Thursday, July 08, 2004

Tribute to a Greek God (Part IV)

From Rocky Mountain High to Colorado Avalanche
Almost as soon as we had gotten our cars unloaded it came up.

“Is there a ball field anywhere around here?” someone chimed.

“Yeeesss! I called ahead and got directions for you already,” Cindy proclaimed proudly.

Now there’s a woman who knows her audience.

This would be the first time — probably ever, that all five of the brothers had played baseball together. We all dug out our baseball gloves; Cindy made sure to pack a supply of balls and a few bats. It was already around three o’clock in the afternoon, so we wanted to get going, to get in as much play time as possible before dinner.

David was familiar with the directions that Cindy had gotten from the Telluride Chamber of Commerce, so he volunteered to drive. So we all piled into his blue Chevy van and began making our way toward the park, which was about ten miles away from our condo complex on the opposite side of town. I rode shotgun.

As we made our way down Colorado Avenue, the main drag in Telluride, I began to notice that David was making a funny noise that I could only hear because of how close I was to him physically. It was the sound of him breathing rapidly through his nose — almost as if he was sniff-smelling something in repeated, short bursts, then pausing briefly before repeating the progression again.

in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, (pause), in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, (pause)... and so on.

I remember thinking how strange it was that he would do that, but then I thought, “Well I’ve seen the guy exactly twice in the last 20 years, who am I to judge his idiosyncrasies?”

Then a few minutes into our journey, “Hey guys, I need to stop for gas,” David announced. He pulled the van into a nearby gas station and got out. After he set the gas pump to fill the tank, he walked around to the front of the van and opened the hood. Through the gap at the hinged side of the upturned hood, I could see him reach for the dipstick to check the oil. He looked at it, then called to ask if one of us would to go in and grab a quart of oil inside the gas station's convenience store. TK volunteered, so we all piled out and milled around the front of the van while we waited for Bro #3 to return with the oil.

While we stood there, I heard it again — the rapid breathing. David appeared to be searching for the shaft in which to replace the dipstick, but couldn’t find it. He might just as well have been searching for a needle in a haystack.

“Guys,” He said, hesitantly, “Can…you see where this goes?

Again I passed it off, since I personally had no clue where the damn thing went. David’s van was one of those “snub-nose” types with the main components of the engine pushed back into the inside compartment, between the driver and the passenger front seats. The portion that was accessible from beneath the hood was configured totally different than any car I’d ever owned, so I didn’t even know where to start looking.

Fortunately Jack was more familiar with General Motors Vans than I was. “Here it is,” he said softly, as he gently took the dipstick from David’s hand and returned it to it’s home. David went to tend to the gas pump that had just shut off.

Moments later, TK returned with the oil and handed it to David. For about 10 seconds he just stood there facing the engine, turning slightly from side to side, appearing again to be confused as to how to accomplish his mission. But before he could say anything, Jack stepped in and pointed to the oil cap. “Oh…oh, thanks bro,” David said softly.

I remember being puzzled at seeing all this, but I was still clueless. Perhaps I didn't want to put two and two together. David finished adding the oil and closed the hood. We all piled back into the van, and continued on to the ball field.

Field of Dreams
When we arrived at Town Park, the setting was almost surreal. The afternoon sunshine had begun giving way to wispily overcast skies. The park is several city blocks wide, located in the far Southeast corner of Telluride at the base of the majestic Rocky Mountains that enclose this resort town. Some low-level clouds had begun settling in, obscuring the peaks and creating an eerie, filtered sunlight which varied in intensity as the thin clouds passed over us.

The grass was thick and a rich green. I can remember standing in the outfield, looking at the beauty surrounding me and hearing John Denver singing in my head.

On the adjacent soccer field, the chatter of automatic sprinklers provided both background rhythm and comic relief as we all took turns getting laughed at, tiptoeing through the water jets to shag the balls we hit over in that direction.

We had a blast.

After about 45 minutes of batting practice, we chose up sides to play “Over-the-Line,” a fun baseball-type game that is normally played with three players per side. Basically, you play baseball without running the bases. Runs are scored based on “imaginary runners, being forced along by the base hits you get at the plate. Since there were five of us, it was decided that that it would be the younger brothers, Lbro, me and TK, versus Jack and David, with one of our team rotating as pitcher for the “old guys.”

Without going into the play-by-play, let’s just say, I was in the zone that day.

Due of the timing of our Mother’s illness, and the time and financial drains it subsequently placed on my Dad, I never got the opportunity to play Little League Baseball as a kid. Nevertheless, I did play sandlot ball nearly every day during the summers between grade school and high school. So I still knew my way around a ball field.

In our over-the-line game, I had a pretty decent day, especially since the pitcher was on my own team, groovin’ his throws right where I likes ‘em — down and in. I was launching that ball, hitting ropes all over the place.

Our team won handily, which didn't sit well with highly competitive Jack, who got into a hellacious argument with TK (our family’s resident master provocateur). Jack became so pissed that he decided to walk back to the condo, despite our repeated pleas with him to get into the van.

On the other hand, David played well and appeared to be totally above the fray. He was chatty and seemed to be having fun the entire time. The confusion that punctuated our side trip to the gas station was nowhere to be seen on the baseball field, so I didn’t give it another thought until later that night.

