A year ago this week, Philadelphia was basking in the glow of Roy Halladay's May 29 Perfect Game against the Marlins.
Two days before Halladay's masterpiece, my good friend, Joel, a dedicated Philadelphia sports fan, suffered a massive stroke during a heart operation, and would die from complications a week later, one year ago today. The stroke robbed Joel of the ability to speak and paralyzed the right half of his body, splitting him cleanly in two. For that last week of his life, friends and family got heartbreaking glimpses of "Joel" flashing into view. He became agitated when the nurse turned off the Stanley Cup Finals and his beloved Flyers late one evening, insisted on shaking male visitors' hands, and demanded his glasses be brought to him so he could identify all of his visitors.
I wasn't surprised by his insistence on watching the game. Sports discussions were a big part of our friendship. While we disagreed as often as we agreed (he was an avid believer in clutch ability, while I was and remain ambivalent), his good nature and open mind kept things friendly. When he was first hospitalized last winter, one of the first things he asked me was the status of any Donovan McNabb trade discussions, as he'd been cut off from the world due to a WiFi outage at the hospital.
In 2007, I managed to score a pair of tickets to Game Two of the Phillies' Division Series against the Rockies. I called Joel; of course he'd go with me, it was the first Phillies playoff appearance in 14 years. We were both 29 years old; not knowing what we know now, this could have been the only shot to see the postseason in Philadelphia for a very long time. I'm not sure how he got out of work, but he did. One Kaz Matsui grand slam later, the Phillies looked dead on their feet, but we were there, dammit, on that weird, sweltering October afternoon.
That Sunday morning last year, as I went to visit Joel for what I feared would be the last time, I knew we'd have something to talk about. Roy Halladay had made history, and it would be my pleasure to tell Joel the story, from the near walk of Hanley Ramirez in the first inning, to Juan Castro's final out pirouette. It was a few moments where the suffocating cloud of miracle odds recovery prognoses and exhaustion cleared, and one could imagine things being Like They Were.
I'm not the first person, nor will I be the last, to write about the intersection of Sports and Real Life, the welcome distraction from crushing grief and tragedy that spectator sports can provide. Halladay's Perfect Game will always be a bittersweet memory for me; I lost a great friend, but will remember our last moments together, and that they were good.