Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mister Eugene's Neighborhood

This was supposed to be a blog about writing, but ailing friends and senile neighbors hijacked the thread. Cheery stuff. Recently, I vowed to get back on track, keep things light, be funny, remember to mention my book coming out in the fall. Me, me, me. Oh, and did I mention the funeral this weekend?

The universe has a way of slapping you back to reality.

From top left: Don, Jim, Gene & Graeme
We’ve lived in Orlando for 28 years. The gentlemen in the photo at right have been my husband’s friends for nearly that long. It all started when two of them went to a car race in Sebring. Now, the mailing list for their annual camping extravaganza runs into the dozens. Our garage is packed with tents, coolers and cooking equipment for once-a-year use. The menu-planning starts months in advance. I used to be jealous of these guys who monopolized my husband’s attention. Sebring was like the other woman. Eventually, I realized there was no fighting it, and I came to love the peaceful weekends when Graeme went off on his male-bonding adventures.

Boys from New York, Florida, Virginia & Washington
And oh, the stories. Get these guys in a room together and they laugh themselves silly. As the saying goes, what happens at Sebring stays at Sebring, but we wives have heard a few snippets. There was the time Gene pulled the plug on the headliner band, and the midway went dark. There was the time Gene barfed in his hat and wore it. There was the time Gene choked on a pretzel and nearly died, but went back to eating (and drinking) as if nothing happened.

Gene at Sebring, 1991
As you’ll notice, Gene figures prominently in most of these tales. He was one of the loudest, most profane men I ever knew, and also one of the smartest. He was an almost-English major, a civil engineer, a fan of the Three Stooges. He’s often pictured at Sebring with a margarita in one hand and a glass of Knob Creek in the other. The only time I ever attended a car race, he almost got us kicked out for dropping the f-bomb—repeatedly, at the top of his lungs—from the bleachers. It was family night at Auburndale Speedway.

With Gene, you couldn’t help laughing. You always knew where you stood with him. It was against his religion not to tell you. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he admitted his chances were 50-50. After surgery and chemo, we thought he’d beaten the odds. He quit smoking, lost 40 pounds, took up yoga. (Hell got its ice-skating rink that day.) He made a whole new circle of friends in his cancer survivors group. Then—a stroke, emergency brain surgery, and a decision no family should ever have to make. Gene was taken off life support on May 4th. 

There was a lot of laughter at his memorial service, but the funny stories couldn’t mask the fact that Gene died much too soon, and the world is too quiet without him. Graeme was expected to say a few words, but he couldn’t do it. What can you say about losing a brother? I’m sure he would have said that some of the best times of his life were spent with Gene, sitting around the campfire late at night, talking, listening to tunes. At this point, he would have choked up, because he couldn’t tell a roomful of strangers just how much his good friend meant to him. It’s not what guys do. They show up, year after year, drink beer, tell stupid jokes, abuse each other. It’s love, of course, but they will take that secret to their graves.