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Days of Grace

By Elaine Cassel

A few days after his second cardiac bypass surgery, tennis star Arthur Ashe's post-surgical recovery was proceeding slowly. His doctor offered something that would hasten the healing process--a blood transfusion. Neither Ashe nor his physician had any way of knowing that this medical procedure carried with it a death sentence.

It was 1983, before HIV and AIDS were household words. Blood donors were not tested for things routinely scanned for now--hepatitis and HIV. Ashe had no reason to think twice when his cardiologist said a couple of units of blood would help get him on his feet quicker. Five years later, in June of 1988, Ashe experienced some strange neurological symptoms. Blood drawn to help diagnose the problem confirmed that he had the HIV-virus, irrefutably traceable to the ill-fated transfusion. Bad news, no doubt, but not something that Ashe could not handle. After all, he may never contract AIDS, he reasoned. Such optimism, common to Ashe who had struggled with heart disease since a young man, was short lived. A troubling CT scan led to a brain biopsy and a diagnosis of toxoplasmosis, a not uncommon brain infection but one that confirmed that Ashe had full-blown AIDS. Ashe kept this fact from all but his closest friends and family until a media leak in April 1992 forced him to disclose it to the world.

Days of Grace (Ballentine, 1994), which Ashe wrote during the time between what he refers to as his "coming out" and his death on February 6, 1993, provides students of developmental psychology with inspiring examples of how Ashe dealt with the challenges of Erikson's psychosocial stages. Ashe lost his mother at the age of seven. He was raised by a loving father, who saw potential in the way the young Ashe handled a racket and ball and who nurtured his son's athletic talent. As a young boy, he achieved success both as a student and as a budding tennis star.

That Ashe achieved greatness as one of tennis's most admired champions is even more remarkable considering the setting in which he grew up-- Richmond, Virginia, where schools, churches, playgrounds, and tennis courts were segregated, and where, even in 1996, a racially-oriented protest marred the placement and dedication of a statue in his honor. Ironically, his identity as a black tennis champion did not endear him to members of his own race, many of whom resented his participation in a sport where blacks were not welcome and his refusal to boycott Davis Cup tournaments in South Africa. But when the white South African government denied him a visa to play in the prestigious South African Open in 1969, he became a visible supporter of the anti-Apartheid movement. Black South Africans attributed Ashe's embrace of their cause as one of the high points of the civil rights movement in their country. After Ashe's first heart by-pass surgery in 1979 forced him to abandon tournament play, he found a new identity as coach of the American Davis Cup team and political activist.

Though Ashe achieved intimacy through a solid, loving marriage that nurtured him through the highs and lows of life, he felt that he never recovered from the loss of his mother at such a young age. He believed that his somewhat withdrawn and reticent personality (which critics characterized as aloofness) arose from this unresolved grief, which he explored in psychotherapy in 1975 after suffering from a depression he attributed to the let-down of winning Wimbledon and being named the number one player in the world.

Since Days of Grace was written in the final months of his life, we see how Ashe handled Erikson's last stage--integrity versus despair. Readers may be surprised to learn that it was not achieving tennis greatness that he considered his greatest accomplishment. Rather, it was his reputation as a man of impeccable integrity in dealing with his competitive peers and the press. Indeed, he was saddened by the malicious and untruthful tabloid rumors that he contracted the HIV virus through sexual promiscuity or illicit intravenous drug use.

Though the title refers to what Ashe felt were the blessings of his short but happy life, readers may find in it another meaning. Ashe was a compassionate man, a gentle man and gentleman, who had learned to forgive those who betrayed him (he believes a journalist who had been a friend from childhood may have tipped off the press to his illness), to live his life to the fullest in spite of discrimination and criticism, and to handle life's bad bounces--including heart disease and AIDS--with grace.

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