This was seven weeks after 9/11 and 10 days before my 30th birthday.
During the three-hour drive to my hometown, I stared at passing scenery without seeing it, unbelieving that Grandpa Smith could be dead.
One of his favorite tricks was to feign sleep — then, when we were leaning over him, open his eyes and shout, “Boo!” Perhaps now he was not really dead, but playing this same trick. Perhaps when he had the whole family gathered around him, he would open his eyes and shout, “Boo!” Then we would all laugh, Grandpa the loudest, at his clever Halloween trick.
Wouldn’t EMS have a story to tell!
When I entered Grandpa’s house, I saw all five of my uncles and their wives, my dad and mom, and a cousin or two. Grandma must have been there somewhere, but strangely, I don’t remember her presence.
I remember the sudden silence as I walked through the sliding glass door into the kitchen, as if I’d interrupted a conversation not meant for my hearing. I remember my uncles’ pale faces and mournful eyes, so out of character for the jovial, boisterous Smith brothers.
Grandpa was really dead. It was really real. Later, I learned his father had died on Halloween, too.
I flew across the room to embrace my mom and dad. All three of us burst into tears. It was the only time I’d ever seen my father cry. It scared me.
I made my way around the room, hugging each relative and crying. How strange to see these broad-shouldered, burly men in tears; these usually unwavering women trembling.
Eventually, someone brought out a huge pile of family photos. We sifted through them, remembering aloud the events they captured.
The tears dried and we laughed. Until each new arrival to the house. Then the chain of hugs and tears began anew.
In my parents’ living room that night, I nervously watched Game 4 of the World Series taking place in the Bronx between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks were leading the series, 2-1. It felt like the whole world was rooting for the Yankees that year, even the haters, which seemed like the whole country most years.
But, in 2001, the national mood was that the Yankees needed to win, for the morale of New York City and for the morale of America. A World Series win by the city that had recently been viciously attacked by foreign terrorists would have been poetic, a statement of irrepressibility to the terrorists, and to the world.
I was a Yankees fan, anyway, but 9/11 and my grandpa’s death gave this particular game a certain poignancy.
I knelt on the floor before the TV, hands clasped. The score was tied in the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees were batting. There were two outs. Derek Jeter, a former Michigan resident, strolled to the batter’s box. I turned to my sister and said, “You know what would be perfect? If Jeter hit a home run right now.”
The pitch count reached 3-2. I was rocking back and forth and sweating. “Come on, Jeter. Come on. You can do it, Jeter!”
Thwock! Jeter’s bat connected with the ball. The ball arced high in the air. Jeter sprinted for first base. The ball kept going. Jeter kept going. I jumped to my feet, tears in my eyes, and waved my hands as if fanning the ball farther. Home run! The Yankees won! I burst into tears of happiness.
The scoreboard clock showed midnight. The day’s grief was washed away.
There was much talk that Babe Ruth’s ghost assisted in that game. But I knew better; it was Grandpa who overheard my wish and granted it.
The Yankees ultimately lost that World Series. Even so, Jeter’s supernatural home run in Game 4 lives on in sports history, and in my memory of that day.
At Grandpa’s visitation, my cousin Jimmy and I shared some of the new and difficult emotions we were experiencing.
Grandpa’s was the first death in our family. He was 79. The patriarch of our family was gone and our parents were weepy messes. For the first time, we were nervous for our safety. The bubble of protection we had been living in had begun leaking air with 9/11. When Grandpa died, the bubble had popped.
I realized I was heading into a new decade of my life without my protective bubble. How would I stay safe? How would my loved ones stay safe?
By December, I was pregnant with my first child. I had decided to form my own protective bubble.
— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist