When I was eleven years old, my grandmother died of cancer.
To be honest, I don't remember very much about her anymore; twelve years is a long time and I've done a passable job of blocking out most of my life before I turned eighteen, either by way of whisky or just not sleeping very much for five straight years. But she was my favorite grandparent, of the four I had, and she was the first close relative I ever lost where I can really say I was there when it happened. I watched it go down firsthand on weekends in Long Island at my aunt's house, saw her wither away right in front of me over three months that felt, depending on the moment, ilke forever or no time at all.
It was Monday October 21st when I got home and saw my mother in tears, and I knew before she told me. The sequence I had been dreading began to play out, just the way I'd expected it. A quick car ride out to Brookville, where the family was already almost all gathered. All the comfort food we could eat, and nobody hungry. All the sad, tired familiar faces - some I could barely remember - all greeting me with the same effusive condolences. And I was eleven, remember, so it wasn't like I really had anything to say. And I was too old, I thought, too big to cry. So I did what I did best back then: I shut down. I went downstairs to the basement by myself and watched the Yankees get killed very softly by Greg Maddux in Game 2 of the World Series.
Yeah, I almost forgot. This was 1996. There was magic happening in New York that fall. Just not that night. And certainly not for me. So when the game was over, I shrugged my shoulders in mild disappointment, left my Yanks for done and went to sleep. I had a big day of Being Strong ahead of me the next day.
So...who here remembers their first funeral? There is no strength to be found there. This particular moment, the hour of actually saying goodbye (I hadn't been to the hospital in the week before; the adults had decided we kids shouldn't be subjected to that memory), drains every bit of resolve out of you. My grandmother was sixty-three, didn't smoke, had been working to get into better shape, and generally took better care of herself than anyone else in the family. And now she was gone, at random, faster than any of us could have thought. No one was in the mood to celebrate a life well-lived. We were still stuck on wondering where the hell Franny went.
The moment I lost the show was when my little sister and cousin went up and tearfully recited a poem my grandmother had taught them. I was done, right then and there. The tears that I had resolved not to shed burst forth, and death became real to me for the first time.
I needed an escape. And that night, I found one, right back in the basement, in the same room where I'd left Torre, Jeter and the rest of the boys that Monday night.
I saw Coney get the better of Tom Glavine in Game 3, and smiled a little bit, because my team was in the World Series and maybe, just maybe they weren't done yet. And then I saw the Jimmy Leyritz home run the next night, off of the now-famous "second best pitch" hanging slider from Mark Wohlers, and suddenly the Series was tied, and there was hope, and I wasn't thinking about that room in the funeral home and the Rabbi leading us in the Mourner's Kaddish, and me being one of them now, a Mourner, because someone I knew had died. There was something else going on, and I clung to it for dear life. And by Friday the 25th I was home, and back in class, and through the indifferently polite platitudes from classmates and teachers I nodded and said thank you, and was able to draw strength from the fact that I wasn't thinking about it, but instead I was thinking what a miracle it was that Andy Pettitte had outdueled the unhittable John Smoltz and that this weekend was gonna be huge, man, just crazy!
The next night, Saturday the 26th, I went to my best friend's house around six o'clock for pizza and to watch the game. We didn't talk about stuff, really, back then. Our friendship was based in Nintendo 64 and our love of the Knicks and the Yankees. So of course we were watching this game together. Just in case. I'd be back there Sunday too, if it came down to Game 7.
When Joe Girardi hit his two-run triple to give us a lead in the 4th inning, the two of us looked at each other, grinning like idiots, like we knew it was already over. We watched Jimmy Key gut it out for six tough, nail-biting innings, saw this guy named Mariano Rivera blow the Braves away for two more innings, and when John Wetteland got in trouble in the 9th inning and T.J. was nervous, it was up to me to calm him down.
"It's gonna be fine," I say, for the first of what will become a thousand times, because it turns out, after this I will look like a prophet...The pitch...Lemke pops up to Charlie Hayes. Game over. We're the Champs.
Twelve years later, and I never had to deal with an October without Yankee baseball until now. That's probably why these memories came up this morning, now that I think about it.
I never really had to deal with death that much, either. I put a block on that viewing room in the funeral home, and never even thought about it again until I had to go back last summer, to see another relative out. What I'll remember more about that week was the thing that brought me solace when I needed it most: watching my Yankees get to the promised land.
Sick, right? No sport should ever be that important. And as you grow up, obviously the fire dies down a little bit and you temper your feelings with a little reason. Girls come into the equation. You learn and accept that family and friends are your first loyalty. You hear "it's just sports" enough times, it starts making sense.
But you know what? Screw it. I don't like to think about the eleven-year-old me ashamed of the tears he can't help shedding. Real life is overrated. I like to remember leaping up and down in my friend's room that Saturday night, good and truly happy, screaming "Let's Go Yankees!" at the top of my lungs.
I was always a fan. That was the night they got me forever.