darkness.

Rich Grasso

It was an afternoon in late January that Sandy called me in the office, to tell me that Rich had gone to the hospital again.

Things had not been going well.  The chemo treatments were not shrinking the tumor, and so they had begun looking at other, experimental treatments.  As I remember it, they had elected to go with two rounds of an experimental chemo treatment, sort of a last-ditch effort to shrink it to the point where it was operable.  If the treatment didn’t work, the doctor said, he’d have about a year.

So they were waiting for him to heal up a bit from another surgery he’d had, and once his resistance was a bit stronger, they were going to begin the first round of treatment.  It was during this period that he was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night.

When Sandy called me at work, she didn’t know all the specifics – she only knew that when she’d received the call, from a mutual friend, it sounded very serious.

None of that made sense to me, from my vantage point.  He’d taken a beating from the treatments, but he simply wasn’t that sick yet – the doctor had given him a year, if the treatments didn’t work.

So I told Sandy I’d stay at work, and run to the hospital when the day was over.

Later in the day, she called me again.

“This is pretty serious, you should get over there,” she said.  “Rich flatlined in the ambulance on his way to the hospital, and he flatlined again in the ER.”

I was floored.  “What?! That makes no sense.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said.  “But he’s in a medically-induced coma.  They’re trying to figure things out, but it apparently doesn’t look good at all.”

My brain began thinking wildly, the words hazardous duty pay repeating themselves in my head, over and over.

That had become a bit of gallows humor that I’d been repeating to people.  When I was in college, my best friend was in a construction accident that left him with a serious head trauma and a long road to recovery.  At the beginning, the doctors were unsure if he’d even make it through his first night in the hospital, and a priest was brought in to give him last rites.  Over the course of a long recovery, where he worked his ass off to rehabilitate himself and had an incredible amount of support from his friends and family, he was able to recover fully and now has a great life.

The very next time I developed a relationship with someone that I’d be happy to call my “best friend,” he develops cancer and is going through aggressive chemo treatments.

“Being my best friend is dangerous,” I’d say.  “They should get hazardous duty pay.”

Anyway, I scrambled around my office, pulling my shit together and getting ready to get out.  Then I walked upstairs to my boss’ office.

“Holy shit, what’s wrong?” he asked, as soon as I walked in.

“My friend, he’s in the hospital in Newark, in a coma,” I said.  “I have to go there.  I’m not sure when I’ll be back.  Maybe tomorrow.  Hopefully tomorrow.”

“Are you all right to drive?  Do you want me to drive you?”

“No, thanks,” I said.  “I’m fine.”

I drove to the hospital, which I believe was the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in Newark.

When I walked into Rich’s room, I was shocked – no, I was pummelled – into the seriousness of what was going on.

Rich was lying in a hospital bed, connected to all sorts of machines.  A priest stood at his bedside, blessing him and reading him his last rites.  Lissette was there, as was Rich’s father and wife, his sister and her boyfriend, and a few other friends.

Eventually, the room was filled with his friends.  Almost everyone that he’d want to be there was there.

I sat at his bedside and stared at him.  Lissette stood next to me.

“He looks like shit,” I said.

“His teeth are falling out,” she told me.

My eyes welled up.  Nobody should have to deal with this.  I put my arm around her and we sat there in silence.

Nobody knew what to say; we all just sat there, eyes wide, mouths agape, listening to the machines do their work.  The priest eventually said good bye to everyone and left us in the room.

It occurred to me that hospitals had defined visiting hours, and limits on how many people they would let in a room.  There were way too many people in that room, far more than the rules allowed.  The hospital was also ignoring the visiting hours.

I thought that didn’t bode well for Rich.

Eventually a bunch of us went downstairs to eat.  They had a Burger King right there in the hospital.  I had a chicken sandwich.  We joked.  We actually joked, and had fun.  It was great.  We all hugged each other.

We stuck around after dinner and went back up to Rich’s room for one last visit.

We all sat at his bedside, holding hands, joking and talking to him.  The conversation wasn’t forced, it wasn’t awkward.  At that point, we all loved each other and we were all leaning on each other.

I think it was Lissette that said “Everyone should spend a minute or two alone with him, talk to him.  I think he can hear us.”

Matt was first.  We each gave him some space as he grabbed Rich’s hand, leaned over and began whispering in his ear.  One by one, we each took a minute or two with him.  Then, we all hugged each other good bye, and left.

Matt and I walked out together, along with another friend of Rich’s.

“What did you guys say to him?” the friend asked.

“I told him he could go,” Matt said.  “I said he was tired, and he’d fought hard, and I loved him and he was my best friend.  I told him he could go.”

“Me too,” the friend said, adding “I told him we’d all take care of Lissette, that he could rest and we would take care of her.”

“What did you say, Al?” Matt asked.

I paused for a second.  Stopped right in my tracks, actually.

“I told him to fight.  I told him I’m not ready to lose him yet.  I told him to fight.”

I wanted to go back.  I wanted to tell him I’d changed my mind, that I’d figure out a way to get by, and that he could rest.  I wanted to apologize for being so selfish.  I wanted to tell him I’d take care of his wife.  I wanted to thank him for everything he’d done for me, for being my best friend.  I wanted to tell him I was sorry that I wasn’t there when he was so sick.  I wanted to tell him to rest, and to tell him I loved him.

Instead, I went home.

The phone call came at about 10:30.

I had Burger King for dinner the night my best friend died.

~ by Al on December 13, 2009.

5 Responses to “darkness.”

  1. I still miss him so much. Thanks for putting that night into words. I’m not sure I could have done it.

  2. R.I.P. Rich. I only met you a couple times, but I got to know you through the Dromedary story more than I probably ever would have in real life.

    This is a great remembrance of your friend, Al (and I’m sure it’s not finished yet) – instead of the kind of glossy overview people tend to write when they lose someone, you got to talk about Rich in a lot of detailed, warts-and-all stories, which creates a much deeper and more truthful picture of a person. Painful as it must be to get down, it’s been a fulfilling read.

  3. Geez. Not the Rich story I was asking for earlier.

  4. When I got to serve jury duty with him in Newark in 1999 or 2000. I didn’t realize it would be the last time I ever saw him. It was the only time we hung out without it being music related. Everybody gripes about jury duty, but I don’t anymore.

  5. Just read the whole thing; such a loss Al. Nice for you to share the experience and remember such a tough time and such a sweet friend. Thanks for that.

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