Saturday, April 14, 2012

Rip City Rhapsody

One of the hardest things about living on the East Coast the last 10 years has been being away from extended family. I know this has been particularly difficult for Jen, who still had all four grandparents when we moved to New York in 2002. Inevitably, health problems would creep up and it wouldn't be so easy to get back to say goodbye or pay our respects.

On the other hand, you cherish those times you got to see them that much more. And every once in a while, you get a memory that you will never forget.

I would put my last significant visit with Jen's paternal grandfather (Razz as everyone called him) in both of those categories.

We went to Portland last April for spring break, and by then we were well aware of Grandpa Razz's declining health. His wife had died a year earlier after a long struggle, and he had slowly gotten weaker in the ensuing months. By this point, he was living with Jen's aunt and being taken care of.

Even though I knew him for a fraction of the time Jen knew him, I still have many wonderful memories. He had been extremely generous to my parents when I got married. Even though there was an obvious language barrier, Razz was determined to show my parents a good time and have them not pay for any of it. That was him in a nutshell: His kindness transcended cultures.

But any conversation about Razz can't occur without mention of the Portland Trail Blazers. He had been a season ticket holder pretty much from the start of the franchise, when they played in the old Memorial Coliseum. He was on hand for Game 6 of the 1977 Finals, he lived through the Rip City years, he even hung in there during the Jail Blazers Era after they moved to the Rose Garden. He probably had his heart broken during Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals.

(I say "probably" because I NEVER brought it up. I knew better, especially as a Lakers fan. I remember during a particularly feisty Lakers-Blazers regular season game years ago, Jen called over to his house and he answered the phone by saying "KILL THE REFS!")

I always enjoyed looking at his old Blazers stuff and hearing about his hilarious brushes with old Blazers players (the Billy Ray Bates story is a classic).

So knowing all this, I noticed our vacation was going to coincide with the start of the NBA playoffs and lo and behold, Portland was in it. They were a long-shot to go all the way, but at least they would have a first-round series. So I figured what better way to spend time with Grandpa Razz than to go over and watch the games with him?

By this point, things were looking up for the Blazers.

The Blazers played Dallas that series, and they lost the first two games to the Mavericks, both of which I watched with him. I skipped Game 3, which they won, and was back at his side for Game 4, which was on a Saturday afternoon, the day before Easter. It was a gorgeous spring day in Portland, the kind where you feel you could reach out and touch Mt. Hood because it looked so pristine.

And by the third quarter, the Blazers were down by 23 points. I was starting to think I was the jinx.

They had shaved the deficit to 18 points by the start of the fourth quarter but they still looked terrible. Then, Brandon Roy happened. If you're any kind of NBA fan, you remember the game:

I couldn't believe what we were watching. Grandpa Razz was as excited as he could be, chuckling at the Blazers' good fortune. By the last two minutes, the rest of the family that was around ran in to see the finish and we were making quite a scene. And when Jason Terry's desperation three-pointer fell short, it was pandemonium. I turned to Grandpa and told him: "We got a series!" He laughed, happily.

It was all I could say before running off to the restroom and breaking down and crying.

I know it's just a game and I'm not even a Blazers fan, but that wasn't why I got so emotional. It was because I realized right then that this was probably the last time I'd ever see him (we were flying back to D.C. two days later). The fact it happened during an insane Blazers playoff game made it a happy memory. But it was certainly bittersweet.

Eventually, I composed myself and said goodbye, gave him a big hug and told him I loved him. The look on his face will resonate with me forever. He was clearly touched, even got a little choked up and then he said, "I love you, too."

Grandpa Razz passed away Friday night, nearly 12 months after that last happy afternoon together. Jen broke the news to me this morning. I'm sure she and her family will do his memory far greater justice than I ever can (see the video tribute below, for example).

But as we begin to grieve, I wanted to remember that beautiful spring day back in Portland.

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