Commentary

Memories of the love of my life

Updated: July 28, 2011, 12:47 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Snow HintonCourtesy Tyler HintonSnow Hinton at the top of Blood Mountain, one of the early peaks on the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia all the way to Maine. She longed to hike all 2,200 miles of the trail, all by herself.

There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed

RYE, England, 1987 -- Snow leaned toward me across the tiny table. Her whisper was barely more audible than a breath.

"My mother," she said, "taught me that no one should ever hear my knife and fork touching my plate. But this place is so quiet, I can't help it."

In those days, the richer the British, the quieter they were. So in the Mermaid, a 15th-century inn in East Sussex, this was like dining in a mausoleum. The only sounds were the occasional, muffled "Lovely" from a server, or the murmur of a Welshman in the old language at the next table.

I consciously tried to hear Snow's knife and fork touching her plate. I couldn't. But she could.

 

That was the only time I ever saw her uncomfortable in any social situation, in 37 years of knowing her and 28 years of marriage.

***

Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain

GREENSBORO, N.C., 2011 -- Some of you know, but others might wonder, where I've been the past couple of months.

I was out while my wife was dying, and in the aftermath.

You might find it ludicrous for an overweight, balding, graying old man to speak of the love of his life.

[+] EnlargeEd & Snow Hinton
Courtesy Hinton familySnow and Ed were married in Cortland, N.Y., in 1983, while down South, there was bewilderment over and even opposition to the wedding of the quintessential lady to the headstrong sports writer.

But I was not always this way. And even as I became so, she never saw anyone but the 175-pounder with the curly hair who told stories for a living.

You look at me now and you figure I must have been married to some plump Southern woman who made biscuits and cornbread.

Not even close. She was an Easterner through and through, although no Northern woman ever understood the South better.

She was never fat, nor anything but beautiful and dignified and poised, even in her final hours of consciousness.

She died in her sleep, in the wee hours of a Monday in June. It was just the two of us, in our North Carolina house.

After March, she couldn't go back to her favorite place, in the north Georgia mountains, a house that sits between two game trails where the deer and bears and wild turkeys would parade by to see her in the early mornings and late afternoons.

As her life ebbed, and the hospice nurses came and went, and I administered the painkillers, I would have to take little breaks.

I would go out and sit where the TV set was muted, but always on, always on one channel.

That final weekend, Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans , the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was in progress, live on Speed TV.

As the prototypes would flash through Tertre Rouge and onto the Mulsanne Straight, to no sound other than the rhythmic hissing of the oxygen machine, I would fall to weeping silently, with the despair of the present and the joy of the past. Que de bon temps! Such good times.

***

LE MANS, France, 1995 -- A couple of hours into the 24, the champagne was flowing. This was in the sprawling, glass and gilded penthouse room of the new tower building overlooking Circuit de la Sarthe.

Below, the prototypes darted off Arnage corner and down through the curves toward the pit straight.

Snow, effervescent as the Moët et Chandon, was of course making new acquaintances left and right. I just stood there amazed yet not surprised.

I had covered this race before, but never quite like this. All the power and prestige of Sports Illustrated, my employer of the time, wouldn't have gotten us up here.

No, this was all Snow. When she came to Le Mans, her French friends pulled out all the stops to please her.

Our son, Tyler, then 7, had become one of the youngest persons ever admitted to the paddock there -- not because he was my son but because he was Snow's son.

But up in the tower, Tyler grew weary of the party. He wanted to go back to the hotel.

She was Tyler's mom first and Snow a distant second. Even before sunset, the most spectacular time at Le Mans, she took him back to the hotel and stayed there with him.

Up in the tower, the party continued, a little less effervescent in the absence of Snow.

***

All that ever threatened the youth in her face was the chemotherapy. All that ever drained her energy was the radiation.

[+] EnlargeAudi and Peugeot
Jean-Francois/Getty ImagesOn the final weekend of Snow Hinton's life, the race where she had once been such a beloved presence, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was in progress.

The first fight, in 2000, she won in a rout, and that rich, flowing hair returned. It didn't fall out for keeps until late in cancer's massive and decisive counterattack of 2009-'11.

