Zak - Naya’s brother - turns 18 today. He’s a Valentine’s baby. He wrote about Naya in one of his college essays, and gave permission to publish this blog in honor of his sister, who would be very proud of her brother today.
Baseball, pitching in particular, has played a major role in my life, teaching me about control. I’ve learned how to pitch when at the top of my game and when I’m struggling. I’ve spent hours practicing my finger placement on the seams of the baseball and perfecting my weight distribution as I deliver the pitch. None of which Naya ever fully appreciated. She would be in the stands, whether she wanted to or not, and sometimes congratulate me after a game. “You didn’t suck today,” my sister would say.
Successful pitching requires hard work, dedication, and knowing what to do when I’m not in command. On days when I lose command, I focus my energy on mechanics. I slow everything down to figure out what isn’t working. I put a thought in my head that allows me to throw strikes and execute pitches. If I’m missing the strike zone too low, I focus on throwing my elbow through the catcher's facemask which forces the ball up. I mentally reset so I don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over.
Yet despite all this technique and practice, once the ball leaves my hand, I don’t know exactly what will happen. Will the ball spin away and fool the hitter? Or will it float helplessly toward the middle of the strike zone? One pitch the ball will do what I want and the next it could do the opposite. The result is unpredictable. So is life. One day goes as expected, the next day I learned my sister has brain cancer.
I was eleven when Naya was diagnosed with medulloblastoma. Throughout her two years of treatment, I never imagined life without her. I didn’t worry about her because I knew she would be successful at whatever she pursued. Still, I wanted to be with her, so while my friends went home to finish their homework, I brought my books to the hospital almost every day. I remember asking myself, “why me?”
During the fall of my eighth-grade year, Naya passed away. While I never have really accepted her death, I understand I couldn’t control what happened. Naya was two years younger than me, yet I’ve realized I looked up to her. Even when her illness made it hard, she was driven to keep doing things she loved, like horseback riding. At the time, it was just Naya being Naya. I see now that she got through the epic stress of cancer by focusing on what she could control.
I could not have predicted how important time with my sister Naya would be. When she got sick, she chose her focus, and showed me how I could choose mine. I have pushed myself to become a more respectful, understanding, and thoughtful person. Naya forced me to pay attention to those around me because you don’t always see the challenges people face. Naya’s wish was for no more kids to have cancer, so our family started a foundation to fund new pediatric cancer research. For my part, I want to help people realize that no matter what happens, there is a way to move forward. We can’t control outcomes, but we can control how we focus and how we choose to see the world.
Naya was an amazing person with intention and a zest for life. She inspires my pitching. Just because I don’t have complete control over the ball does not mean I should give up. It means I have a choice to refocus every pitch. Naya, and baseball, taught me how to move through life’s obstacles. Though I no longer see her in the stands, I feel her presence on the field reminding me to take one pitch at a time. No matter the score, I can stay positive, I can keep going. I practice what I can control when I pitch. Naya taught me I can choose to persevere.