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Teaching, parenting and grieving: South River coach copes after losing wife to covid at 44

South River girls' basketball coach Michael Zivic gathers his team during a game in January at Crofton High. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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As the South River girls’ basketball players emerge from the visitors’ locker room and run layup lines, Coach Mike Zivic crouches on the sideline, searching his black duffel bag for dry-erase markers.

Zivic’s children, Jackson, 9, and Kensington, 7, want to draw, so Zivic hands them the markers and the whiteboard on which he diagrams plays. Jackson soon grows bored, so he grabs a basketball from the rack at midcourt. When Zivic asks him to return the ball, Jackson dribbles in circles around his dad as the lights on his Skechers flash with each step.

With tip-off about five minutes away, Jackson and Kensington sit near the bottom of Crofton High’s bleachers playing tug-of-war with the whiteboard. Soon, Zivic breaks the tension, retrieves his whiteboard and instructs his children to play at the top of the bleachers. As the game begins, Zivic keeps an eye on his kids.

On Dec. 23, 2020, Zivic’s wife, Amanda Cook Zivic, died of covid-19 complications. She was 44. Since then, Zivic, 41, has balanced raising his children with coaching, teaching and grieving. That equilibrium is easy to spot at this early January basketball game in Anne Arundel County, where Zivic performs the passion that distracts him from his anguish while supervising the people who provide him the most joy.

Sitting on the bench early in the second quarter, Jackson yells, “Yeah, finally!” when a South River player drains a free throw. He descended from the top of the bleachers because he wanted the whiteboard back, and he soon doodles in black marker near the court. With about three minutes remaining, Zivic paces the sideline in the thick of the action when Kensington taps his right arm: “Daddy?”

Zivic asks Kensington to wait, and soon South River completes a 19-point victory. Zivic had been with his children all day. That morning, he heard their Baltimore school had shifted to virtual learning, and without time to find a sitter, he stayed home and requested a substitute for the technology classes he teaches at South River.

As they exit Crofton’s building on a frigid night, they face a 45-minute drive to their Baltimore home, then dinner, a bath and sleep. As Zivic begins a conversation in the parking lot, Jackson requests his immediate attention.

“Dad, look,” he yells, raising a chunk of snow from dirt.

Building a family

On April 4, 2003, Zivic visited Babalu Grill in Baltimore with a friend when Amanda approached him: “Hey, you look like John Mayer.” Zivic, 22 at the time, told Amanda he was 24 in hopes she would keep speaking with him. Near the beginning of their conversation, a DJ played Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married.” Zivic had never fallen for a girl, but he could tell within four months he wanted to marry Amanda.

He lit candles around his apartment and invited her over for king crab legs when he proposed. About 20 minutes after accepting, Amanda vomited. She spent the night in Mercy Medical Center’s emergency room with food poisoning, but that didn’t sour the couple’s elation.

They married Aug. 7, 2004, at a church in Pittsburgh, Zivic’s hometown. Amanda, who grew up in Tazewell, Va., bought a house with Zivic in Baltimore and worked as a forensic psychiatrist.

Jackson was born in March 2012, Kensington in June 2014, and as they grew older, Amanda surprised her children by renting limousines on random nights so they could dance in them and feel special en route to a local restaurant. She transformed random events, such as when daffodils and fireflies surfaced each year, into celebrations. For birthdays, she baked themed cakes from scratch using Jackson’s toys to create dinosaur cakes and rock candies for Kensington’s “Frozen” cakes.

Every Friday, she bought decorations at HomeGoods and stowed them in the basement until the holidays. At night, she would take her kids to Johnny Rad’s Pizzeria Tavern — cheese for Kensington and pepperoni, without cheese, for Jackson.

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, Amanda believed her job at the psychiatric hospital in Jessup was as important as ever. Near the beginning of December, she tested positive for the coronavirus and was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital. She had no known health issues, so her family and friends figured she would return quickly.

But about two weeks later on a Saturday morning, Zivic was driving to Target when a doctor called, informing him Amanda’s health had deteriorated and the hospital put her in a medically induced coma.

“My heart just dropped,” said Zivic, who drove home and embraced his children. “That’s when s--- got real.”

When Zivic last spoke to Amanda — via FaceTime — she couldn’t talk because she had a breathing tube down her throat. Amanda responded by writing on a whiteboard with a blue marker; she wanted to ensure Zivic bought their children presents for Christmas.

Amanda died roughly a week later.