Both times, her doctors at Duke University Medical Center marveled at how fit she was, how otherwise healthy -- "except," as she would quip to them, "for this cancer-growing thing I have in my genes."

***

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall

She was not aristocratic by birth, just by nature. She was, on paper, a college dropout from Ilion, N.Y., who managed to do all right anyway.

But nobody ever talked with her for more than 10 minutes without realizing how intelligent, sophisticated, witty and wise she was.

She had entered college at barely 17, something of a prodigy. But at 18 she had to watch her mother die of cancer, just as her mother's mother had died. Snow never really recovered from that -- "She wasn't finished with me yet," she said of her mother.

Devastated, feeling adrift, Snow left college and went to work in Syracuse for a while, then wandered at age 21, on a lark with a girlfriend, to Florida.

Her failure to finish college was her great regret, but it was the great good fortune of so many of us. Had she stayed on track, she might have set Madison Avenue on fire in marketing or advertising, or Wall Street in the securities industry.

And none of us would ever have met her. Maybe heard of her, or read about her, but never met her.

Many a time I saw her cry about what she considered her lack of education. But she had taught herself public relations, human resources, finance, interior design …

***

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., 1973 -- She was a favorite of the France family, especially their wives. She fit in naturally.

It was the second czar of the NASCAR dynasty, Bill France Jr., who dubbed her Snow Bird.

Snow and Sharon France, wife of Bill Jr.'s younger brother, Jim, were in their early 20s, younger than the rest. They would escape the folderol of big business by spending afternoons making frozen daiquiris in Sharon's kitchen.

Snow and her first husband, Joe Whitlock, then chief publicist for NASCAR, were regulars on Bill France Sr.'s yacht. An experienced skipper, Whitlock would run the boat out to the Bahamas and back, crisscrossing the Bermuda Triangle.

It was the old man himself, Big Bill, the founder of NASCAR, who taught Snow how to fish in the Caribbean.

Even in her final months, many years later, Snow still would laugh with amazement about Willard, the Bahamian mate on the boat. He would snorkel dive with a spear gun and come up with half a dozen lobster tails on the spear shaft. He would remove the heads and claws on the way back to the surface. Back on board, he would have a scotch and milk.

After Snow died, I got a letter from Jim France. At her funeral, there were flowers from the France family.

The Frances and I had our differences over the years. Our relationship was somewhat adversarial by its nature -- sports journalist trying to tell the truth, and sports management trying to run and promote a business.

But that never lessened their fondness for Snow.

***

ANNISTON, Ala., 1974 -- It was on a summer Talladega weekend, by the swimming pool at the Downtowner in Anniston, that I first saw this younger, sleeker version of the then-hot model Lauren Hutton.

"That's Whitlock's wife," someone whispered a warning. "He'll deck you just for looking at her the wrong way."

I wasn't nearly scared enough of Whitlock to turn my eyes away from this sight. (Besides, I had on sunglasses.)

Pamela Snow Hinton
Courtesy Hinton familyPamela Snow Hinton often drew comparisons to model and actress Lauren Hutton -- for obvious reasons.

I kept looking. I never really stopped.

I married someone else for a few years, while Snow's self-described "Yankee stubbornness" kept her mired for nine years in a bad marriage to a man 16 years her elder.

Through the years, Snow and I talked more and more, grew closer and closer. Once, at Darlington, we sat up all night by the pool, just talking. About everything.

Meanwhile, she became the class act of a sport she didn't really care for. Media people gravitated toward Whitlock, and the drivers whose images he developed, such as Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, mainly so we could be around Snow. And she was the one who did all the hard work anyway, while Whitlock drank and jawed.

Then, in the early years of NASCAR's popularity boom, she became the right hand of master promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler at Charlotte Motor Speedway. When corporate chieftains would visit, to see whether they wanted to pour sponsorship money into this rough-hewn sport, Humpy would put Snow up front to deal with them so that their first impressions would be that NASCAR was a class act.

