OXFORD, Miss. — Mickie DeMoss has joked of writing a book about her late mother, Wilma.
The exercise would preserve what the Tennessee assistant coach described as "Wilma-isms." These morsels of wit and wisdom seemingly filled a separate vocabulary created by the feisty woman from small-town Tallulah, La.
Interestingly, one of the most poignant chapters would involve patience, a subject for which Wilma had little use and likely coined few saucy quips. Still, she produced volumes through an extended struggle with dementia.
"It's funny because my mother, of all the people in the world, had the shortest amount of patience of probably anybody that I've ever known," DeMoss said. "What she didn't teach us about patience, we had to learn through her disease."
When No. 13 Tennessee (19-7, 10-3 SEC) faces Ole Miss (12-14, 2-11) today (TV: MyVLT, 2 p.m.) in an SEC women's basketball game at Tad Smith Coliseum, DeMoss will take her seat on UT's bench next to head coach Pat Summitt armed with more than coaching acumen.
Since Summitt announced in August that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, DeMoss has drawn on those experiences with Wilma to assist her longtime colleague and friend.
"I think if you've been through what she has with her mother, she understands a little bit more of how to handle it," UT associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "I think she has a little bit more of an understanding of Pat and maybe how to take care of her."
DeMoss said that she wasn't sure about the exact nature of her mother's dementia. DeMoss traced the origins of her mother's memory loss back to a couple of fainting-type incidents that might have been strokes. She said that Wilma eventually died from a stroke.
"My biggest fear is that I'd walk in and she wouldn't know who I was," DeMoss said. "I'd always prepare myself, every time I walked into the room, that she might not know who I was. That never happened. It never happened."
Summitt, who spoke at the memorial service for Wilma, recalled the opposite happening when she, Warlick and DeMoss visited Wilma in an assisted-living facility. Since it was early morning they tiptoed into the room, fearful of disturbing her. When Wilma saw them, she threw off the bed covers to reveal that she was fully clothed, right down to her red tennis shoes. She even had her purse in hand.
"She said, 'I'm ready to go. Where are we going?' " Summitt recalled.
Moment by moment
Each day yielded a different narrative. Many weren't as humorous or lively, however. DeMoss, along with her brother and sister, did the best they could, but had limited resources and information at their disposal.
Even common sense wasn't always an effective guide. For example, they initially moved their mother into a one-bedroom apartment, thinking that less space would be more manageable for her. Instead, the move created an unwanted sense of unfamiliarity.
"It totally blew her mind," DeMoss said. "It just really frustrated her because it was different. She couldn't remember where her pots and pans were. The thermostat threw her because the thermostat was different than what she had in the house. She kept turning it up the wrong way."
Through various trial-and-error experiences, DeMoss came to some useful conclusions. Time was boiled down to its smallest increments. And the thought of influencing Wilma's disposition was dismissed as sheer folly.
"I could not control her happiness or her mood," DeMoss said. "Whatever mental state she was in, I had no control over that.
"So I had to let go of that. I had to just take it one moment at a time, not even one day, just moment to moment. I had to realize that this is the part of the disease you've got to understand, you've got to know."
DeMoss got comfortable with repeating herself. Excursions to places like Natchez, Miss. — one of Wilma's favorites — became an option rather than a necessity, especially as Wilma's sense of time faded.
A weekend trip wasn't going to fix things, especially if that's not what she wanted to do.
"If Mom was happy just sitting at home for three hours watching the news, I wasn't going to say, 'let's go out,' " DeMoss said. "If she's happy and she's content, be OK with it. It's OK. It's OK."
As DeMoss relates these experiences, the tone of her voice takes on that of a coach trying to steer players through a difficult game. Or she could be advising a colleague.
Returning to her place on Tennessee's bench, where she spent 18 seasons before departing in 2003 to become the head coach at Kentucky, wasn't necessarily by design. DeMoss said that she didn't think of her coaching career in those terms.
At the same time, she doesn't consider her presence to be a coincidence. When Summitt called in the spring of 2010, DeMoss didn't hesitate to leave an assistant's position at Texas and rejoin the Lady Vols' staff.
"I thought, 'She needs me back there,' " said DeMoss, who has 35 seasons of coaching experience. "Whether it's for her personal comfort and security, I didn't know exactly. But I knew I wanted to come back here. I thought that I'll help Pat finish out her career."
She couldn't have envisioned the accompanying circumstances. Yet she couldn't be much better prepared for them. DeMoss' sister, Susie, doesn't think that the correlation is a coincidence, either.
"I think God has her there," she said. "I think she's supposed to be there for Pat at this time in her life."
DeMoss said that she is cognizant of simplifying things and not being concerned if certain details become, in her words, "a little muddied."
She described Summitt as observant and aware of the game's ebb and flow. Conversely, Summitt no longer thrives in the midst of the rapid-fire exchange of ideas and strategy that typify a timeout. She's better served by one-on-one conversations and concentrating on the basics, both in games and at practice.
"These are things she always emphasized," DeMoss said. "So it's not some new whim. It's a fundamental that has to be there every night in order for us to have a chance to win. Simplify and let her focus on things that I know are important to her."
DeMoss has noticed how Summitt now gathers her thoughts and measures her words before speaking. She's also doing something that DeMoss could never convince her to do before, namely speak to players individually rather than rely on confrontation.
"She was all about in front of the whole team, put peer pressure on them," DeMoss said. "And now it's all about pulling them over to the side. She does that more now and it's been very effective."
Handling the situation
DeMoss has been impressed with how Summitt has stayed positive and avoided frustration. She also won't let those around her be saddened by the situation.
"Right now, she's real lighthearted about it," DeMoss said. "What else can you be? If you sit around and worry, worry, worry that's not going to change anything."
In that sense, Summitt might be assisting DeMoss, who described what she went through with her mother as "probably the hardest thing that I've ever had to go through."
Going down this coaching path with her friend, DeMoss has relied on what essentially has become a "Mickie-ism." She has stayed in the moment and tried to appreciate every one of them.
"I really try to focus on day to day," she said, "and enjoy every day I get to spend around Pat."