A Friday late afternoon, early August, 2005.
The work week winding down. The bosses long gone for the weekend.
I had work to do but I didn't feel like doing it and anyway I knew whatever it was could wait until next week. I turned off my computer, said goodbye to the few remaining stalwarts in the office, got in the car, and headed on out to what we old folks used to refer to as a record store.
I needed some music.
I was home alone for the better part of two weeks.
At the time I had a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, ages six and a half years and nine months, and I had a beautiful home with a beautiful yard. A massive old tree, never sure exactly what it was, not being an arborist or anything, but it sure as hell was huge and it sure as hell was beautiful. It had to have stood at least ten stories high and it shaded the entire yard. In the fall, it would take a good week or so to rake up all its leaves.
It was the season of cancer, as I like to say. Or at least, my first exposure to it. Sure, my father's parents both died of it relatively young, at ages sixty and sixty-three, but I had mentally made exceptions for them. They ate horribly, never, and I mean never, exercised, and they smoked three to four packs of filterless a day. I didn't really count them in my personal statistical evaluation of the dangers of living; people, or at least people I knew and loved, didn't live like that anymore.
I was thirty-nine at the time, my parents still in their early sixties and healthy. My friends, with one notable exception, were healthy too, and even the exception, while stuck with a very serious and debilitating health problem, did at least not have cancer.
But within a week in July of 2005, I learned that both my father-in-law and a guy we'll just call The Mentor had cancer.
My wife was an only child, born and raised in the Lake District of England. When I asked her to marry me, I offered to move over there, as she was an only child, and I was one of four; when your parents get old, I had said, they might need you around.
Though she loved England with all her heart, and in fact she never even considered becoming an American citizen, she was hell-bent on living here. Her dad, my father-in-law, retired about a month before we got married in July of 1994. Don't worry, she told me. They'll spend a lot of time here, she said; maybe they'll move here eventually. They don't have much family left at home.
Eventually, they did spend a lot of time here. After we had our first child, our son Bailey, they would come and stay for weeks, and then months, at a time. First house we bought, in '98, was a two family, and for the last year and half we owned it, they were our tenants, renting the downstairs flat out from us.
We bought the house with the tree in 2001, and even then, they came out often and for long stretches. They adored Bailey. They would take him all over Albany, in our car and on buses. Somewhere I have a picture of Granville sitting in our back yard with Bailey, playing in a sandbox, both of them with toy hardhats on.
When they came for the annual spring visit, for April and May of 2005, I noticed something had changed in Granville. Always handy around the house, always willing to work on home improvement projects for us, he seemed to have lost his energy. We had decided to put a ceiling in on the stairs leading upstairs and he helped out of course, but one morning as we carried fairly light pieces of plywood in from the garage, I noticed him laboring, breathing heavily. He seemed to have lost weight. At night, after dinner, he would sit on the living room couch, cross his arms over his stomach, close his eyes, and rock back and forth.
For the first time ever, he got angry with Bailey, over relatively minor offenses. This, even more than the labored breathing and the rocking back and forth on the couch, alarmed us. He NEVER got angry with Bailey. Never.
At the annual Kentucky Derby party that May, several friends and family members caught me alone in corners of the kitchen, living room, yard, or garage, and said to me, is Granville sick? He doesn't seem himself.
He and my mother-in-law went home a week or so before Memorial Day, with plans to come back in July.
But in June, sick as a dog, he let my mother-in-law take him into the hospital. He was seriously jaundiced at this point. They ran some tests, did what they do. On July 4th weekend, 2005, they called to let us know that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
As stupid as it seems now, even then, we were not overly alarmed.
The pancreas, I said to Lauren, well, you can live without it. They'll take it out and he'll be fine. I had never known anyone who had pancreatic cancer, but I figured it was a relatively good cancer to get.
They were circumspect with us at first. They made it sound like there was hope. I started doing some online research into pancreatic cancer. What I found shocked me. With rare exceptions, I learned, it is deadly. A death sentence. One morning, as I read some new article about it to myself, Lauren cheerily asked me what I'd found. Can you print some stuff out for them, she asked. They don't have a computer.
I sat her down and gave her the lowdown. Told her there was little chance her dad would be alive a year from then.
Even then, she didn't seem to believe it. No tears, no anger. Then again, a part of her must have known.
Within a couple of days, she booked a flight over to the old country, three tickets, one for her, one for Bailey, one for Evie. She said she wanted to see him while he was still relatively well. I offered to go, to, but she said she wanted me to take vacation for a couple of weeks when she got back. She didn't want me to go with her and then go straight back to work.
I'm gonna need a little help when I get back, she said.
A few days later, I called The Big Cat to give him the news.
After I rambled on for awhile, as is my style, he interrupted me in mid-sentence, to tell me something.
The Mentor, his dad, had cancer.
Some sort of intestinal thing.
I was floored.
Cancer had come calling, as it will.
It sounded like The Mentor had more of a chance than my father-in-law. The Mentor was going to Boston to have the tumor removed; it was a delicate surgery, and he wanted the most expert surgeons he could get.