When we got back to the condos, everyone asked about Jack, and we told them. Jack’s wife frantically headed for her car to go look for him. My Dad joined her. About 10 minutes later they returned with him. TK was feeling pretty silly about the trouble and embarrassment he’d caused, so he immediately took Jack aside, out onto the balcony for a closed-door mea culpa session. Trying to appear as though I wasn’t paying attention, I watched as they talked for about two minutes, then gave each other a big hug, and returned to the main room of our condo, all smiles.

Whew… Now it was time to party!

The women had cooked up a variable smorgasbord of culinary delight. I don’t remember exactly what was served, but I do remember how satisfying and wonderful that evening was. The sound of laughter and tinkling of silverware on plates filled the air. Toasts and short speeches about our family’s tumultuous past were delivered. The rambunctious kids, some of whom were meeting each other for the first time, but had already become fast friends, made their occasional appearances, running from condo to condo, up and down from the lofts. The girls, clutching their dolls, squealing with glee, while the boys busily conspired together to hatch their next, devious, imaginary plan.

I was the self-appointed videographer for the reunion, having borrowed a new 8MM Sony HandiCam video camera from my business partner in California. The choice of being the one recording the conversations instead of being involved in them, now in retrospect, is probably the only regret I have about that week. But being able to now go back and relive that reunion every time I watch that tape is truly priceless. Besides, there were plenty of times that week when I wasn’t recording, and my heart is still full of those memories.

Our gathering lasted far into the night, and then as our numbers began to diminish, we reconvened in the other of the two adjoining condos, where David’s and Lbro’s family were holed up. The wine and conversation continued to flow until around 2AM. David recounted his best “Don’t Tell Dad” stories. He sounded a little tipsy, but, DUH, so were the rest of us. I was still clueless of the fact that our worst fears had finally been realized.

The family time bomb had finally detonated — and my Big Brother had been caught in the blast.

The Bearer of Bad Tidings
When we finally called it a night, my evening was still not over. Michelle and I shared a condo with Jack, Marnie, and three girls. Once we had gotten the kids tucked in, up in the loft, Jack came to Michelle and me and said, “Hey you guys, we need to talk.”

“Sure,” I said, as the four of us sat down in the expansive living room, now lit by only a single, adjacent lamp in the corner.

Jack leaned forward in his chair. His hands were clasped as his elbows rested on his knees. “Have you noticed anything about David?” he asked.

I paused, “What do you mean?”

“Have you noticed anything strange about his behavior?”

Thinking that Jack was as puzzled as I had been earlier regarding David's behavior at the gas station, my eyes flashed as I replied. “Yes, yes I did, Jack. Did you hear the noises he was making, breathing through his nose like that? He did it a few times. Do you have any idea why?”

Jack’s eyes dropped to the floor briefly, then slowly rose to meet mine. They began to redden as he said soberly, “Yeah AJ, I know why. He was hyperventilating because be was confused. The doctors said that he would do that.”

My heart stopped.

I began to feel the sensation of a radiating heat, starting out between my shoulder blades and slowly traveling up my spine, settling at the base of my skull. It was as if an avalanche of hot coals was slowly overtaking my body from behind. Numbness settled over my shoulders as I heard Jack say, “David has started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s. It started about a year ago.”

I felt like I’d been shot. I’m sure my mouth was agape. Time seemed to stop, but I could still hear Jack speaking. “Cindy has been taking him up to IU Medical Center in Indianapolis ever since then,” he continued. “They’re doing all they can for him.”

I really don’t remember much more from that exchange. I don’t remember if I began to cry, or if I was so shocked that my eyes couldn’t produce the tears. I hadn’t before, nor do I think I ever again will, have a day featuring such a wide range of emotions.

Everything suddenly became clear. This was the reason a year earlier that Cindy had gone to all the trouble to arrange this reunion. She knew that this would likely be the last time David would be lucid enough to really enjoy himself; to be able to communicate, reminisce, and carouse with his Father and brothers. This was his — and indeed our — last hurrah as a whole family.

But it was now out of our hands. I tried not to think about it, nor treat David any differently for the rest of our week together. And we did have fun, enjoying Rocky Mountain rainbows, day hikes to historic Mesa Verde, and rides up and down the nearby mountain on a ski lift.

However, there was still a definite pall over my heart. I tried to fight through it, but it was just wouldn’t move on. Still, I wouldn’t trade the memories of those five days with David and the rest of my brothers for anything in the world; especially now.

The morning we all packed up to leave Telluride and go our separate ways was a solemn occasion. We exchanged hugs and promises to call more often. And this time we meant it.

Ours was the last car to leave the condo parking lot. As we headed down the winding Highway 145 out of Telluride, continuing on our vacation to other surrounding National Parks, finally it all became too much. No words were spoken. I just pulled the car off to the side of the road and began to weep, bitterly.

Michelle leaned over and placed a comforting arm around my shoulders. From the back seat I heard the concerned voice my seven year-old son, Shawn asking, “Mommy, what’s wrong? Why is Dad crying?”

She replied, “Your Uncle David is sick, Shawn, and it makes Daddy very sad.”

Next: The Legacy
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