It is two days after Bob's second round of chemo, and I've flown to California from my home in Colorado to spell Bob's wife Renda from care taking duties. Truthfully, I wanted to spend time alone with him as much as I wanted to give her a break. In the 30 years since we shared our bedroom, we haven't spent a day together without our wives, our kids, our parents, or our younger brother--much less the three days we had now. Why we waited until he was recuperating from breast cancer was one of the first questions we asked each other.
This October weekend is, if such a thing is possible, a perfect time to be incapacitated by Cytoxan and Adriamycin. The sports gods have provided a World Series between the Yankees and Braves, pro football, bowl-deciding college games, the dawn of the hockey season, and various lesser events to fill those awkward hours between kick-offs and face-offs and lead-off batters.
The chemo has whacked Bob the way no blitzing linebacker ever could. At 6 feet and 180, he was recruited by pretty much every Pac-8 and Big-10 school as a pitcher and a quarterback before accepting a football scholarship to Stanford.
He had stayed fit and slim deep into his 40s, but today he just looks skinny. Without his bushy brown locks, he appeared listless, Samson at his most hairless (Delilah must have been an oncologist). His face is just shy of gaunt, and his eyes look like he's had the flu for a week. "What's it like?" I ask.
"I just feel shitty. I feel like I got the crap kicked out of me."
A few months back, Bob had discovered a suspicious lump in his own breast while showing his wife how to do a self-breast exam. He took too long (I thought) to get it biopsied--typical physician-heal-thyself procrastination. Breast cancer in men is so rare, and Bob always had some bump or bruise or break or tear from his jockish insistence on playing basketball with men 20 years his junior. Then the biopsy came back. My big brother had cancer. Breast cancer. A mastectomy. Four rounds of chemotherapy. The nodes are clean, the prognosis is good. But still.
For Bob and me television sports had a long history as a form of spiritual union during major life crises. That same year, Bob had sent me an airplane ticket to visit for Super Bowl weekend, just as it was becoming apparent that my marriage was inexorably unraveling. Before his party guests arrived, Bob commiserated, having already been there: his divorce had been messy and tortuous and interminably expensive. Seven years later, he remained virtually estranged from his daughter and struggled painfully with his son.
A few months later, my wife of 15 years moved out of the house. Before summer was over, she would relocate a thousand miles away to cohabit with her new female lover. I was suddenly transformed into a full-time single dad of an eight-year old girl and 12-year old boy.
Then Bob found the lump.
It becomes apparent that Bob's used his convalescence to bone up on the most arcane sports trivia. He seems to know every player in every sport, where they spent college, who is destined to drift off to own their suburban car dealerships, to be replaced by a Dominican youngster with a vacuum cleaner glove or a shotgun arm.
We talk off and on, between innings or quarters or periods, tracking several games simultaneously like an air-traffic controller tracking approaching planes. Nebraska, in the hunt for the national championship, is losing to Texas; the Yankees--the goddamn Yankees--are somehow decoding the Braves' awesome pitching staff. Bob asks if I remember visiting New York in 1967, watching the then still hapless Mets play the Dodgers with Sandy Koufax pitching. "It ain't fair to let Koufax pitch against the Mets," as the Dodger great amassed 15, 18 strikeouts. Bob imitates the New York accent like a character from "Goodfellas" - "it ain't faya," and we laugh.
I ask him if he ever regrets not having seen if he could play pro. As quarterback and punter on Stanford's freshman team, he had four concussions and hung up the cleats at the end of the year for pre-med. "You coulda been a contenda," I tell him. "You were good."
"Nah," he says. "I would have been one of those guys who was always injured," he says, something I've never heard him admit. "I never would have played a full season."