Rest Peacefully, Sean Karl

Photo borrowed from Pray for Sean Karl Facebook group
Photo borrowed from Pray for Sean Karl Facebook group

Last night, as my husband and I were driving home from Athens after celebrating our daughter’s 23rd birthday, I received an email from Colette Lewis (ZooTennis) letting me know that a fellow tennis family was mourning the loss of their son. Sean Karl, oldest son of Laurie and Mike, big brother to Steven and Justin, friend and teammate to so many, lost his fight with Ewings Sarcoma yesterday afternoon.

It has to be a parent’s worst nightmare. To hear the words, “Your child has cancer.” I can’t even bear to imagine what that feels like. Even more awful must be the realization that there is nothing more doctors or medicine can do to fix it. That you will have to find a way to survive this unfathomable loss.

Those of you who have been with me for a while may remember reading about Sean’s diagnosis just over 2 years ago (click here). It sent shockwaves through our section. Players, parents, coaches, tournament directors, and others rallied to show support of Sean and his amazing family by wearing specially-designed patches and shoelaces and temporary tattoos. Sean had just committed to play at his dream school, the University of Tennessee, when he got the news of his illness. His future teammates immediately

Photo borrowed from Pray for Sean Karl Facebook group
Photo borrowed from Pray for Sean Karl Facebook group

embraced him and his family as they prepared to do battle against a very strong enemy.

And they did put up quite a fight. Laurie created a CaringBridge page to keep friends and family updated on Sean’s progress. She would write about the kindnesses they were receiving from their community, near and far. She would write about the days Sean felt good enough to bat around some tennis balls with his dad or brother. She would write about the group head-shaving when the treatment took its toll on Sean’s beautiful hair. From time to time, Sean’s other family members would write a guest post, sharing funny stories about him. It was evident that this was a young man surrounded by love.

Through it all, the Karls hung onto their strong faith. When I would see Laurie or Mike at a tournament, there was never ever any sign of sadness or fear. Only unrelenting strength and joy. I don’t know the family well, but I do know they are something special.

Photo courtesy of Bill Kallenberg
Photo courtesy of Bill Kallenberg

Last Spring, Sean’s Tennessee Vols made it to the Final 16 of the NCAA Championships in Athens. Sean was undergoing treatment, but he found a way to be at the individual competition doubles final where teammates Hunter Reese and Mikelis Libietis won a very hard-fought title. And Sean, dressed head to toe in orange, was cheering louder than anyone from the stands above Court 3. I was sitting on the other side of the court, but I could see him. The smile on his face illuminated the entire stadium. This was a young man who loved tennis, who loved his teammates, who loved his family, and who loved his life, whatever it threw at him.

As Laurie wrote in her latest CaringBridge entry: “Live your life to the fullest as God intended remembering his most important commandment ‘to love one another’”.

Sean, you will be greatly missed.

NOTE: I am waiting to hear the details of how the Karls would like to celebrate Sean’s life and will share them here for those who would like to participate. In the meantime, please join me in sending prayers, love, positive thoughts, and support to Laurie, Mike, and their boys.

NOTE POSTED 11/17/14 2:16PM: A Celebration of Sean’s life will be held on Thursday, November 20, from 4 to 6 pm at the University of Tennessee, Goodfriend Tennis Center in Knoxville, TN.  Additionally, there will be a Memorial Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Brentwood, TN on Saturday, November 22 from 2 to 3 pm with a reception to follow the service. Please wear UT orange to celebrate Sean’s happy place.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you consider donations to: http://youngambassadors.vicc.org or mail to:

VICCtory Over Cancer
Sean Karl
c/o Gift Processing
PMB 407727
2301 Vanderbilt Place
Nashville, TN 37240-7727

 

Community

The tennis community is truly something special.  If you haven’t experienced it yet, just wait . . . you will.  Whether it’s a coach inviting your child to join his academy’s warmup at a tournament or a parent offering a protein bar to your child when he forgot to pack one or a child comforting your child after a tough loss, the community is there and it’s there en force.

And, when a challenge or a tragedy strikes our tennis community, we rally.  We speak out.  We show up.  We stand together in support.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the support coming out for one of our top junior players, Sean Karl.  I wrote about Sean‘s recent diagnosis of Ewings Sarcoma a couple of weeks ago.  Since then, the Facebook group created by a group of his tennis friends has grown to over 1500 members posting daily words of support.  A couple of tennis parents joined forces to create a logo, merchandise, and website to raise money to help offset Sean’s medical expenses. Roger Federer posted a video on YouTube encouraging Sean to keep fighting.  Babolat sent Sean a racquet autographed by Rafael Nadal.  The tennis teams at several universities have written Sean’s initials on the backs of their shoes, showing their support for his battle.