One evening in 1981, Whitlock came up to me at a party in Atlanta, clapped me on the back and said in a low tone, "It's over between Snow and me."

I feigned surprise. But I had known for months that she would leave -- Whitlock, NASCAR, all of it.

***

Not for another decade, in another marriage, would Whitlock kill himself, with a shotgun, completing his life-patterning after Ernest Hemingway.

When we heard, Snow and I both cried, just as we would after yet another decade, when I had to tell her on the phone from Daytona that Earnhardt was dead but that it wouldn't be announced for another couple of hours.

I told her so she wouldn't have to hear it on TV.

"You and me are -- well -- you and me," Earnhardt had told me, meaning all our run-ins. "But Snow Whitlock will always be a friend of mine."

He shook his head apologetically.

"I can't say 'Snow Hinton,'" he said.

"I know you can't," I said.

***

Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all

ATLANTA, 1983 -- When word got out that Snow and I planned to marry, it sent rumbling through motor racing, and Southern sports in general.

It started when a friend of mine, sportscaster Skip Caray, announced the engagement during an Atlanta Braves game telecast. Skip concluded in a faux-somber tone, "Ms. Whitlock, you have our deepest sympathy."

Word rippled across the Atlantic. "Oh! Zis cannot be! I want to marry Snow," I was told that Benoit Froger, the marketing director and de facto boss of Le Mans, had said when he heard.

Caray and Froger were kidding -- sort of.

Others weren't. Some seriously objected. Some even phoned her and tried to bring her to her senses.

"I can't believe she's marrying me," I told a longtime friend and colleague at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"Frankly, neither can anybody else," he said.

I was, they felt -- or knew -- a headstrong, irreverent, carousing sports writer, devoid of everything they saw in Snow -- class, dignity, poise, charm, warmth, wit, manners, kindness, sweetness.

She was unperturbed by all the warnings. If anything, she was offended. How dare anyone question her judgment?

She changed me. Everybody would acknowledge eventually that she changed me.

Even at her funeral, some would come to me and speak only of the part of me that she brought out and nurtured and magnified so that I could stand in her glow and almost appear classy myself.

Some still don't understand this marriage. Some never will.

All I know is, she loved me.

I don't know why.

***

PITTSBURGH, 1983 -- She had learned to live with her full maiden name, Pamela Snow White.

Her father had hated "Pamela," the name her mother gave her, and claimed rights to the middle name. He thought it was cute, never reckoning the torture it would carry.

I never forgave him for that, mainly because, to his dying day, he never once called her anything but "Pamela" or "Pam." Yet he'd tagged her for life with "Snow White" to explain.

But she was OK with it, and so was I -- until midway through the first NFL season of our marriage.

The night before a Steelers game, I was at dinner with a group of sports writers. One of them really worked at being a smart-ass. His ambition was to be a drive-time radio jock.

Someone asked what my new wife's maiden name was. I said White.

"Snow White?" the smart-ass said. "Hinton, you married a stripper!"

I nearly went over the table after him. His remark was precisely 180 degrees off the way she really was.

That night, I developed a chip on my shoulder about her name that I carry to this day.

***

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you

All I ever did was get on airplanes, write stories and draw paychecks. She did everything else. Everything.

Everything we have is because of her.

Tyler Rockwell Hinton, now 23, law student with a clear sense of purpose and direction, is what he is, and will be what he will be, because of her, not me.

[+] EnlargeSnow and Tyler Hinton
Courtesy Hinton familySnow Hinton holds son Tyler on a boat on the Seine, 1992. When Tyler, then 4, tired of walking in Paris, Snow carried him on her hip down the high-fashion Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, then onto the boat.

He is her masterpiece.

When Snow learned she was pregnant, she immediately became fanatical about her health and his. When friends would invite her to parties, she would answer: "Can't drink, can't smoke, can't dance, can't joke." She meant it.

The pattern of Tyler's upbringing was set in his infancy. While she was nursing him, I was off to Australia. The day he said his first words, she put him on the phone when I called from the Olympics in South Korea.

Tyler started school in the Sports Illustrated years, when sometimes at night the phone would ring and I would pick up and talk, then Snow would have two quick questions: "Where?" and "When?"