‘I miss her infinity’

Amanda’s family typically celebrates the holiday on Christmas Eve, and Zivic sought to create a normal celebration for his children that December. Along with family and friends, Zivic wrapped American Girl dolls and Roblox toys the night Amanda died and tried to maintain his composure while watching the kids excitedly open them a day later. Amanda had purchased her children a gift before she entered the hospital: Holly, a black-and-white Maltipoo, whom Zivic retrieved.

The next month, Zivic and friends created an outdoor funeral at Patterson Park, across the street from Zivic’s home. Friends hung lights and photos among the trees. Amanda loved fishing in the Jackson River growing up and named her son based on that. Zivic released her ashes there.

Zivic struggled to leave his bed but reminded himself of the resilience he preaches to his players. After he got vaccinated in March, Zivic traveled without Amanda for the first time, to Clearwater, Fla., and cried on the plane. He envied couples with their children at Patterson Park, and he wishes Amanda could have lived at least until their children grew into adults.

“The grief part,” Zivic said, “I don’t know if there’s a timetable for when that stops.”

Zivic hired personal and family counselors, but while Jackson has been comfortable speaking about Amanda, Kensington has struggled to open up. Both display traits of Amanda. Jackson is affectionate, seeking to cuddle; Kensington is sharp, sometimes sewing a banana peel with a needle for fun.

“A gazillion times,” Jackson said of how much he misses his mom.

“I miss her infinity,” Kensington followed.

Sorrow impacts Zivic in unexpected moments. When Zivic’s uncle, Charles, died in the fall, he felt numb at the funeral. But when he saw his aunt, Diane, heartache consumed him because he knew what she would endure.

When snow prompted a school cancellation in early January, Zivic reminisced on Amanda’s love for snow days. She would sit by a window all morning, watching the snowfall with a Harry Potter book before she and Zivic threw snowballs at each other and walked downtown to barhop.

Zivic has continued Amanda’s traditions but admits he’s not as savvy. When decorating for Halloween, he posted a banner that read “Treat or Trick.”

“It’s really not easy, but who am I to complain?” Zivic said through tears. “I, at least, have a choice at this opportunity. Amanda doesn’t have it. It was taken away from her.”

A normal day

While playing basketball at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High near Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, Zivic knew he wanted to be a coach. Once, near the end of a close game, his coach wanted a player to press the ballhandler when Zivic suggested he instead protect the paint. His team won.

Zivic has been coaching at South River for 15 seasons, and this past November he told his children he would stop if they desired that. They wanted him to continue.

“If it wasn’t for them, honestly, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this,” Zivic said. “They’ve literally been the reason I’m here today.”

Coaching has been one of the few normal aspects in a life full of change.

Most days, Zivic returns home in the evening, but he gets some rare quiet time one morning in mid-January. His school is closed because of the weather, and his children walk a half-mile across Patterson Park to their school. Zivic completes a 1,000-piece puzzle to keep his mind off his grief.

Around 3 p.m., Jackson and Kensington pass the family’s four names, which they engraved on the sidewalk with a branch three years ago, as they enter the house. In the dining room, a painting of Amanda rests against a wall.

Soon, Kensington and her friend Parker leave boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Oreos on the kitchen counter as they walk to the living room to play a board game. Jackson grows frustrated about a Pokémon card Zivic has kept since Sunday.

“I told you, buddy. You’ll get him,” Zivic says at the kitchen table. “What did I say? You didn’t clean up, right? I said everything I find, I’m taking. You’re lucky I didn’t throw it out.”

Jackson grows frustrated moments later, crushing a piece of popcorn with both hands. Zivic defuses the argument by suggesting Jackson toss the popcorn into his mouth.

Zivic coveted Amanda’s ability to comfort her children, but that role, like many, has become his responsibility. That’s also true around 5:45 p.m., when Jackson asks Zivic what they’re eating for dinner. Amanda was famous among her family for her chicken enchiladas. On this night, after Zivic cleans the kitchen, Jackson settles on a hamburger, while Kensington eats a frozen pizza.

Friends come and go from the house all afternoon, but by 6:40 p.m., the family is alone — Zivic cuddled with Kensington on their black leather couch and Jackson sitting across from them, watching “The Simpsons.” Soon, Jackson crawls into bed, looking at the photo of Amanda on his nightstand before closing his eyes.

Another tough day ends, and more challenges await in a few hours. As Zivic attempts to outline his game day the next morning, Jackson’s school calls. He has tested positive for the coronavirus.