I find myself thinking about Vanessa Bryant often, not just the sympathy for her and her three daughters having lost the man who was a husband and father in January, and the beautiful young woman who was a daughter and sister, but how crushingly difficult it must be for her to deal with such breathtaking tragedy in the public eye.
I’m thinking about her even more today.
May 1 is Gigi Bryant’s birthday, the day she should have been celebrating turning 14, and even in a time of home quarantining and social distancing there’s no doubt her family and friends would have found ways to celebrate her and make her feel special.
Instead, Vanessa woke up to the reality of another heartbreaking first: the first time she had to live through her beloved daughter’s birthday without her.
“Happy birthday to my sweet baby girl, Gianna. Mommy loves you more than I could ever show you,” Vanessa wrote on Instagram. “You are part of MY SOUL forever. I miss you so much everyday. I wish I could wake up and have you here with me. I miss your smile, your hug and your giggles. I miss EVERYTHING about YOU, Gigi. I LOVE YOU so much!!!!!”
That she took to social media to post anything is a sign of these times — in reality, Vanessa owes us nothing — but it may also offer a measure of peace to open a bit more of her heart to followers, and to let the 75,000 comments and counting provide some comfort on yet another difficult day.
The picture of Gigi that Vanessa posted shows the teenager in a way we’ve all come to remember her: with a radiant smile basically identical to her father’s. She’s wearing Minnie Mouse ears, and a t-shirt and leggings adorned with Mickey Mouse ears, her arms open, palms up, as if to say, “this is me, world.”
About 90 minutes later, Vanessa posted again, this time writing that “Gianna loved to wear a red bow in all of her school pictures. Red means love and life. To commemorate Gigi’s birthday today, please consider wearing red, caption an act of kindness or show how you will play Gigi’s way since she always gave everything she did her all and led with kindness.”
Years ago, to appeal to citizens to sign up for the Peace Corps, the American government ran ads calling it “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” Ask any mom: that’s an apt way to describe motherhood.
Those early sleepless nights are rewarded with gummy smiles. The terrible threes usually give way to a more placid 4-year-old. There’s constant trips to soccer games and karate classes and scraping together money for clarinet lessons and trying to recall sixth grade math to help with homework and then puberty hits and you wonder what happened to your sweet, obedient child and then you blink and they’re off to college or exploring the world without you.
And all the while, almost every day, there are moments of love and awe that overwhelm you, of chubby arms wrapped around your neck tightly, of even the smallest achievement bringing tears to your eyes. And there’s also the ever-present worry, from micro — will they get through their class presentation smoothly? — to macro — should we let them date yet?
That’s what Vanessa Bryant has lost. That’s what she’s mourning on May 1, under the unending gaze of a sports world that adored and even idolized her husband, and got to know her second daughter through the love of basketball she shared with her father. For those of us who have not had to mourn one of our children, the grief is unimaginable.
Gigi harbored dreams of playing at UConn with famed coach Geno Auriemma, counted recent WNBA No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu among her mentors and wanted to play in the WNBA (the league made her an honorary pick last month). We’ve all lost the chance to see the budding star take off, but Vanessa has lost so much more.
Gigi’s birthday comes on the heels of another first Vanessa had to endure recently; April 18 would have been she and Kobe’s 19th wedding anniversary. That day was marked with a picture of the young couple cuddling on a couch and a video of Kobe telling MTV News years ago how he knew Vanessa was the one.
Kobe’s birthday will come in August, Christmas will be bittersweet, and the anniversary of the helicopter crash that took her husband, daughter and seven others is to come as well. There are likely many more that will be personal to Vanessa and her family.
It’s all so raw still, and they say every day gets just a little bit easier. But May 1 will never be the same.
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