By Casey Gauntt
December 22, 2010
A friend of mine sent me an email at my office. It wasn’t directed only to me—there was a gaggle (forgive me, James Lipton) of addressees:
Subject: Merry Christmas from Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson once quipped:
“I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the time he killed himself.”
The email hit my machine at 4:23 p.m., moments before I left my law office in San Diego to head to the airport. I laughed when I read it. I’m not sure I would have done that last year or five years ago. I’m absolutely certain no smile would have creased my face forty years ago. My friend, of course, didn’t know today was ‘the day.’
The last couple of days—hell, the last couple of years—had been filled with lots of energy or “things” as I sometimes call them; multiple connections from independent sources, with different times of departure— seemingly unrelated, yet all converging at one moment in time with an elegant cohesiveness and pre-ordained purpose. Call it what you want—coincidence, synchronicity—miracle?— or whatever.
Yesterday and today had been particularly busy in that regard. This morning as I was checking the status of my brother Grover’s flight from Newark, I had remembered that it was forty years ago today that I had left our house to pick up him up at Ohare Airport. Back then he was flying in from Philadelphia where he was attending Wharton’s prestigious graduate business school. He was 23, I was 20 and he did not yet know the significance of that particular day. I wondered if he would remember it today.
It had been raining the last five days in San Diego, and this morning the downpour was about as hard as I can ever remember since moving here from Los Angeles in 1979. The storm, known as a Pineapple Express due to its origins in the Hawaiian Islands, had blown through San Diego shortly before I left for the airport.
The sun had emerged from behind the low, moisture laden clouds, and someone from an office down the hall from mine squealed “Oh my God! Look at that rainbow!” I looked outside my office on the fifteenth floor and there, no more than forty feet away, was the most magnificent rainbow I can ever recall seeing— including my two summers in 1971-72 on Maui picking pineapples.
The rainbow was very close to a full circle—I’d say 340 out of the 360 degrees—and the very bottom of it penetrated the playground of the day care center next door. It was so close to our building I felt if I broke a window I could reach out and grab it. What made it even more magnificent was that it was a double rainbow. There was a larger, equally prominent, rainbow encircling the other. The rainbows quickly disappeared as the sun continued its quick descent to the horizon.
Yesterday was the winter solstice coupled with a complete lunar eclipse, which we didn’t get to see because of the storm, an event last witnessed in North America in 1640. Today was the second shortest day of the year, or the second longest night, depending how one prefers to view these things.
Although it was rush hour, the traffic was pretty light from my office to the airport four miles away. I took Harbor Drive which rims San Diego Bay. The orange sky of the sunset reflected in its still, dark waters. A gigantic cruise ship was docked at the foot of Broadway, next to the retired aircraft carrier Midway, now a museum. Two active nuclear carriers were in their berths across the harbor. I suspect a lot of people didn’t come to work today because of the rain. The commuter trains were shut down because of flooding in the lagoons to the north. The usual horde of tourists were also absent—again the matter revolved around the rain.
|My daily view from the 15th Floor of Allen Matkins||The ships loom above your windshield on Harbor Dr.|
I had called my brother from the car and we made a plan to meet in front of baggage claim at Terminal 2. As I approached I saw his thick, long white hair above a big smile. I pulled up to the curb, got out of the car and gave him a big hug. I spoke in his ear a line I’d rehearsed earlier in the day “Everything is good.” I didn’t get any particular reaction to it from him. We loaded his bags in the back and headed to our mother’s house in Encinitas twenty miles to the north. Shortly after we turned on Harbor Drive away from the airport I asked him “Do you remember what we were doing forty years ago today?” It obviously hadn’t been at the tip of his consciousness.
I had come home to Itasca, Illinois from USC on December 21, 1970. My mother, thirteen year old sister, Laura and I had dinner together. My dad, also named Grover, was on a business trip in Panama and would be coming home the next day, a Tuesday—or so we thought. On Tuesday afternoon, around 4:30, our neighbor Carter Nottke drove me to O’hare Airport. This was tough duty for a nineteen year old, yet he would go on to become a paramedic. When we pulled up in front of baggage claim my brother was standing on the curb, smiling, adorned in thick, shoulder length dark brown hair, full beard and beads—his new look for the past twelve months. I got out of the car, gave him a bear hug and spoke into his ear. “Grover, I’ve got some bad news. They found dad in his office this morning. He’s gone. He shot himself.” It was gray turning to dark and snow mixed with some rain began to fall. I don’t remember what he said or anything else that may have been spoken thereafter that day.
“Oh my God. Is it today!? I can never seem to remember which day it was. It’s today?”
We had a lively conversation about lots of things and it was pitch dark by the time we got to our mother’s house. She was very excited to see Grover; they hadn’t seen each other since last Christmas. My brother heated up a cup of coffee, he doesn’t drink anymore, poured glasses of wine for mom and me, and then made a toast. “To dad, Grover C. Gauntt, Jr. We miss you, are thinking about you and we love you.” I smiled to myself. This was a first. This was a big god-damn first! I don’t recall anyone in our family ever toasting our father on the anniversary of his death. This was not a day we feted. And then we did something even more extraordinary—we talked about him and about that day. We talked about how different things are now— the stigma isn’t so bad for someone to admit they have problems and ask for help for mental and psychological issues. And only if….
Grover recalled that the day before he came home forty years ago he had a horrible final in his finance class. He ended up getting a D in the class. I paused a beat before observing, “Well, at least you didn’t have to tell Dad.”
After another beat we all erupted in uproarious laughter. Another first.
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