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."
"Speaking of injuries, how's the scar?"
He lifts his sleeveless t-shirt up and shows me his nipple-less right breast-not grotesque as much as weird. The surgeon did a bang-up job, but even men have breast tissue and Bob is lopsided, with one sad, deflated pec. He was always so proud of his body, I can't imagine what it's like and can't quite ask. He pulls his shirt down, turns his attention to the television with a resigned shrug.
We drift from watching the games to talking about our family, reminiscing about him getting kicked out of the house when he was 17. How did we get to be so different? When I was a nerdy high-school junior and he was playing ball at Stanford, I'd write his English essays for him. Then we swapped roles. About the time I dropped out of UC Berkeley to travel the world, he was already making a beeline for medical school.
As he flips channels, I remind him how I used to make his bed so Mom wouldn't get mad at him. He says that it's taken a long time to realize it, but if he had been a kid today, he'd definitely be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. It wasn't that he was trying to piss Mom off. He just couldn't remember what it was that he was supposed to do from one end of the hallway to the next.
"Unbelievable," I chime.
"That guy's gonna win the Heisman, you watch. But he'll never be a QB in the pros. They're gonna make him into a safety."
The afternoon mosies along. We jump back and forth across decades. By now the important stories are honed down to what the writer David James Duncan calls "river teeth," the essence of experiences, shaped by time and as smooth as a submerged knot from a fallen 200-year old Douglas Fir after whitewater has burnished it for decades, rendering it as strong as marble.
I clear the dishes, refill our water glasses. The Yankees win, Nebraska loses, and all that's on now is some Division II game, Bowling Green versus somebody. We whittle at our river teeth and keep watching, suspended between past and present.
It is now four Octobers since Bob died. I sit on my leather couch with my son, watching the damned Yankees again, using the timeless moments between beer and razor commercials to commune with my 15-year-old, who in eerie ways reminds me of his uncle. "I miss him," I tell Kolya, a propos of nothing, tears suddenly welling.
"I know," Kolya says. "I do too.
Bob made it through the that Fall, even went back to work. But late the next summer, he inexplicably lost a lot of weight and they did a bone scan. In October 2000, a year after my visit, the dreaded "M" word was uttered: metastasized. Incurable. No therapeutic anything. No miracle cures, no Steve McQueen in Mexico, no Deepak Chopra, no more intravenous poison. Weeks? Months? Nobody could say.
He made Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, made his 48th birthday on the 2nd of January. I took four trips out, was with him over the holidays, but had to go home to get the kids back in school. I talked to him by phone most days, noticing him getting more incoherent daily.
On Sunday night, after the NFL conference championships, I spoke to him for the last time. I had been interviewed on 60 Minutes about a book I'd written, and the show had aired right after the last game.I wasn't convinced that he knew he had seen me on TV, although Renda said they had all watched.
Suddenly, he became lucid and told me that since the Raiders lost and so did the Vikings, there wasn't much use in sticking around for the Super Bowl. It would probably be a stinker, he said.
It was the last thing he said to me. That night, trying to go to the bathroom by himself, he fell and knocked his head. He died in his sleep, probably from internal bleeding that saved him from a coma.
My mom wonders if I'm in the process of elevating Bob to sainthood. I'm not. He had his weaknesses, just like all of us. For example, he was right about Eric Crouch winning the Heisman and making it to the pros. But the St. Louis Rams made him into a wide receiver, not a safety.