ticker.

September 11th happened.

And there are a million blogs and news sites and other resources on the internet that can dissect that horrible day better than I ever could.

What’s relevant to this story about that day was that Rich had a surgery scheduled, and because of 9/11 it had to be rescheduled.  And by the time they got into him, the “something” that they picked up on the CT scan had gotten significantly larger – a new tumor, this time close enough to vital organs that they couldn’t take it out surgically.

So he had to undergo a course of chemo treatments.

A lot of this is very fuzzy to me at this point, so I’m trying to be short on details.  Once things started happening again with Rich, I found that my psyche couldn’t handle the day-to-day ups and downs associated with Rich’s treatment.  Coupled with the trauma of 9/11, the constant changes in threat levels, and all the associated scares, I was – like everyone else – a skittish mess throughout the fall of 2001.

Through the fall, there seemed to be more downs than ups, and Rich made several visits to the hospital for surgeries and treatments and whatnot.  To help lift his spirits, Sandy and I decided that a grand gesture would be for me to drive up to Cape Cod and pick up the pipe organ that he and Lissette had won in the church auction on the Cape during our vacation, and then bring it back to his apartment for him, so it was waiting when he got back from the hospital.  So one Saturday, I volunteered Paulie to join me on a long drive.

Paulie and I had been close friends since high school, and he remains one of my closest friends today.  I’ve written about him a lot of times during the course of this story, and almost every time his name is mentioned, it’s associated with some incredible gesture of friendship that only the very best people would do.

So we drove up to the Cape together.  Six hours, early in the day, chit-chatting the whole way about all the things that were going on in the world and skirting around the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.  When we arrived, we greeted my in-laws, then moved the organ out of the garage and into the back of my SUV, where it barely fit (truth be told, we put it on its back, which we were clearly instructed not to do).  Then, we got right back in the car and drove back.  Six more hours in the car.

Twelve hours total, and when we arrived at Rich’s apartment in Rutherford, Lissette had left the keys for us because she was at the hospital with Rich.  We moved the organ into the living room – gently – and then we raided their refrigerator and drank their beer.  Then, I drove Paulie home and we sat in his driveway for hours, talking and staring and listening to music the way we had hundreds of times before.

On September 18 of 2001, when I was still reeling from the shock of the attacks a week prior (reeling just like everyone else), it was Paulie I called when I couldn’t stand it anymore – when I decided I had to see it up close.  And so we drove together to Hoboken, parked the car and walked to Frank Sinatra Park and gazed across the river and looked at the evidence that our home had been torn apart and our lives would never be the same.  We read every missing persons poster that was hung around the park, we read every memorial, and we sat there and cried with all the other people who were doing the same thing as we were.

The summer Sandy and I were apart, I sat in Paulie’s house every single night, for three months, talking, listening to music, watching The Kids In The Hall, and generally distracting me from the fact that my girlfriend was six hours away.

And on this night, after driving 12 hours and complaining the entire way, after 12 hours of gallows humor and joking and laughing, we sat there together, distracting each other once again, with Paulie again being the “go to” guy when things got as bad as they could be.

“I would drive to Cape Cod a thousand times, and bring back a thousand antique organs,” I said.  The rest was unspoken.

“I know,” he replied.

With that, he got out of the car and I drove home, quietly, sad and grouchy.  Rich was in the hospital in Newark, seemingly getting worse by the day.  Chemo was not helping, and as much as his last rounds of chemo caused him to bulk up and put on lots of weight, this time he was losing weight.  The first time, he did not lose hair – the second time, he did.

I guess everyone copes with these things differently.  I’m not proud of how I coped with Rich being ill.  First, I withdrew from him.  I didn’t come around much, and I didn’t talk to him much.  I didn’t know what to say.  Second, I spent a lot of time drinking and partying, trying to spend my time keeping my mind off what was going on at home.  I’d sit in my boss’ office with him, talking about work until 7:00, knowing that Sandy was home alone, taking care of three kids.  I’d sit in front of the television, watching MSNBC and freaking out about the state of the world.  Sandy and I had installed a small TV in our bedroom, and I’d lie in bed until all hours of the night, watching the new phenomenon of the “news ticker,” scrolling across the bottom of the screen, waiting for some new development in the various major news stories that were happening around the world.

I would watch that damn ticker for hours at a time, waiting for some new shred of news to scroll along the screen.  I’d sit there and watch, one line scarier than the other, waiting for some piece of new news to scroll across.  And even though the individual news items were different from one another, they were really all the same.  There were never any new developments.

At the end of 2001 it seemed like my life was a metaphor for that ticker – I just sat there, watching things scroll before me, waiting for something different to happen.  It seemed like nothing ever did.

Once, Rich asked me if I could come over, and I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time with him.  I asked him if he needed anything, and he said “DVDs.  Bring me some music DVDs.  I’m tired of watching the same shit over and over.”

So I stopped at a record store and picked up a few DVDs.  One was a Yes concert video – since Rich was a big Yes fan I knew I’d be taking a risk that he already had it, but if not, it would be a hit.  I think I also picked up a Frank Zappa video, and some other old, influential artist – maybe it was David Bowie.

Either way, he didn’t like the DVDs I brought him.

More than that, though, I was shocked at what I saw.  His hair was gone.  His apartment looked like a hospital – there was a gurney in the living room, and a wheelchair.  He was wearing robes, and he was skinny as hell.

“Well, I guess you don’t need to go mountain biking to lose weight anymore,” I said.  He laughed.

We talked for a while, but there wasn’t much to talk about.  Eventually, the conversation circled around to the things that were going on in the post-9/11 world.  I started talking about the anthrax attacks, which were, of all the things that happened in the fall of 2001, the thing that freaked me out the most.  Poisoning the mail!  Holy cow, that was scary.  And I started talking about all the theories, and the things that were going on, and suddenly Rich interrupted me.

“Hey, can we not talk about this?” he asked.

“Well, sure.  I just figured it was something that was going on in the world.”

“Yeah, I’ve kinda got enough scary shit going on,” he said.

Yeah.  He did.

My visit was shorter than it should have been.  I couldn’t even figure out what to say to my best friend.  He wasn’t doing any graphic design work, I wasn’t putting out any records, and he didn’t want to talk about current events.  It was freaky and awkward.

I didn’t want to hug him when I left, because I didn’t hug him when he was healthy. We didn’t hug, we shook hands.  I didn’t want hug him because I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that things were different, as if he was somehow unaware of that.

I went home, turned on my computer, and wrote him an apologetic email.  He never saw it because I never sent it.

~ by Al on December 11, 2009.

3 Responses to “ticker.”

  1. I’ve spent some pretty amazing times with you in your car. If I may be metaphorical: you’ve always been in the driver’s seat, but it’s nice to know that I was helping navigate.

  2. Continuing the metaphor, you were probably in the driver’s seat more than you realize. And lots of other times we were driving together.

    Remember driving to the Cape in my Escort, with me holding the wires together under the dashboard to keep the fan on, while you worked the steering wheel and I worked the pedals? That’s TEAMWORK, man. Metaphorically speaking. We drove 300 miles like that.

    Then again, there was that time that you were in the driver’s seat and you couldn’t get the quarters into the basket at the toll plaza…

  3. […] is no more compelling than anyone else’s and may even be far less compelling (you can read a snippet at Al’s blog, should you care to).  Anyhow, when this issue of The New Yorker came out (with […]

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