The answer might be "Japan. Tomorrow." Or, "Monaco. Right now."

Go.

That was SI in its heyday.

Or maybe the trip was to Detroit or Buffalo, or even, once, Regina, Saskatchewan, for the Grey Cup game. I came home from that one with the flu.

I ran a high fever for days, was bedridden for three weeks. Count 'em: three. A family friend, Dr. Jerry Punch, told me later that it was the harshest strain of flu in many winters.

Snow was there every minute.

Many years later, while she was dying, she grew fretful that she was so much trouble to me. I asked her, "If this situation were reversed, what would you do for me?"

She hushed, smiled faintly, slept.

***

Tyler never had a baby sitter. Wherever Snow went, she took him, teaching him the manners her mother had taught her. Never did he shriek or cry on airplanes, in restaurants, at symphonies or Broadway shows -- certainly never at her beloved Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in the Buckhead district of Atlanta.

***

PARIS, 1992 -- Tyler, age 4, was tired of walking. He wasn't crying, but he was grumpy.

She carried him on her hip down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, probably the highest-fashion street in the world. Among the elegant customers at Cartier and Hermès, she was the only one with a kid.

Then she carried him onto a boat for a ride on the Seine. When he tired of that, she carried him off and put him on a carousel on the Quai Saint-Michel.

She searched the cafes until she found him a hot dog.

When he refused to go to sleep amid the Left Bank night life, she picked him up and carried him so he wouldn't be burned by the cigarette of a passerby.

***

MONTE CARLO, Monaco, 1995 -- I don't think I ever saw her happier, more at ease, than in the tiny principality.

I didn't know Van Cleef & Arpels from Zales until she taught me.

This was the way a city was supposed to be run. This was the way people were supposed to behave: with quiet dignity.

In the Café de Paris near the old casino, Tyler at lunch said the sauce on his spaghetti was cold. She taught him how to send his food back and still be polite to the waiter.

Tyler didn't care much for Monaco. Too many jewelry stores and casinos. A nearby city had more attractions for kids, and Tyler punned that "Nice is nice."

***

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., 2000 -- "Joined at the hip" as she often said they were, she knew Tyler must one day go out on his own. To prepare for that, she sent him off to a boarding school in Virginia for the summer when he was 12, mainly so he would have to confront and conquer homesickness.

No sooner had he settled into his dorm room than he wanted to go home. I wanted to give in. She held firm. They were having a pool party for the new students. We took him down there. I couldn't stand to watch him walk toward the pool alone and clearly miserable. I wanted to go get him.

She was driving. She drove away, the whole 30-odd miles back to Charlottesville before she stopped, and then she parked the car and sobbed. This was, she was certain, something we must do, not to Tyler, but for Tyler.

And here's what made it even more gutsy on her part: She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

He went up to Virginia as a child. He came home as an assertive adolescent with a budding sense of independence.

Meanwhile, she beat that breast cancer flat -- we thought -- without even a mastectomy. (Nearly a decade later, the primary tumor on the upper lobe of her right lung would develop, curiously enough, directly in the path of the radiation for the breast cancer.)

***

OXFORD, Miss., 1997 -- She was the great-great-granddaughter of a major in the 2nd New York Artillery.

When, in North Carolina, some fellow members of the Daughters of the American Revolution raised eyebrows upon learning she didn't also qualify for membership in the Daughters of the Confederacy, Snow up and joined the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

That put a stop to that little punch-bowl banter.

Yet she could go with me to Mississippi and instinctively love that deep, flat sea of dirt called the Delta, dotted with the blues towns.

Her favorite hotel in all the world was the Peabody in Memphis, and she would grow childlike with glee in the afternoons in the vast lobby bar when the trained wood ducks and mallards would parade from the fountains.

How the literati of Oxford and Ole Miss loved her. Willie Morris would write her long letters on the flyleaves of his books, beginning, "Dearest Snow …"

(On a flyleaf to "Good Ol' Boy," Willie wrote to a child: "To Tyler Hinton, a half-Yankee, half-Southern good ol' boy.")

