing.
I wrote her obituary and her eulogy last week, but those were for everyone else. This one’s for me. Susan Kennedy, you were a treasure. I’ll love you and miss you, always. I hope they have cornhole in heaven.