September 6th, 2008, it was a Saturday.
The restaurant was on Shrewsbury Street, right next to East Park (Yea, yea… I know, it’s Cristoforo Colombo Park now, but to me… it will always be East Park.) The rain came down in torrents and it felt like the apocalypse. Now that I think about it, I guess it was the end; or at least the beginning of the end.
The streets had started to flood long before the first guests arrived and the lightning, lite up the faces of the two stone griffins, seated at the entrance to the park; they looked ominous that night and with each crack of thunder, they shuddered.
No, it was definitely not a good night for a party. (I could almost hear my Dad muttering, “Grassel Luck!” It’s really quite amazing that anyone showed up at all, but they did.
I knew they would.
After all, it was Charlie Grassel’s 60th birthday and he’d only turn 60 once… they had know way of knowing that he’d never see 61, so it’s good they came.
Everyone who was supposed to be there, was there. If you weren’t there, perhaps you had already said your goodbyes. Maybe you couldn’t face saying goodbye or maybe, just maybe, for some bizarre, cosmic reason, you just weren’t supposed to be there. Perhaps your journey with Charlie had already ended or the bond between the two of you was so strong, that even his death wouldn’t break it… In any case, please have no regrets. God knows, Charlie didn’t. And as he had grown fond of saying in the previous 8-9 months… “No negativity.”
If everyone who knew and loved Charlie had shown up…. fuck me, we would have been in a right mess! The restaurant could not have held that many people, and I’m sure the floor would have collapsed under our weight! So to those of you who stayed home that night, thank you!
I was in Worcester, under the pretense that the Grassel kids were going out to dinner at a local restaurant… you know, to celebrate Charlie’s birthday. Nothing special, just him, Tommy and me. An early, quiet evening.
Shortly after arriving from Florida, that morning, I made some poor excuse to leave the apartment. Truth was, I had a lot of running around to do… picking up balloons, flowers, the cake, disposable cameras; checking all the last minute details. Planning a big party over the phone, from a distance, had not been an easy task.
He was fine with me leaving soon after my arrival, because he said he “felt like shit.” Stupidly, I didn’t give that a second thought. I had been with him enough times in the past 9 months, to see (to know) that he was getting worse, but he’d be okay… he always rallied.
Knowing the “end” was inevitable, we (Charlie, Tommy, Nick and I) had all gone to Italy, for 10 days, in May. Charlie always wanted to see Italy, so my wonderful husband made sure that happened.
And Charlie had had spent a lot of time in Florida, with us, in the past 6-8 months… He visited for several weeks in August. I can still see him standing in our driveway, with a Coors Lite in his hand… waving goodbye to Arielle, as she left to start her new life, as a teacher, in England. “Uncle Charlie, promise you’ll come visit me in England!,” she shouted from the car. “I’ll try my best, sweetheart,” he responded. He’d never see her again.
Back in January, he had asked Dr Tseng, straight out, “How much time do I have.” She responded by saying she wasn’t God and that she had no way of knowing; but statistically, maybe 6-9 months. And now here we were, bang on 9 months and the prophecy was coming true.
Here it was September, “Party Night,” and all seemed to be going to plan, until Charlie announced to me at about 6:00, that he didn’t feel good and he really “…wasn’t up for going out for dinner…”
“Ummmmm, okay…. no problem,” I said. “Shit… big problem,” I thought.
After some discussion with Tommy, I decided I had to tell Charlie what was really happening.
“A Party…” “A birthday party…” Lots of people…” “In a restaurant…” He looked at me in disbelief. I got the distinct impression that he felt I had betrayed him; which in a way, I guess I had. He had pretty much lived like a recluse for the past 9 months… so a party, with all of his friends, must have felt like the ultimate betrayal.
I assured him it was okay, and that he didn’t have to go.
Tommy and I would go and make sure everyone had a great time! It was all good No worries. It would be fine. People would understand, of course they would. Right?
Hmmmm… but no one had actually seen him in about 9 months, and he had refused all visitors, so the rumour mill had been working overtime. Worcester’s a very small town, when it comes to gossip, but they’d understand right?
