Frank Deford’s reassuring voice is familiar to many for his sports commentary each Wednesday on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He is a senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, a commentator on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” and the author of 17 books. Deford went multimedia before it was journalism’s buzzword. The guy’s a machine and a stunning and versatile writer.
The book “Alex: The Life of a Child” chronicles the life of Frank and Carol Deford’s daughter, Alex, and the family’s experience raising a child with cystic fibrosis. Alex died in January 1980 at 8 years old. She was loved by many in her short time in the world. With the help of her father’s words, she’s continued to have a big impact.
Deford never stopped fighting for Alex in the 34 years since she’s died. He became deeply involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, serving for years as chair of the organization’s board of directors. He still serves in an honorary capacity.
His daughter always wished for a cure. That’s my wish, too. My son Eli, 1, has cystic fibrosis. I read the book as I traveled to Washington, D.C., in April for a conference to learn more about helping the cause to cure cystic fibrosis.
I caught up with Deford via email. Here is our Q&A:
Q: Something you mentioned that stuck with me is your emphasis on asking “Why” in situations at any hospital or clinic. You also emphasized how important it is to remain vigilant and watchful as a parent. You gave a terrible scenario in which your daughter’s lung collapsed, and a young doctor refused to listen to her, putting her in great danger for hours. Can you emphasize again — Why ask the doctor why? Do you feel it is still relevant today, so many years after your daughter’s passing?
A: I think all of us are intimidated by doctors, for our care is in their hands, and so few of us really understand medicine. That makes it very important to ask questions, to probe, to let the doctor know that we are paying attention. The good ones will appreciate your curiosity and are delighted to answer you. The not-so-good ones deserve to be held to account.
Q: Alex always prayed to help the less fortunate. With the adoption of your daughter Scarlet after Alex’s death, Alex got her prayer, to help a child living under hard circumstances find a loving home. Alex hasn’t yet gotten her wish, which was to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. How can we help Alex get her wish to cure cystic fibrosis?
A: Simple: by volunteering and contributing to the CF Foundation. When the cure comes, I’m sure that’s where it’ll come from.
Q: Has grief for your daughter Alex changed over the years, and if so, how?
A: Grief softens over time, but there is always some that stays with you. And so, too, do the wonderful memories of Alex.
Q: Have you ever worried that Alex would be too associated with the tragedy of her death?
A: Actually, I find that most people find Alex as a symbol of strength and courage. I continue to meet people, 34 years after her death, who go out of their way to tell me that she influenced their lives for the good.
Q: As you mention in your book, families can be pulled apart by this disease. High divorce rates. Alcoholism. Depression — all of it. Yet, your family remained close and strong. What advice would you give to other families dealing with cystic fibrosis?
A: I’d be presumptuous to answer that. Some things that work out cannot readily be explained, and they don’t necessarily have answers that apply to similar situations.
Q. If, somehow, blogging existed in the ’70s through 1980, do you think you would you have tried it out? Do you still keep journals, and if so, is that what you prefer to document personal experience?
A: No, I’d still prefer to have written a book about Alex. As a matter of fact, the only journal I ever kept was the one about Alex and (her brother) Christian in those few years of her life.
Deford’s latest book is “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.” Reporter Juliana Keeping chronicles survival tales at hithisiseli.com. Follow her @julianakeeping and @hithisiseli.