Jim Valvano and Michael B. Caffrey: Transformational Lives
On this, the tenth anniversary of my husband Michael B. Caffrey’s passing, I want to discuss something interesting I’ve recently watched. Something I hadn’t expected to have parallels with my husband’s life . . . but actually did.
For those who don’t know much about sports, you may not know much about Jim Valvano. He died in 1993 after a yearlong battle with bone cancer at the age of 47. But even though he’s been dead now for 21 years, Valvano’s shadow continues to linger — in a good way.
Valvano was a coach who believed very strongly in his players, in his team, and in dreams. (Yes, I said dreams.) He believed if you couldn’t dream something and believe it would happen, you couldn’t achieve it. And he actually had his team rehearse things like cutting down the basketball net (something done after winning a very important game, like a national championship), because he wanted them to know deep down to the bottom of their souls that they could do anything.
Valvano — affectionately known by his players as “Coach V” — lived a transformational life.
But what goes into making a transformational life, anyway? Was it the charisma, which is still evident in this speech (at the 1993 ESPY Awards, when Valvano was eight short weeks from death)? Was it the sheer tenacity of the man, who gave as his personal philosophy this phrase — “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” — as part of that same speech? Was it because Valvano was one of the best basketball coaches the East Coast ever produced?
It was all of that, but it was also something more. Jim Valvano made people believe they could do it. He was a positive, inspirational force of nature, with the outsized personality of a stand-up comedian but a heart as big as the Atlantic Ocean. And he made people believe in themselves — not just his 1983 Wolfpack team, but the many people who heard his motivational speeches, read his autobiography, and heard his final major speech at the ’93 ESPYs.
Having a talent like that is incredibly rare.
I’ve only known one person who had it in my entire life: my late husband, Michael. Though Michael was not an outsized personality — certainly not like Valvano, at any rate — he had a presence that was beyond anything I’ve ever known. A certainty, a positivity, and a belief that I could do anything I wanted no matter the obstacle. No matter how many times I might stumble. No matter how many times I might actually fall.
He believed I could do it. More than that: he believed I would do it.
Watching Survive and Advance was both inspirational and heartbreaking for two reasons. One, Valvano died at age 47; Michael died at 46. And two, there were so many things in there that “Coach V” said that reminded me of my husband . . . it’s hard to explain, because Michael’s manner was nothing like Jim Valvano at all.
But the message — the powerful, motivational message — was exactly the same.
The words that rang truest of all were these, again from Valvano’s ’93 ESPY speech:
“”Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
My husband did not have cancer. He instead died of several heart attacks in one day, without warning, to the point his ventricle failed him. But he once told me that no matter what happened to him — as he believed his own health wasn’t all that wonderful — he believed his heart, his mind, and his soul would endure. And he’d never stop loving me. He’d never stop caring about me. And he’d never, ever stop believing in me.
He told me that about a year before he died, when I was about to go in for a needed surgery that I was fearful of, and I have never forgotten it.
I know that Jimmy V’s life was lived in the public eye. Michael’s certainly wasn’t. Michael’s life didn’t touch nearly as many people — how could it?
But Michael is remembered by many. He helped many writers, including the late Ric Locke, with his editing. He helped many people believe they could indeed do exactly what they put their mind to doing . . . and that’s what makes a transformational life.
You come into contact with someone like that, and your whole life changes. It gets better, because you can do more. Even through the mourning, you can still do more. And you get up every day and you try your level best, because you want to be worthy of that belief.
My husband would be astonished that I’d mention him in this particular context, especially as he was also a sports fan. He’d probably see absolutely no parallels between himself and the famous “Coach V.”
But he’d be wrong.
It’s because Michael lived, and was with me, that I continue to do what I do. His loss was so painful that I continue to struggle with it, ten years later . . . but it’s because I knew him, was married to him, and got to see how he overcame his own obstacles that I have refused to give up.
If that’s not the epitome of what a transformational life is all about, I don’t know what is.
Note: If you want to read Michael’s writing — and I hope at least some of you do — please take a look at the two stories I’ve been able to put up as independent e-books over at Amazon: “A Dark and Stormy Night” and “Joey Maverick: On Westmount Station.” These are both stories of military science fiction, though the first is while Ensign Joey Maverick is on leave and participating in a “low-tech” sailing regatta (meaning approximately 20th Century tech) and the second is when newly-minted Lieutenant Maverick is about to ship out for the first time. In essence, the first story is a search-and-rescue story with some romance, and the second story is that of a young officer stopping an unexpected saboteur at a very early hour in a completely unexpected place.
A third story has been started (a bridge story, written by me with some details from Michael’s notes), and I’ve also written two stories in Michael’s universe from a different perspective entirely that are currently making the rounds (if all rounds end up exhausted, they, too, will end up as e-books).
So at least some of Michael’s words continue to live, which is what I vowed when Michael died suddenly. And if I have anything to say about it — if I get enough time on this Earth — all of them will.