When the time came Tommy and I braved the storm and made our way to Shrewsbury Street, where we were greeted by the griffins.
When we arrived at the restaurant, we found a full house… lots of old familiar faces, with some new faces as well. Invitation had been by “word of mouth,” so there was no way of knowing who (or how many) would show up, especially on a night like this.
“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” that’s what I say.
Everyone’s initial reaction to seeing Tommy and me enter the room, was one of relief. You could hear the room collectively exhale… but within seconds, that changed to looks of confusion and concern. You could hear the room fall quiet and the whispers began; “Where’s Charlie?” “Is he here?” “Where is he?” “Is Charlie coming?”
I made my way into the middle of a now very quiet room and announced, with teary eyes and a shaky voice, that man of the hour, would not be joining us. I apologised and explained that he was just too unwell to make it, and assured everyone that he wanted the party to go on without him! He wanted everyone to have fun! I told them that he thanked each and every one of them for coming and that he apologised for not being able to make it to his own party.
You could hear a pin drop.
They didn’t know. There had been rumours, but nobody really knew how bad things were. How sick he was. Well, now they bloody knew.
I could see people starting to tear up and a heaviness fell over the room. It was like we were all being silently devoured by the griffins, who were supposed to be outside, guarding the park.
Trembling and feeling quite sick to my stomach, I did what I had to do… I headed for the bar. It wasn’t more than 2 (maybe 3) glasses of wine later (How long does it take me to drink 3 glasses of wine, when I’m upset and stressed? Not long!) I was in the ladies room and heard the weirdest sound. “What the hell is that? “Wait…what?” “Are they yelling?” “Is that cheering?” “WTF is going on?”
What could possibly make a room full of very disappointed people (who had, up until about 45 minutes ago, been in tears and trying to drink away their sadness) yell and cheer?
Could it possibly be?
Yes… yes it was. It was my big brother. The one who I had left at home, alone on the couch, miserable and in pain. He had gotten up, showered, got himself dressed and driven himself to the restaurant, in the storm of storms! Even the griffins were stunned to see him out that night!
I didn’t get to see his grand entrance, because of course, I was in the freakin ladies room, but I can just picture it! He would have swaggered into the room, looking very stylish, with an air of confidence surrounding him. He’d be the picture of health (except of course for the obvious signs of terminal pancreatic cancer) and he’d be flashing that charismatic, cheshire grin smile, that he had perfected over the last 60 years.
I came out of the Ladies and the room had come alive.
The guest of honour had arrived and his friends were well chuffed. All was right with the world, at least for the next few hours.
The whole night is a bit of a blur, but I remember seeing people laughing, talking, crying… I saw Charlie, off in quiet pockets of the room, having what looked like very serious conversations with some dear friends and old lovers. I received a lot of hugs and kisses from people that night, some I knew, some I didn’t. The hugs were usually accompanied with tears and words of gratitude. They had missed him. They were going to miss him much more.
I remember catching Charlie looking down at his “Happy 60th Birthday Charlie” cake (when maybe he thought no one was watching) and seeing a sad, lonely look of resignation cross his face, but only for an instant…. and then it was gone. He was back.
Charlie… Chazbo… Chas… CG… Grassel… Brother.
At one point, quite by accident, I was standing between both of my brothers; I had an arm around each of their waists and as they hugged me, they each kissed either side of my cheeks and they both whispered to me, “I love you.” Damn… that was was one of the best moments of my entire life; and in that split second, I knew, I just knew… it would never ever happen again.
All to soon, the festivities had taken their toll on Charlie and he gave me “the look,” it was time to go. We gathered his birthday presents and said our goodbyes (which took forever, because nobody wanted to say goodbye) and me and my big brother walked down the stairs and out into the storm.
As we left, all of the air and lightness left with us… The room became heavy, dark and quiet… the party was most definitely over.
I swear, even the griffins were crying, as we got into the car and pulled away.
Charlie checked himself into the hospital 3 days later; and he died 5 days after that. …but man, on that Saturday night, September 6th, 2008, we had had one helluva party.
PS – They’re griffins, not lions; and boy if they could talk….