[+] EnlargeAmberley, an English village
Courtesy Hinton familyThe outskirts of one of Snow Hinton's favorite English villages, Amberley in West Sussex. In such places, she would meticulously examine the furniture, trying to guess the ages of the pieces.

All was well on the storied square in Oxford whenever, amid a tableful of people at City Grocery -- the understated name of one of the finest restaurants in the South -- Snow sat shoulder to shoulder with literary matriarch Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of Nobel laureate William Faulkner, speaking and laughing softly while the rowdy storytelling continued all around them.

As we drove through an old Oxford neighborhood one afternoon, Snow suddenly said, "Stop the car!" She had spotted a rundown mansion. She had to get out and have a look.

Federalist architecture, she explained. Magnificent. All around the perimeters of the yard, there were anchors of long-gone iron fences.

She wanted this house. Dilapidated as it was, maybe she could make a deal on it.

We went back and asked Dean and Larry Wells.

Wouldn't you know, it was "The Sound and the Fury house," as Larry called it. The missing iron fences long ago had confined a mad youth, the model for Benjamin Compson, who told William Faulkner's Shakespearean "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

And now the house was owned by an eccentric millionaire in Memphis who used it only on Ole Miss football weekends but wouldn't let it go for less than a gazillion dollars -- and probably wouldn't let it go at all.

Snow was heartbroken.

But the point here is, her tastes were instinctive and impeccable, about anything, anywhere.

I always had a terrible time with her in the old inns of England. She was always turning the chairs and smaller pieces upside down, examining them, figuring out their age according to whether they'd been assembled with wooden pegs or hewn nails.

Her grandmother had been one of New York state's most respected antique dealers and had taught her from childhood.

Once, Snow sat gazing at an enormous old wardrobe in our room for a long time, like a chess master at a board. I wanted to go downstairs for a pint. She wouldn't budge until she'd figured out why she'd never seen a piece like this before.

Finally, "I know," she said. "See how heavy it is? Too expensive to send on a sailing ship. That's why nothing like this ever got to America."

Satisfied, she went with me down to the pub and had a sherry.

***

And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new

JAMESTOWN, N.C., Christmas Day, 2004 -- She was the perfect age for the Beatles. She was 13 when they first crossed the pond. Her older sister was among the squealers and screamers in Shea Stadium in New York for the opening of the first North American tour in 1965.

But her sister was dead now, mysteriously, on an island off the coast of Central America. Judith had always been an adventurer, far wilder than Snow. So when the State Department had phoned, Snow had been saddened but not surprised.

And now this Christmas, some new set of CDs of every song the Beatles had ever recorded had been released, and I got it for Snow as a stocking stuffer.

By midday, presents had been opened, Tyler was off to hang out with neighbor kids, houseguests were out for walks and Christmas dinner was cooking but under control. It was just the two of us.

Snow took that boxed set, read the index, pulled out one CD, put it on the player, selected one song:

"In My Life."

For years, on planes, and in press boxes and media centers waiting for events to begin, I had played this same song, the Judy Collins rendition, thinking of Snow, our lives before and our life together.

But we had never spoken of this.

I just stood there looking at her. She stood there looking at me, smiling. We'd been married more than 21 years. I was now balding, overweight, graying. She was still beautiful, still elegant.

"That [song] is how I feel about you," she said.

"And I," I said, "about you."

We met in the middle of the hardwood floor and embraced, hugged each other for dear life, for a long time, sort of swaying, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney continued their timeless song.

She was in her stocking feet. Always in her stocking feet. Never wore shoes in the house. Would have gardened in her stocking feet if she could. Would have walked the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and Broadway and Piccadilly Circus in her stocking feet if she could. Would have stood as an activist mom before city councils and county commissions and walked the halls of Mashburn Elementary and Southwest Guilford High School and Auburn University in her stocking feet if she could. Would have conducted business in her stocking feet if she could. Would have climbed Blood Mountain, her favorite on the Appalachian Trail, in her stocking feet if she could.

