Fairfield's Sam Kramer: Dad's 'love pushes me forward'

Fairfield point guard Sam Kramer says her father was the happiest person in her life. Basketball and her teammates helped the junior cope after he died the day after Christmas. Carlisle Stockton

Editor's note: Sam Kramer is a junior on the Fairfield women's basketball team, which opens play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament on Thursday as the ninth seed. In this essay, she shares for the first time how she has coped since her father's death, how her teammates became her sisters and how basketball has helped balance the grief.

The smell of latex gloves overpowered our cheer.

Last Christmas, my family and I weren't sure what to do. We put out ornaments, turned down the carols, half-heartedly baked cookies.

We spent most of it in the hospital, watching over my father.

We donned light-up Christmas necklaces and sweaters, brought coffee and donuts for nurses and doctors, but the echo of my father's heart monitor was a metronomic reminder of place.

I'm a junior point guard on Fairfield University's women's basketball team. My season had started six weeks earlier, and I was as far from the court as possible, emotionally and physically.

Dad had been confined to a hospital bed for months. In August, he'd complained of a lingering back ache. At 59, he blamed age and golf. The reality was far more daunting.

The doctors called it HLH -- hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, when the body produces too many activated immune cells. Developing it at his age, when it's almost always detected in infancy, led to non-Hodgkin T-cell lymphoma.

He'd bounced around hospital rooms, but the one we spent Christmas in featured a sprawling view of the Manhattan skyline. We reminisced about our city adventures, how we'd lose hours at restaurants and take pictures on rooftops.

We encircled him, exchanging gifts and laughing.

My parents divorced when I was in high school but remained best friends. Even after they separated, he still called Mom the love of his life; we'd become an unconventional and irrevocably tight-knit modern family.

That was never more obvious than on Christmas.

Dad's present to me was an infinity necklace. He fought through fatigue to explain: "I will love you forever and always." Infinity.

Considering the circumstances, it was a perfect day.

By the next morning, he was on life support. He couldn't speak or move, but he could hear us. We spent hours talking to him, playing music.

I was at his side every waking second, never letting his hand go unless I had to.

When it was clear time was short, we took turns saying goodbye.

I leaned into his ear and told him how thankful I was for the life he gave me, that I would never let go.

I whispered the last words we'd ever share: "I will love you forever and always."

He was gone by noon.

There's no cure for losing a parent. I'm 21, and there's still a universe of things my father was supposed to see. Holidays, graduation -- even my remaining games -- my wedding, having children: milestones my father won't experience. My brother, Drew, still in high school, lost more.

When word of Dad's passing reached my teammates, family and friends, my phone was flooded with condolences.

I'm so, so sorry, Sam.

If you want to talk, I'm here. Anytime.

If you need anything, let me know.

I had nothing to say. What could someone possibly give me?

There's no remedy for a life unlived.

"What was once an inside joke is now concern that I'm not processing things, that depression or a meltdown is near. This essay is the first time some will hear me talk about my coping. To those people: I feel plenty, I just can't be a burden to anyone." Sam Kramer

At the celebration of life and funeral, friends and family broke down when they saw me and Drew -- the photos of Dad I'd taken, used for funeral cards and portraits, heavy in the room. They couldn't comprehend our impending adulthood without him.

I couldn't either. I wanted to feel ... something, but emotions were scarce. I hadn't yet accepted my new reality and bottled everything up.

Despite my team having a game the next day -- against Quinnipiac, no less, whose last conference loss was to us in 2017 -- my teammates, coaches, trainer and athletic director drove two hours to my New Jersey hometown for the services. Even my teammate Kendra Landy, five days removed from ACL surgery, came.

I couldn't articulate it then, but seeing the turnout meant everything.

What better testament to Dad's life than seeing how far his influence stretched. What collegiate athletics program drops everything the day before a game to support a grieving player?

The day after the services, I drove back to Fairfield. I was supposed to take time to recuperate, but I wanted to get back to my routine and on the court with my sisters.

Basketball has always been my sanctuary. From youth, to AAU, to Gill St. Bernard's, to Fairfield, I leave every emotion in the locker room and step onto the court unfettered.

Everyone grieves in their own way, but I throw myself into work. That's truer now than ever before.

My mom always used to say I appear unbothered and unmoved by what happens around me. What was once an inside joke is now concern that I'm not processing things, that depression or a meltdown is near.

This essay is the first time some will hear me talk about my coping. To those people: I feel plenty, I just can't be a burden to anyone. Not even for a second.

Pain spills out -- but I'd rather it seep than explode, so I keep to myself.

Friends marvel at how busy I am, at my lack of free time. That has always been deliberate, but especially so now.

When I'm on the court, in the weight room, in class, joking with teammates, taking pictures, I'm golden.

I don't want to think about what I've lost: the happiest, most positive person in my life.

I've tried therapy, but it didn't take. Journaling was a no-go at first, yet here we are. Each day has been different, some much darker than others, but -- with friends and photography, my other passion -- I'm taking it a day at a time.

Nights split me in two. When there aren't any distractions left and I'm alone with my thoughts, that's when it hits me. I resist reading his texts with every fiber of my being, listening to his voicemails, watching old videos. I'd do anything to see his smile again.

When the clock plunges into the small hours, I often break down and cry myself to sleep, if I sleep at all. I lie awake thinking of his last days. I hear the songs we played for him. I think of the Manhattan skyline glowing behind us, his last breath and those words:

I will love you forever and always.

Despite waning function in his hands, a few days before he left us, Dad sent me a text: I'll be with you on the court and everywhere. I love you.

Maybe that's why I feel so at home out there with my sisters.

When there's a timeout or a pause in the game, I find myself glancing at the stands and thinking of him. It hurts not seeing him with Mom, Grandma and Grandpa.

I have too much to tell my dad, too much to ask. I need him to see me grow, to see my academic and athletic achievements, to know that his hard work took hold. He needs to know that losing him didn't hold me back -- that, if anything, his love pushes me forward.

My focus now is on finishing our season strong. We've had a bumpy road, but we're 5-3 over our last eight games, building momentum heading into the MAAC tournament.

Playing a sport in college can sometimes feel like a job: class, practice, lifting, recovery, repeat. I've never felt that way -- maybe because I don't have teammates and coaches; I have family. In death and life, they have my back and I have theirs. I don't know where I'd be without Fairfield and the people here.

I can attest it's more painful to keep your feelings in than to share them. If even one person finds comfort in my story, then it's worth it.

You're not alone.

For now, I'll keep living the way Dad taught me and hope he sees me in Fairfield red, his name written across my back. I hope he soaks in the roar of the crowd, the squeak of sneakers, the stamp of feet on bleachers.

I'll never forget him, and to honor him is to live this life as best I can.

On the court or off it.

Forever and always.