As Pride Month wraps, ALS advocate and author Kate Fagan opens up about healing the most important relationship.
Kate Fagan is a New York Times bestselling author. She is a former ESPN writer and on-air personality, who recently joined Meadlowlark Media. She is a former professional basketball player. She is a wife and dog mom living in Charleston, South Carolina. But before she became anything else, she was a daughter. In November 2018, Fagan left ESPN to tend her to father after his ALS diagnosis until he died in December 2019. Her third book is a love letter to him. ALL THE COLORS CAME OUT was released May 18. Unlike a fictional character, Kate’s story didn’t tidily end on the last page, so tmrw caught up with her to talk through what she has learned, what she is still working through, and why she now believes that it’s never too late to start over in hopes of a better tomorrow.
Below is what she had to say, in her own words, as told to Megan Armstrong.
I have seen the same boy playing basketball on the courts in my neighborhood for years. I’m mostly fascinated by my fascination with him. I’ve still never talked to him. I don’t know him, but I have this entire story for him based on my own experiences with basketball. He’s grown up—he must be 14 years old—and he’s playing with his friends now. But if I saw him playing alone, maybe I’d walk up to him. I think I would be incredibly earnest with him because that is what my dad would do. I think I would say, “Hey, I just want you to know that I’ve seen you shoot and play here over the years, and watching your determination has been really rewarding, and I think you have something special.”
Telling him that, as a neighborhood passerby who loves the game and sees it in him, too, could open up this different idea of what it means to be great at something and how people see you moving in the world. I believe this because my entire adolescence was buoyed by my dad empowering me on the basketball court, using his coaching to instill life lessons.
My book is very specifically about a dad and a daughter who bond over basketball and he dies of ALS. But more broadly, I thought of it as a story about a relationship that got dented and hurt over the course of life. I’m so grateful to have been able to heal my relationship with my dad, to get back to where we were when I was still a kid and all that mattered was playing basketball together, though there’s no way of avoiding the fact that our healing came at the cost of his life. After leaving ESPN, I had one full year of knowing I was important for this very fundamental reason—being his caretaker—and that was so satisfying to the soul.
It was a counterintuitive experience, watching my dad die. The counterintuitive part was just how healthy it felt to me to show up and be really connected to him, his experience and his pain as well as my own and my family’s pain. And although there were sometimes anger and disappointment and fear during that year, I can’t remember ever feeling a sense of pointlessness. It’s been in the last year-plus since he died and then the pandemic hit that I’ve probably struggled more than ever with my mental health. I don’t think this struggle is tied to grief or loss; I think it’s tied to me re-entering this mindset that I have to create and achieve. That’s been really hard for me—to go back to this chasing. I know these things aren’t going to fulfill me, and yet, I am still always expecting them to. Why am I falling into that trap again and again and again?
The difference now is I try to be slightly quicker at saving myself. The traps are still there. I still fall into them. It’s not like I’ve had some transcendental experience in life. Nope! I’m still caught up in all of our culture’s pursuits. I just happen to linger in them just a little less than I used to.
I learned a lot about achievement culture and perfectionism while writing my second book, WHAT MADE MADDY RUN, which came out in 2017. That book was about Madison Holleran, who died by suicide in January 2014, and her secret struggles with mental health while outwardly excelling as a track athlete. Now, I can see parallels between how people interpret ALS and mental health.
There are a lot of people who are dealing with any kind of mental illness or have struggled with their mental health, and they don’t need to tell everybody. There should be people in their life who know, yes, but they don’t want everyone to know because they’re worried about how people will see them. With ALS, you can’t go out into the world because then everyone will automatically know, so you lock yourself in your house. Invisibility is part of the reason ALS lacks awareness and proper funding. It’s been 80 years since Lou Gehrig died, and we are not an inch closer to even having an effective treatment. And part of that is because a huge majority of people with ALS no longer feel like themselves, they don’t want to be remembered for having ALS, and so they don’t go outside of their homes. Yeah
In the early stages of my dad’s disease, when his voice was still fine and he could still walk, he told people he had shoulder surgery. It was just his left arm that was gone, so he’d put it in a sling. We would go to the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig ALS Center at Columbia University, and there would be people in the waiting room with far more advanced ALS. In wheelchairs. Could no longer talk. My dad couldn’t even look at them.
While writing WHAT MADE MADDY RUN, I was so deeply embedded in the reporting of her story, her death, and talking about every mental health issue. At that time, there was so much of it that you couldn’t say specifically or you could only say to certain people or you would couch for other people because you wanted to make it palatable. No one wants to think about ALS if it hasn’t touched them because it feels like this abstract part of life that some people are experiencing, and you’re just happy it’s not you. It’s so scary, being locked inside your own body. It’s too scary to want to invest time in understanding it if you don’t have to. It all plays into the larger problem of not wanting to see the full range of humanity.
There was something to keeping my dad alive through the writing of this book. That process allowed me to live with him for a little longer, and that isn’t there anymore. I almost didn’t want the book’s release date to ever come because then it could always be this thing that was going to happen. But the release date came and went, and I’ve pivoted to wondering about its reception, how to marketdarkness to people, and all these outward ideas, which have really clouded—really clouded—just feeling peacefulthat I wrote the thing I wanted to write. I knew this was going to happen, and it’s happened, and I feel more distant from my dad than ever.
But I’m still keeping everything he, and the act of being there for him, exposed me to alive. In the book, I write about my realization that I had been living with safety nets and my intention to live without nets moving forward. It can be something as simple as pushing myself a tad beyond my comfort zone during a workout. Getting up the courage to encourage a 14-year-old boy in my neighborhood, so to speak. In the bigger picture, though, I am very much present for other people’s losses and pain in a way that I would never have wanted or saw myself capable before going through that with my dad. I think I am now a person in people’s lives who they know they don’t need to tell, “I’m doing great!” And in that way, maybe, I’m closer to my dad than ever.
I think, in our culture, we often think reinvention is reserved for Madonna or Britney Spears. That reinvention is some outward performance. It’s our obsession with makeovers or remodeling our homes. All of this—my dad’s diagnosis, leaving ESPN, becoming his caretaker, losing him to ALS and pouring all of that grief into the book, all of it—taught me that it really is going back to the basics. It’s going away for a while and being present with yourself, and then gradually, starting to realize that you see the world a little differently, and maybe the way you see it now will matter to people.
I guess I just overwrote the belief that you can’t stop, you can’t get off the ladder. You will find your voice again on the other side. I’ve been asking myself lately: What is my voice? What is my experience? And how can that matter? I think it matters for female athletes and women’s sports. I don’t worry as much as I used to about whether it’s risky or will sell fewer things and make less money, and I joined Meadowlark Media because it’s a place that values thosesame things. It’s reassuring—outside of whatever pain and emptiness I’m feeling—to think that I can help tell stories that will help people care about female athletes and women’s sports. I get excited thinking that I could be a part of whatever the next 10 or 20 years will look like as we try to change the story around what women’s sports are and why we should invest in them.
Because of who my dad was—never making a big deal out of the fact that I was a girl playing pickup with him and his other male friends or never selling my hoop dreams short due to my gender, for example—it wasn’t until I got to ESPN that I realized how disparaged women are in the sports world. To now think that I can help create a world in which women can grow up and feel the same thing I did as a kid because the world has shifted and they aren’t as disparaged, it feels very full circle.
So, I’m going to do it because I think that’s what my dad would do.
And I know it’s all possible because of what my dad did for me.