Saturday, April 14, 2012

Don's Bad Break

I lost a good friend a couple of weeks ago.

About ten years ago, my lovely wife Darlene started bowling in a league run by her friend Sheila. I happened to work with Sheila, and so within the next couple of years, I found myself bowling in this league too.

That’s where I met Sheila’s husband Don.

As it turned out, Don had known Darlene’s family all his life – as his father and Darlene’s father were good friends. Don told me one day at the alley as we had a pint together that he had babysat my lovely wife and her brother Glenn.

“I changed your wife’s diapers, you know”, he said as he handed me a fresh pint from the pitcher.

As time went on, I would find myself at Don and Sheila’s house – usually under the guise of fixing her laptop computer or her wireless internet setup – but once quickly completed Don and Sheila and I would find ourselves playing pool on Don’s beautiful table or standing at Don’s beautiful stone bar in their family room.

Don actually got me back into playing pool again.

Before I moved back to Windsor, I would spend every winter weekend stuffed away in a fancy billiards parlor behind my apartment building in London – playing snooker and nine ball and eight ball with my cousin Andy or anyone else who would play. I would spend evenings with my mates at Yer Man’s Irish Pub trying to maintain or regain control of the little Valley table stuffed back in the corner.

The first date Darlene and I ever went on – the first time we really met and spent time together, we pulled over into the first roadhouse we found that had a pool table, and we played all afternoon.

Huh – I never really realized that before. But we did.

So that first time we played on Don’s beautiful table – as level and true as you could ask for – the rails lively and consistent – it was like playing ball on a major league diamond.

It was perfect.

We played a lot of pool, Don and I.

When my best mate Ray came over from Dublin, Ireland for a couple weeks to visit, Don and Sheila came over to meet him. Of course we found ourselves downstairs at the pool table. Unbeknownst to Don, Ray is a better player than Don and I put together. When you take a European snooker player like Ray – used to much smaller balls and a much larger table with smaller pockets – and you put them on a standard North American nine foot Boston table like mine – the game is much easier to them – like playing volley ball with a balloon.

Ray consistently ran table on me – on my own table – never allowing me even a shot – as he would chide and chastise me for letting somebody else beat me in my own home on my own table.

But when we went downstairs to play with Don this evening, I neglected to let Don know on the side how good Ray is.

So Don, while unpacking his pool cue case, and fastening together his breaking stick and his famous  Balabushka stick (the Stradivarius of cue sticks), he began giving Ray a bit of a primer on how to strike a billiard ball with a cue, and how 8-ball is played.

I didn’t want to embarrass Don, so I sat quietly on the side and watched.

Don broke, but nothing went down.

Ray chalked the most bent up house stick I had on the wall, and rolled it on the table to show us how badly warped it was.

Then Ray proceeded to run the table sinking every striped ball – chalking his warped cue between each shot – putting the perfect English spin on the top or bottom or side or corner of the cue ball to make it move into perfect position for the next shot – just like a European snooker player.

I glanced over at Don – who winked at me - having quickly realized that Ray needed no primer as he smiled and watched with real appreciation as Ray pulled off perfect shot after perfect shot, and as Ray called and sank the eight ball in the same pocket as his previous shot, Don reached out his hand and shook Ray’s – he smiled at Ray and with a mischievous look in his eye – like only Don could – he said

See, you learned something today”.

Aye mate I did so, thank you for the lesson”, replied Ray.

One summer day several summers ago, Don and Sheila invited us over to their house to spend an afternoon in the back yard while the girls swam in the pool. During the course of conversation, my emergency room registered nurse of a lovely wife Darlene was concerned by some blemished she saw on Don’s skin, and she urged Don to see a doctor.

I guess he went.

That September, Don called me on the phone to ask me if I would play league pool with him that year. I told him I would – and we would play at the Legion every Monday night. But Don was now suffering from a cancer in his esophagus – and being treated every day with radiation and chemotherapy. His voice was but a whisper – and it hurt him to talk – and his once sturdy frame was now very thin and frail.

We were not able to play on the same team – so as the nights progressed through that season I would look over to the other table where Don was sitting – frailer night by night – watching the match on the table – some nights sitting on his hands – sometimes sleeping sitting up – exhausted from the chemo and the radiation treatment earlier that day.

Don took second place in individual play that season. And he made it all the way through that season. I didn’t think he would – let alone finish in second place. 

Don in centre - arms crossed
was a leader in our league
Last summer Don called me on the phone. His voice was back – and he sounded strong. He told me that it looked good so far and that he felt great. And he bought a new car – brand new Dodge Challenger SRT8 built custom for Don with specifications I’m not smart enough to know – and he wanted my advice how he could get back on Sheila’s good graces after the purchase.

We played in the same league again this year, again not on the same team. And again Don was one of the top players. But this year, work and other commitments forced me to back away from league play in January.

And a week or so later, I got word that Don’s cancer was back.

But Don had beaten it last time, so I thought he would beat it this time. I at least thought I had time to go see him, so busy with my other commitments – I didn’t realize he would go so fast.

But he did go fast. Very fast.

I still don’t understand how that could be.

Sometimes you have friends who are acquaintances. Don wasn’t one of those. Don always went way out of his way to let me know he was my real friend. He stood beside me when there was controversy – and he was always glad to see me.

I wasn’t nearly as good a friend to Don as he was to me.
And now it’s too late to fix that.

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