And, this is only one example of our amazing community.  If you think it ends when your child is done with junior tennis, you’d be wrong!  A new-found adult tennis friend of mine lost his father suddenly to leukemia last week.  His local – and global – tennis community showed its support by sending emails, cards, phone calls, Facebook posts, and, most importantly, by coming to his father’s funeral.  One attendee called the funeral a “virtual who’s who” of local tennis coming out to pay their last respects.  They were all people that my friend had met through his years of playing and coaching tennis.  He is now an adult.  His tennis community is still there for him and will be probably forever.

Now I’m seeing my son create his own tennis community.  Thanks to the Maccabi Games, ITF, USTA, and summer tennis camps, his community extends around the world.  And thanks to Facebook and Twitter and FaceTime, my son and his community can stay in touch anytime, anywhere.  And, they do!  These kids are learning incredibly valuable lessons about friendship and healthy competition and what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself.

The amazing thing to me about this community is that you may lose track of it for a while – even a long while, as I did – but it will still be there when you want or need it.  After 30+ years away from my tennis community, I reconnected thanks to my son.  I have re-established friendships with my former tennis buddies whose kids are also now playing and traveling to tournaments.  We ask each other for help with warm-up courts, or local restaurants, or a place to stay.  We check in with each other to see how the latest tournament went.  We keep up with each other’s non-tennis lives, too, also thanks to Facebook and Twitter, and support each other when needed.

If you think tennis is just about what happens between the lines, think again.  The relationships your child – and YOU – is forging now will be there for years to come.  The tennis community is truly something special.

Hug Your Kids

In the past week, I have learned of two families dealing with devastating issues involving their teenage sons:  one a tennis family, the other a football family.  In both cases, the issue surfaced seemingly from nowhere to turn the families upside down and inside out.  The road to recovery will be long for both of them.  It will involve anger, frustration, perseverance, and, above all, belief.  My heart is breaking for both of them.

First the football story . . . At a prominent private school here in Atlanta, a 17-year-old member of the high school’s varsity football team was arrested and is being held without bail for sexually assaulting a classmate in the gym shower.  He is from a “good” family.  I have friends who are friends with his parents – they are just like the rest of us, doing the best job they can at this parenting thing.  Their son, in the company of some teammates, made a grave – GRAVE – error in judgement.  The victim is going to be okay physically, but may never recover emotionally.  According to our local newspaper, the charge against this young man is one of the more serious criminal offenses under Georgia law, one of the so-called “seven deadly sins” for which there is no parole unless the sentence is life.  A conviction carries a punishment of 25 years to life in prison.  In other words, if convicted – and even if NOT convicted – this young man’s life as he knows it is over.  This incident will follow him and his family the rest of their lives.

And the tennis story . . . In Tennessee, a 17-year-old 5-Star high school senior who had recently committed to play at the University of Tennessee next year was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  He had been complaining of back pain, and once it got too severe to tolerate, was admitted to the hospital for testing.  Sadly, the tests confirmed that he had cancer.  His first course of chemotherapy is underway and will last 29 weeks.  Thanks to the power of social media, his story has been shared and his family is receiving support from all over the world.  His mom reported that he got a signed autographed picture of Andy Roddick from Babolat that is hanging above his bed, reminding him of how important the “grind game” will be.  He is literally now fighting for his life.

I share these stories with you not because I’m trying to scare you but because sometimes we all need a reminder to hug our kids.  To appreciate them.  To shower them with love.  To support their goals and dreams.  To laugh with them.  To cry with them.  To tell them how much we love them.

Life is short.  Tragedy can strike at any time.  We have to savor our time with our children, giving them a foundation of strength.  Just.  In.  Case.

As the mother of the Tennessee boy shared on the family’s CaringBridge page, “Even though I have moaned and groaned over the years about the time, energy and $ we have spent on junior tennis, Sean will totally reap the rewards of this experience now.   He will have to have goals, overcome adversity, learn to be coached (the Dr.’s), be mentally strong, and fight his pants off…all the while staying positive.  So, I am now totally grateful of our tennis experience and wouldn’t change it for the world.  The life skills learned in junior tennis will prove to be invaluable.”

Please join me in sending prayers, healing thoughts, and positive energy to these two families.  Both are battling.  Both will continue to battle for quite some time.  There, but for the grace of God . . .

Please.  Don’t forget to hug your kids.