Trevor met his Mimi, but he doesn’t remember her.
He was four when she passed away, suddenly, from a routine surgery gone wrong. It was 18 years ago, in the winter of 2005.
Pops had taken his wife of 39 years in for outpatient surgery on her knee, to scope a tear in her meniscus. A procedure that was common even then, so neither thought much about it.
Donna, or Mimi as her new generation of grandchildren called her, was the life of the party. Spunky enough to still wear heels, feisty enough to drink an old fashioned, but connected enough to go deep in conversation in seconds.
In fact, it was her active lifestyle that led to her hurt knee. She met a few friends every Tuesday and Thursday for tennis, not so quietly wanting to win every match. And the rest of the week, she walked four miles a day with anyone who would join her. Or better yet for her soul, by herself many days.
Donna and Jim were as big of staples in their little community as the corn rows and cotton fields were. Never missing a church potluck, a school board meeting, or the Christmas giving tree outreach for the foster homes in rural West Tennessee.
So, when Donna died in the operating room that cold afternoon, it sent shockwaves through that small Tennessee town and through Jim’s soul.
It’s still a mystery whether it was malpractice, the Lord’s timing, or a tricky combination of all of it, but a blood clot formed in Donna’s lower leg in the middle of the procedure, and before the staff could get emergency protocols in place, it was too late.
Donna was dead.
Leaving behind Jim, their four boys, and five grandchildren, including four-year-old Trevor.
Jim did what Jim always did.
He stepped into the gaps of loneliness, grief, and the million fuck you sessions his angry sons directed towards God.
The only scene Trevor recalls from that time of his life was at Donna’s funeral.
Men, dressed in black suits, sobbing. Well, all of them except Pops.
Pops was strong, stoic, and supportive. Gripping his sons with the same hug Trevor has experienced as a grown man himself, the one that is so strong that it feels like the ribs are splitting from the marrow.
For months, years even, Pops showed little emotion, other than the support of his family. But, as grief and guilt always does, it caught up to him.
When he least expected it.
In the fall of 2022, 18 years and a few months after Donna’s death, late in November, Pops attended a high school basketball game. He put on his nice boots, his Oakland High School sweater, and his it’s-gonna-be-alright face.
As he raised his sons by himself all those years, three of whom played basketball at the school, that gym became a place of solace and serenity for him. A place to be in the moment, escape his pain, and see some familiar friends.
Jim and Donna’s youngest son, Dave, was the starting point guard on the 1993 team. The last Oakland team to win the state championship. Dave went on to walk on at Middle Tennessee State University, but didn’t make the team.
A 5’10” sharp shooter, with a basketball IQ through the roof, and a knack for getting other people buckets, he thought he’d have a shot. But the brains, brawn, and ballers in that Division One circle were too much for him.
Instead he got an Engineering degree, a way-above-his-head wife, and a surprise baby a year after graduation.
Dave’s son, Trevor.
In the middle of the second quarter, that unseasonably warm November Thursday night, stuffed inside that sweaty gym, the hometown PA announcer came on during a timeout…
“Titans fans, be sure to stay in your seats during halftime, we have a surprise for you, and a special celebration. Don’t leave your seats.”
Jim didn’t think much of it, as he was neck deep in discussions about Oakland’s shot selection and defensive effort with his bleacher neighbor. The Titans, the preseason conference favorite, were struggling to get in rhythm, and according to Jim and his buddy, their “want-to” was lacking.
Jim, a mild-mannered man, finally had enough.
“Get on the floor,” he half-screamed, half-coached from the 5th row after the Titans big man watched a ball bounce in front of him, only to see the opponent initiate a transition layup from the opportunity.
He could feel the spidery vein in his left temple bulge and pulse.
He muttered under his breath, “Lazy sons of bitches.”
In a matter of minutes, the halftime buzzer sounded, and the Titans jogged to their dated, but familiar, locker room. They were down six, to a team they expected to thump.