I called him The Mentor. He had taught me a lot, directly through his expertise in handicapping horse races, and indirectly through his expertise in handicapping horse races.
The first time I went to the races at Saratoga with him and The Big Cat was the summer of 1987, near the end of the season.
I used to bet every race they ran. He told me to save my money for the races I really liked, told me to skip the others. He taught me the value of patience, of not making a move too soon.
He sat out several races that first day and then he bet $200 to win on a horse who was 3-1 odds. It won, easily. He had me and The Big Cat go to the windows and cash the ticket, worth $880. It was the first time I had touched that much money. Even though I had to hand it over to him, it was a magical feeling.
An alien concept to me at the time.
But when I held all those hundred dollar bills in my hand, it started to make sense.
It was a something I came back to over and over again over the years, at the track and everywhere else.
Keep quiet. Sit still. Don't make a move until you have an advantage. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing you can do.
The guy had an irrepressible, child-like joy about him - I can still remember the last day of the 1992 Saratoga season, we waited around all day and as the sun got low in the Western sky, we plunged on an exacta, the first two finishers, in the seventh race, Forest Key to win and Embractania for second, and as they came down the homestretch, just like he called it, I looked down a couple of rows in front of me and, in what will always be my favorite memory of him, I saw him jumping up and down, pumping his fists into the air, like a little kid.
I never saw anyone metabolize loss the way he did. He could suffer the most brutal beat imaginable and, where most mortals would be left pissing and moaning about their bad luck, he'd turn around and tell us, that's life, boys, we'll get the next one.
A few weeks after Lauren died, he came up to the house one afternoon with a huge pan of chicken parm. The Mentor made a mean chicken parm and he knew I loved his, and he knew I needed it.
Look, buddy, he said with a smile.
You got lucky. People don't get the kind of thing you had with Lauren. It was beautiful. But it was a chapter in your life, and that chapter is over. You're young. You got these kids. You're young. You gotta go on and make some more chapters.
I drove Lauren, Bailey, and Evie down to Newark's airport on a Thursday afternoon. We got lost, but we got there on time. I walked them all to the gate and felt sick; she was weighed down with kids and bags and a stroller, and I felt like I should be going with her.
She gave me a kiss goodbye.
Wish me luck, she said with a wistful smile as we hugged goodbye.
I watched my family walk away from me and I got in my car and drove on back to upstate New York.
The next day, The Mentor had his surgery.
I left work early, feeling as though I needed to buy some music.
I bought a bunch of stuff, eight or nine CDs worth.
When I got home I looked through the pile, for the one that I needed to hear the most.
I picked "Fisherman's Blues" by The Waterboys.
I had bought it on LP when it first came out in 1988 or so, but by 2005, I no longer had any way to play LPs, and I had not heard the album, one of my all-time, nay, one of my top-ten ever, albums, in years.
In my hour of need, I knew this one, this collection, held the answer to my prayers.
I put in on at top volume, the house feeling incredibly huge and empty and lonely without Lauren and Bailey and Evie inside it, with her father dying, with The Mentor under the knife.
I called The Big Cat's wife for an update; things had gone well. They thought they got everything. He might make it up to Saratoga by the time the meet ended on Labor Day weekened.
I phoned in an order to the best Chinese place in Albany, cracked open another beer, and put "And A Bang On The Ear" on repeat at top volume. I had an acoustic guitar Lauren had gotten for me the prior Christmas; I removed it from its bag. I didn't really know how to play it, but I knew a few chords. I spent the next several hours getting drunk by myself and playing, and singing at the top of my lungs, along as best as I could to "And A Bang On The Ear."
Eight years on, that night remains one of my favorite memories.
Lauren's dad didn't last more than nine months. The Mentor, on the other hand, hung around for eight years. Wasn't always easy; to his regret and mine, for example, he had to sit it out the night Sheila and I got married a little over two years ago because of his chemo schedule.
But despite the troubles, for a lot of those eight years, he went on well. Lived it up, as best he could. Went on well pretty much straight until the end; he went away in March, came home in April, got real bad in mid-May, and died in early June.
It's gotta be close to four in the morning.
I shouldn't be up, but I am.
I think of the old saw: I can sleep when I'm dead.
I'm drinking beer and listening to "And A Bang On The Ear" over and over again.
The older you get, the more people around you die. If we're lucky, in a way that my own children were not, you start out losing grandparents in your teens. You get a bit of a respite in your 20's. Then in your 30's and 40's, you realize you're going to wakes and funerals more and more often. It starts to sink in pretty deep that you're gonna die someday, too, and if you're in your mid-to-late 40's, as am I, that day is getting a little too close for comfort.
So why not stay up all night?
Have a beer or ten, put a favorite tune on repeat, put a few thoughts down.
Raise a glass to Lauren, her Dad, The Mentor, and a few others; drain a glass, and then another, and then raise a fresh one to them. Send 'em my love, with a bang on the ear.