The Last Normal Day: Cancer, Covid, and Cabernet

I don’t do much personal essaying anymore, but inspired by the great “Last Normal Day” series at Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World substack (and because I couldn’t get my shit together in time to send it to him before it went on hiatus), I wrote about a decadent French dinner in Manhattan shared with my Dad, his wife Terry, and our Brooklyn Three on Tuesday March 10.

Hope you enjoy it. R.I.P. Frank’s. Gonna miss you, old friend.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Fuck off forever, 2020.

_________________________________________________

Dad was always ahead of his time — Mayo Clinic, 2017

On the last normal day, someone in our small dinner party — I’m not saying who — ordered the $60 fish.

Was it the dover sole? I think it was the dover sole? Let’s just say it was the dover sole. It was the Tuesday night in the before times and my dad, the good Dr. Patrick Sauer, was in town with Terry, his wife of 25 years, and thus our Brooklyn Sauer Three met them for an indulgent French meal. We dined on Coq au Vin at La Goulue, one of those fahn-ceee old-school Upper East Side bistros where Truman Capote and Lee Radziwill presumably got their Death in the Afternoon on. La Goulue wasn’t crowded, so we took our time. Lingered and laughed. We made our embarrassed 4th-grader practice some of that French immersion public school Gallic patois the family tax dollars pay for. We drank wine as my wife Kim explained how all the factories in China she works with — and used to visit — had shut down and how bad it was on the ground, official state reports be damned.

Hold that thought for a moment, we need to back it up. The Last Normal Day was actually August 19, 2016 when my 74-year-old father emailed with the subject line “some news is not so good news.” You take a long moment to open it, knowing the text contained within might just be, “I have some form of blood cell cancer.” Turned out to be Multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, not a common one, except in the Sauer family, as my Mom has it too.

(I’m sure it has zero to do with growing up in Billings Montana not far from a refinery, a sugar beet factory, and an railroad hub with coal and coke trains passing through 15 times a day. All aboard!)

As it was, the dover sole was pure happenstance. Dad and Terry got the chance at a now-or-never experimental NYU cancer treatment and hopped a flight from Billings for a March 10th evaluation. A long way to travel for a Hail Mary pass, the play was whistled dead and the clock ran out. Dad didn’t qualify. He did say that he hoped everyone — four Sauer boys, three stepsisters, spouses and 14.5 grandkids of various young age — could make it back home this summer for some rousing afternoons in the pool, cannonball contests galore. Of course we’ll be there, we said.

We walked out of La Goulue and instantly snagged a cab back to Brooklyn. Manhattan was empty. The streets seemed to know what was coming.

As far as we were concerned, or still pretending anyway, that what was to come in the immediate future was a blowout closeout dual end-of-days birthday bash on Saturday at Frank’s Cocktail Lounge, Fort Greene’s beloved staple watering hole. Kim and I had long planned on holding a conjoined 50th party at Frank’s in 2021, but in mid-February, our favorite neighborhood bartender Foxy (who, especially when her Afro was blown out to the stucco ceiling, very much gave off a primo Pam Grier vibe, fitting as Frank’s always maintained its “Coffy is the Color” heart) informed us the building was up for sale and last call was coming. Soon. It wasn’t a gentrification deal, or at least not entirely a gentrification deal, but it was happening. Frank Perkins died in 2018 and the sons just didn’t want to run the bar anymore.

Foxy slotted us in for a mid-evening party in two weeks.

Party planning on the fly meant not making a formal guest list, just grouping people from various factions together, and then sending out multiple text chains. No RSVP needed. Open bar until the few hundred bucks we were throwing in ran out, a smattering of empanadas and pizza, all the action between the hours of 4:30–7:30, before the next farewell Frank’s fiesta moved in. My daughter made up glow-in-the-dark signs and a neighbor gave us an elaborate arched display of multi-colored walk-through streamers from some sort of dog-walking parade… It added up to a middle-age prom that kids weren’t invited to. (We would go on to make grand intra-apartment lockdown king and queen entrances from the hallway to the living room for months.)

My wife is a “birthday week” type and we had events in Manhattan scheduled for Thursday night and Friday morning, so we asked our friend CC to stay over and watch the kid. We booked ourselves a midtown hotel room, something we’d never done in 20+ years of living here. Thanks to an interview I’d done with Dexter Roberts, author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, we had an invite to a book launch party at the Asia Society. Apart from the free booze and food, which I remain enamored of into my sixth decade, my wife was intrigued because as a retail buyer, she (used to) make multiple trips a year to China and discussions of Asian supply chains and globalism are catnip. Friday morning was to be a private MoMA tour with the Marquette Club — our shared alma matty — in concert with the Big East tournament, which like both our events, was canceled. (At halftime of St. John’s-Creighton, an exquisite preview of the national half-assed measures to come.)

I checked in full-knowing New York City was checking out, but hell this might be “it” for a few weeks, so seize the day. Especially one in an empty hotel on your wife’s birthday that now includes a room upgrade, free wine and cupcakes, and all the hand sanitizer you can eat. Waiting at the hotel bar for my wife, a couple from Wisconsin came in loudly declaring that the whole virus thing was overblown liberal bullshit and damn if it was going to ruin their weekend. Did they turn out to be anti-masker assholes bitching about not being able to get their lawn properly serviced later that summer? Brother, you know they did. But on March 12 it seemed obnoxious and short-sighted, not evil. And hey, my rye and I were there too!