Maybe it was because of her 5-foot, 9-inch height that she never felt comfortable in shoes. Whatever the reasons, Lord knows how many thousand pairs of pantyhose that woman went through, just wearing out the toes and heels.

***

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before

 

DURHAM, N.C., November 2009 -- Vicky Seewaldt and Snow Hinton had become friends, kindred spirits, almost sisters, in the past decade. Today, Vicky had cleared her entire afternoon's schedule for Snow.

Victoria L. Seewaldt, M.D., is a world-class cancer researcher, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine. Snow was one of her star patients, one of her great success stories. Together, they had beaten the breast cancer.

[+] Enlarge Dr. Victoria Seewaldt
Stephen Lovekin/WireImageDr. Victoria Seewaldt, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine, had helped Snow Hinton defeat cancer the first go-round.

This was different. On a breast MRI, a radiologist had seen something he didn't like on the upper lobe of the right lung. Vicky had fast-tracked Snow to thoracic surgeons who found metastatic lung cancer. Stage 4.

She had quit smoking 15 years earlier, but there was that bad gene pool on her mother's side, and there'd been the breast radiation years before.

A perfect storm.

And now, after more than two hours in Vicky's office, Snow had one last question: "Will I be able to see Tyler graduate from college?"

That was six months away.

"I think you'll be alive then," Vicky said. "I don't know what kind of condition you'll be in."

Six months.

"I need not only to get him graduated," Snow said, "but I need to get him settled into law school, and I really need to get him through that first year."

Short of that, Snow wasn't going to play. The chemo and radiation in 2000 had been one thing, when Tyler was 12 and Vicky held out hope for years of normal life.

Now, no more. Not for six lousy months. Call off the dogs and put out the fire. This hunt is over.

***

I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more

Vicky recommended at least a visit with another world-class physician at Duke, someone who specialized specifically in thoracic oncology.

Enter Gordana Vlahovic, M.D., East European by birth and training, strong, compassionately candid, no-nonsense, just what Snow needed now, a tough woman to treat a tough woman in a tough situation.

"This is not some little breast cancer," Vlahovic told her, dismissing the earlier ordeal as if it had been measles. "This is big. Bad."

But, Vlahovic proposed, let's try an initial three rounds of chemo, then do a scan and see where we are.

"I will never lie to you," Vlahovic promised.

OK. Snow would play, with one thing understood: "I'm looking only for quality of life, not quantity."

Three rounds, one scan: The primary tumor was significantly reduced, and the metastatic areas in her skeletal system were at a standstill.

Snow, having banned me from the examining rooms because I had too many extraneous questions, demanded an estimate of how much time she had. I wasn't there, but I can imagine those two strong women, those two pairs of eyes in a stare-down.

Vlahovic blinked. Maybe two years, but only if Snow did exactly as she said.

"If you'll give me two years," Snow said, "I'll learn to walk on my hands if you tell me to."

Keep very fit. Stay very active. Do everything you've always done. Stay positive. Keep busy.

Snow laughed that evening, when we went to a Ruth's Chris Steak House to celebrate. Vlahovic hadn't asked her to do a single thing out of the ordinary.

She wore one of her Hermès scarves from long-ago Paris. She was nearly 58 years old, and as elegant as she'd been at 28. Every server of every type in the restaurant seemed to gravitate to our table -- all to her, none to me.

***

AUBURN, Ala., May 2010 -- The young tenor's voice rang through the coliseum with the first strains of the Auburn alma mater.

On the rolling plains of Dixie
'Neath its sun-kissed sky

From the corner of my eye, I saw the tears on Snow's face.

She had made it. Not only that, she looked and acted fine, completely normal.

Here was her only child, getting that diploma she never got -- in, of all places, Alabama, a state she had despised when she first came south, and at, of all places, Auburn, a school she'd gotten a terrible first impression of soon after she'd married me.

***

NEW ORLEANS, 1983 -- Our first winter together, I was assigned to the Sugar Bowl, Auburn versus Michigan. I had been in New Orleans for days when she flew in on New Year's Eve morning.

