Sobriety in the Time of COVID

The last time I wrote one of these essays, quarantine was a new thing. We were all calling each other, watching movies through ZOOM. There was a sense of community and togetherness, I remember, feeling like it was just a matter of time before we vanquished coronoavirus. That was in April. It is now July 23rd and things have only gotten worse. Since my last essay…

A coworker of mine died unexpectedly. His name was Eddie. He was a good guy. Everyone liked him. He was my mentor when I was a new-hire. I watched him take calls and vice versa. When I was on the phone he’d tell me things I could have done better, things I could do differently. I remember I lost a lot of weight and I could fit into this rad-as-fuck jean jacket, fleece lined around the collar. I wore it to work and my wife texted me, “Any compliments on the jacket?” and I responded, “Yeah, one. Eddie, of course.” Fucking Eddie, of course.

Weeks later, another gut-punch, this time someone I knew a lot better. My friend Trankie. I wrote this around the time that it happened:

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I met Trankie.  With most people I’ve met as an adult, I remember the first time we actually first introduced ourselves.  With Trankie, when I try to remember, I just remember him being in my life, as comfortable as someone who simply belongs.  I knew that he was Bret’s boyfriend, I knew that they got along, that they had a funny story about how they met, and that I liked Trankie, too.  It just worked.  There was no introduction or acclimation to my life, he was just there.

Bret and Trankie met, I want to say, a few weeks before my wife and I had met.  It might have been a couple months.  It was very close.  So, during that time, Trankie was involved in some of my big lifetime milestones.  He was there for countless celebrations–birthday parties, Christmas parties, lunches, brunches, fancy dinners, drunken, sloppy nights.  For any event that required a celebration or call to remember, Bret and Trankie were some of the first to tell.

Trankie was one of those people who, whenever I introduced anyone to him for the first time, I would say, “You’ll love him,” and earnestly mean it.  I would say it with a sort of confidence.  “You’ll love him,” because he had an effortless quality to his charm.  It was an honor to have him as my friend and to know he was such a reliable friend.  My wife and I were married in Vegas and I knew it might be hard for people to make it, since it was something of a destination.  But I knew Bret and Trankie would be there.  Without even asking, I knew they would say yes.  Trankie was the type who, if he was busy that night, he would never say, “I’m busy,” if you invited him somewhere and leave it at that.  You could count on him to swing by to at least say hello on his way, because he knew asking him to show up meant a lot to you, so he would just show up to tell you that he cared.

Trankie was a tank of a man.  He wasn’t tall, but commanded a presence that made you think he was a good foot taller than he actually was.  His hugs were legendary and would crack your back into a rubbery complacency.  You could begin your hug with a limp and then skip away from it.  He had a laugh I could only explain as infectious.  It’s a cliche, but apt.  His laugh would make you want to laugh.  

Living in LA was one of the most difficult times in life, and one of the brightest spots during that time was when Bret and Trankie spent the night at a resort in Orange County and invited us over for the afternoon to hang out.  

2020 has been a tough year for everyone.  In a lot of ways, the self-imposed isolation reminds me of the rut I was in while living in LA.  Seeing Bret and Trankie then was a bright spot, and I was looking forward to seeing them again for this upcoming weekend for a one-on-one hangout to temporarily forget that the world is burning all around us.

A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers, a guy named Eddie, died unexpectedly.  His death, in the middle of this pandemic, when Arizona is now considered possibly the Coronavirus Capital of the World, was punctuated with the mountain range behind my house glowing aflame in the dead of night.  I remembered at the time bitterly thinking, “Why did it have to be him?”  It’s not that I wish a hypothetical death on someone else, but why?  Why Eddie?  In the grand scheme of a universe that you can’t help but imagine to be a living thing sometimes, why take Eddie, someone everyone appears to like, and bless the wicked with what appears to be an infinite longevity?  It felt cheap, it felt unfair.  

Yesterday, my wife saw a missed call from Bret on her phone.  No one calls anymore, unless it’s a butt-dial or if something horrible happened.  My mind defaulted to butt-dial, but I had a fear in the back of my mind.  I heard her immediately gasp and begin to sob.  I knew what had happened, but I hoped it was something else.  I had hoped it was anything else.  Not the inevitable news that Trankie had died.  I didn’t cry, because I held on to that hope that Bret was calling with bad news, but something that could be managed.  Maybe Trankie was hurt.  Maybe Trankie ran off.  Something that would conjure tears, but not something as irreversible as death.  When she hung up I asked if Trankie was dead and she nodded yes.

I expected to be struck with an overwhelming wave of sadness that would have rocked me into oblivion, but what I felt instead was a sudden shock of pure, unbridled anger.  Literally, red-with-rage anger.  My vision shook.  I pounded on the counter and shouted, “Goddammit!  FUCK!”

Once again, I was brought back to the feeling of bitterness over the unfairness of the world.  Eddie and Trankie were similar and probably would have gotten along, if only for the fact that they seemed to get along with everyone.  They were very big personalities and both taken too goddamned young.  

Bitter thinking never did anyone any good, and I especially believe Trankie wouldn’t want me using his death as an excuse to further backslide into misanthropy.  I feel like the point of life is a simple one:  It’s to make the world a better place.  It’s taking the philosophy of leaving somewhere a better condition than what you found it in by the time you leave, and taking it to its logical conclusion.  If the point of life really is that simple, Eddie and Trankie both succeeded wildly.

I don’t have many close friends.  Trankie was one of my closest and his death hit me in a way I know I’ll feel for the rest of my life.  It’s easy to feel cheated out of a close friend, but I want to feel like his life and his death meant something.  I want to just be more like him.  Someone who had as many people love him as he did had a way about life.  He understood the ins and outs of it in a profound way.  Some people are good at math or good with money, Trankie was good at living, and it was awe-inspiring to watch.

