Sports reporter Kate Fagan gravitates toward emotionally wrenching stories of victory and defeat. Her 2017 book “What Made Maddy Run” explored the life and death of Maddy Holleran, an elite college runner who secretly suffered from a sense of never being good enough. Her new book, “All the Colors Came Out” is more personal, as Fagan grapples with her own feelings of inadequacy. Here Fagan, a former ESPN columnist and commentator, and the author of the coming-out memoir “The Reappearing Act,” opens up about the burdens and rewards of caring for her father as he deteriorated from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Cover courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

The traditional image of a caregiver, Fagan writes, is someone – usually a woman – “tenderly spooning soup into a loved one’s mouth.” Fagan offers a more realistic portrait of the grueling daily grind – and emotional toll – that comes with the undertaking. Fagan – who quit her demanding on-air job and left her wife and their dogs back in Charleston, S.C., to be with her father in Upstate New York – is honest about the satisfactions of the role as well as “the solitude and sadness and resentment, the sleepless nights leading to zombie days, the endless administrative work, the pressure and fatigue, the loosening grip on reality.”

As Fagan cares for her father, she reflects on the lessons he taught her on the basketball court (they both played professionally – he in Europe, she in the National Women’s Basketball League): “Don’t tell them you’re great. Show them;” “Value your teammates;” “Keep your sneakers in the trunk” (so you’re always available for a pickup game). Their shared athleticism makes her father’s physical deterioration all the more poignant. Before, he was strong, sweaty, capable; after, unable even to raise his hand.

Fagan had always seen her father as her “own personal superhero,” sometimes difficult but more often inspiring and affectionate. Before her father was diagnosed with ALS, Fagan confesses, “My life to that point hadn’t involved many hard moments.” Her childhood, she chirps, “was awesome. My sister and I had no complaints.” As her father is dying, it’s time for a reckoning with a relationship that had weakened over time – a situation for which Fagan blames herself.

Thinking of Harry Chapin’s 1974 hit song “Cat’s in the Cradle” – the weepy song about a father who raises a son who’s just like him, too busy to throw the ball around – she sees herself as “the antagonist in a paradoxical version.” Her father had always been there for her, but as an adult she’d deployed her “very busy life” as an excuse for avoiding get-togethers. She’s tormented by the belief that she’s let him down over the years – by not showing enough enthusiasm for their shared sport, by coming out to her mother and not to him, and by choosing a college across the country when he wanted her to stay close. She agonizes: “We were meant to be more. Why weren’t we more?” Even when she drops everything to be by his side, she wonders: “How much of what I was doing was for me, so I could feel like, and be seen as, a good kid, and how much was solely for him?”

The book’s title, which comes from the U2 song “Beautiful Day”: “And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth / After the flood all the colors came out,” hints at Fagan’s occasional proclivity for the mawkish. More often, though there is a refreshing frankness: “Not everyone facing death, in the midst of dying, is devoid of anger and self-pity; if we believe they should be,” she writes, that’s “because that’s what we’ve read in books and seen in movies.” She admits she thought her father “should be like Buddha, or Morrie Schwartz from Tuesdays With Morrie, or any number of stoic philosophers who embrace their final days with a pure heart, conviction of the world’s oneness flowing from their lips.” Her father, on the other hand was more of a realist, who “despised it when people used words such as ‘journey’ to describe dealing with ALS – i.e., ‘Every ALS patient handles their journey differently’ – and upon hearing or reading the term, his face would twist into disgust. He’d say, ‘Well, if I’m on a “journey,” what exactly is my destination?’ ” Even more than their time together on the basketball court, these moments of dark humor are when he and Fagan seem most alike.

Their greatest conflict comes at the end of his life. Terrified of dying, Fagan’s father insists on being kept alive by any means, even as the effort strains those around him. In the most powerful scene in the book, Fagan begs her father to go into hospice. Instead, he opts for a surgery that might extend his life by years – as Fagan, ever the statistician, notes, at a quality of life about 1% of his full strength and at the cost of decreasing his wife’s quality of life 90% and his daughters’ 50% each. Guiltily, Fagan comes to a heartbreaking conclusion: “To restore the quality of our lives, my dad’s needed to end.”

Fagan ultimately finds meaning in the stickier moments of her time with her father. After all, she wonders, what shape would all the beautiful moments of a life have without “the fights outside CVS”? That kind of openness is a welcome antidote to all the soft-focus “journey” narratives. Fagan has done a remarkable service to her father by telling the story of his life with such generosity and to her fellow caregivers by candidly describing the circumstances under which that life came to an end.


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