[+] EnlargeCafe de Paris
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesIt was in the Café de Paris, near the storied Monte Carlo casino, that Snow taught Tyler, at age 7, to send his food back when he was displeased with it but still be polite to the waiter.

We were in the Hyatt Regency adjacent to the Superdome. Just a few trips up and down in those elevators, and she came back to the room livid.

"Tell you what," she said. "If one more of those maniacs gets in my face and screams, Waaaaaaar EAGLE! I'm going to scream right back in his face, "FUUUUUUU-- YOU!"

"Just football fans," I said, and laughed.

"It's not funny. These people are insane. Scary. And drunk."

She got on the phone and changed her plane reservation back to Atlanta -- to New Year's morning. She wasn't about to stay for the game.

Pete Fountain played for the Sugar Bowl New Year's Eve party, and Snow dulled her loathing of the Auburn masses with champagne.

Still, she was up at 7 a.m., and when I put her in the cab, I heard her tell the driver, "Get me OUT of here!"

"We gone," he said, and off they went.

***

AUBURN, Ala., 2010 -- Now, as Tyler graduated, she cheered and clapped along to the beat of the exit music, the Auburn fight song:

Waaaar Eagle, fly down the field
Ever to conquer, never to yield
Waaaar Eagle, fearless and true
Fight on, you orange and blue

Tyler had been accepted to more than a dozen colleges, including Syracuse University with a chancellor's scholarship, but she wouldn't let him go to her homeland because she deemed it too cold and bleak for a Southern-raised boy.

Somehow he fell in love with Auburn at first sight, and she did, too.

And by now, Snow had become as rabid a Southeastern Conference football fan as you'll ever meet. If there'd been a Make-A-Wish program for adults like there is for kids, I'd have asked for the mascot, Aubie the Tiger, to come visit her.

Or maybe violent defensive lineman Nick Fairley, who electrified her final autumn. After he took out Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and a brawl broke out on the field, Snow happily reminded me that "he's the one who did Mallett, too."

Previously, Fairley had knocked Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett out of a game.

"'Did' Mallett?" I said. "My God, you've developed the taste for violence of a defensive coordinator!"

This, from a woman who a few years earlier would turn her head and refuse to watch even a fistfight in a movie.

She hated LSU. Lord, that woman loathed LSU as much as the Crimson Tide itself. But when Tyler got a nice scholarship offer from LSU Law, she dutifully accompanied him, sick as she was, on a visit to Baton Rouge. Tyler wound up telling LSU no thanks, on his own, but to her great relief.

She saw him graduate from college, and she lived through that notoriously difficult first year of law school, through sheer will, I thought.

***

JASPER, Ga., 2010 -- The driveway looked as steep as an Austrian ski slope. It climbed straight up the mountain and disappeared into the forest. You couldn't tell what was up there.

But, "This is it," Snow said.

This was the address. The real estate agent would be along shortly. Snow was driving. She looked up the mountain one more time, crossed herself in the high-church Episcopalian way, and floored the accelerator of that little blue Mercedes of hers.

Up we went. Pretty scary. But we got there.

Only three of her five closest friends knew she was dying. One had suggested an extended trip to Rome and Paris. Another said tulip time in Holland. I said take your pick. Anything.

But why, Snow asked, would she go someplace like those and accept a bad-movie-script ending? Dying woman travels abroad, etc.

Anything, I said. Anything.

She had lived in Atlanta for 17 years, and I for 22. To a New York girl and an old Mississippi boy, and their Atlanta-born son, this was home. She had always loved the mountains to the north -- "MY mountains," she called them.

[+] EnlargeSnow Hinton
Courtesy Nancy Garlock WhiteDuring Snow's childhood in Ilion, N.Y., her parents never called her anything but "Pamela," even though her father had tagged her with the difficult-to-live-with full name of Pamela Snow White.

She had long wanted a house up there, or a cabin -- or, hell, a tent.

She used to go up Blood Mountain like a deer, while Tyler and I huffed and puffed and bickered behind her.

She wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, all the way from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2,200 miles, a four-month ordeal to mortals. Neither Tyler nor I had the time or the inclination, so she wanted to do it by herself.