Jim shuffled in his seat, digging his phone out of his pocket, and took a glance.
He had a Facebook notification, and a couple text messages. He opened up the text from Trevor first.
“Pops, we still on for coffee in the am?”
Jim, with his massive text size on his iPhone was responding with his usual thumbs up and heart emoji combo when he heard the PA announcer begin…
“Titans fans, please turn your attention to halfcourt where Principal Ann Ryan has a special announcement.”
Ann, the heavyset, curly-haired leader of Oakland High stood in front of the possession arrow at halfcourt. She was always dressed to the nines, her southern roots wouldn’t allow it to be any other way.
She gripped the cordless microphone and tapped it a few times before speaking.
“Good evening, fans and supporters of Oakland High School. Thanks for being here tonight. As Titans, we pride ourselves on three core values. Character. Excellence. And Community,” she said.
The few hundred in attendance were respectful with their attention.
“We have a special guest in attendance this evening, and I’d like to ask him to join me at halfcourt,” she continued. “Jim Barnes, class of 1962, and a central figure in this community, please come forward. And while he does, everyone, please join me in giving Jim a huge round of applause.”
Every adult in the building, except for the visiting fans, knew of Jim at least, if they didn’t know him directly. And they immediately rose to their feet and began cheering for him.
Jim, still in mid-text, was surprised. Stunned even.
He put his phone back in his pocket, ran his fingers through his salt and pepper hair quickly, and slid out of the row, down the few stairs, and across the gym to Principal Ryan.
As he extended his warm right hand towards Principal Ryan, one pant leg was stuck on the top of his nice boots. It was the only thing that looked at all disheveled about Jim.
But, for over a decade, disheveled was the only word that could describe Jim’s state of being in the world.
Principal Ryan began her remarks.
“As a community, we’ve all witnessed the tragedy and triumph of this man’s journey, and tonight, we’re announcing the formation of the new Oakland High Legacy Scholarship, to be named after Jim Barnes. Jim, the honor is mine, and the floor is yours.”
As Principal Ryan handed over the microphone to Jim, his always steady hands began shaking. And then trembling.
Gripping the microphone with his right hand, he then embraced it with his left as well, hoping it would calm his body, and mask his inner experience to a now captivated crowd.
There were five minutes and 32 seconds left on the halftime clock, his subtle glance informed him.
“I don’t know where to begin,” Jim said.
He took a visible, deep breath.
“What an unexpected, and undeserved honor. When the love of my life passed away in 2004,” he continued, his voice moving from unsteady to quivering to sobbing.
Principal Ryan moved near him, and embraced his back with her left hand, his head now bowed directly into the microphone, shoulders visibly shuddering no matter the seat in the gym.
4:03 was the time on the clock.
He took a long breath. And slowly lowered his left hand, raised his eyes, and stared directly into each soul in the gym.
“When I disgraced my family’s name, when the darkness that was in me was dragged into the blinding light, when I was at rock bottom, it was only there where I found the deep and strong foundation of many of you in this room.”
3:17 on the clock.
The Oakland players ran from the corner of the gym, after exiting their locker room, and jogged towards the ball rack to get their second half prep shots up.
They quickly stopped. Realizing the energy in the room was serious.
“Out of my deep sorrow in losing Donna, came even deeper regret and shame, but I’m proud to stand before you today after the healing work of repair, forgiveness, and healing that has taken place in me.”
His voice steadied and grew stronger.
“Your embrace of me these last 18 years, hell, the last 61 years since I last walked these halls, and your acceptance of me, will never be able to be repaid. From the depths of my soul, thank you. May this work live on in the future generations through this generous scholarship.”
1:52 on the clock.
Not a dry eye in the building, or a soul left unmoved.
“Go Titans,” Jim said as he embraced Principal Ryan with that marrow-rattling hug of his, and as both teams began their second-half warmup routine.