CARMEL, Calif. -- I'm driving south down the Northern California coast, taking my mother to see a dying woman I wish she had the strength to be.
Phyllis Rochelle, who just turned 83 as she fights through the last days of a battle with cancer along with a dose of Alzheimer's, was many things. She was an athlete, a professor, a fiercely tough, compassionate and independent woman who drank too much, argued more, laughed at everything and still smokes too much.
Phyllis has always been honest about herself. She neither hid nor paraded her homosexuality. She didn't believe in psychological crutches, even if she was unceasingly patient with people who did.
Like my mother, a now 79-year-old woman who has blamed her life on everyone and everything, from her long-dead parents to my long-dead father. Want to know about the string of bad men she dated after she divorced my dad?
"There were never any good ones to find," she said more than once. My mother has taught me, by example, everything I never wanted to be.
That's why, as I made the drive from San Francisco International to Carmel, detouring to Half Moon Bay to grab the scenic route so my mom could get what is probably her last look at the Pacific, I just kept thinking how much I wished their roles had been reversed.
I wish Phyllis had been my mother.
For those of you stuck on the idea of defining what people can or can't do as a result of their sexuality, I feel compelled to make my point. As the child of a selfish, alcoholic mother and a father who was rendered helpless by the combination of manic depression and the medication that masked it, I needed Phyllis to come into my life at the right time. I needed someone to fill me with a combination of expectation and confidence, point me in the right direction and say, "Get it done."
I needed someone who loved sports as much as I did and who had the trophies sitting around to prove anything was possible. I needed someone with an athlete's mentality. Phyllis' trophies were from her days as youth tennis champion in Ohio, but she loved everything, and we talked baseball and football.
In some ways, it probably didn't hurt that Phyllis was a woman in the middle of the feminist movement and a gay on top of that. To this day, I love underdogs, particular ones who never know they're underdogs. Phyllis had plenty of natural enemies and excuses in her life. Yet she didn't give a damn. If she felt that way about obstacles, why should I care about mine?
For those who miss the point, let me spell it out. I'm not for or against gay marriage. I'm not for or against gay people raising children. Frankly, we spend too much time in this country arguing over these issues when all that matters is a simple equation.
Are you a good person and are you trying to make the world a better place? Phyllis was the first of many people in my life who could answer yes to that question. That's why I love her so dearly. That's why I cried as I left her house recently. That's why I fight back tears as I write this column.
Sadly, I didn't come to the realization about Phyllis on my own. My wife, my 20-something stepdaughter and I met Phyllis and her partner Marilyn for Sunday breakfast at Perry's Grill in San Francisco two years ago.
We talked and laughed for a couple of hours. Afterward, Marilyn said it was the best she had seen Phyllis act in months, which made me feel good. Then, as we left, my stepdaughter looked at me and said with a compassionate smile, "You really wish Phyllis had been your mom, don't you?"
That left me stunned. The kid nailed it.
In April, while my mother was in the other room getting unpacked to stay with Phyllis for a couple of days, I relayed to Phyllis what my stepdaughter had said. I told Phyllis it was true. Phyllis looked away for just a second, regained her poise and said with mock indignation, "Did you slap her?"
Even as the end nears, Phyllis can't bring herself to be vulnerable. I remember being 10 years old in the dining room of my mother's apartment, a group of five or six adults sitting around the table. One of the men started mocking the feminist movement.
Phyllis reached under her shirt, unsnapped her bra and held it up in defiance, as if to say, "I don't need to be held back by this damn thing."
Other times, when I would be working at a toboggan run she owned back in the '70s, she'd snap at me if I ever made an excuse: "If I had a nickel for every time somebody said they were sorry, I wouldn't have to work." It wasn't original, but I had never heard it before. It made the point. Get the job done and don't make excuses.
To this day, excuses make my skin crawl.
To this day, I can barely tolerate my own mother.
Yeah, that's harsh. To anybody who judges me a jerk for saying that, so be it. You didn't spend a lifetime with her.
As my mother and I sat down for dinner with Phyllis (pictured below with nephew Todd Dove) and Marilyn last month, the conversation somehow turned to Whitney Houston's tragic death. Houston sadly couldn't overcome drugs, a terrible shame and a waste of talent.
But my mother took the story down one of her typical paths.
"You know, these entertainers, I can see how they get mixed up in drugs. They show up feeling tired and somebody says, ‘Take this and you'll feel better.' Then, all of a sudden, they're hooked on drugs," she said, reciting a derivation of the same tired story that puts the blame on someone else.
My mother has lived her life pointing the finger and not the thumb. As I sat with her to my left and Phyllis to my right, I told her the point was BS. I looked at Phyllis. She looked as if I had stolen her line.
A couple of days later, when I came back to get my mom and say what was probably my final goodbye, I leaned over, gave Phyllis a kiss on her mostly-bare, chemo-ravaged head and said, "Thank you for everything you did for me."
"I didn't do any ..." she started to say.
"Oh shut up, stop arguing and say, 'You're welcome.'"
Phyllis smiled. The years of cigarette smoking added a low rumble to her laugh. She was busted by a line she might have used once herself.
"You're welcome, honey."
-- Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports is an award-winning writer who covered the Miami Dolphins for 15 years at The Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. A member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he also has experience covering the NBA. Jason graduated from Stanford with a degree in communication.
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