Potently Potable Goodbyes
I remember watching Jeopardy in the wood-paneled living room of my grandparent's house. We sat four cousins across with more on the floor, sprawled like puppies in front of an entertainment center that my grandpa built himself in the garage behind the house. I only remember watching three things at their house: Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and St. Louis Cardinals baseball.
I don't remember watching it with my parents at home. I'm sure we did from time to time but it wasn't until I met and married my husband that Jeopardy became a fixture in my life again. It's on every night while we cook dinner after putting our children to bed, and we just pass one another comfortably, calling out answers as we execute the complicated but well-practiced choreography of a couple preparing dinner together in a kitchen that is entirely too narrow and entirely too cluttered.
Until fairly recently, considering, my husband would record it and start watching at 7:35 so that we could fast forward through the interview portion.
Alex: Now, I hear that you have an interesting hobby?
Contestant: Yes, Alex. I like to dress up as a lobster and attend the Symphony.
Alex: I believe that you have an interesting story about growing up in Philadelphia?
Contestant: Yes, Alex. When I was a child in Philadelphia - about ten - I found a half eaten sandwich on a park bench and shared it with a pigeon who had a marking on his back shaped like a heart and that's how I became cardiologist.
Alex: You once had a harrowing trip to Florida?
Contestant: Yes, Alex. When I was a teenager, we took a trip to Florida and went on a fan boat tour of the Everglades where I thought I saw my baby sister get eaten by an alligator but it turns out that it was just an American Girl Doll that looked exactly like her that had fallen off the back of another fan boat. They turned the story into a TV movie called "Not My Baby."
"Really?" I would think. That's what you want to share with America? That's the tidbit about yourself that you want to lead with at the world's largest ice breaker activity?
And yet Alex would smile that patient, cheshire smile and we would fast forward straight through it.
When my dad was sick with cancer, he had chemotherapy once a week. My mother would drop him off for his four-hour infusions and then go to work and I would pick him up. Often, he was in the infusion lab alone, which he didn't mind. I sat with him several times and he apologized to me the whole time for the inconvenience. (My dad was the man who apologized to his surgeon while the man checked his incision. "Jeez, doc, I'm so sorry you had to save my life and now you have to change my gauze, too.")
Sometimes he would want to grab a late lunch. Sometimes he would want to drive through Starbucks. Sometimes, he would just want to go home and sleep in his recliner in front of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. I never cared. Did I know that he would die so soon? So suddenly? No. The doctors had promised us five years at least, maybe ten.
No. I didn't know.
But I did at the same time. I knew that fact in the deep, echoing part of my heart where all of the uncomfortable truths that I know are kept. Someday, I knew with absolute certainty, he would die.
But not that day. Not the Tuesday in May when I picked him up from chemotherapy and took him for a turkey reuben sandwich because it sounded good and he hadn't eaten since 6 that morning. Not when we drove down Shelbyville road through the lazy, mid-afternoon traffic with the sunroof open and the windows down because the weather was so perfect, so completely perfect, that if a person were to bottle the month of May, it would be filled with that day.
I loved driving my Dad. I loved everything about it. I loved teasing him for giving me directions to the home that I had been driving to for 15 years. I loved the smell of his black coffee. I loved the way he asked me about my day and be genuinely interested in the story. And even when he had bad days when the tumor started pressing on his spine and he had to use a walker, I loved getting it out of the trunk of my car for him and following him up the stairs.
I didn't love that he had the walker. I didn't love how much he resented it. I didn't love that tumor. I hated that fucking tumor.
But I loved him and every moment I had until the very moment he left us. I love him just as much still.
I remember the night after he died. It was a Monday. I sat on the couch in my mother's house, numb with grief, wrapped in my Dad's Chicago Cubs blanket, watching Jeopardy as I'd done every night since marrying my husband. It was a comforting sort of background noise for my despair.
Through my grief, through my pregnancy, after the birth of my daughter and through all the difficulties of new parenthood, Jeopardy was on in the background
Well, all of it but the interviews.
Then, Alex Trebek announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And I knew. I knew in that same, deep, echoing part of my heart that he would die before we were ready for him to. Because would we ever be ready to let him go? Would I ever have been ready to let my dad go? No. And no.
Suddenly, Alex Trebek asking a man from Topeka about how many Rush concerts he'd been to or hearing a woman from Spokane talk about the fact that she learned Klingon just so that she could claim to be bilingual on a college application, well, suddenly those moments felt a lot like driving my Dad home from chemotherapy.
I didn't fast forward anymore.
Just how my Dad and I used to share laughs on those drives home, I sometimes felt like Alex's wry smile was for me whenever Kevin from Wichita talked about his collection of cheeseboards or Sandra from Kennebunkport told a story about how she was in a coma for two years and came out of it knowing how to play Moonlight Sonata on the tuba (which is hilarious, Alex, because she'd never touched a tuba before in her life!).
And, really, those wry smiles were for me. But not just me. They were for us.
I've been whipped from one emotion to the next this past week, from despair to dread to hope to rage to excitement to sadness back to despair and then hope. When I got the news alert that Alex Trebek had died, I cried.
Not because I knew him (I obviously didn't) but because, in this miserable, godforsaken year where I am trapped at home and cut off from so much, Alex Trebek was a comfort. More than that, in these challenging, brutal four years wherein I lost my dad an found myself living in a country that I didn't recognize anymore though I had lived in it my entire life, Alex Trebek was more than just a comfort. He was steady.
The world might burn, my heart might consume itself with grief, my body might ache from the act of growing and birthing my children, my brain might cry out for relief after years without uninterrupted sleep, and I might feel as if life would never - COULD never - be simple again. And yet, regardless, at 7:30pm EST, Jeopardy comes on without fail. Alex Trebek greets us with a gentle presence and a bit of elegant snark and, if nothing else, the next half hour is predictable. Jeopardy. Interviews. Double Jeopardy. Final Jeopardy. All interspersed with commercials for erectile disfunction medications, AARP, and State Farm insurance.
I haven't watched it since he died. I can't. It was comforting to watch Jeopardy when my dad died. It is not comforting to watch it now knowing that, eventually, I'll watch his last episode. An episode, his producers say, he made it through by sheer force of will due to excruciating pain.
I've seen that kind of cancer pain and it will break my heart to watch that episode knowing that he was white-knuckling the podium, that he should have been home in bed, but that he refused because America needed him.
We did. We do. I did. I do.
In my Dad's eulogy, I quoted his favorite part from A Muppet Christmas Carol, where Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit says, "It's all right, children. Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it. I am sure that we shall never forget Tiny Tim, or this first parting that there was among us."
Life is a series of meetings and partings, friends. That is the way of it. I am sure that we shall never forget Alex Trebek or his departure from us. I don't know how they will find someone who can even approximate his presence. But they will try and we will move forward with them, knowing full well that it will never be the same.
I know. I do it every day.
I've thought a lot about what I would want Alex to ask me about myself or what story I would like to tell if I ever went on Jeopardy, and I've got it narrowed down to two finalists:
Once, when I was drowning in grief the night after my father died, one of the Double Jeopardy categories was Historical Novels and I knew every answer and it was probably the only thing that could have lifted my spirits that night.
One summer when I was a kid, Alex, my dad used to bribe me with My Little Ponies to get me to go with him to Civil War Reenactments and it was the weirdest, most awesome thing we shared that summer.
I think I would go with the second one. I can't be outdone by Wanda from Chicago and her story about serving Frank Sinatra wings.