I was always afraid she would be mauled by a bear if she accidentally walked between a mama and her cubs. She had come close to that a time or two.

By now, though, knowing her, I understood that being killed by a bear would be far more acceptable to her -- like the character Tristan in the film "Legends of the Fall" -- than dying in some hospital bed.

So now, I meant to turn her loose in her mountains, set her as free as she could be at this point.

We climbed up onto the back deck of the house and peeked through the windows, and far across the vast expanse of empty hardwood floors, we could see out the front windows, too, to the peaks beyond.

This was the place. We knew immediately. But Snow kept her poker face. "Very nice," was the most she would say to the real estate agent. "We'll see."

The builder had meant it for himself, but had died just before it was completed. It was owned by a local bank.

From a distance, from our home in North Carolina, Snow played poker with the bankers, never blinking, giving them the indication that she had all the time in the world …

Truth was, her clock was ticking faster now. The cancer had started to grow again, and Dr. Vlahovic was considering clinical trials …

The bankers blinked. Snow got the house at her price. She won.

She spent the fall and winter putting the finishing touches on that house, putting in appliances, furnishing, decorating … and with bears everywhere -- little sculptures of bears, photos of bears, paintings of bears, stuffed bears …

High on a wall of the master bath, she stenciled this:

"Dream until your dreams come true."

***

DURHAM, N.C., May 2011 -- Snow couldn't even stand up, let alone get off the hotel shuttle. The driver saw this. Arriving in front of Duke's Morris Clinic, he called for a wheelchair. He carried her off the shuttle himself. Orderlies rolled her down the corridors to Dr. Vlahovic's office.

The technician taking her blood pressure said, "This can't be right."

She tried again, shook her head, thought the device was malfunctioning and went to get another.

And there it was again. Blood pressure: 60 over 30.

Barely alive.

In March, she had left the Georgia house to drive alone to North Carolina for treatment. She said she'd be right back -- three or four days at most.

She insisted I stay there in the mountains. A few days later, she phoned. The latest scan showed several metastatic lesions on her brain.

Now all bets were off. No more chemo. No thoughts of clinical trials. For three weeks of daily brain radiation, all else stopped.

We feared that, without chemo, the disease would run wild from her neck down. What we didn't know was how the radiation would knock her flat physically.

Still she forbade me to come back to North Carolina. By now, I was traveling out of our beloved Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, rather than Greensboro. I was doing television satellite uplinks out of a racing museum in Dawsonville, Ga.

She insisted I keep at it.

"If I could go through this without you and Tyler even knowing it was going on," she said, "I would."

Now, with blood pressure at 60 over 30, she had no more defiance in her. She could only listen to Dr. Vlahovic.

She was forbidden to drive. She must allow me to come back to North Carolina. She was too weak even to be driven to Duke. She would be put in home care (a euphemism for home hospice care) at the Greensboro house.

And Gordana Vlahovic, M.D., who had promised she would never lie, told the final truth: She had run out of weapons for fighting the disease.

***

LONDON, 1987 -- Snow was old-school Anglican, and she seemed at home, at peace, in St. Paul's Cathedral. In its crypts, we happened upon the little tomb of Lord Nelson, the immortal Royal Navy commander, hero of Trafalgar.

Oh, the questions I would love to ask this little guy.

"You'll get to, someday," she said.

What?

"You'll get to meet him if you want."

She was serious. Well, then, what about the Duke of Wellington, nemesis of Napoleon?

"Wellington, too," she said.

"Churchill?"

"Churchill, too."

"But Churchill always said that when he got to heaven, he meant to spend a considerable part of his first million years painting landscapes."

"He'll be happy to talk with you while he paints. That's the way heaven works."

***

JASPER, Ga., 2011 -- We scattered her ashes down the mountainside in front of the house, near the lower game trail where the deer parade by in the early mornings and late afternoons, and the bears and their cubs amble past, all of them seeming to be looking for Snow.

The deer sometimes gaze up at me, their huge brown eyes sad, bewildered, as if to ask, "Where is she?"

Then they seem to sense her presence, sense that all is well.

In my life, I love you more.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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