My wife showed up with a suitcase filled with work stuff: Laptop, cords, folders, files, spreadsheets, swaths, clothing samples, whatever filled in the roll-on. A collection of the retail world detritus that allows me to sleep late and dick around watching Japanese baseball documentaries or whatever. An office in a box on the off-chance she ended up working from home for longer than expected.

We ventured down for dinner on Christopher St. — our home during the worst of the W. years — at one her favorites, Joseph Leonard. We hadn’t ordered entrees when the text came from birthday party invitees, upstairs neighbors. One of whom had the ‘rona. Our daughter had started a “Mama’s Helper” business in our building, basically in-apartment toddler playtime buddy distraction for the parents. They let us know right away since she’d been in their apartment in the last few weeks.

I walked outside and canceled the party.

In short order, I scrolled through the phone to try and figure who the hell we’d texted invites to, on what text chains, who got emailed, and why the hell didn’t we make a normal evite RSVP guest list — Oh, and CC, she was literally on her way to pick up our daughter from a friend’s place. I called and asked what she thought; She wanted to talk to her sister with kids about it. Hanging up, I asked myself ‘what the hell are you thinking’ and called CC right back, telling her not to watch our daughter. (She was way ahead of us.) I got a neighbor to do it.

Yes, overnight. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, of course you’re right, but on the 12th of March, on my wife’s 49th birthday, it just didn’t feel so fucking… perilous.

By the time I sat back down in a restaurant filled with uncovered faces, my wife had become hearty drinking buddies with the bartender. The whole place had a bit of a gin-and-tonics during the Blitz vibe. We ate, we drank, we stopped by another longtime favorite former local that would be the last bar we properly bellied up in and would soon need an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary of their own to stay afloat.

The next morning, we awoke early. The curse of the aged topers. We lounged about our novel king-sized bed for hours, but not in a newlywed way. Mainly, we stared out at the rain knowing that things were going to be different — they already were different — on the other side of the door.

I lugged Kim’s suitcase onto the subway, a means of transportation that once we disembarked would become as unfamiliar to us as a rickshaw. We picked up our daughter along with all her 4th-grade supplies, assuming online school would last at least through the end of spring break in mid-April. On Saturday, I met CC at Frank’s to make sure no text stragglers wandered in to celebrate. We stayed for an hour, give or take, the wigginess of being around others had started to settle in. Foxy and I did a parting shot. I told her I thought the bars would be shut down by Monday. She wasn’t buying it and scoffed, “You really think that’s going to happen, with St. Patrick’s Day coming?” I said good-bye to Foxy. I said good-bye to Frank’s.

Back in our apartment, amidst the streamers, balloons, and our matching old married couple gold-lamé jackets, we had a little birthday party for my wife with the neighbors from the floor. None of them, kids included, have been in our apartment since. And vice versa.

It got perilous in a hurry. Covid-19 did a number on our building. A sign went up in the elevator of multiple sufferers, including both husband and wife who led to the party cancellation. We tried to do our part — hell, we owed it to them for knocking sense into the hosts of a potential early superspreader event before that word was part of the daily lexicon — so we did Pedialite and Cold-eez runs when needed. They landed on This American Life describing their living hell, of the headache of doing bathtub laundry and the heartache of contemplating the too-young-to-even-previously-consider-the-problem of not having made future arrangements for their toddler in the worst case — … I couldn’t bring myself to listen until months later when I knew they were fine. I still wept for what was. And what wasn’t.

Come Sunday, the city shutdown. We live close to Brooklyn Hospital, and within days the sounds of spring, birds and sirens, were the only ones filling the air. Soon thereafter, the cacophony of clapping, whooping, screaming, singing, clanging, banging, and cheering at 7 p.m. would be a welcome addition to the audial mix.

The pandemic came, but not for my father. He got out in time, but it was a long 72-hours. After getting the notification that the ‘rona was in our building, I frantically called telling him and his wife to get tested. They’re both medical professionals, so they did. It’s a strange little wrinkle that the first person I knew who got a Covid test was Dr. John Patrick Sauer, back at his home hospital in Billings Montana.

In July, he got his wish. Nearly everyone returned to say their final farewell. After a four-year battle, the cancer finally got him, but he was lucid when we arrived. We got a few days together hanging on the couch, and sitting in the sun watching the grandkids wreak havoc in the pool. There was a pure moment of joy when he smiled at the presence of his prodigal son, my brother Matthew, who he hadn’t heard from throughout most of the ordeal. We laughed and cried and had a Last Rites mass with his brother, Fr. Tony Sauer, S.J. (It included a couple of family Facetime members, a positive spin on the dying alone in the nursing home videos epidemic.) Later that night, Tony “Whiskey” Sauer took off the collar and we stayed up all hours next to Dad’s bed telling old stories going back to his childhood. Jokes and tipples, more tears, and that deep gut laughter that falls in between. Dad died the following afternoon. Given the solitary end for so many this year, having the family at his side felt didn’t feel normal, but it did feel… Conventional. Traditional. Acceptable. Reliable. It felt like end-of-life love is supposed to feel. Beautiful.

As 2020 mercifully comes to an end, calling any one of the individual calendar numbers The Last Normal day seems insane to me already. As insane as reaching over across a packed elbow-to-elbow table to take a bite of $60 fish.

It was delicious.

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