It wasn’t until August that the reality of her condition hit home. “There was a pretty long denial period,” Tyler says. “At first she was like, ‘I’m fine.’ ”
When the blow finally fell, it was heavy. Summitt had always been the caregiver: Friends, family and former players struggling physically or emotionally have always come to her house for comfort, a hot meal and soothing advice in that honeyed southern voice. “I want to go see Pat,” is a common refrain. It wasn’t easy to reverse the role, and to admit that she would need care.
In September 2006, not long after the death of her father, she separated from R.B. Summitt, her husband of 26 years. Some months later, she found herself immobilized by physical pain, and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Summitt rarely betrayed in public the toll of that disease, but there were occasions, before it was successfully controlled by medication, when her son had to help her put her socks on.
In between those traumas she suffered a shoulder separation — from fighting a raccoon — and was hospitalized twice, once for cellulitis, and once for dehydration and exhaustion. Still, for all of that, she managed to lead the Lady Vols to consecutive national championships in 2007 and 2008.
Through it all, there has always been a sense of centeredness in Summitt. She is like a marble pillar, ramrod straight, that seems to have stood for a thousand years, while everything around it falls.
“Everyone has always wanted to know what Pat’s really like,” DeMoss said. “The word I’ve always used is ‘resolve.’ Pat has more resolve than any one I’ve ever known. She has a deep, deep inner strength.”
But now she will need a different kind of counterintuitive strength. Surrender and acceptance have never come naturally to her, nor has admitting vulnerability. She has trouble even uttering the word Alzheimer’s. But she’s learning.
“We sat down and had a good talk, and realized that the only reason we even made it this far, was that we had each other,” Tyler says. “It started with her father passing away, and then the divorce, and the arthritis, and then the Alzheimer’s, and each of those things, I don’t know how anyone could go through them alone. So we figured out that as much as we wanted to be Superman and Wonder Woman, and take care of things alone, we needed each other.”
With acceptance has come relief — and, thanks to treatment, apparent improvement.