Trankie, I’ll miss you.  The sad thing about death is that I know I’ll never see you again.  I’m not a religious person, so I don’t have the luxury of believing that one day I’ll see you again, after I die, too.  This Saturday, and the other weekends I was going to see you… I’ll never get to do it again and it hurts.  I’ll never see you again, get one of your brilliant bear hugs, or taste your New Mexico cuisine home-cookin’.  If the universe is infinite, though, and I believe it is, the perfect balance of molecules and atoms that made you who you were will be together again.  Suns will fade and go supernova.  Planets will die, crumble, and be reborn.  And one day, maybe, in billions of years multiplied by trillions of eons, you will be laughing and cooking again, with a cocktail in your hand.

My wife and I drove out to Phoenix and spent the day with Bret talking about our favorite Trankie memories. It was cathartic. It gave me a sense of closure when we walked around the block, with other people who loved and missed him, and got to say goodbye.

It was still fresh in my memory when we saw another missed call. My wife and I were going to wake up early last Sunday to go for a hike. I was awake in bed for an hour before we were set to wake up. I felt uneasy. I felt… scared. I don’t know. I have normal anxiety everyday, so I’m not sure if it was just that or something else. But right at the time the alarm was set to go off, I saw her phone flashing. I just thought, wow, cool. I like this silent alarm that wakes you up with bright lights instead. It was a missed call from my brother.

It wasn’t a butt-dial from Bret, and it wasn’t a butt-dial from my brother that early in the morning. It was exactly what I thought it was. My dad was dead.

My dad. My dad. Jesus.

It still feels weird. Sometimes it feels real, sometimes it doesn’t. I always knew my dad was going to die, but you have this idea in mind from how many shows feature the death of a parent. In my mind, my dad was a hell of a lot older than 67. 80-something. In a hospital. We all know it’s coming and we all get to say goodbye. Instead, he died suddenly.

It took me a hard time to wrap my head around how goddamned sad it was for my mom when he died. He was out of it. I hated the idea of my dad dying afraid. That wasn’t him. My sister told me his dying words, though, when my mom tried to resuscitate him using CPR were, “For fuck’s sake, let me die in peace!” which is a lot more on brand for the man I knew. That made me feel better.

There are two memories I cling to when I think about my dad.

The first memory is this house I grew up in when I was a kid. Our house faced this treacherous hill. It was a steep incline that went down twenty feet or so. When I was a kid, it looked a lot higher up than that. It looked like it went on for miles. My brother, my sister and I were trying to ride a skateboard down this hill and would make it maybe a few feet in it and abandon ship. It was just too rocky to make it down. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer tries to jump Springfield Gorge? It was a lot like that. My dad took the skateboard from one of us and said, “You gotta commit! This is how you do it!” and rode that fucking thing all the way down to the bottom. When he reached the bottom, the skateboard kept going straight while he flailed his arms and went crashing down, landed on his back and stayed in that position for a few minutes, unmoving. He spent a few days in bed after that, having fucked up his back, but true to his word, he rode it all the way down.

The second memory I have of my dad that I want to cling to is watching the movie Goodfellas with him. In a scene near the beginning some Made Men, real gangsters, not your neighborhood thugs, get out of a car. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of the car lifting up as the gangsters exit the vehicle. “Look,” my dad said, pointing at the screen. “That one shot tells you everything you need to know. How much weight they carry. How important they are. And all without dialogue. This movie is brilliant.”

My siblings and I wrote this obituary together:

Terry Lee Russell was born April 5, 1953 in West Covina, CA to Edward and Florence Russell. A native Californian through and through, he spent most of his young life in the San Diego area, but also spent a few of his teenage years living in Montreal, Canada.

It was 1978 when he met the love of his life: Carrie Covey. The two married in October of 1979 and recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. Together, they lived a lifetime of adventures, spending 34 years living in Anza, CA. There, they raised three children: Chris, Jenny, and Billy. In late 2019 they relocated to Tucson, AZ, to be closer to their children and grandchildren. They were both excited to begin their new life together under the Arizona sun.

Terry was a funny, complicated, opinionated person, no stranger to contradictions. A Republican, hippie, capitalist, nonconformist, his political views ranged the entire spectrum, yet he always abhorred bullies and loathed injustice. Though often a deeply private person, he could effortlessly entertain an entire room, his unreserved laughter being remembered by all who heard it.

Terry taught his children how to hike and fish, to respect nature and protect wilderness, to love literature, and how to watch movies to really understand them. He loved poetry, could cook a meal to wow even the most renowned chef, and could quote the entire movie Tombstone from start to finish. He was a rare person you could ask any question and he would probably have the answer for you. A well-read scholar, his prowess at answering Jeopardy clues was unparalleled. He was an avid birder and gardener who knew the seasons for each type of bird, vegetable, and herb. He loved spending time with his grandkids who he spoiled with Dr. Pepper, to the disapproval of their parents. Terry didn’t care very much about the disapproval of others. He hated the Sesame Street Muppet Telly, whom he regarded as a complainer, and obituaries that didn’t tell the reader how the person died.

On the morning of July 19, 2020, Terry died unexpectedly of cardiovascular disease. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Carrie; his three children, Chris, Jenny, and Billy; his two grandchildren, Maddy and Bash; his brothers Bob, Don, and Tom; and his sister Cindy.

It’s been a hard time and I feel weird, in a way, for making this about myself. Like, “Look! Look how sad things are and I haven’t drank any booze!” I’m just glad that, during all this, I’m not out on a bender somewhere. There’s work to be done. I can’t afford to be a fuck-up right now. I just can’t.