Αντίο Nick

A year ago, Hannah and I had just gotten home from a really nice weekend getaway in Tampa. Had a nice little hotel on the bay, ate at some great restaurants, saw the Dali Museum and the Aquarium, and just had a nice relaxing time away from job and school. And as with any vacation, towards the end I was ready to get back. Football season was close to starting, and my fantasy football league draft was only a few weeks away. Friends would be gathering, beer would be consumed, horrible draft choices would be made, and a fun time would be had by all.

And then, about an hour after I got home, I got a message from Alf to call him right away, and found out our friend Nick, the commissioner of our fantasy league and frequent NFL game day drinking buddy, had had a heart attack and died.

At first, I was sure Alf was kidding. But there was something in his voice, a certainty, that told me this was no joke.

I sat there staring at Hannah after I got off the phone. I’ve had grandparents die, but always at the end of a long, slow wasting period, when their death was not unexpected and in some ways a welcome relief from the pain and discomfort they were in. But I’ve never had someone I consider close to me die suddenly.

Nick was the ultimate uncle. He had stories to spare — making lobsters do sit-ups in kitchens, misadventures at horse tracks, ill-advised uses of fire hoses, to name a few — and there was nobody better to sit and watch a football game with. He’d been a stand-up comic, a chef, a broker, and a call center supervisor (which is how I met him), but most of all he was our big jolly friend who never failed to liven up the table. I looked forward to his company almost as much as whatever football game we were getting together to watch.

Before he died, Nick was going through a rough patch. He’d been laid off, and jobs weren’t exactly falling off of trees for a guy on the other side of 50. He was able to get by, but he’d been unemployed for over half a year, and you could tell it was getting to him. He’d quit smoking, but, having already been a pretty big guy, that was making him gain even more weight, and our deep-fried beer-soaked Ale House outings probably didn’t help that cause very much. But he never let his troubles get him down, and I like to think that Alf and I kept his final months happier than they would have been had we not been around.

Our fantasy league decided Nick would have wanted us to go on with our season, and we held our draft a few weeks after he died. His sisters were invited, to share one last thing their brother loved, with people who loved him. And I think that’s when it hit all of us. We’d joked that one day we’d get a mysterious phone call, some message from Nick safely tucked away in witness protection, or a “Gotcha!” telling us it had been some elaborate prank. Seeing his empty chair — we’d set aside a spot for him, complete with a mug of beer — made it real. He was gone.

That football season felt like going through the motions. Nobody’s hearts really seemed to be in the league. The usual jokes from our commissioner were gone, and our Sundays were suddenly quieter. And emptier.

It was a year ago today that Nick passed away. I don’t think about him as much as I did in the months right after he died, but when I do, it’s a melancholy mix. Sad that my friend is gone, happy that we had such good times together. And with football season coming up, I’ll be reminded of him all the more.

He would have been at my wedding in October. I was really looking forward to him meeting my parents. I think they would have liked him. Instead, there’ll be an untouched glass of Icehouse there in his honor.

We miss ya, big guy. Here’s hoping that, wherever you are, the beer is cold.

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